Bat­ter­ies, power plants take the lus­tre off EVs’ clean­ness

National Post (Latest Edition) - - POST DRIVING - David Booth

It was a huge an­nounce­ment, greeted with much f an­fare. Ford, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and the Volk­swa­gen Group have joined to­gether to build an au­to­mo­bile- recharg­ing net­work t hrough­out Europe, one they hope will al­low un­in­ter­rupted EVing through­out the con­ti­nent by 2020. Bet­ter yet, said recharg­ing sta­tions will be of the ul­tra­fast 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 front­page, ex­tra-bold head­lines.

But, like all things EV, it seems like it’s only the rahrah, let’s- plunge- head­firstinto- some­thing- we- haven’tfully- 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 t hat would mean noth­ing to the av­er­age mo­torist, au­thors Michael Si­vak and Bran­don Schoet­tle con­verted the en­tire equa­tion to a miles- per­gal­lon equiv­a­lent.

By Si­vak’s es­ti­ma­tion, for in­stance, a bat­tery- pow­ered elec­tric car fu­elled by elec­tric­ity gen­er­ated by coal gets the equiv­a­lent of 29 miles per U. S. gal­lon. Ditto for oilpow­ered 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 breakeven point: If gaso­line- pow­ered cars can achieve these mag­i­cal fuel- econ­omy num­bers, then they will pump out less C02 than bat­tery­elec­tric ve­hi­cles ( BEVs). If they can’t, then elec­tric ve­hi­cles ( 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 L per 100 km 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 7 th­place Nor­way that one 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 break- even 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 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 CO2 pro­duc­tion. Ac­cord­ing to Si­vak, build­ing a BEV re­sults in 15- per- cent higher emis­sions than man­u­fac­tur­ing a sim­i­larly sized con­ven­tional au­to­mo­bile. For larger ve­hi­cles — in­clud­ing Tes­las and up­com­ing Porsche/ Audi prod­ucts — with larger bat­ter­ies, the dif­fer­ence is even greater, at 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, an Amer­i­can Mod­els S has ac­counted for about 17.5 tons of CO2 even be­fore it has used a mile of coal-fired elec­tric­ity.

The Amer­i­can — and cer­tainly the Chi­nese — gov­ern­ments might be bet­ter spend­ing t hose hard- t ocome-by tax dol­lars on clean­ing up coal rather than con­vert­ing cars to bat­ter­ies.

WANG ZHAO / AFP / GETTY IM­AGES FILES

Com­muters in heavy pol­lu­tion in Bei­jing. China still pro­duces most of its elec­tric­ity with coal-fired plants.

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