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Sergey Paltsev, a senior research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Energy Initiative, revealed that there are currently about 1.2 billion fuel-powered cars on the road globally. In contrast, there are only about 10 million electric vehicles (EVs) plying the roads worldwide.

However, with the battle of climate change on the international agenda, the International Energy Agency predicts that the number of EVs could hit 145 million by 2030.

For Singapore, land transport emissions are to be cut down by 80 per cent through the commercialisation of EVs and the phasing out of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040.

As more Singaporeans opt for EVs, more will also be produced to meet the demand. Most people tend to underestimate how many new EVs and EV batteries have to be produced, and how much pollution will be generated as part of that process.

With that in mind, are EVs actually as environmentally friendly as they are touted to be?

Why EVs are seen as the “remedy” to ICEs

Compared to ICE that emits both pollutants and greenhouse gases due to the use of fuel or natural gas, EVs run on electricity instead, which results in much less to no tailpipe output.

Comparison of EV mechanisms
Comparison of EV mechanisms / Image credit: EAOB.EU

Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) produce zero tailpipe emissions, while plug-in hybrid EVs (PHEVs) and hybrid EVs (HEVs) only do so when in an all-electric mode. Although PHEVs and HEVs can produce evaporative emissions or direct emissions when using the non-electrical mode, their direct emissions are still typically lower than conventional ICE vehicles. 

According to Adrian Duque, Asia Pacific Business Development Manager – eMobility, Schneider Electric, besides reduced noise pollution and lower air pollution and emissions, another added benefit of using EVs compared to ICE vehicles is the increased energy efficiency.

Adrian Duque Schneider Electric
Adrian Duque, Asia Pacific Business Development Manager – eMobility, Schneider Electric / Image credit: Schneider Electric

He shares that depending on drive cycles, EVs are at least 60 per cent fuel-efficient, compared to most fuel-efficient combustion engines today that have a fuel efficiency of only 40 per cent

EVs are also directly aligned with the United Nations’ (UN) global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and pave the way for a low-carbon future.

At present, the transport sector contributes approximately one quarter of all energy related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Over time, the electrification of transport sector and eMobility solutions will impact the environment positively, significantly improving air quality and helping companies to meet their climate goals.

– Adrian Duque, Asia Pacific Business Development Manager – eMobility, Schneider Electric

EVs are thus promoted to be an eco-friendly, sustainable option that supports green mobility. It is no wonder why many countries have introduced EVs into their economies, especially large urban areas like Delhi, which plans to only sell EVs from 2030 in hopes of achieving better air quality and a greener future. 

However, in a quest towards a sustainable future, well-to-wheel emissions – which refers to all emissions produced during production, processing, distribution and use – must also be considered.

Hence, in the case of EVs, the first point of debate would be whether their production and processing make them a less sustainable option than they are advertised to be.

Manufacturing EVs generate more carbon emissions than ICEs

Some argue that EVs are worse for the environment because of the pollution caused during the production of EVs and their batteries— and they’re not exactly wrong about it. 

Making a typical EV can create more pollution than making ICEs, mainly because of the additional energy required to manufacture its battery. A 2015 study from the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that producing a midsize EV results in about 15 per cent more emissions than the production of a gasoline car.

Moreover, because water is required in EV battery production, the manufacturing of EV vehicles as a whole is also 50 per cent more water intensive than ICEs’.

EV battery gigafactory
EV battery gigafactory / Image credit: AssemblyMag

Although the production of EVs and their batteries are more environmentally damaging than the production of conventional ICEs, the total amount of emissions associated with EVs over its lifetime is much lower, according to the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency.

A study by the International Council for Clean Transportation found that emissions over the lifetime of average medium-size BEVs registered today are already lower than comparable gasoline cars by 66 to 69 per cent in Europe, 60 to 68 per cent in the United States, 37 to 45 per cent in China, and 19 to 34 per cent in India. 

In other words, as a study from the MIT Energy Initiative discovers, the high levels of emissions and greater environmental costs during the manufacturing of EVs are offset by its lower tailpipe emissions and higher energy efficiency through its use over the years. 

Eugene Mah, founder of IFYNI, the offficial distributor of Italian electric motorcycle Energica, observes that EVs have become more popular because of their easier maintenance since there are fewer moving components compared to ICEs.

In fact, the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory reports that maintenance costs for EVs are 30 per cent lower than that of ICE vehicles.

Electric car maintenance
Electric car maintenance / Image Credit: Greg Fink via Getty Images

Eugene, who runs a workshop and has seen a fair share of ICE maintenance, shares that maintaining an ICE requires about eight to 12 litres of engine oil on average. Coupled with coolants, greasing and lubricating, he concludes that EVs are “definitely ‘cleaner’ to maintain”. 

