Electric cars can become more eco-friendly through life cycle assessment

October 12, 2017, Chalmers University of Technology
Anders Nordelöf believes that the much-discussed environmental issues associated with electric cars should be taken seriously, but thinks that more focus is needed on solving the issues -- not on discussing whether electric cars should exist at all. Here, life cycle assessment is an important tool. Credit: Ulrika Ernström

It is time to stop discussing whether electric cars are good or bad. Instead industry, authorities and policy-makers need to work together to make them as eco-friendly as possible. This is the view taken by Anders Nordelöf, a researcher at Chalmers University of Technology. In a recent thesis, he provides concrete advice and tools showing how life cycle assessment can assist in the development of electric cars.

Electric cars have been criticised in recent times due to their energy-intensive manufacturing processes and because they are currently charged using electricity which is partly produced from .

Anders Nordelöf, a researcher in environmental systems analysis at Chalmers University of Technology, is seeking a more future-oriented approach to the electric car. He thinks it is necessary to focus on solving the problems that arise in the transition to the new technology.

"We need to take the environmental problems with electric cars seriously, but we mustn't get caught up in the situation as it now stands. It's time to give up discussing whether the electric cars of today are good or bad, and start working together step-by-step to make them as good as possible from an environmental perspective," he says.

"Comparing electric cars with diesel or petrol driven vehicles is relevant, but not the most important issue - nor is it what will solve the problems in the long term. We know that fossil fuels have to be phased out, and the automotive industry has decided upon electrification. The most important thing then is to find the best way forward."

Nordelöf points out that the great strength of the electric car is in its potential. In a recent PhD thesis he gives clear advice to industry, policy-makers and authorities to work together to develop electric cars by making their production as fossil-free as possible.

"If we charge the car from a clean source of electricity and combine this with the lowest possible carbon dioxide emissions during production, then the electric car will be revolutionary. But we can't expect to find a ready-made solution immediately," he says.

He is providing key pieces of the puzzle to help progress the development of electric cars, and shows in his thesis how life cycle assessment, LCA, can be used to minimise their environmental impact in the long term.

The thesis contains details of specific tools, methodology recommendations and new models for collecting LCA data, which are aimed at anyone working on the development of electric-powered vehicles using life cycle assessment.

"The models fill important data gaps and allow relevant LCA studies to be carried out on electric powertrains. These studies can then be applied to many different types of vehicles. I've also compared the overall environmental impact from three different electric motors, and can therefore provide basic advice on how to design electric motors to produce as little environmental impact as possible," he says.

Nordelöf provides some technology advice for the automotive industry based on his research. He stresses that energy efficiency and greater production of electricity from renewables is the key to reducing the environmental impact of electric cars in the operational phase, globally.

"But it's also important to realise that the manufacture of components will make up an ever greater proportion of the electric car's environmental impact the further our developments progress, especially if you take a broader perspective than just greenhouse gases. There are major environmental challenges in the extraction of metals, placing many requirements on the supply chain," he says.

Nordelöf's study also contains a summary of what previous LCA studies had to say about the environmental impact of electric cars. He points out that the results are contradictory and disparate, while showing that this is mainly due to shortcomings in the design and reporting of the studies - since the choice of methodology, purpose and target group are not clearly presented.

"More rigorous reporting is required in the research field so as not to increase the confusion that already exists around the environmental impact of electric cars," he says.

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a systems method that provides a holistic overview of a product's environmental over its life cycle from raw material extraction, through production processes and use, to waste management, including all transportation and energy consumption in the intermediate stages.

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3 / 5 (2) Oct 12, 2017
and the automotive industry has decided upon electrification

Correction: the policy-makers and commentators have decided upon electrification.

The policies and regulations put in place on the CO2 emissions of cars utilizing conventional engines, or direct requirements on their future fuel efficiency - essentially the upcoming standards placed on their energy consumption - are twice as demanding compared to what the battery electric vehicles can do, and getting stricter all the time, which makes it impossible for the automakers to continue producing cars with any sort of combustion engine or even fuel cell electric vehicles, even if we did produce clean synthetic fuels for them.

The only synthetic fuel that would get a pass from the politicians would be hydrogen, which is a dead end from the practical point of view, so their hands are tied: it's battery electric vehicles or nothing.
3 / 5 (2) Oct 12, 2017
So the irony is, that in the future as we'll be producing CO2 neutral hydrocarbon fuels to store renewable energy in massive quantities, we're not allowed to drive a car on them. It has to be burned up in a power station, transmitted, and then charged up into a battery at a greater loss of efficiency and greater cost.
5 / 5 (2) Oct 12, 2017
Life cycle assessment should be part of all goods and services - not just cars. From the very large (e.g. powerplants, ships and planes) to the very small (e.g. food items).

