The number of electric vehicles on the world’s roads is surging, hitting a record number last year.
That would seem to be good news, as the world tries to wean itself off fossil fuels that are wrecking the global climate. But as electric cars become more popular, some question just how environmentally friendly they are.
The batteries in electric vehicles, for example, charge on power that is coming straight off the electric grid — which is itself often powered by fossil fuels. And there are questions about how energy-intensive it is to build an EV or an EV battery, versus building a comparable traditional vehicle.
Are electric vehicles greener?
The short answer is yes — but their full green potential is still many years away.
Experts broadly agree that electric vehicles create a lower carbon footprint over the course of their lifetime than do cars and trucks that use traditional, internal combustion engines.
Last year, researchers from the universities of Cambridge, Exeter and Nijmegen in The Netherlands found that in 95% of the world, driving an electric car is better for the environment than driving a gasoline-powered car.
Electricity grids in most of the world are still powered by fossil fuels such as coal or oil, and EVs depend on that energy to get charged. Separately, EV battery production remains an energy-intensive process.
A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative found that the battery and fuel production for an EV generates higher emissions than the manufacturing of an automobile. But those higher environmental costs are offset by EVs’ superior energy efficiency over time.
In short, the total emissions per mile for battery-powered cars are lower than comparable cars with internal combustion engines.
“If we are going to take a look at the current situation, in some countries, electric vehicles are better even with the current grid,” Sergey Paltsev, a senior research scientist at the MIT Energy Initiative and one of the study’s authors, told CNBC.
Paltsev explained that the full benefits of EVs will be realized only after the electricity sources become renewable, and it might take several decades for that to happen.
“Currently, the electric vehicle in the U.S., on average, would emit about 200 grams of CO2 per mile,” he said. “We are projecting that with cleaning up the grid, we can reduce emissions from electric vehicles by 75%, from about 200 (grams) today to about 50 grams of CO2 per mile in 2050.”
Similarly, Paltsev said MIT research showed non-plug-in hybrid cars with internal combustion engines currently emit about 275 grams of CO2 per mile. In 2050, their projected emissions are expected to be between 160 to 205 grams of CO2 per mile — the range is wider than EVs, because fuel standards vary from place to place.
Decarbonization is the process of reducing greenhouse gas emission produced by the burning fossil fuels. Efforts to cut down pollution across various industries are expected to further reduce the environmental impact of EV production and charging over time.
“When you look forward to the rest of the decade, where we will see massive amounts of decarbonization in power generation and massive amount of decarbonization in the industrial sector, EVs will benefit from all of that decarbonization,” Eric Hannon, a Frankfurt-based partner at McKinsey & Company, told CNBC.
Batteries are the biggest emitter
EVs rely on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries to run. The process of making those batteries — from using mining raw materials like cobalt and lithium, to production in gigafactories and transportation — is energy-intensive, and one of the biggest sources of carbon emissions from EVs today, experts said.
Gigafactories are facilities that produce EV batteries on a large scale.
“Producing electric vehicles leads to significantly more emissions than producing petrol cars. Depending on the country of production, that’s between 30% to 40% extra in production emissions, which is mostly from the battery production,” said Florian Knobloch, a fellow at the Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance.
Those higher production emission numbers are seen as “an initial investment, which pays off rather quickly due to the reduced lifetime emissions.”
China currently dominates battery production, with 93 gigafactories producing lithium-ion battery cells versus only four in the U.S., the Washington Post reported this year.
“I think the battery is the most complicated component in the EV, and has the most complex supply chain,” George Crabtree, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, told CNBC, adding that the energy source used in battery production makes a huge difference on the carbon footprint for EVs.
Batteries made in older gigafactories in China are usually powered by fossil fuels, because that was the trend five to 10 years ago, he explained. So, EVs that are built with batteries from existing factories
But that’s changing, he said, as “people have realized that’s a huge carbon footprint.”
Experts pointed to other considerations around battery production.
They include unethical and environmentally unsustainable mining practices, as well as a complex geopolitical nature of the supply chain, where countries do not want to rely on other nations for raw materials like cobalt and lithium, or the finished batteries.
Mining raw materials needed for battery production will likely be the last to get decarbonized, according to Crabtree.
Recycling and decarbonizing the grid
Experts said that can change over time as raw materials needed for battery production are in limited supply, leaving firms with no choice but to recycle.
McKinsey’s Hannon outlined other reasons for companies to step by their recycling efforts. They include a regulatory environment where producers, by law, would have to deal with spent batteries — and disposing them could be more expensive.
“People who point to a lack of a recycling infrastructure as a problem aren’t recognizing that we don’t need extensive recycling infrastructure yet because the cars are so new, we’re not needing many back,” he said.
Most auto companies are already working to ensure they have significant recycling capacity in place before EVs start reaching the end of life over the next decade, he added.
