Resilience in the transition to low (zero) emissions vehicles

Low carbon fuels can decarbonise the existing vehicle fleet, buying time to invest in the infrastructure to support the optimum combination of hybrid and BEVs.

Robin Nelson
Consulting Editor, Decarbonisation Technology

Viewed : 2009

Article Summary

COP26 calls for the acceleration of actions over the next decade to stay below a maximum average global increase of 2ËšC and keep the 1.5ËšC target in sight. The transition to zero emissions vehicles (ZEVs) is one such action. In their 2022 action plan, The Zero Emission Vehicles Transition Council (ZEVTC) aims to accelerate the global transition to ZEVs by making them accessible, affordable, and sustainable in all regions by 2030 (ZEVTC, 2021). But will we ever achieve a zero emissions vehicle?

Perhaps the most common definition of a ZEV is a vehicle that produces zero exhaust emissions (CO2 and lower amounts of pollutants such as nitrous oxides and particulate matter). The problem is that such a definition is incomplete as it does not account for emissions during the production of the energy carrier used to power the vehicle or during the production of the vehicle. >From a climate perspective, this is a serious omission.

Expanding the definition to include emissions from the production of the energy carrier would lead to a ZEV being defined as “a vehicle that has been powered using a renewable electricity supply over the operating lifetime of the vehicle”. This definition includes battery electric vehicles (BEVs), fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), and direct hydrogen-powered vehicles when the hydrogen is produced from electrolysis using renewable electricity (green hydrogen).

However, given that in 2020 there were no regions of the world where the electricity supply was fully renewable, such a definition seems to be full of future promise (see Figure 1).

Carbon emissions from electricity production
In the recent COP26, the tensions on the issue of phasing down coal power are important in this context:
- China is one of the largest markets for electric vehicles, but coal power constitutes 60% of the installed electricity generation capacity in 2021.
- Although India is making progress in the move to renewable power, coal power comprises 55.8% of installed power capacity in 2021 (IEA, 2021). D’Cunha reported that in 2018, 31 million homes in India were still without electricity (D’Cunha, 2018). Around 700 million people in India gained access to electricity between 2000 and 2018, and in March 2019 the Government of India declared it had achieved the full electrification of all households except those that refused access (IEA, 2021).
- In 2021, over 640 million Africans (40%) do not yet have access to electricity (African Development Bank, 2021). In sub-Saharan Africa, a lack of electrification means that renewables will not displace a significant share of fossil-based energy resources before 2050 (DNV, 2021).
- While EVs in China, India, and some African cities are important in the fight to end local air pollution, they should not be considered ZEVs unless the emissions from coal power stations are abated using carbon capture and storage or usage technologies.

Carbon emissions during vehicle production
When CO2 emissions are considered over the entire life-cycle of the vehicle, the term ZEV is even more of a misnomer. Volvo states that emissions during production of a Volvo XC40 with an ICE amount to 17 tonnes, whilst the C40 Recharge (BEV) version produces 25 tonnes of CO2, including 7 tonnes from the manufacture of the battery (This is money, 2021).

Many automotive manufacturers are working to reduce emissions during manufacturing of their vehicles, for instance:
- By converting to renewable energy for the production of all components and for assembly of the vehicles.
- By increasing the share of recyclable materials (metals, plastics, glass) in their vehicles.
- Reusing EV batteries in lower demand applications as well as funding R&D on the recycling of battery materials.

Emissions from mining, refining, and production of the materials would also need to be eliminated for the vehicle to be zero emissions on a life-cycle basis. A lithium-ion battery would typically use 8 kg of lithium, 35 kg nickel, 20 kg manganese, and 14 kg cobalt (Castelvecchi, 2021). The proposed lithium mine at Thacker Pass USA is expected to produce 60,000 tonnes of lithium and emit 152,713 tonnes of CO2 annually (Bosler, 2021). Mining 8 kg of lithium will release 20 kg CO2 which, although very low, is not zero.

From a global perspective, a ZEV would be better defined as a low emissions vehicle (LEV). Instead of focusing solely on BEVs, LEVs could include vehicles fuelled by hydrogen and plug in-hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs). For at least the next two decades, self-generating or mild hybrid vehicles (HEVs) using the latest generation of internal combustion engine (ICE), when fuelled by certified renewable low carbon liquid fuels, can also make an important contribution in countries or regions lacking a renewable electricity supply.

The International Council for Clean Transport (ICCT) too readily dismiss PHEVs, as “given current driving behaviour they are not a very low GHG solution” (ICCT, 2021). This is in relation to reported behaviours in which drivers of PHEVs “rely too much on the gasoline engine for this pathway to be a long-term climate solution”.
If we consider the need for a rapid and accelerated transition to LEVs globally, it is imperative we learn from initial experiences with new technologies. A campaign to educate and support PHEV drivers is likely to be more effective than simply dismissing the PHEV as an option. Investment to install more EV charging points should overcome one of the main issues, that of finding a convenient charging point, a commonly reported concern for both PHEV and BEV drivers. Furthermore, the latest generation of PHEVs have batteries that can cover 100 km in electric mode. The European Road Transport Research Advisory Council (ERTRAC) points out that “the negative impacts of making possibly wrong decisions too early, are significant”.

Europe is playing a leading role in the transition of road transport. The EU encourages car makers to increase sales of EVs through a regulation that limits the average CO2 emissions allowed for the vehicles sold in a given year. The current limit (allowance) is 95 gCO2/km and a heavy penalty is imposed on car makers that exceed the limit (European Commission, 2009). The EU is considering reducing this allowance to zero by 2035. In addition, several European countries (and California) have announced bans on new sales of ICEVs (see Figure 2). The mainstream car manufacturers have responded to these strong regulatory signals by extending their range with BEVs and some have dropped ICEVs from their range.

Test assumptions to build resilience in the transition
However, a successful transition (with success defined as a real reduction in life-cycle carbon emissions) relies on a number of assumptions, none of which are predetermined across all the EU countries:

- Accelerated investment in charging infrastructure for EVs is sufficient to meet demand and overcome fears of ‘range anxiety’. Roadside and pavement (sidewalk) EV charging infrastructure should take into consideration the needs of pedestrians and cyclists as well as the motorist.

    Accelerated investment in renewable electricity supply can satisfy the increasing demand from the transition to electric vehicles (both BEVs and PHEVs, together termed EVs) as well as the decarbonisation of energy for industrial processes, commercial and domestic buildings.

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