Can electric vehicles solve the climate crisis?

A little more than ten years ago, the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” mourned the wasted promise of electric vehicles. But times have changed: seemingly out of nowhere, affordable electric and hybrid vehicles are suddenly all over the place. Tesla now offers high-performance electric cars with a range of almost 500 km between charges, and has announced the prototype development of an electric long-haul truck. Volvo, Jaguar, and Land Rover have all committed to produce only electric and hybrid vehicles by 2020, and the United Kingdom has announced a ban on gas- and diesel-fueled vehicles as of 2040.

I was first introduced to the world of electric car research in 2007, back when these technologies still seemed far on the horizon. Then, the focus was on plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, or PHEVs for short. PHEVs are like a Toyota Prius, but with a regular household charging cable that allows drivers to get a few extra all-electric kilometres out of their commute. Sometimes they are referred to as range extenders. We published two papers back in 2011 on the subjects of driver behaviour and the rate-of-return a person should expect from their PHEV, both focussed on answering the question “can PHEVs work in the cold climate of Canada?”[1],[2] We determined that yes, they could; however, it takes about a decade before PHEVs become economically viable, meaning the money you save at the pump starts to balance the extra cost of the vehicle.

Times have changed since my research career began. Most notably, I’ve become a dad, which has drastically changed my personal relationship with my car (it’s now much more of a lifeline than ever before). Also, technology has progressed far beyond the limited capabilities of early PHEV designs. Today’s electric vehicles offer a reliable and affordable alternative to the gas-powered family vehicle, capable of handling the cold and snow while on a trip to the cottage loaded with people and luggage. They do all this without emitting a single drop of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, the planet-warming, lung-damaging chemicals gas and diesel cars and trucks toss into the atmosphere every day.

But as a researcher and car owner, I still have some unanswered questions.

What about the electricity used to run electric cars? If we burn coal or oil to make electricity, is this not worse than simply burning gasoline in the first place?

An article published in The Guardian a few months ago beautifully answers the question “how green are electric cars?” seemingly once and for all[3]. They show that an electric car running off of electricity produced by burning oil still emits 27% less carbon dioxide than a similarly-sized gas-powered vehicle. This is a remarkable statistic, and highlights just how efficient electric motors are compared to gasoline engines. And, if you can ensure the electricity you’re putting into your battery comes from wind or solar, total tailpipe carbon emissions fall to zero.

Realistically, however, you still need to consider the emissions that come from constructing the power plants and power lines delivering this “free” wind and solar energy to us. When you add up the total energy involved in producing and delivering wind and solar power to our homes, electric vehicles are upwards of 75% more efficient than gas powered cars. Not zero, but still an amazing improvement.

And the battery? Doesn’t battery manufacturing produce a lot of emissions and have large environmental side-effects?

There are now fairly definitive numbers for that too: the production of an average car produces 5.6 tons of carbon pollution, while an electric car produces 8.8 tons. So, battery manufacturing does create a lot of emissions[3]. But over an electric car’s entire life, this number does become much lower when the abovementioned stats on electricity usage are included. Lower enough? That depends on three factors: the size of the battery, how long the vehicle remains in service and the source of electricity used to run them. A report in the Financial Times[4] digs deeper into the maths. Overall, electric cars do use less energy and emit less carbon dioxide than their conventional vehicle counterparts, at least on average and over the long-run.

So, problem solved, right?

Well there are still some critical questions that need to be answered before we give electric cars the green light. There are questions about the electrical infrastructure needed to support these cars, from the construction of new high-voltage charging stations to the re-design of our cities’ electric grids to handle charging millions and millions of cars every day. Similarly, there are questions about our roads and highways and the environmental costs of paving over wetlands, blocking rivers and fragmenting natural landscapes.

What’s become clear is that electric vehicles have become better, but they are still not good. Nor should we expect them to be; after all there are bound to be major environmental consequences of a lifestyle that demands a personal vehicle(s). Electric cars can be used to reduce emissions today, but alone they aren’t the sole cure to the global climate crises.

Then what should we do?

What I still find very exciting are the possibilities that open up when we begin to re-imagine our transportation system. We can have high-speed trains that allow us to travel in luxury between far-flung Prairie cities; we can have autonomous electric vehicles that are owned by ride-sharing programs, called on request right from our phones; we can have bike lanes that efficiently cut through our cities, saving us time and making us healthier; and we can have rapid-transit systems that remove the need for owning a car in the first place. After all, an hour stuck in rush-hour traffic is terrible, regardless of what type of vehicle you’re sitting in.

Ryan Smith, Prairie Climate Centre

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[1] Smith et al. 2011a. GPS-based optimization of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles’ power demands in a cold weather city. Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment.

[2] Smith et al. 2011b. Characterization of urban commuter driving profiles to optimize battery size in light-duty plug-in electric vehicles. Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment.

[3] How green are electric cars? Published in The Guardian, December 2017.

[4] Electric cars’ green image blackens beneath the bonnet. Published in Financial Times, November 2017.