Knobloch from Cambridge University said a lot of research is going into improving battery technology, to make them more environmentally sustainable and less reliant on scarce raw materials. More efforts are also needed in decarbonizing the electricity grid, he added.
“It’s very important that more renewable electricity generation capacity is added to the grid each year, than coal generation capacity,” Knobloch said.
“Nowadays, it’s much easier to build large scale solar or offshore wind compared to building new fossil fuel power plant. What we see is more renewable electricity coming into the grid all over the world.”
Still, he pointed out that generating electricity by using renewable sources will still emit greenhouse gases as there are emissions from producing the solar panels and wind turbines. “What we look at is how long will it take until the electricity grid is sufficiently decarbonized so that you see large benefit from electric vehicles,” Knobloch added.
Policies needed for societal change
Experts agree that a transition from gasoline-powered cars to EVs is not a panacea for the global fight against climate change.
It needs to go hand-in-hand with societal change that promotes greater use of public transportation and alternative modes of travel, including bicycles and walking.
Reducing the use of private vehicles requires plenty of funding and policy planning.
MIT’s Paltsev, who is also deputy director at the university’s joint program on the science and policy of global change, explained that there are currently about 1.2 billion fuel-powered cars on the road globally –that number is expected to increase to between 1.8 billion to 2 billion.
In comparison, there are only about 10 million electric vehicles currently.
People underestimate how many new cars have to be produced and how much materials will be needed to produce those electric vehicles, Paltsev said.
The International Energy Agency predicts that the number of electric cars, buses, vans and heavy trucks on roads is expected to hit 145 million by 2030.
Even if everyone drove EVs instead of gasoline-powered cars, there would still be plenty of emissions from the plug-in vehicles due to their sheer volume, according to Knobloch.
“So, it’s not silver bullet for climate change mitigation. Ideally, you also try to reduce the number of cars massively, and try to push things such as public transport,” he said. “Getting people away from individual car transport is as important.”
Switzerland put vertical solar panels on a roadside retaining wall
A canton in Switzerland commissioned a project in which solar panels were attached vertically to a roadside retaining wall.
The canton of Appenzell Ausserhoden in northeastern Switzerland is aiming to generate at least 40% of its electricity from renewables by 2035. So, it exercised a little creativity and covered a roadside retaining wall with 756 glass-glass solar panels.
The panels have an output of 325 kW and an energy yield of around 230,000 kWh annually. This is equivalent to the consumption of about 52 Swiss households. The energy will be fed into the grid of energy supplier St. Gallisch-Appenzellische Kraftwerke, and the canton will get a feed-in tariff in return.
German mounting system provider K2 Systems and Swiss contractor Solarmotion installed the vertical system on the 75-degree retaining wall. The panels were anchored on a mounting rail with HUS screw anchors, and Lichtenstein-based Hilti provided mechanical dowels.
The PV system was anchored on and in the masonry using an adhesive technique. An anchoring depth of a maximum of 90 mm could not be exceeded so that the retaining wall would not be adversely affected.
Due to the close proximity to the asphalt, the solar panels’ components are subject to exceptional corrosion requirements and are anodized for protection. Indirect components are made of aluminum – only the screw anchors are made of stainless steel.
K2 Systems says that “especially in the winter months (when consumption and dependence on foreign electricity imports are at their highest), the vertically aligned modules will achieve a very good electricity yield.”
This isn’t a big project, but it’s a delightfully creative one, which is why it caught my eye. A retaining wall is dead space, and snow will slide off the panels in Swiss winters.
We at Electrek love it when solar is installed in intelligent and inventive ways. Warehouse rooftops? Cover them. Highway medians? Canal covers? Box stores? Put solar on them. It just makes sense.
Photo: K2 Systems
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Doroni’s all-electric flying car gets flight certified in the US
Flying electric cars are not just for sci-fi movies. Miami-based Doroni Aerospace announced Friday its all-electric flying car, the Doroni H1, received official FAA Airworthiness Certification. And the best part – it’s designed to fit in your garage.
Doroni’s all-electric flying car gets FAA-certified
Doroni claims to be the first company to test manned flights with a 2-seater flying electric car in the US. The Doroni H1 took flight earlier this year.
CEO Doron Merdinger successfully piloted the personal electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (eVTOL) this summer. Merdinger said receiving the flight certification “is not just a milestone for our company, but a leap forward for the entire field of personal air mobility.”
He says the electric flying car “is poised to redefine urban transportation.” Doroni’s aircraft has already received over 370 pre-orders as the startup wraps up funding efforts.
Powered by ten independent propulsion systems, the all-electric flying car has a claimed top speed of 140 mph (100 mph cruising speed) and 60 miles range. Its unique design ensures stability during flight.
It includes four ducts containing two e-motors with patented ducted propellers. Eight are for vertical flight with an additional “two pushes.”
