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Are EVs really good for the environment?

Steena Joy
·Contributor
·5-min read

E-commerce giant Amazon plans to have 100K Electric Vehicles (EVs) in its global fleet by 2030, as part of its pledge to become carbon neutral by 2040. Amazon India recently announced that its fleet of delivery vehicles in India will include 10,000 electric vehicles (EVs) by 2025. The fleet will include 3-wheeler and 4-wheeler vehicles for its last-mile deliveries which have been designed and manufactured in India. The initiative is part of the company’s commitment to the Climate Pledge.

Elon Musk's Tesla Inc has set up a subsidiary in Bengaluru with plans to introduce their range of electric cars in India later this year.

Recently, Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi, launched ‘Switch Delhi’ campaign to promote electric vehicles (EV) adoption to combat pollution in the national capital.

One electric car on the roads can save an average 1.5 million grams of CO2 per year. That’s the equivalent of four return flights from London to Barcelona!

EVs can also help with noise pollution as they are far quieter than conventional vehicles. They are also more energy efficient - while in conventional vehicles, only 17 to 21 per cent of the energy is converted into power, EVs are able to convert 59 to 62 per cent of the electric energy to power.

According to the US Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), fueling with electricity offers some advantages over conventional internal combustion engine vehicles. Because electric motors react quickly, EVs are very responsive and have very good torque.

One electric car on the roads can save an average 1.5 million grams of CO2 per year
One electric car on the roads can save an average 1.5 million grams of CO2 per year

So, with so much going for it, are EVs really Environment friendly? Not necessarily.

When evaluating the eco-friendliness of an EV, you also need to take the “well-to-wheel" emissions into account - these are greenhouse gases and air pollutants that are emitted to produce the energy used to power the EV. EVs typically produce fewer emissions than conventional vehicles because most emissions are lower for electricity generation than burning gasoline or diesel. However, if the source of energy to power these EVs doesn’t come from solar panels, wind turbines or even hydroelectric, then their CO2 emissions will be much higher.

Moreover, the amount of these emissions depends on your electricity mix, which varies according to geographic location.

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Renewable is the Key

That means that if you’re driving an electric car in the US, where fossil fuels - petroleum, natural gas, and coal - accounted for about 80% of primary energy production in 2019, or New Hampshire where nuclear energy is prevalent, you’ll probably release more CO2 into the atmosphere than if you’re driving it in say Iceland, that runs almost entirely on geothermal, hydro and solar energy.

If the source of energy to power EVs doesn’t come from solar panels, wind turbines or hydroelectric, then their CO2 emissions will be much higher
If the source of energy to power EVs doesn’t come from solar panels, wind turbines or even hydroelectric, then their CO2 emissions will be much higher

India is now working on integrating higher shares of variable renewable energy into the energy mix. For the period 2016-2018, the share of solar PV and wind doubled in the country’s electricity generation mix from 4% to 8%.

But even if imagine a day when all EVs are 100% powered with renewable or clean energy, could we then say they have zero emissions? No.

More than a third of the lifetime CO2 emissions from an electric car come from the energy used to make the car itself. Because electric cars store energy in high performance large batteries that have high environmental costs. These batteries are made of rare earth elements (REE) like lithium, nickel, cobalt or graphite that only exist beneath the surface of the Earth and therefore depend on mining activities with very polluting processes.

This is why the production of an electric car produces significantly more CO₂than a vehicle with a conventional petrol or diesel engine – on average 1.5 times more. Thankfully, with technological advances and more efficient production techniques, this will reduce.

So, eventually the environmental advantage of an EV is greatest when both, the production of the battery and the electricity for charging it comes from renewable energies.

Volkswagen’s ID.3, is an electric car that is CO2-neutral - the battery cells are manufactured using green electricity at its Zwickau plant
Volkswagen’s ID.3, is an electric car that is CO2-neutral - the battery cells are manufactured using green electricity at its Zwickau plant

Keeping this in mind, Volkswagen’s ID.3, is an electric car that is CO2-neutral - the battery cells are manufactured using green electricity at its Zwickau plant. The battery cells for the ID.3 are supplied by Korean company LG Chem, which manufactures the cells in a production facility in Poland. A long time ago, Volkswagen agreed with LG Chem that only certified green electricity would be used to manufacture the battery cells. If green electricity is used to manufacture EV batteries, the environmental impact drops significantly.

In India, more and more players are entering the EV segment: Hyundai Kona Electric, Tata Nexon EV, Tata Tigor EV, MG ZS, Mercedes Benz EQC, Mahindra E-Verito and Mahindra e20 Plus and Ather Energy among others.

Tata Nexon EV electric car is seen after its launch in Mumbai on January 28, 2020. (Photo by INDRANIL MUKHERJEE / AFP) (Photo by INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP via Getty Images)
Tata Nexon EV electric car is seen after its launch in Mumbai on January 28, 2020. (Photo by INDRANIL MUKHERJEE / AFP) (Photo by INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP via Getty Images)

Another important concern is whether the increase in EVs will put pressure on the existing power grid. If the charging infra does not match the pace of switching to EVs, India could face some roadblocks to achieving the EV by 2030 target.

An independent study released by the CEEW Centre for Energy Finance has estimated a cumulative investment need of US$ 180 billion (Rs 12,50,000 crore) in vehicle production and charging infrastructure until 2030 to meet India’s EV ambition.