Tesla battery production releases as much carbon dioxide as eight years of gasoline driving
by DAVID BOOTH | NOVEMBER 10, 2017
It was a huge announcement, greeted with much fanfare. Ford, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and the VolkswagenGroup have joined together to build an automobile-recharging network throughout Europe, one they hope will allow uninterrupted EVing all throughout the continent by 2020. Better yet, said recharging stations will be of the ultra-fast 350 kilowatt variety, which are the ne plus ultra of battery rebooting, rendering an almost complete recharge in but 15 minutes or so. Now, never mind that there are currently no car batteries — no, not even Tesla’s — that can withstand such an onslaught of electrons without blowing up, or that the first cars (mondo expensive Porsches and Audis) that will be 350 kW-capable won’t be released until 2019; the formation of what’s called the IONITY consortium is a development worthy of front page, extra bold headlines.
But, like all things EV, it seems like it’s only the rah-rah, let’s-plunge-headfirst-into-something-we-haven’t-fully-calculated optimism that gets the media’s attention. A little more sobering is a recent study by the University of Michigan that calculated the “well-to-wheels” production of automotive greenhouse gases depending on a) the source of the electricity used to recharge said electric vehicles and b) the rough country-by-country breakdown of those sources. And, to make it easier for simpletons (that would be Yours Truly) to understand, rather than quantifying the difference in kilowatt-hours, BTUs or some other archaic scientific quantum that would mean nothing to the average motorist, authors Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle converted the entire equation to a miles per gallon equivalent. By Sivak’s estimation, for instance, a battery-powered electric car fueled by electricity generated by coal gets the equivalent of 29 US miles per gallon. Ditto for oil-powered generation. On the other hand, solar power is good for 350 mpg, nuclear 2,300 mpg and hydro a whopping 5,100 miles for every blessed gallon of gasoline.
The beauty, then, of Fuel Sources for electricity in the individual countries of the world and the consequent emissions from driving electric vehicles is that it gives an easily understood quantification of the benefit of converting cars from gasoline to electricity depending on what sources each country uses to generate all that electricity. Put even more simply, the numbers Sivak et al have determined are the break-even point: If gasoline-powered cars can achieve these magical fuel economy numbers, then they will pump out less C02 than BEVs. If they can’t, then EVs have the advantage.
First, the good news, at least for we Canuckians: According to U of M’s calculations, thanks to our cornucopia of green energy sources, gasoline cars would have to average 1.4 litres per 100 kilometres to match the CO2 reduction available from BEVs. That’s 169.5 miles per gallon. Needless to say that’s an unattainable goal, even the most optimistic motorhead not daring to posit such a breakthrough. Score one for the Great White Frozen North then when it comes to EVs.
But, before you go getting all smug, note that we’re not anywhere near the top. Pride of place atop the potential CO2 reduction sweepstakes goes to — cue drum roll — Albania. Yes, with 100 per cent of its electricity generated by hydro power, it gets a perfect 5,100 mpg score. Never mind that there’s probably not a dozen people in the once-totalitarian agrarian state that can afford a Tesla; at least the potential is there. Ditto for Paraguay, Nepal, the Congo and Ethiopia, which are next in line. Indeed, it is in 7th place Norway that one finally sees some convergence between fuel economy equivalency (1,820.6 mpg) and the ability to afford an expensive EV.
But even Norway is a drop in the greenhouse gas reduction bucket. And the numbers for the world’s largest economies are not nearly as energizing. The breakeven point for the United States, for instance, is 55.4 mpg (4.2 L/100 km). With 33 per cent of its electricity supplied by coal and another third by natural gas, if America’s fleet of gasoline-powered vehicles could average 4.2 L/100 km or better, they would actually produce less CO2 than electric cars. Now, to be sure, the current average consumption is about twice that, but 55 miles per gallon is still the number former president Obama was touting as attainable by 2025 (albeit with some loopholes). And, let us not forget, the current president is promoting coal production, so Sivak’s magical number may become be easier to attain.
Worse yet is China, the country many environmentalists are currently touting for its massive push toward EVs. Because so much of its electricity is coal fired, its break-even point is 40 mpg (5.9 L/100 km), a number my new 2018 Accord easily achieved on a recent trip to Ottawa. Somehow that doesn’t gel with the narrative being proposed of China as green siren.
But according to the U of M team, even that calculation doesn’t fully account for a BEV’s total C02 production. According to Sivak, building a BEV results in 15 per cent higher emissions than manufacturing a similarly-sized conventional automobile. For larger vehicles — cue Teslas and upcoming Porsche/Audi products — with larger batteries, the difference is even greater; 68 per cent. Indeed, according to a recent Swedish report, Tesla battery production releases as much CO2 as eight years of gasoline driving. Yes, according to the IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute, manufacturing every kilowatt-hour of lithium-ion battery storage — the Model S has up to 100 kW-hr — releases 150 to 200 kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In other words, a Model S has accounted for about 17.5 tons of C02 even before it has used a mile of coal-fired electricity.
In other words, the American — and certainly the Chinese — government might be better off spending those hard-to-come-by tax dollars on cleaning up its coal production rather than converting all our cars to batteries.