EVs: are they worth it?Ethical Transport News & Features
This article first appeared in our winter ’19 issue of MyGreenPod Magazine, The Love Revolution, distributed with the Guardian on 22 February 2018. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox
Sometimes we get asked how sustainable an electric car really is in comparison with a petrol or diesel vehicle. From an environmental point of view, we only see the positives in electric vehicles: they emit far fewer harmful carbon emissions than a petrol or diesel car – exactly how much depends on how you drive and how you charge up. They run only on electricity, and we’d always advise using a green energy supplier.
But it’s an interesting subject, so here are some of the arguments and what we have to say about them.
The manufacturing process
There’s a debate in some circles that the manufacture of an electric vehicle (EV) uses more resources than a typical petrol or diesel car. The argument goes that, while the ‘wheel to wheel’ comparison comes out in favour of EVs, you need to look at the entire lifecycle. But plenty of studies have debunked that myth.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCSUSA) ran a two-year study into this ‘lifecycle’ issue; it concluded that ‘battery electric cars generate half the emissions of the average comparable [gasoline] car, even when pollution from battery manufacturing is accounted for’.
According to Transport & Environment, about a third of the emissions of an EV originate in the vehicle’s production, compared with less than 10% for the diesel. The UCSUSA study showed that an EV created between 15% (for small cars) and 68% (for larger cars with long ranges) more emissions than a petrol equivalent during the manufacturing process.
Looking at the manufacturing process in isolation, it’s correct that an EV generates more CO2 than a petrol or diesel car. But then they get on the road.
On average, an electric vehicle will be responsible for lower total emissions within 18 months; that difference will increase as time goes on, as Li-Ion battery recycling becomes more prevalent and as (and when) the energy mix gets cleaner.
Lifetime carbon emissions
Because electric cars are fuelled by electricity from the National Grid, actual lifetime CO2 savings vary according to the energy mix you’re consuming, meaning the electricity ‘fuel mix’ of the country you’re driving in.
Looking at our European cousins, a range of technologies is used to power homes and businesses. In Sweden, for example, you save roughly 85% of CO2 over the lifetime of the car – including production and driving – compared with driving a diesel car, because most power is generated by hydro-electric. In Poland, where most electricity comes from coal, you only save around 25%. So even when electricity is derived predominantly from dirty old coal, an electric car still reduces your impact by around a quarter.
The UK’s grid averaged 292 gCO2/kWh in 2017, which puts us next to Spain. This is already down from over 500 gCO2/kWh a few years ago, and will continue to fall as we clean up the grid.
People can get hung up splitting hairs over EVs’ CO2 emissions, but the massive carbon footprint reduction is only one of the benefits. The other big one is that electric cars emit no nitrogen oxide (NOx) or sulphur oxide (SOx). These toxic particles are emitted in huge quantities by traditional cars and contribute to the air pollution responsible for roughly 40,000 premature deaths in the UK annually.
Multiple studies have found that electric cars are more efficient, and therefore responsible for less greenhouse gas and other emissions than cars powered solely by internal combustion engines. An EU study based on expected performance in 2020 found that an electric car using electricity generated only by an oil-fired power station would use only two-thirds of the energy of a petrol car travelling the same distance.
Electric vehicles have Lithium-Ion batteries, which aren’t the same as the traditional lead-acid batteries in petrol or diesel cars. The stuff in the traditional battery is pretty toxic; at the end of its life it is designated as ‘hazardous waste’. On the plus side, the recycling of these batteries is pretty common. Let’s also not forget that the battery in a petrol or diesel car does a very specific job: it feeds the starter. The battery on an EV does that plus the job of the engine.
When it comes to performance, Lithium-Ion batteries are actually doing much better than expected. Take for example ‘Wizzy’, a taxi in St Austell, which has done more than 100,000 miles without losing a single bar of battery life. When they do eventually degrade beyond usefulness in a car, these batteries are being re-purposed for grid and home battery storage.
