As you know if you are on our site, electric cars are becoming more and more democratic, are seen as the vehicles of the future and all manufacturers are trying to stand out to attract market share. So we are going to see how these vehicles work, their ecological impact and what is at stake for the future.
HOW DO ELECTRIC CARS WORK?
It is not a question of teaching you exactly the technology of these cars but just the elements that are essential to understand the stakes of electric cars.
First of all, it should be noted that, unlike hydrogen-powered vehicles, batteries power an electric motor, not fuel cells. It is still the same type of motor. The main issues will be related to this battery, whether for autonomy, recharging, environmental impact…
In most, if not all, electric cars today, the battery is a Lithium-Ion battery. It is composed of multitudes of identical small cells. In these, when the battery is full, Lithium ions are at the anode (made of graphite), which creates a potential difference with the cathode (made of different metals) and when the engine needs electricity to run, electrons pass from the anode to the cathode powering the engine. This then attracts the lithium ions which pass to the cathode. When recharging, the electrons go in the opposite direction due to the potential difference created by the mains and therefore the reaction is reversed, this recharges the battery which can again supply electricity to the engine.
So much for a quick explanation of how the batteries work. What we must remember is that to make a battery, you need many metals (cobalt, nickel, manganese, lithium, graphite, …) and rare earths (neodymium and dysprosium) and that to make it work you need electricity.
To learn more about the overall functioning of an electric car, I invite you to watch this video.
WHAT IS THE ECOLOGICAL IMPACT OF ELECTRIC CARS?
Electric cars are seen as the main solution to decarbonise the transport sector, which alone accounts for around 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and 72% of these emissions are due to road transport (cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles). This sector therefore has a very important role to play in the fight against global warming. We will therefore explore the advantages and disadvantages of electric vehicles to get an idea of the importance of moving to an electrified vehicle fleet.
LESS VISIBLE POLLUTION
First of all, one of the main arguments in favour of the electric car is that it pollutes less. Indeed, unlike internal combustion cars, it does not directly use fossil fuels such as oil and does not emit greenhouse gases through the exhaust pipe since it does not have any. The electric car therefore does not emit any local pollution and this is important when we see highly polluted cities such as in China.
However, to look at the pollution emitted by a car, you have to look at its entire life cycle and look at the overall pollution. First of all, let us look at its production. According to the ADEME (French Environment and Energy Management Agency), it takes about 70,000 MJ to build a thermal car compared to 120,000 MJ for an electric car, which represents a 71% increase in electricity. Its production is therefore much more energy-intensive and this is due in particular to the manufacture of the battery, which is the central element. In addition, electric cars do not totally solve the problem of fine particles, as 90% of them are emitted by abrasion from brakes and tyres (the regenerative braking of EVs only slightly improves this problem).
Secondly, even if the electric car does not pollute locally with the emission of greenhouse gases from the exhaust pipe, it is important to know that the production of electricity does pollute.
In fact, the vast majority of ways of producing electricity have an ecological impact, whether it is coal mines, which emit a lot of CO2 into the air, nuclear power, which creates nuclear waste, or solar power, which uses a lot of energy to produce panels and therefore causes pollution. We will detail this in a future article.
Moreover, as we saw earlier, the battery contains much more minerals than in a combustion car and this also poses a lot of problems. First of all, lithium production will have to be tripled by 2030, which may be a source of tension on supply even if producers seem to be able to meet it. The main problem concerns Cobalt because batteries are very fond of it and its production would therefore have to be accelerated very sharply (in the case of 2 billion EVs in 2050, a 3.5-fold increase would be necessary from today according to British scientists), even though 60% of it comes from the same country: the Democratic Republic of Congo. In addition to the ecological risks due to its extraction coupled with other minerals, there may then be major geopolitical risks.
Finally, the production of rare earths such as neodymium and dysprosium needed for the manufacture of the engine magnet is expected to increase by 70% for the same 2 billion EV optics in 2050. The management of these rare earths may also be subject to tensions. It should also be remembered that just like oil extraction, the extraction of minerals and rare earths emits CO2.