He also highlights that the production of all the additional parts and components of an ICE — that are not present in an EV — can also contribute significantly to environmental pollution. 

[T]he production of a battery is not exactly clean, but many do not realise that on top of burning petrol on an ICE, there are other items like engine oil needed for the engine to run, coolant, and of course, every ICE has a lead acid/lithium 12v battery as well. So if you cut these out from a vehicle, that’s already reducing that eco-damage.

– Eugene Mah, founder of IFYNI

It is also crucial to point out that emissions from battery production ranges depending on where they are produced and manufactured in the world. As the 2018 ICCT report illustrates, the country in which the batteries are being produced plays a part in reducing environmental damage.

To put things in perspective, Chinese EV battery manufacturers produce up to 60 per cent more carbon dioxide ICE production, but these emissions could be cut down by up to 66 per cent if they were to use other manufacturing techniques.

Moreover, with more regulations in place for the production of EVs, it has helped the whole process to become less pollutive.

Eugene highlights that currently, “[a]ll manufacturers actually have to undergo stringent checks to meet the required ISO standards and would need to pass the EU commission”, adding that many are also aligned to UN’s SDGs.

EV battery wastage is another problem

If the total lifetime emissions are lower than that of ICEs, commercialisation of EVs would be highly beneficial in pushing for green mobility and environmental conservation. 

But, the next point of contention would be whether the mass production of these batteries pose new environmental problems like wastage, pollution and hazards when they are produced and disposed of. 

To begin with, EV batteries are made of rare earth elements (REE) like lithium, nickel, cobalt or graphite that require mining activities to be extracted, which sometimes can involve pollution.  

Mining of rare earth elements for EVs
Mining of REE for EVs / Image credit: Nexus Media News

To produce one ton of REE, 75 tons of acid waste and one ton of radioactive residues are also produced. Moreover, the mining and extracting process of REE for EV batteries can be unethical and hazardous for those in that field of work. 

Considering how lithium-ion batteries have a very specific mix of chemical components and little quantities of lithium, they are also not that commercially recyclable.

In the EU market in 2011, only five per cent of lithium was being collected, while the rest were incinerated or dumped in landfills because recovering them by hydrometallurgical processes was not economically feasible due to the cost and regulations

But, “[a]s the demand for electric vehicles  increases and EV manufacturers are producing newer and more technically-advanced models, other parts of the EV sector, such as EV battery recycling, are rapidly advancing too”, says Adrian, ultimately making EVs become even greener.  

For instance, Singapore-based startup NEU Battery Materials extracts battery-grade lithium through an electrochemical method and recycles them by supplying them back to manufacturers. 

NEU Battery Materials founders
NEU Battery Materials founders / Image credit: NEU Battery Materials

Adrian adds that battery waste management is currently being studied and trialled to ensure used batteries reach their full potential of operating an additional 10 years in their second use, since they can retain approximately 60 to 70 per cent of their initial capacity.

According to him, the sector “is developing a novel technique that repurposes old lithium-ion EV batteries to use them for renewable energy storage, such as in solar panel batteries.”

Eugene shares this sentiment, stating that these batteries — though having a lesser holding charge after being used — can still be sufficient to power households.

Some companies connect used EV batteries to solar panels to have them charged in the day, and the household power stops drawing supply from the grid to draw supply from the battery when it gains sufficient power. 

In current times, it is also reassuring to see most auto companies working to ensure they have significant recycling capacity in place to decrease the lifecycle emissions of EVs. Leading companies in the industry like Tesla, Renault, Nissan and Volkswagen are already deploying solutions to reduce the impact of EV battery production on the environment by incorporating recycling of used batteries. 

If these efforts are done on a wider scale, emissions can be further cut down since the reliance on new materials would be reduced, and emissions from the production and manufacturing of these batteries can be balanced out.

The source of electrical power is important

Having debunked environmental concerns over EV and EV battery production, the next concern some raise is where the electrical power to charge EVs come from. If they’re from non-renewable sources of energy, what then, would the whole point of commercialising EVs be? 

For ICEs running on gasoline, emissions are produced from its extraction, refinement, and distribution. For EVs, this is no different. Most electric power plants using non-renewable energy do produce emissions from the extraction, processing and distribution of these primary energy sources.

In fact, the carbon footprint from processing non-renewable sources of energy can range from about 0.4 kilogrammes per litre to 0.8 kilogrammes per litre

The green credentials of an EV thus depend on how this power is generated in the country the EV charges in. “[G]enerating the electricity used to charge EVs may create carbon emissions depending on how it is generated,” Adrian highlights. 

