Electric vehicles: How clean is “green”?

Electric vehicles: How clean is “green”?

Electric vehicles have been making quite some hype around the globe in the last few years. The green mobility evangelists are advocating for the adoption of electric vehicles. However, the juice for the e-vehicles, electricity is majorly generated by burning coal, resulting in polluting the environment. Also, several other elements in the e-mobility ecosystem are tainted with pollutant emissions. In that case, how clean is the so-called green mobility?

The other day, I got two memes on my WhatsApp. I am sharing both here as it cranked the ignition behind writing this piece, more to ask questions than to provide any specific answers.

electric vehicle

Don’t get me wrong. I am not against electric mobility. I am for all forms of mobility that improve the air quality, lessen the pressure on precious resources and reduce the import bill.

Time to come clean?

On the occasion of the World EV Day on September 09, 2020, the CEO of Polestar, Thomas Ingenlathhad controversially said, “Electric cars are not clean”. Had not more pressing issues related to the pandemic taken precedence, in a normal year, this statement would have sent shockwaves down the spine of the EV lobby and world media would have created much noise around it.

Polestar is the performance electric vehicle brand owned by Volvo. In a formal statement the company went on to say, “…the truth is a little more complicated. Electric vehicles do offer a route to climate neutrality, but it takes more than just buying an EV to “go green.” The trouble is that car manufacturers have not been clear about the environmental impact of their products.”

To get into the logic behind this company statement, I got my hands on the “Polestar Lifecycle Assessment Report” of 2020 openly available on the internet. It is a report on some serious testing done with the Polestar 2 against the Volvo XC40. Two charts are true eye-openers. Am sharing both here…

electric vehicle

Source – Polestar Lifecycle Assessment Report – Carbon footprint of Polestar 2

As “Figure 1” shows, the total carbon footprint of an ICE XC40 over a lifetime of 200,000 kms stands at 58 tonnes of CO2 equivalents. Against that, an electric Polestar 2 operating on ‘global electricity mix’ stands at 50! It is actually more ecologically efficient to manufacture an ICE vehicle than an EV one, which is quite a revelation. Given that a dimensionally similar electric vehicle typically costs 40-50% more than an ICE one, the mind boggles on the very rationale behind choosing the former, for the cause of protecting the environment.

electric vehicle

Source – Polestar Lifecycle Assessment Report – Carbon footprint of Polestar 2

“Figure 2” throws up a more interesting factoid that it will take the Polestar 2 in the global electricity mix a whopping 112,000 kms to break-even with the XC40 on GHG emissions! This is truly amazing as well as alarming. One would have thought that an electric vehicle would have delivered from month one if not day one.

electric vehicles
Image: Skoda

Green or Blue? Or Blue-green?

We are not talking of algae here but energy sources that propel mobility. We keep talking of ‘green’ alternatives. Why not ‘blue’? Electricity is touted as green energy but all visual depictions of the same use the blue colour, be it badging or vehicle accents, or even graphics! Only the registration plate is in green. I believe the energy of the future should be both green and blue. When any energy source impacts the ground and all below it, it is green. When it impacts the air and all above it, it is blue. Hence, the feasible and sustainable energy choice of the future needs to be blue-green with equal focus on both aspects of impact. One cannot be sacrificed for the other.

Electric vehicles are theoretically much cleaner on paper vis-à-vis ICE vehicles. But as the Polestar report truthfully shares, the upstream aspect of this mobility is a culprit as of today. By upstream, I imply both manufacturing inputs as well as electricity generation.

electric vehicles

More batteries, more plastic…

Batteries take up too much of thermoplastics for the casings and cells. A University of Stuttgart report of 2017 questions the reduction of petrochemical use by just reducing the usage of fossil fuels while battery production keeps going up.

Most of the power used right now for battery manufacturing is coal-based. Some of the largest producers like China, Japan, and Korea use thermal power to run their hyper-plants.