Recycling lead-acid batteries safely and in an environmentally friendly way was a challenge years ago, but we cracked it. With the prevalence of Li-Ion batteries in pretty much all modern smartphones, the same levels of recycling will most likely be achievable — and it will be big business after all!
Can the grid handle EVs?
Some argue that the National Grid wouldn’t be able to cope with the increased electricity demand that mass EV uptake would bring.
To answer this one, let’s first look over to Germany – a very well developed country with a population 20 million larger than our own. Germany produces so much renewable energy that it can’t even use it all.
‘Leasing through Octopus Electric Vehicles has been a seamless and rewarding experience that made the switch to an EV a no-brainer.’
Co-founder of My Green Pod Ltd
Germany saw a 29 TWh increase from renewables in 2017. That growth is equivalent to around 5% of German power demand. If expansion continued at that rate, Germany would theoretically be 100% renewable in 20 years – starting from zero.
There is no reason why we cannot do the same.Nuclear is one of the more efficient ways of generating electricity, but it’s also contentious. Even without it, it’s a fairly safe bet that the sun, wind and waves aren’t going anywhere any time soon.
In any case, technology like Vehicle to Grid will hopefully leverage the availability of easily accessible EV batteries, meaning charged-up electric vehicles could be used, in theory, to balance the grid on the fly, actually powering their owners’ homes when the grid’s working overtime.
The electric revolution
A quick online search of electric vehicles shows how swiftly the world is moving towards the electric revolution – it feels like every day another manufacturer announces its latest EV news.
Electric vehicles are a step. A big step. A big step in the right (and only) direction. They’re cleaner and they’re greener; based on scientific evidence, they’re a more environmentally beneficial option than diesel or petrol cars.
Excitingly, EVs continue to improve all the time; today all of the EVs being launched and in the pipeline have a range of more than 200 miles and are pretty sexy – just look at the nippy BMW i3 and the gorgeous Jaguar I-PACE. With 100% of the torque available at all time, their instant response makes for incredible acceleration and amazing handling. The barriers to an electric future are falling away all the time – there have never been more reasons to make the switch.
- Octopus Electric Vehicles was set up to help individuals and businesses transition to electric transport. It was the first company to launch a bundle that brings together everything you need to go electric – combining an EV lease, a maintenance package, a charger for your home or office and an energy tariff specially designed for electric cars in one easy package.
- ‘Salary Sacrifice’ is Octopus Electric Vehicles’ version of the ‘Cycle to Work’ scheme; the monthly cost of the vehicle is paid out of an employee’s gross salary (before income tax and national insurance). Take-home pay is reduced, but by a much smaller amount than if the individual had paid for the car directly. In fact, employees on the scheme can save up to 40% on their monthly car costs.
- As for company cars, the employee does pay Benefit In Kind (BIK) tax. However, the BIK rates for pure electric vehicles are much lower than their petrol and diesel counterparts, as the rates are linked to carbon emissions.
- EVs (that emit no CO2) will enjoy BIK rates of 16% from Apr 2019, and then they will drop to just 2% from April 2020. This compares, for example, with 25% and 26% (respectively) for the petrol Ford Fiesta, which emits 106g/km of CO2, or 37% for the Audi Q7 Black Edition, which emits 178 g/km of CO2.
- A number of more progressive businesses are fully on board with the benefits of electric vehicles, and have set up salary sacrifice schemes to help their employees join the electric revolution. This is a badge of honour that demonstrates the company’s environmental credentials, and it also provides a pretty great benefit for staff.
- Jake Collis is a salary sacrifice expert at Octopus Electric Vehicles. With 10 years’ experience helping companies travel smarter, he’s got a wealth of expertise in making car buying (or leasing) as painless as possible. ‘We’ve found that, in terms of simplicity, getting an electric car through salary sacrifice is a winner’, Jake tells us. ‘Your monthly repayment comes out of your salary before tax and national insurance; it includes all servicing and maintenance costs, replacement tyres, breakdown cover and you can even bundle in your charge point and an electricity allowance. You won’t have to pay road tax and you’ll never have to detour for diesel again, so you already know your motoring costs. All you need to do is plug in and you can start each day with a full charge.’