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Carbon savings depend on what supplies grids and the time of day vehicles are charged. Picture: SUPPLIED
Carbon savings depend on what supplies grids and the time of day vehicles are charged. Picture: SUPPLIED

Berlin — Electric vehicles (EVs) are a powerful weapon in the world’s battle to beat global warming, yet their impact varies hugely by nation and in some places they pollute more than internal combustion engine (ICE) models, data analysis shows.

In Europe, where sales are rising fastest, EVs in Poland and Kosovo generate more carbon emissions because their power grids are so coal-reliant, according to the data compiled by research consultancy Radiant Energy Group (REG).

Elsewhere around Europe, the picture is better though the relative carbon savings depend on what supplies grids and the time of day vehicles are charged.

Best performers are nuclear and hydroelectric-powered Switzerland at 100% carbon savings compared with ICE vehicles, Norway 98%, France 96%, Sweden 95% and Austria 93%, according to the study.

Laggards are Cyprus at 4%, Serbia 15%, Estonia 35% and the Netherlands 37%. An EV driver in Germany, Europe’s biggest car manufacture that relies on a mix of renewables and coal, makes a 55% greenhouse gas saving, the data also shows.

In countries such Germany or Spain with big investment in solar and wind, a lack of renewable energy storage means the amount of carbon saved by driving an EV depends heavily on the time of day you recharge.

Charging in the afternoon — when sun and wind are stronger — saves 16-18% more carbon than at night when grids are more likely to be fuelled by gas or coal.

The analysis, based on public data from Europe’s transmission system operator transparency platform ENTSO-E and the European Environment Agency (EEA), came before Wednesday’s discussions on transport at the COP26 summit.

It shows how the auto industry’s ability to reduce emissions depends on finding better ways to decarbonise electricity grids and store renewable energy — challenges many European countries have not yet overcome.

Lithium-ion batteries are only able to store energy at full capacity for up to around four hours, meaning even countries sourcing significant amounts of solar and wind power during the day struggle to keep it on tap for charging at night.

Footprint disparaties

Until consistent, low-carbon energy is available across the region, EV drivers keen to reduce their footprint and engineers designing charging infrastructure need to take these disparities into account, the German- and US-based REG researchers said.

“Electricity has the capability of decarbonising transportation in a way that internal-combustion engines never will,” said researcher Sid Bagga. “But the carbon impact of electrification varies dramatically depending on a country’s energy mix ... Countries must adopt credible and achievable electricity decarbonisation strategies if the EV transition is to be a success.”

The gulf in emissions between electric and ICE-powered vehicles has fallen in recent years as automakers, realising that they would need to meet EU carbon reduction targets while still selling mainly ICE cars, made their engines more fuel-efficient.

As a result, the carbon intensity of newly registered ICE-powered cars in Europe fell an average of 25% between 2006 and 2016, according to EEA data.

EV sales in Europe are propelled by government subsidies and regulations against new ICE cars from 2035. One in five vehicles sold in Europe last quarter were electrified, and consultancy Ernst & Young expects sales of zero-emission models to outpace ICEs in absolute terms by 2028.

Automakers including General Motors, Stellantis, and Volkswagen have set targets to sell mostly or exclusively electric vehicles in Europe in coming years, with GM committed to an electric European line-up by 2022 and Volkswagen aiming for 70% all-electric sales by 2030.

REG’s study was based on data from January 1 to October 15, 2021. It compared emissions from charging an electric vehicle matching a Tesla Model 3 efficiency to drive 100km with emissions generated by fuelling the average petrol-powered vehicle the same distance.

Countries where charging an electric vehicle is more than 85% cleaner than driving an ICE-powered car tend to be those with a consistent low-carbon energy supply source, namely hydroelectric or nuclear.



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