Thinking about electric vehicles

Electric vehicles reduce noise and local air pollution, such as nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and ground-level ozone, but do they simply relocate the carbon tire-tracks to fossil-fired power stations or are there benefits on the global scale?

Fundamentally, an electric engine can achieve 85 to 90% energy conversion efficiency, which contrasts starkly with the internal combustion engine, which can achieve at most 20%, requiring the conversion of oil-derived fuel (diesel or petroleum) into mechanical motion. So, there it might just be possible that electric vehicles could be greener, but only if the carbon tire-tracks are smaller when all energies and emissions are added into the equation.

Åsgeir Helland of Think Global AS (manufacturer of the Think City electric car), based in Snaroya, Norway, thinks so. He has carried out a “well-to-wheel” carbon dioxide analysis of the usage phase of electric vehicles compared with vehicles using an internal combustion engine. His study confirms that electric vehicles do indeed relocate the carbon emissions from the transport sector to the electricity sector. Of course, as electricity generation becomes increasingly based on renewables that will matter less.

Nevertheless, Helland’s research shows that urban driving leads to total carbon emission reductions from 30 to 95% depending on the country in question. “In rush hour the electric vehicle outperforms all other fossil-fuelled alternatives even if charged on electricity from hard coal,” says Helland.

Now, I know this blog is all “science part”, but here’s a bit of data just to rev up the date. At the fuel station, the associated well-to-tank emissions for the supply of 1 litre of fuel are almost 0.5 kg (478.5 g) for petroleum (gas) and 420 g for diesel. The carbon dioxide emissions per litre of fuel combusted are 2.4 and 2.7 kg for petroleum and diesel, respectively. The total emissions associated with consuming 1 l of fuel were 2.88 kg for gasoline (0.48 kg/l + 2.40 kg/l) and 3.08 kg for diesel (0.42 kg/l + 2.66 kg/l).

An electric vehicle, exemplified by the Th!nk City car, will reduce global carbon dioxide emissions compared with internal combustion engines. “This is true for all countries and urban driving patterns regardless of the electricity mixes analysed in this study,” Helland says, “For urban driving, the reductions amount to about 95% in Norway, 90% in Switzerland, 40 to 60% in the UK, and 30 to 50% in the Netherlands.

There are 215 million cars in the European Union with average emissions of some 160 grams per kilometre and related well-to-wheel emissions of 186 g/km. Replacing only 10% of the European car fleet would reduce the yearly carbon dioxide emissions to almost 50 million tonnes with a relatively modest increase in electricity generation requirements.

“The electric vehicle outperforms all internal combustion engine alternatives if charged on electricity from a renewable source,” concludes Helland, “Moving from a combustion engine to an electric engine for vehicles will be a necessary change to reduce the impacts of transport on climate change. The electric vehicle’s environmental benefits are significant.”

But, then he would say that…

What are you thoughts, are electric vehicles an environmental panacea or do we need a paradigm shift in attitudes towards transport?

Research Blogging IconÅsgeir Helland (2009). Well-to-wheel CO2 analysis of electric and ICE vehicles: are global CO2 emission reductions possible? Int. J. Global Warming, 1 (4), 432-442

  • Energy storage key to electric car plan, committee says (
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5 thoughts on “Thinking about electric vehicles”

  1. Why is it that conspiracy theorists always post the longest comments? Certainly the first half of your post is of interest, but please note, I am reporting on what someone else said, not making claims pertaining to my own views, so please keep the ad hominem attacks to yourself.

    The second half of your post, well that just looks like the typical fascist, denialist claptrap we’ve seen a million times before. I don’t care much for Al Gore myself, but do you you really think thousands of scientists who have looked at the data ever so slightly more closely than the rest of us are lying about anthropogenic global warming, the CO2 changes simply do not come after the temperature rise? And, as for concluding with mention of “God”, how did I know that was coming? Sheesh.

  2. Wrong.
    I have been employed in the electric power business since completing college some 40 years ago.

    Less than 5 % of the electricity generated in America is currently from renewable sources. Coal generates almost 60% with most of the remainder by oil, natural gas, nuclear and those Hydro-Dams you folks want to remove.

    Fossile and nuclear power plants are about 30% efficient in the conversion of heat energy to Mechanical and then electrical. Line losses resulting transmission and distribution are also a factor.

    More bad news. With the exception of “Mine Mouth Generating Plants” most coal is transported by rail burning even more fuel and further reducing over all efficiencie

    Add the environmental impact of construction and operation of power plants, mining, transportation of fuels, production and disposal of battries and electric cars are even less attractive.

    When all factors are considered electric cars are not anymore efficient than gas powered cars.

