Electric cars and energy transition – is there a glitch?

Electric cars and energy transition – is there a glitch?

11 July 2019
electric vehicles energymix EnergyTransition Mobility transport
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At the end of 2018, only 200,000 electric and hybrid vehicles were registered in France out of a total automobile fleet of around 40 million. But questions are now being asked due to recent sharp increases in sales of these vehicles, combined with France’s objectives of having a million electric cars by 2022 and banning sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2040. What impact will these vehicles have on the energy mix and the electric system? And given that manufacturing batteries requires the use of rare earth metals and large quantities of energy, is the widespread use of electric vehicles really compatible with the fight against climate change? Engineers are already hard at work on the problem for automakers, energy producers and electric grid operators. Read on for a recap on the energy issues that lie behind the production of electric cars.

To be carbon neutral by 2050, France needs to significantly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from its transport sector, which accounts for some 40% of the country’s total, 94% of which derives from road travel. Developing electric vehicles using low-carbon electricity production is today seen as one of the main solutions for achieving this objective.

However, as pointed out by RTE – France’s electric grid operator – “The large-scale development of electric vehicles poses major challenges. As well as the issue of the availability of charging points and the changes that EVs will bring to the automotive industry, other factors also have to be addressed in order to facilitate the move to electric mobility. These include ensuring a secure electricity supply, managing the related environmental impacts and containing costs, both for local authorities and individual users”.

A driver or a brake when it comes to energy transition?

The first challenge that specialists often highlight is that if millions of electric vehicles are on the roads in 10- or 15-years’ time, will there be enough electricity to go around?

In its most recent study on the topic, published in May 2019, RTE was reassuring, even for the scenario of an extremely rapid electric mobility rollout between now and 2035. RTE has “no doubt as to the electric system’s capacity to produce the amount of energy needed to charge millions of vehicles, in a context where electricity consumption is decreasing for other usages. The amount of electricity used annually by 15.6 million electric vehicles would represent around 35 to 40 TWh, which is less than 8% of France’s total electricity production.”

However, for electric mobility to be the right choice, this electricity will need to be decarbonised. Thanks to its nuclear fleet, France has significant assets. But a question arises: will the current growth of wind and solar power – which are inherently intermittent – be able to keep up with changes in electricity usages, especially for cars?

The numerous reports published since 2018 by Ademe (France’s Environment and Energy Management Agency), the European Climate Foundation, the OPECST (France’s parliamentary scientific advisory body) and RTE not only point out that “the environmental advantages of electric vehicles are intrinsically linked to the energy transition process“, but also that digitalisation must be used in order to more carefully channel demand. According to the experts, if smart grids are set up it will be possible to plan the charging of electric vehicles for times when the grid isn’t saturated or to absorb the production peaks of renewable electricity. In their view, this idea of absorbing production peaks would even help to flexibly manage the electricity grid, by using the EVs as intermediate energy storage systems.

A large majority of vehicles used for local journeys (70% during the week and 48% on Sundays) or which sit parked, doing nothing (28% in the week and 50% on Sundays) will have more latitude for managing their charging times”, says RTE. For example, people who have photovoltaic panels that they use for self-consumption could be alerted to the best times to charge their vehicles using the energy produced on their roofs. This same logic can be applied to the grid itself, whereby energy stored in electric vehicles can be fed back into the national electricity network – a technology known as “vehicle to grid” (V2G).

With the development of smart tools, electric vehicles would therefore become compatible with France’s energy transition. Based on the most likely scenario used by RTE, by bringing together a decarbonised electric mix (combining nuclear power and renewable energies) for EVs would be the most effective. And with the implementation of a system that carefully manages charging times to coincide with the production of intermittent energy, these choices would be able to prevent the discharge of 26 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Batteries: the black sheep?

In order to assess the ecological and energy impact of an electric vehicle, we need to look at its whole life cycle. And this is where a number of problems still exist, starting with the manufacturing process. “Seventy-five per cent of an electric vehicle’s impact on the climate happens during its production phase”, to quote the latest survey carried out by Ademe and the Fondation pour la Nature et l’Homme. “Greenhouse gases are emitted when manufacturing both the vehicles themselves (bodywork, steel and plastic production) and their batteries. Emissions related to batteries come from the energy consumed to extract, purify and process the mineral resources used to produce their cells.” And the majority of the production today is carried out in China, where the electricity used mainly comes from coal.

On top of that, there is a specific geopolitical problem. The batteries on the market today contain neodymium, cobalt, graphite and lithium, all of which are rare metals that are essentially found in China, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South America. Which means that battery manufacturers are dependent on suppliers in these regions.

So, unless there is a major change in the components of batteries, as well as in their energy-hungry manufacturing process and even the location of their production, then some specialists think the impact of EVs could in fact be worse than petrol or diesel vehicles.

However, areas for significant improvement are already being widely explored by researchers and engineers. “There will have to be a circular economy, covering the design of the batteries (eco-design and development of new chemicals) through to optimising usages of the vehicles, right up to recycling and reusing the batteries for other purposes”, says the report issued by Ademe and the Fondation pour l’Homme et la Nature.

European automakers are well aware of the goals and challenges involved. “It is absolutely vital to have a European champion in battery development and manufacturing”, said PSA’s CEO, Carlos Tavares, at the latest Paris Motor Show. For both PSA and Renault, this will only be possible with the second generation of batteries, “towards 2028 or 2030”. It would seem that these French heavyweights believe in the potential of solid batteries that use more widely-available metals and have a much longer life. Made in Europe, these batteries could make the electric car the almost ideal form of transport. Unless hydrogen fuel cell technologies take over of course.

In conclusion, many more innovations and ingenious ideas are needed to invent sustainable and responsible mobility for the future.

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