The vehicle of the future is electric

Sales of electric vehicles (EVs) are on the rise in Canada, leaving many with questions about the impact EVs will have long-term on the environment and on the energy grid.

So, just how “environmentally friendly” are electric vehicles?

Overall, EVs have a much lower impact on the environment than their fossil fuel-burning counterparts. But let’s break this down a bit further. It is clear that, once on the road, EVs are far more energy efficient and have very little impact on the environment as they do not produce carbon emissions. Questions about EVs tend to arise more around the carbon footprint of the electricity source, and manufacturing of EVs, in particular the batteries. Many wonder whether the environmental cost of producing EVs outweighs their benefits and studies have been conducted to answer this very question. The short answer? From fuel “Well to Wheels,” including manufacturing, EVs are better overall.

The long answer is a bit more complicated. While EVs do have a bigger environmental impact during the manufacturing process, their efficiencies once on the road not only make up for this, but do so within a very short period of time. Research shows that EVs produce approximately 25 per cent more C02 emissions compared to gasoline vehicles during their manufacturing. While that number may be higher than you might expect, it is important to remember the second part of the equation – battery electric vehicles make up for their higher manufacturing emissions within a year or so of driving. And shorter range models can offset the extra emissions within six months – and continue to outperform gasoline cars until the end of their lives.

Where does the increase in emissions come from during manufacturing? The increase is primarily a result of manufacturing batteries as this involves the use of a great deal of energy and creates some pollution. The EV batteries require the mining of very specific materials such as lithium or cobalt, though concerns are being addressed through better practices and new ways of managing the batteries for longer life, refurbishing, repurposing, and recycling. The industry is also constantly developing new battery materials and methods of production to reduce emissions and the overall impact on the environment. As mentioned, studies are clear that once a battery electric vehicle hits the road, there is no longer an impact on the environment. Conventional vehicles not only have an environmental cost during the manufacturing process, they continue to effect the environment once they hit the road, sending CO2 into the atmosphere and emitting other harmful air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), which are considered to be carcinogenic. Conventional vehicles also impact the physical environment, leaving drips of oil, fuel and other environmentally harmful liquids on the ground.

The bottom line is that battery electric vehicles generate half the emissions of the average comparable gasoline vehicle, even when pollution from battery manufacturing is accounted for.

The other environmental consideration is how electricity is produced. This is more of a concern in countries that still use a significant amount of fossil fuels to produce electricity. In Canada, the production of electricity is much cleaner with the majority being supplied by hydro and nuclear as well as other renewable sources such as wind, biomass, solar, etc. However, even in countries where electricity is produced as a result of burning fossil fuels such as coal, the emissions from the energy used to charge an EV is less than that produced by a gasoline vehicle, meaning that EVs are still the more environmental option. This is largely due to the fact that EV motors are four times more efficient at using the energy than internal combustion engines.

Environmental impact aside, many are also concerned about the electricity grid supplying enough energy to handle the load if there is an increase in EV ownership and charging. Again, the answer has a few layers to it. At present, the grid has sufficient capacity overall for millions of electric vehicles, the problem is matching when the vehicles need to charge to when and where that capacity is available. If millions of EVs plugged in at the same time in the province, there could be a problem; if tens of vehicles plugged in at the same time in a neighbourhood, there could be a problem. However, utilities are always planning for and ensuring the grid is capable of reliably delivering service to customers. As a part of that planning, most utilities, like Hydro Ottawa, are investing in what is known as smart grid technology, which helps to manage the load and adapt to increases in consumption. This combined with the technology in EVs, which allow individual EVs to spread their demand for electricity over the course of a night, help to manage the load on the grid. With most EV owners charging their vehicles overnight (and at different times) when the overall demand on the grid is lower, the impact on the grid at the moment is minimal. If the charging can be harmonized to grid capacity, the need for more generation or a bigger electricity delivery infrastructure can be avoided.

Electric vehicles have been around for decades – in fact the first motorized road vehicles were electric – and in the past five years have rapidly become a more mainstream option. As technology continues to develop and advance the manufacturing process, EVs will only become more appealing to those looking to save money and be environmentally conscientious. The evolution of EVs will continue with more manufacturers adding various models to their offerings. All of this development can only mean that transportation is destined to become cleaner than ever before.

To learn more about the future of electric vehicles, be sure to visit our dedicated page, or check out our ThinkEnergy podcast on the barriers and opportunities of EVs, here.

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