The VW emissions scandal has raised the auto industry’s hopes that there will now be more funding for electric vehicles. “We will be extremely pleased if this scandal leads to a call for the greater use of electric powered vehicles,” said Ulrich Eichhorn, managing director of the German Association of the Automobile Industry, or VDA, at a Green Party event on October 6.
Mr. Eichhorn also criticized lawmakers for letting the industry down after setting a goal in 2010 of having one million electric cars on the roads by 2020.
Even when plug-in hybrid vehicles are taken into account, it is already 2015 and there are only 126,000 electric cars on German roads.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced that the government would provide additional relief and promised to provide more details by the end of the year.
But a recent study by four U.S. economists is raising doubts about whether it even makes sense to promote electric vehicles from an environmental policy standpoint.
The study, by Stephen Holland, Erin Mansur, Nicholas Muller and Andrew Yates, concludes that electric cars are actually worse for the environment than demonstrated in a 2011 study by the Heidelberg-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, which said that e-cars and conventional cars have around the same environmental impact.
In the more sparsely populated Midwest, where a large proportion of electricity is coal-generated, electric cars are worse for the environment than gasoline or diesel powered cars.
How is it possible that zero-emissions vehicles are just as bad for the environment as cars with polluting diesel and gasoline engines? The answer lies in the energy source.
Depending on the energy source, the emissions produced to generate the necessary electricity can be substantial. How substantial depends on what type of power plant generates the electricity – and electricity-production plants differ wildly from country to country.
The comparison between a gasoline-driven car and an electric car is actually a comparison between burning gasoline to propel the vehicle and burning a mixture of coal and natural gas, according to the study.
Nevertheless, when it comes to measuring the average emissions of a given automaker’s fleet of vehicles, the emissions of its electric cars are not simply set to zero. Every electric car sold is actually factored into the weighted calculation at two times zero in Europe and four times zero in the United States.
The calculation is made even more complicated by the fact that with conventional cars, air pollution occurs where the cars are driven, whilst the pollution produced to drive electric cars usually occurs somewhere else. This plays a role in measuring the adverse effects of fine particulate matter and toxins on the health of local residents, which is especially relevant in areas of high population density.
In other words, when considering which type of engine is better for the environment, it’s important to factor in where a vehicle is driven and, in the case of electric cars, where and how the electricity is generated.
The study by the U.S. economists shows how different the answer can be, depending on the scenario. For instance, in the more sparsely populated Midwest, where a large proportion of electricity is generated with environmentally harmful coal, electric cars are worse for the environment than gasoline or diesel powered cars.
The opposite is true in California. The city of Los Angeles has a major air pollution problem, but renewable energy sources account for a larger proportion of the electricity generated in the region. But even in California, the calculated optimal subsidy is not even half as much as the $7,500 (€6,610) that the government provides per electric car sold.
The study shows that in most U.S. states electric cars are more harmful to the environment on average than conventional vehicles. In fact, the authors conclude that based on average figures for the entire country, an environmental tax of $740 per electric car should in fact be levied.
The negative outcome for electric cars becomes even more pronounced when the indirect impact of each one sold is taken into account. Because electric cars are weighted disproportionately highly when calculating overall fleet emissions, the more electric cars a company sells the easier it is to comply with overall average emissions limits. This enables automakers to sell more SUVs, which are more expensive and have higher emissions levels. If there were no electric cars, they would be forced to comply with lower emissions limits across all of their vehicles. Thus, every electric car sold indirectly increases overall emissions.
Coal accounts for 43.6 percent of electricity generation in Germany. Although this is about 6 percent higher than in the United States, about 23 percent of electricity in Germany comes from renewable energy, which is five percentage points higher than in the United States.
As the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research found in its 2011 study, the U.S. economists also note that electric cars can be an environmentally friendly alternative if their use is adapted to the conditions of power generation, and if power generation is planned in concert with the expanded use of electric vehicles.
But that level of planning has been absent so far. For instance, if steps were taken to ensure that electric vehicles were charged primarily at times when electricity is abundant, they could help alleviate a major problem of power production with renewable energy – fluctuating supply and the lack of storage capacity. Electric vehicles would be charged with cheap electricity only when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing.
As a decentralized storage capacity, batteries in electric cars would supplement inadequate mass storage. But as economist and systems analyst Lorenz Jarass of the RheinMain University of Applied Sciences in Wiesbaden warned, the use of all-electric vehicles as decentralized electricity storage can be treacherous. “It works well for short-term fluctuations in power generation,” he said. But prolonged periods of cloudy skies lasting several days or even weeks are not unusual during the winter in Germany.
If millions of all-electric cars were in use, the benefits could turn into a major problem. If the batteries in large numbers of electric cars are empty after several days and their users want to keep using the cars, and all start charging their batteries, the demand for electricity will exceed a comparable situation in which there are no electric cars on the road. This is why Mr. Jarass recommends a stronger focus on plug-in hybrids than all-electric vehicles. They could also serve as a decentralized way of storing power during periods of prolonged cloudiness or lack of wind.
Norbert Häring reports for Handelsblatt from Frankfurt. To contact: firstname.lastname@example.org