It's time to realize that every impact on the environment counts and not just the ones we want to see.
5 / 5 (2) Oct 12, 2017
What I don't get about the criticism of electric cars--that they take a lot of carbon to produce--is that this is also true of non-electric cars. But people seem to discount that fact because that's just the status quo. The difference is that electric cars can use less carbon after they're built.

@Eikka, yes, you could burn renewably produced hydrocarbons in a gasoline engine, but those get 20-30 miles to the gallon, while EVs get the equivalent of 100 mpg. Your line losses don't make up for that.
J Doug
not rated yet Oct 12, 2017
The difference is that electric cars can use less carbon after they're built.

I imagine that dnatwork believes that wind and solar will produce the electricity to charge the batteries for these cars of his dreams.
Solar Power Passes 1% Global Threshold
How much electricity do solar and wind make on a global scale? Answer: "Not much
"Elon Musk Losing Billions as SolarCity and Tesla Motors Falter
Elon Musk has lost nearly half the value in his two public companies in 2016 alone. Shares of SolarCity(NASDAQ:SCTY) and Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) have fallen sharply...."
1 / 5 (1) Oct 13, 2017
@Eikka, yes, you could burn renewably produced hydrocarbons in a gasoline engine, but those get 20-30 miles to the gallon, while EVs get the equivalent of 100 mpg.

You'll be burning them in some sort of engine anyways - the question is whether you want to add a hundred miles of copper and a battery between the engine and the wheels.

Your line losses don't make up for that.

No, but the losses and costs at the power plant do. Remember, we will be producing liquid hydrcarbons from renewable energy for all sorts of uses - we just have to, or we'll run out of plastics and fertilizers, and fuel for the load following generators. The more directly we'll be able to use that energy, the cheaper it will be.

The low capacity factor of renewables means that the majority of energy they produce will go through some sort of storage system when scaled up.
5 / 5 (2) Oct 13, 2017
I imagine that dnatwork believes that wind and solar will produce the electricity to charge the batteries for these cars of his dreams.

Example: Germany currently produces 30% of electricity from renewables (wind, solar biomass, hydro). If all cars were to be replaced by EVs then that would increase total electricity consumption by roughly 15%
(If we were to just look at solar then that alone would supply enough for half the demand of a total EV switchover...and germany isn't exactly known for sunny skies)

So yeah: We're already producing WAY more from renewables than EVs would ever need. There's no reason other countries cannot do this as well.
J Doug
not rated yet Oct 14, 2017
Here is "What's wrong with that?" 
"Don't Believe Elon Musk: Renewables Get Much More in Federal Subsidies than Fossil Fuels
The federal government pays him lavishly to produce boutique renewable-energy products. Tesla, SpaceX, and Solar City head Elon Musk lashed out at the Los Angeles Times following an article that totaled up all the government support that his three-headed corporate-welfare monster receives. The number the Times reported was nearly $5 billion in combined support for his companies, including subsidies for those who purchase Musk's products, such as the high-priced solar panels of Solar City and the supercars of Tesla."
J Doug
not rated yet Oct 14, 2017
So yeah: We're already producing WAY more from renewables than EVs would ever need. There's no reason other countries cannot do this as well.

Can you offer PROOF to back up that baseless conjecture? You need to consider just how minor part of the total transportation requirements the EVs now fill. It is not enough to matter because it is such a small portion of the transportation picture.
not rated yet Oct 14, 2017
This is being driven by consumer demand as much as the automotive industry. The automotive industry is responding to that demand, along with recognition of the way the future of human energy use is shaping up.

People like Eikka can make noise, but in the end that is all it is - just noise. Every passing day shows more and more that its just noise.
not rated yet Oct 15, 2017
Can you offer PROOF to back up that baseless conjecture?

It's a a calculation based on the available data from the government statistics pages.
The average car travels 14000km a year - which equates to roughly 3000kWh of power needed. This means - given the number of cars in germany - that we need an additional 120TWh of power per year. This amounts to about 15% of the current power production.
Germany already is a net exporter of energy (roughly 50 TWh per year)...so getting this extra power production set up by the planned date (2050) shouldn't be all that much of a problem.
not rated yet Oct 15, 2017
...just checked how many wind/solar/whatever powerplants that would require: If we keep installing just offshore wind energy at the current rate then we'll get there.
(i.e. this is not even considering additional onshore wind, solar or biogas or any kind of hydro installations)

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