Now that we have all the elements in hand, we can compare different types of vehicles to see their environmental impact according to estimates. First of all, however, it is important to know that these estimates made by the Shift Project (in French), concerning greenhouse gas emissions over the entire life cycle of the vehicle, are calculated according to the French energy mix which is very low in carbon (due to the large share of nuclear power). A petrol car would emit 305 gCO2eq/vkm, a diesel car 205 gCO2eq/vkm while an electric car would emit 62 gCO2eq/vkm in France (109 gCO2eq/vkm for the hydrogen car). I invite you to go and see the Shift Project report to learn more about the ecological impact of all types of vehicles as well as their calculation method.
We can still see that the electric car is therefore much less polluting than a thermal vehicle in France, but it depends a lot on the energy mix. For example, in Germany, because of the production of electricity by coal mines, the electric car emits twice as much greenhouse gas as in France.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES FOR THE FUTURE?
France has chosen to move massively towards the electric car market rather than the hydrogen market, for example. In order to switch to less polluting transport, France is relying on European standards concerning CO2 emissions from cars for sale, but also on the LOM (Loi d’Orientation des Mobilités) to achieve the objectives set by the PPE (Programme Pluriannuelle de l’Energie). The EPP then set a fleet of 3 million EVs, i.e. 10% of the car fleet and 1.8 million rechargeable hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) by 2028. The LOM, for its part, sets a ban on the sale of new vehicles using fossil fuels by 2040. These targets seem very ambitious as they represent a 25 and 30-fold increase in the EV and PHEV fleets respectively.
To get closer to these goals, some improvements will be needed. First, manufacturers will need to continue producing EVs, even though investment in this sector, which is becoming very competitive, may involve risks. Second, the number of charging stations will have to increase to meet the needs of owners and be placed in the right places and with adequate power, such as quick-charging stations on highways. The EPP foresees a network of 7 million charging stations, 10% of which are open access, compared to the current 240,000. For this, the State has a great role to play, as Sylvain Chéreau of PSA said in the interview he gave us.
Then there are the technological questions about batteries in particular. Autonomy will have to be improved, which is expected in the short term to reach 400 km of autonomy on average thanks to new battery concepts such as lithium-air or solid state batteries. Until better autonomy is achieved, EVs are more targeted at households with two or more cars, i.e. 10 million households in France, as they can use the other vehicle for holidays. These new batteries also have a duty to improve on the minerals and rare earths used to limit their ecological impact.
Another important issue is to bring down the purchase price of electric cars so that they are accessible to the greatest number of people. This goes hand in hand with technological advances, because in 10 years, for the same capacity, the battery costs almost five times less than 10 years ago and should be halved again by 2040, according to experts, to reach 120 euros/kWh. This would allow the purchase cost to be equal to that of an electric car in 2030 while the total cost of ownership should be lower before 2024 according to the firm Deloitte. It is important to lower the price, especially as state aid is only possible when the number of buyers is limited. This aid will therefore not last forever and is already starting to fall in some countries.
Finally, in order to increase interest, the ecological impact must be limited through technological advances and less carbon-intensive electricity production. The question of overloading the power networks also arises, but RTE does not seem to be worried, even though an off-peak/peak system and a controllable energy mix will be necessary to avoid peaks in consumption that would damage the power network.
A LOT OF INFORMATION AND THERE’S MORE TO COME.
We have tried to cover all the most important issues concerning electric vehicles, even though some topics may be incomplete or imprecise, as the subject is very broad, changing and complex.
Nevertheless, I would like to stress that, despite the benefits that electric vehicles can have on the environment, the best way to preserve it is to limit the number of vehicles and thus make maximum use of public transport, cycling or walking.
To continue this dossier on new mobilities, an article explaining the different types of electricity production (nuclear, coal mines, wind, solar, …) and linking this to new mobilities will be put online soon.