Electric cars ‘no greener than diesel’, study claims

Switching from diesel to electric cars will not dent transport's carbon footprint over the next 15 years as long as Europe's electricity supply remains based on fossil fuels, according to Danish analysis.

The study, prepared for the Danish Petroleum Industry Association by consultancy Ea Energy Analyses, compared the CO2 emissions of cars using different engine technologies from petrol and diesel to hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric cars.

It found that carbon emissions per kilometre barely differed between the different cars when considering the full 'well-to-wheel' energy production cycle, a trend that they expect to continue until 2025.

According to the analysis, CO2 emissions from hybrids and electric cars are similar, while diesel cars emit 8% more carbon. Emissions from petrol cars, on the other hand, are around 35% higher due to less efficient use of energy compared to diesel, they said.

The study demonstrates that while electric cars have the lowest 'tail-pipe' emissions, they cannot attain the same travel ranges or top speeds as conventional cars. An electric car that could cover a similar distance with one charge would in fact produce more CO2 emissions than diesel vehicles, as it is heavier and requires more energy, it says.

The main difference between the CO2 emissions of different types of cars thus lies not in the amount but the fact that electric cars produce emissions indirectly in the power stations generating the electricity, while conventional cars spew them out directly through their exhaust pipes, it states.

In the long term, the EU is aiming to raise the share of renewable energies in its energy mix by providing clean electricity for electric cars, the report points out. It estimates that by 2015 around 5% of the electricity supplied to electric vehicles will be based on renewable energy, a figure which could rise to 15% by 2025.

"There is a long-term probability that, after 2020, electric cars and plug-in hybrid cars in combination with investments in the electricity system will become important elements in the efforts to reduce CO2 emissions," the report stated.

EU seeks common strategy

Released in September 2009, the report was originally intended to contribute to a domestic debate on taxing electric cars, but the issues it addresses have gained wider interest since an EU-wide debate on electric cars was kick-started by the Spanish EU Presidency (EURACTIV 08/02/10).

Competitiveness ministers, meeting in Brussels yesterday (1 March), requested the European Commission to present an action plan for clean and energy-efficient vehicles, including fully electric cars and plug-in hybrids. The EU executive said it would propose a European strategy on clean and energy-efficient cars in time for the May meeting of competitiveness ministers (EURACTIV 22/02/10), followed by an action plan.

The plan should encourage the development of battery-charging infrastructure in Europe and spur technological development in batteries, the conclusions of the meeting said. They also stressed the importance of standardisation for green cars, especially in the field of vehicle safety.

The Commission is currently working on adopting a harmonised type-approval system for pure electric and hybrid vehicles.

The ministers also raised the issue of power sources used to fuel electric vehicles. They called for further work on building smart grids and promoting the use of renewable energy to be carried out by member states.

Background

The push to develop viable electric cars has been driven by the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions in order to curb climate change and reduce reliance on fossil fuels. The transport sector has been offsetting emission cuts from other sources, as it has become the fastest-growing consumer of energy in the EU.

However, technical and logistical difficulties mean developing an electric vehicle for the mass market is far from straightforward. Critics say electric cars do not have a long enough 'range' (meaning they are not well-suited to long-distance driving) and a major overhaul of power supply infrastructure will be required to make electric cars convenient for consumers.

Nonetheless, political support for greener transport has been growing. In an economic recovery package released last year, the EU earmarked €5 billion for its Green Car Initiative (EURACTIV 27/11/08). The EU plan includes support for research into electric and hybrid vehicles, but also allocates funding for hydrogen powered-vehicles and fuel cell technology.

An informal meeting of competitiveness ministers in February opened a debate on a common strategy for electric vehicles (EURACTIV 08/02/10).

Timeline

  •  25-26 May 2010: Competitiveness Council to continue debate on electric vehicles.

Further Reading