The two-seater aircraft is designed to fit inside a two-car garage at 23 ft in length and 14 ft in width. It also features fast charging (20% -80%) in under 20 minutes.
Electric flying cars coming to a dealership near you
Doroni’s all-electric flying car is semi-autonomous, meaning you can guide it to different levels. A controller stick is used to push you forward, backward, or to the side.
Who would buy one of these? Doroni says one of its customers is a doctor who wants to use the aircraft to skip traffic on their way to work. However, you will need a certification. It requires at least 20 hours of experience, 15 inside the aircraft and another five solo.
Merdinger says the biggest use case for eVTOLs will be for air taxis or ride-sharing. Doroni aims for a different market though.
The company says there is enough space to fly everywhere, especially in suburban areas. Doroni’s all-electric flying car is designed for more than just getting you from point A to point B. It allows you to “enjoy nature,” according to Merdinger.
Doroni expects to build about 120 to 125 units by 2025 or 2026. Eventually, the Miami-based startup plans on scaling to produce 2,500 eVTOLs annually. You can learn more about the electric flying car on Doroni’s website.
The company is the latest to receive the flight certification. Alef’s Model A was the first electric flying car to get certfied in June.
Alef said it had 2,500 pre-orders in July. The orders include 2,100 from individuals and 400 from businesses, including a California car dealership.
Are electric flying cars going to take over road transportation? Not necessarily. At least not anytime soon.
Doroni and Alef are both working on niche markets, which makes the most sense for the time being. At the same time, the companies are pushing forward another sustainble means of transport.
As Merdinger explained “this is just the beginning,” as the technology advances.
Rivian already has a patent on Tesla’s Cybertruck ‘range extender’
Tesla delivered the first Cybertrucks yesterday, and with that delivery event came the revelation that in order to get the range it promised, the Cybertruck needs a separate battery pack in the bed. But a similar battery pack system was already patented years ago, by one of Tesla’s competitors in the electric pick-up space.
Tesla’s Cybertruck website included a revelation about a feature that wasn’t mentioned in its presentation: a “range extender,” in the form of an additional battery pack in the truck bed which expands the truck’s range.
It’s an interesting solution, and we don’t know all the details of it yet. We don’t know the cost, the weight, how it will be installed and uninstalled, or whether it even can be uninstalled.
The battery pack is intended to be used “for very long trips or towing heavy things up mountains,” according to Tesla CEO Elon Musk. It takes up about a third of the truck bed, as can be seen in a photo posted on Tesla’s Cybertruck site.
So, there’s still room for cargo, just not the full 6 feet of bed length that Tesla says the Cybertruck has.
But the fact that it was described as being used only “for very long trips or towing heavy things up mountains” suggests that it will be removable, since most people don’t do that sort of thing every single day.
Making it removable is actually a good solution, because it can lower prices, make packaging easier, and improve efficiency for vehicles that simply don’t need a ridiculously enormous 470-mile battery – and most drivers don’t need that.
And if it is removable, well, there’s already a patent on that.
In 2019, electric truck maker Rivian filed a patent for a “removable auxiliary battery” that would fit into the front third-or-so of the truck bed. This patent was granted in 2020, so Rivian currently has a patent on this technology.
The patent is described as:
An electric vehicle system for transporting human passengers or cargo includes an electric vehicle that includes a body, a plurality of wheels, a cargo area, an electric motor for propelling the electric vehicle, and a primary battery for providing electrical power to the electric motor for propelling the electric vehicle. An auxiliary battery module is attachable to the electric vehicle for providing electrical power to the electric motor via a first electrical connector at the auxiliary battery module and a second electrical connector at the electric vehicle that mates with the first electrical connector. The auxiliary battery module can be positioned in the cargo area while supplying power to the electric motor, and can be removable and reattachable from the electric vehicle. The auxiliary battery module includes an integrated cooling system for cooling itself during operation of the electric vehicle including a conduit therein for circulating coolant.
We aren’t patent lawyers here, but this sounds awfully similar to Tesla’s “range extender.” The obvious potential differences we can find are if the range extender doesn’t have integrated cooling, which is unlikely, or if the range extender isn’t removable, which doesn’t seem to jive with the statement that it is only for long trips or with the marketing showing it as an optional add-on (if that were the case, why not just offer different battery sizes?).
Tesla itself has many patents (and is still pursuing more of them), but has pledged not to “initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use its technology.” It announced this in a 2014 blog post, and followed up by saying that it thinks several companies are using its patents.
So next, the question is: is Tesla’s solution different enough to avoid Rivian’s patent protection? Has Tesla licensed the idea from Rivian, and we just haven’t heard about it yet? Or will Rivian return Tesla’s “good faith” and not initiate a patent lawsuit against Tesla, if it does feel like it has a good enough case to say that Tesla’s range extender infringes on its patent?
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