    Battery operation of heavy vehicles (80,000 pound trucks) is not even feasable.

    If you want to really save energy pass a law against burning natural gas to generate electricity. A high efficiency natural gas fired boiler or furnace is 95% efficient. If you produce 100,000 BTU’s inthe furnace you lose only 5%. If you burn 100,000 BTU’s in a power plant using natural gas to generate electricity to heat a home you lose more than 70,000 BTU,s in the total process.

    This is extremely wasteful. Using modern technology with Precipitators, Bag-Houses and FGD Scrubbers you can burn coal with minimal environmental impact and save natural gas for efficient, clean home heating. By the way – FGD Scrubbers combine a pulverized lime stone slurry with the power plant flue product to form CO2, water and Gypsum that is sold to produce wall board and cement thereby off-setting the cost of the FGD Scrubbers.

    When you buy a car today it is not your Grand Father’s car. Today’s gas powered autos burn unleaded gas and produce less than 1 % of the polution of the cars of yester year.

    And please do not try that nonsense about CO2 being a polutant. CO2 is “plant food”. It is neither a polutant nor is it toxic merely because Al – soon to be the first Globel Warming Billionaire – Gore says so.

    Furthermore, if you examine the graphs cited by the globel warming proponents, the increase in CO2 always FOLLOWS warming. Their own data and graphs illustrate this fact that warming causes increases in CO2 not the reverse.

    Suffice it to say that the glabal warming is a hoax.. This scam financially supports thousands phoney professors, scientists and businesses subsidized by political hacks.

    This would all be a pathetic joke were it not for the fact that environmental extremest movement has been a major cause in the demise in the once great American industrial base that provided the greatest standard of living in the history of the world.

    I say to all the environmental wacko, business hating, socialist malcontents that want to “kill the goose that laid the golden egg”, be careful what you wish for.

    If you succeed you or your children will wake up in a very scary world. A world far different from the one that was bought for you with the hard work of others and blood of brave soldiors ( that you probably dispise as much as business men).

    This brave new world without a prosperous America will not have to worry about auto exhaust fumes, because only the rich, the powerful and the ruling commisars will have cars, or warm dry homes, or medical care and wonder drugs, or all the other conveniences you take for granted.

    But not to worry all the wonderful people you probably admire and look up to will come to the rescue. The Billionaire Movie Makers and the Millionaire singers, actors, and ball players. You know, the people who realy care. I’m sure they will give up their private jets, limo’s, and multiple mansions. Gee, they are already doing their part with public service announcements and concerts to encourage us (the little people) to get our junkers off the road and ride the bus so we don’t slow down their Mercedes. Sure these are the people who will save us from those big bad corporations and CEO’s.

    Well I guess I won’t be driving that golf cart to work because you are winning and there is not going to be any work to drive to. Go ahead and celebrate your victory. Your environmental dream is coming true before your eyes. The tipping point, the point of no return has already passed.

    Your beloved Left Wing Liberal Democrats have controled the popular media for 50 years. With the exception of an occaisional republican speed bump they controlled both houses of congress for 60 of the last 70 years.

    Now you have all the power and you are using it ruthlessly as usual. I have to admit I grudgingly admire your side. You have kept your eye on the prize, stayed on message, divided the opposition, and nevered wavered.

    You have won. Just sit back a watch your dream come to fruition. God help us all. Not “Mother Earth” but the real God. You Know the God we turned our back on.


  3. I’m not a scientist, but a graphic designer working in advertising. I am green in my values and havebpersonal goals in reducing my carbon footprint more but the cost of going green has been to high without government subsidies or tax breaks on green technologies ie EVs, solar panels for the home to home insulation etc.
    I have often pondered whether an EV would, as raised in the article, just relocate the carbon emissions from the oil field to the coal mine and the coal fired electricity power station. Having read this article and others over the last two years I agree that a “smart” electricity grid fed with renewable energy is what my country, Australia, really does need.
    In conjunction with this “smart grid” if the government could deliver tax breaks for EVs or subsidies as Mitsubishie Australia has recently put to the Federal Australian government then even if we were stuck driving at 20km per hour during peak hour traffic… stop… start… on a three hour daily commute to the city from the suburbs at least the climate wouldn’t be affected only our sanity.
    Well done with this web site
    regards malcolm

  4. I’m interested in your opinions about the EV role for the grobal warming.

    In your article, the reference ‘Well-to-wheel CO2 analysis of electric and ICE vehicles: are global CO2 emission reductions possible? Int. J. Global Warming, 1 (4), 432-442’ is not available for me. If possible, could you send it to me through e-mail.

    And let’s talk about more details…

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