A joint project by BMW and the Technical University of Munich put forward a new slant on the debate for electric cars. Michael Taylor reports
Study finds EV emissions can be higher than those of petrol cars
Countries with dirty energy supplies will not benefit from electric cars, startling new research from BMW and the Technical University of Munich has revealed. While the study found that electric cars that charge up on wind or hydro electric power grids emitted virtually no emissions on the whole, it found that EVs in fossil-fuelled countries often produced more emissions than using conventional cars.
Electric car advocates point to them as zero-emission vehicles, but the Munich research investigated their CO2 emissions from the stations where their charging electricity is generated. It used a formula to divide the total power-station emissions of each country, then calculated the electric vehicle emissions by the kilowatts of charge they needed. The research was a joint project between the car company and the university on mega city development. While it was focused on Europe, it found that, in coal-dependent nations such as Poland and Russia, the environmental cost of EVs was more than 130g of CO2 per kilometer - and could even spike to 150g.
With their heavy reliance on coal, BMW insists any electric car in China or Australia would make its source power station emit similar or worse CO2 numbers than Poland. "Australia and China would be somewhere between 130 and 150g of CO2, because of the heavy use of coal with no real prospects of any other fuel in the future," says Andreas Welter, part of BMW's electrified drive system strategy team.
"Poland is probably the worst in Europe and Norway is the best, because it's all hydro-electricity." The data is sobering for those pushing for publicly funded electric charging stations. Even a luxury brand like BMW already has 1 and 3 Series petrol- and diesel-powered models with combined city/motorway emissions below 130g, while Fiat's entire fleet average is just 127.8g. "It highlights that we need to get away from fossil fuels, not just for cars but for all energy production," Welter argues.
"The energy producers have to deal with how they want to fuel their power, and nuclear is not the overall solution for everybody in the long term because it still has a by-product. "All the regions that use their own coal for electrical production will be the worst. The USA will be more or less on par with Europe's total value, but Australia will be poor, and China will be poor." BMW is, nevertheless, putting plenty of its corporate eggs into the electric car basket, and has confirmed its all-electric MegaCity concept car, with its breakthrough carbon-fibre body, will be on sale in 2013.
"We will have to reduce [emissions] by 25 per cent by 2020 and we won't stop working, even if electric cars don't solve emissions from electricity production," Welter says. "Local emissions were not tremendously important after catalytic converters and diesel particulate filters became widespread, but hotspots are gaining in significance in megacities, with particulates and oxides of nitrogen. "The big gains in individual vehicles are offset by the large number of vehicles these cities have in certain areas and the local emissions from vehicles have greater influence in megacities because they use shorter trips." (Cars not properly warmed up give off higher emissions.)
Acknowledging that EVs have less on-board energy efficiency than conventional cars, Welter suggests that, while electric cars would be expensive initially, their costs would come down over time to be on par with their internal combustion cousins. "At the beginning, electric vehicles will be very expensive to have and to use. A garage of your own will be indispensible in the beginning, but there will be other infrastructure after time.
"In the foreseeable future, there will be a break-even point where electric vehicles will become even cheaper for customers than conventional cars. Internal combustion engine sales will continue to grow until 2020-30, but by 2020 the proportion of electric registrations will be between five to 15 per cent."