For example, driving an electric car in the US where fossil fuels accounted for 62.7 per cent of the country’s energy production in 2017 would contribute more emissions than driving it in Iceland that runs almost entirely on hydro, geothermal and solar energy.

Despite this, the US Environmental Protection Agency shares that even if electrical power comes from non-renewable sources of energy, EVs still have a smaller carbon footprint compared to ICEs when accounting for the electricity used for charging.

Research by the European Energy Agency found that even with electricity generation, the carbon emissions of an electric car are around 17 to 30 per cent lower than driving a petrol or diesel car. 

Eugene Mah, founder of IFYNI
Eugene Mah, founder of IFYNI / Image credit: CarBuyer Singapore

Moreover, Eugene observes that as EVs become more commercialised, the entire industry shifts to using cleaner energy as well. 

Clean energy is now a big thing and natural sources of these [forms of] energy [are] also being built. The traditional method of burning coal to produce energy is now slowly being phased out — how long that would take is really impossible to say — but there is light at the end of the tunnel, for sure.

– Eugene Mah, founder of IFYNI

With regards to EV charging stations, Adrian emphasises that the implementation of smart charging stations play a key role in decarbonising the transport sector by improving power quality and reliability.

Such charging stations are configured and designed to make use of both traditional grid power and renewable energy sources, while also selling back any excess power to the grid if the grid demand is high and the battery control system suggests such an action.

Schneider Electric has an eMobility business established 11 years ago that offers EV charges from the outset. To meet the urgent needs of the world’s rapidly expanding EV market, Schneider Electric launched EcoStruxure, an IoT-enabled, plug-and-play, open, interoperable architecture and platform.

Schneider Electric's EVlink charging solutions
Schneider Electric’s EVlink charging solutions / Image credit: Schneider Electric

Schneider Electric’s range of EVlink charging solutions also help to increase energy efficiency while optimising electrical costs. It is a reliable and smart EV infrastructure for homes, buildings, fleet depots, and transit EV charging stations that “pav[e] the way for decarbonisation, using clean energy sourcing together with smart energy management systems”. 

Therefore, the idea that charging EVs make EVs a less environmentally sustainable solution can be debunked, considering the efforts done to shift towards the use of renewable energy sources, while also making use of decarbonisation methods.

Encouraging the adoption of EVs

Now that most of the doubts around EV sustainability have been addressed, the last step is to encourage EV adoption. How can we encourage consumers who believe that EVs are not as eco-friendly as they seem to be, to adopt EV usage?

In order to come up with solutions, it is crucial to understand the root of the problem.

“Personally, the first barrier of adoption for EV is really the cost”, Eugene claims. However, Adrian stresses that as technology innovation continues to advance, overall costs of EVs and their charging infrastructure will become lower, adding that EVs are reaching price parity by 2025. 

Furthermore, in line with Singapore’s Green Plan, more EV charging stations will be constructed to support EV charging at a commercial scale. As such, consumers can expect 70 per cent of EV charging to happen in commercial, industrial, and multifamily buildings by 2030 as well. 

Singapore's EV road map
Singapore’s EV road map / Image credit: LTA Singapore

Singapore has also planned a comprehensive EV roadmap to drive EV adoption, with a target of establishing 60,000 EV charging points by 2030. This includes working with the private sector to achieve 40,000 charging points in public car parks and 20,000 charging points in private premises by 2025. 

When it comes to resolving the scepticism towards the eco-friendliness of EVs itself, Eugene believes that “this would require a huge collection of data from a neutral body to really prove that EV is cleaner”. He adds that fact-checking and having real concrete data available are key to addressing these concerns. 

Supporting this idea, Adrian emphasises the importance of continuing to educate the public on the environmental benefits of EVs as well as the long-term economic advantages of its usage.

“The public needs access to credible information and data on EVs’ role in tackling climate change and contributing to more sustainable economies”, he says.

On the policy and regulation front, he feels that clarity on government support measures such as EV tax incentives and a suite of regulatory and market measures — synergised with private businesses — can be improved to encourage EV adoption. 

According to Adrian, the barriers to EV adoption have either already been overcome or are on course to being overcome in more mature economies, where governments are set to ban the sale of fossil fuel vehicles within the next decade.

Critically, electric mobility — coupled with decarbonisation, decentralisation, and digitalisation of energy — is key to achieving the target to reduce global CO2 emissions by 45 per cent by 2030. So, are EVs as sustainable as they are promoted to be? 

As Eugene nicely summarises, “Are they 100 per cent eco friendly? For sure, no. But are they cleaner? I believe so.”

Featured image credit: Forbes, The Driven

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