Also, as the inherent weight of an EV is more than an ICE one of similar dimensions [due to the battery pack], a lot of light-weighting leads to increased use of thermoplastics and composites. One must remember the simple fact that an ICE vehicle keeps improving on its fuel efficiency as the fuel reserve in the tank keeps reducing; it is not so for an EV as the battery pack weight remains the same!

electric vehicles

Coal, coal everywhere…

India’s installed national power grid capacity as on 31.12.2020 is 375 GW of which only 36% is renewable. And this is the capacity. The current generation and usage data show that of a total generation of 1,598 TWh of electricity in FY2019, 79.8% was fossil-based. Only 17.3% was from renewable sources. It is expected that by 2029-30 this should go up to 44.7%. Till then…

electric vehicle

Source – Wikipedia; data from Central Electricity Authority, Ministry of Power, GoI

The National Electricity Plan 2018 claims the nation has surplus power generation capacity and there will no more non-renewable power projects apart from the fresh 50 GW coal-based projects [which are all PSU-run] of which 14 GW are in early-stage set-up to cover for the old 48 GW plants that could not comply with the “flue gas desulphurisation” norms to control pollution from the plants, meaning it is not ‘blue’ at all.

Coal-based power generation is neither ‘green’ as the more you mine, the more degradation of the ecology and eco-system, which is totally irreparable whatever the coal companies might tell you.

A CSE report states that our coal contains highash making the entire power generation process very wasteful.

Add to that the shocking fact that transmission and distribution losses account for a whopping 21% of all power generated, literally adding fuel to the fire!

Blood cobalt!

Another aspect of the battery that needs serious focus is the cobalt. Right now close to 50% of the 125,000 tonnes of cobalt mined every year is in the southern Democratic Republic of Congo. 60% of all cobalt mined is used in battery manufacturing. And like we know so well in the case of diamond mining, cobalt mining too does not adhere to any laws of employment and labour rights. Employing children from a very young age, most workers suffer from irreparable lung diseases due to pathetic working conditions and defiance of safety norms.

Very few manufacturers have agreed to share their “source” of cobalt so that they can be subject to transparent scrutiny.

Kumi Naidoo, Secretary-General of Amnesty at Nordic EV Summit 2019 in Oslo said, “Without radical changes, the batteries which power green vehicles will continue to be tainted by human rights abuses.”

So, not only is there an environmental aspect of any energy source; there exists an equally important human-rights aspect too that the battery makers have been conveniently turning a blind eye to.

solar energy electric vehicle

Hydrogen then? Or nuclear?

Well, theoretically this holds great potential as challenging battery electric mobility long as is ‘green’ in nature. Hydrogen is a zero-carbon fuel which on combustion in conventional IC engines, directly or blended with petrol or CNG, leaves behind water as a residue. It has the highest energy content of all gases at 120.7 kilojoules/gram.

Hydrogen is of three types – grey [from fossil fuels or coal], blue [from fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage], and green [from renewable sources]. 98% of the current 115 million tonnes of hydrogen used today across the world is grey. So, we are back to coal!!

Nuclear power has the issue of waste disposal and the threat of another Chernobyl or Fukushima.

electric vehicles

The answer my friend, lies in solar and wind!?

Seems so, as both sources are non-depleting, unless of course you are really worried about the life of the sun.

But then, what about the resource depletion and energy-source used to manufacture the photovoltaic cells or massive turbines? I am reminded of a gentleman from a telecom tower company commenting in a webinar that he soon realised he was not running a tower company but a power company!

There is nothing like “zero” emission or waste or carbon or residue in this world. As long as we use anyone resource and build an eco-system around it, we are negatively impacting the land, water, and sky. Just that our forefathers felt the guilt and went about trying to repair and replenish. Nowadays we leave that posturing to social media posts!

Also Read: Tesla and bitcoin: Playing “god”, bit by bit!

(Avik Chattopadhyay is co-creator of Expereal India. Also, he is the former head of marketing, product planning, and PR at Volkswagen India. He was associated with Maruti Suzuki, Apollo Tyres, and Groupe PSA as well.)

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Autofintechs.com. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.)

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