Electric vehicles allow owners to drive almost pollution free. However, that is only the case when they're charged using electricity generated from renewable energy sources like wind and solar.
Electric vehicles (EVs) are charged through electricity provided straight from the grid. Their use can indirectly result in carbon emissions if they are recharged in an area powered by non-renewable energy sources such as coal. Unless you're charging your EV with power from renewable energy sources, some of the environmental benefits of owning an EV may be losti.
Your electricity supply makes a difference
The Victorian Department of Transport recently found that an EV charged through Victoria's current grid electricity is likely to produce more greenhouse emissions than a traditional Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicle. The total amount of EV total emissions must take into account the emissions created during the generation of the electricity used to charge them. As such, EVs used in areas like Victoria are powered by brown coal electricity, and can actually have a bigger environmental footprint than a comparable ICE vehicleii,iii.
Research conducted in the US into the environmental impact of EVs also supports the Victorian Department of Transport's findings. An EV driven in an area of the country powered by 'clean energy' was found to be accountable for significantly less greenhouse emissions than the same car driven in a coal-powered regioniv,v. The research also found that the potential to reduce carbon dioxide emissions through the use of EVs was only significant in areas powered by natural gas, nuclear, or renewable sources such as hydroelectricityiii.
Owners and prospective buyers of EVs should also take into consideration the environmental footprint of the car's actual production. While energy is used to manufacture all cars - electric or otherwise - manufacturing an EV can be more energy-intensive than manufacturing an ICE vehicle. The raw materials and energy used to produce the car's lithium-ion battery can result in up to double the environmental impact during the manufacturing process when compared to a conventional carvi.
Finding clean energy sources for EVs
The Australian Government's Renewable Energy Target (RET) scheme aims to ensure that at least 20 per cent of energy comes from renewable sources by 2020vii. Currently, 13.1 per cent of electricity produced in Australia comes from renewable sources such as wind, solar and hydroviii. As Australia's energy mix diversifies to include more energy from renewable sources, the viability and environmental benefits of owning an EV is likely to increase.
To find out whether clean energy is currently available in your area, or to check if there are any renewable energy plants currently planned for construction in your area, use the Clean Energy Council's searchable renewable energy map.
You also have the option of installing solar panels on your property to offset the amount of carbon used to charge your EV and avoid reliance on electricity from the grid. Some major Australian electricity suppliers also offer the option to pay for a portion of your electricity supply to be derived from renewable sources, or for accredited green energy to be added to the grid on your behalf if you live in an area that does not currently support green energy supplyix.
Scientists and vehicle engineers are also working on new technologies to increase the viability of EVs. For example, fast-charging super-capacitors could become a sustainable alternative to lithium ion batteries, as they may result in longer lasting, more energy-efficient electric cars once a low-cost method of producing them is foundx.
Driving an electric vehicle - with no tailpipe emissions - is a great way to keep the air cleaner in our congested cities. Electric vehicles are also more efficient at converting energy into motion, particularly in stop-start drivingxi. Unlike cars with internal combustion engines, by selecting the right source of electricity for charging, EVs allow owners to reduce or almost eliminate the pollution from driving. With increasing renewable energy input into our power grids, the environmental benefits of an electric vehicle will only improve.