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Electric vehicles can help Australia transition to a low carbon society

Date: 27-Mar-20
Author: Sean O'Malley

Electric car © Rachael Ridley

The 20th century can lay claim to being the time of the internal combustion engine (ICE), however, in the early 21st century, we are seeing the rapid evolution of environmentally preferable alternatives for transport. Amongst these are:

Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) so-called because they rely on electricity stored in their battery.

Hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) which combine a battery with an ICE where the battery is charged by the engine and from energy recovered from regenerative braking.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) are HEVs but with the ability to charge the batteries from an external charging station.

The global market continues to expand with an increasing number of models and brands becoming available as more manufacturers adopt the technology. There are a number of barriers to the acceptance and spread of electric vehicles (EVs) from price through to concerns with the limitations of the technology and the environmental benefits.

Price and running costs

It is generally accepted that the purchase price for EVs is higher than the traditional alternatives on the market. However, with the rapid evolution of the technology and increase in model and brand options the cost is being driven down. For example, in 2010, the average cost of a lithium-ion battery was US$1160/kWh; by 2018 it had dropped to US$174/kWh. Considering the lithium-ion battery pack is the most expensive component of an electric vehicle, this is a significant positive development for electric vehicles. The falling price of lithium-ion battery packs is the primary driver in achieving price parity with fossil fuel-powered vehicles.

However, the key benefits of the EV are in the running cost i.e., the total cost of ownership. An Australian study indicates that over a five-year period an EV will save a total of nearly $6,500 compared to the fossil fuel-powered equivalent. As the cost of new batteries drops the cost balance will shift even more in favour of EVs.

Charging and range anxiety

One of the perceived issues that have held back the spread of EVs especially in a country the size of Australia has been the limited distance that the vehicles can cover from a single charge, typically 250-400kms. However, Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world and many of us only use our cars for short-distance travel. The average vehicle travels only around 36km per day so this is not a common problem as EVs can typically be charged at home. However, to meet the needs of long-distance driving a large number of vehicle charging have been popping up over Australia such that it is now possible to tour the country.

Environmental benefits

The one clear benefit for EVs is that seen in improving environmental outcomes. It is estimated that approximately half of the health impact of air pollution is due to motor vehicles. This is because motor vehicle pollution is pumped straight onto our streets where we live and breathe. The Australian data shows that there is a clear impact on health.

Battery electric vehicles produce zero exhaust emissions so widespread adoption of these vehicles would have a clear impact in improving Australia’s air quality. Fossil fuel vehicles (FFV/ ICE) are also a significant source of noise pollution impact city areas. A switch to EVs will reduce the noise and make cities better places to work and live.

To truly understand the benefits of switching to EVs the environmental impacts of these vehicles must be compared to the ICE equivalents over the entire life cycle. The Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) technique has been developed over many years and allows the comparison of like products and services. For example, you can use an LCA to compare the environmental impacts of incandescent, fluorescent and LED light bulbs, all performing identical functions but constructed very differently. The technique has been widely used from nappies to construction materials.

It is important to recognise that everything we do has some environmental impact and LCA is a widely recognised standard for undertaking this analysis. When comparing EVs and ICE vehicles it needs to include comparisons from raw material extraction (metals, fossil fuels, lithium etc), use impacts and through to the end of life disposal or ideally recycling. Quite a number of LCAs have compared these impacts and this is explained well by The Union of Concerned Scientists. This and other studies have demonstrated well that EVs have a lower impact than ICEs, the UOCS found that battery electric cars generate half the greenhouse gas emissions of the average comparable petrol car, even when pollution from battery manufacturing is accounted for.

The benefit of this study is that it allowed comparisons across different grid mixtures, fossil fuel and renewable energy. As Australia shifts more to renewable energy, the benefits of EVs in reducing our emissions will only increase Australia’s electricity supply is rapidly becoming greener. In 2018 renewable sources contributed 19% of total electricity generation, an increase of 25% compared with 2017. Those charging their vehicles at home have the option to buy clean energy.

Both types of vehicles have impacts from raw material extraction: the ICE vehicles from the extraction of petroleum and its subsequent refining and transport, and the EVs from the extraction of lithium, nickel, cobalt and potentially rare earth metals. The materials used in car batteries are in essence the same as used in mobile phones, laptops and other devices using rechargeable batteries. The same debate applies about sourcing for all these products and the need for ethical and environmental standards. Many companies have recognised the need to change with initiatives to improve conditions for those involved in the supply chain and decrease environmental impacts.  Australia holds the third largest reserve of lithium globally and is the largest exporter which presents a significant opportunity to manage it appropriately and build an industry that can benefit from our local resources.

One of the key challenges has been to ensure that once a battery has reached its end of life that it can be recycled and the component materials recovered. Planet Ark has been working closely with Envirostream who have developed a technology here in Australia that permits the complete recovery of the valuable materials with a target of zero waste to landfill. As Australia shifts towards a circular economy it is vital that we are able to recycle our products locally and recover as much value as possible from the raw materials.

The role of electric vehicles in enabling more renewable energy to be deployed globally is in the early stages of development. The so-called Vehicle to Grid (V2G) function that allows a battery in a car to store and release energy from and to the grid means we can make renewable energy available when the sun does not shine, or the wind does not blow. This is a key challenge for renewables and EV’s are part of the solution, perhaps a significant part.

In March this year, a comprehensive study of 59 world regions published in the journal Nature Sustainability found electric vehicles produce less carbon dioxide than petrol cars across the vast majority of the globe.

Positive actions


Sean                                              O'Malley
Author: Sean O'Malley

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