We find ourselves at a crossroads where environmental awareness and technological advancement intersect amid economic inflation, global warming and affordability challenges. Due to financial constraints on consumers, governments are decreasing their environmental commitments.
In Canada, recent measures to reduce the cost of fuel-oil-based home heating include a reduction in the carbon tax. Gasoline prices continue to rise, global uncertainty will continue to apply upward pressure on price. The average vehicle produces 3-4 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, so it’s no wonder that the future of transportation is increasingly dominated by the surge of passenger electric vehicles (EVs).
As the wheels of electrification gain momentum, the threat of rolling utility black outs loom across Canada and North America. Even in the Province of Manitoba, where electricity generating capacity has been taken for granted for a long time, due to the abundance of hydro-electricity, electrical capacity is at its limit, and resolution is not a short term reality. It requires a long term plan with long term investment, which the effects of global warming causing drier summers, make all the more urgent.
The threat of running out of power is more than a headline to catch attention, it is a real possibility. Questions arise regarding the sustainability of electrification both in terms of the environment and energy consumption.
This blog post will explore the complex considerations surrounding the electrification of vehicles and to a lesser degree, building heating systems, ranging from the impact on local utility power systems, to the carbon footprint involved in the production of EVs and their use.
#1: Local Utility Power System Overload
The electrification of vehicles and building heating systems is posing a considerable challenge to local utility power systems; they’re not designed to handle the electrical demands of EVs and other electrification initiatives such as converting buildings to electric heat. The current electrical infrastructure at the street level is decades old and is struggling to accommodate the increasing demand for electricity, especially during peak times. Considerable increases in electrical demand over recent years is leading to concerns about the remaining available generating and distribution capacity in utility power systems.
While smart metering and demand control can enable EVs to be charged during off-peak times, the peak electrical demand is likely to continue to rise with faster recharging rates and more EVs on the market and will likely outweigh supply.
This raises concerns about the capacity of existing power grids and whether local utilities can handle the load without compromising stability.
This dilemma becomes even more pressing when we consider the electrification of heating in buildings, such as residential heat pumps. The interplay between the power demands of EVs and building heat electrification is critical to achieving sustainable energy consumption and de-carbonization, and is not easily resolved through distributed initiatives such as solar power, which, without storage, do not produce power when power is needed for the developing electrification needs.
#2 Electric Vehicle Carbon Footprint and Embodied Energy
When EVs are discussed, it is easy to focus on their considerable benefit in the elimination of 'at the tail pipe emissions'. However, their overall environmental impact must also be considered.
Volvo's Carbon Footprint Report sheds light on the environmental impact of both electric vehicles (EVs) and their gasoline-powered equivalent vehicles. The report provides insights into the amount of CO2 emitted during the production and usage of the Volvo C40 and XC40 Recharge, as well as their equivalent internal combustion engine (ICE) gasoline C40 and XC40 models. It considers the embodied energy within these vehicles and explores whether the transition to EVs is as eco-friendly as it seems.
One interesting fact from the report is that the break-even point between an EV and an ICE in terms of tons of carbon dioxide depends on the electricity generation energy source used to recharge the EV. This break-even point ranges from 49,000km to 110,000km.
Although the manufacturing process contributes a portion of a vehicle's total emissions, battery production results in 70% higher greenhouse gas emissions compared to an ICE vehicle. Thus, when comparing EVs and ICEs, the long-term impact should be taken into consideration.
The Volvo report also highlights the importance of considering the entire carbon lifecycle of a vehicle. It's interesting to note that while lithium used in batteries may not directly emit carbon, the extraction, refinement and transportation of these materials across the globe using diesel-powered heavy equipment, trucks, trains and ships introduces a paradoxical element into the clean energy equation. These emissions must be compared to those from gasoline extraction and use. It's easy to overlook the embodied carbon content of the raw materials that make up the batteries used in electric vehicles.
#3 Regional Disparities and Environmental Impact
The debate around electric vehicles (EVs) is complex due to regional variations in electricity generation methods. For example, Manitoba's hydroelectric power generation is greener than other methods used in North America and the world. This has a significant impact on the break-even point for carbon dioxide emissions. However, the colder climate in Manitoba poses challenges to EVs, affecting their range and energy efficiency during winter.
Experience shows that the range of battery powered EVs can be reduced by up to 50% during cold weather, in part due to the heating demands of the vehicle's cabin and also the battery chemical process.
This skews the break-even point, even though Manitoba's electricity generation is greener than other provinces. This raises questions about whether the environmental benefits of EVs hold in colder regions of North America, such as Alberta, which use less environmentally friendly power generation methods. As a user of an EV, it's easy to ignore the source of the power used to recharge the vehicle's battery.
Manitoba is a small market compared to other parts of Canada and North America. Therefore, our focus might be better directed at electrification of building heat, rather than EVs, as a way to reduce our overall carbon emissions. Simple market economics will prevail, yet the Federal government's recent initiative to mandate that all new vehicle be electric by 2035 is a one size fits all approach, that without technology advancement will not work well in colder regions.
#4 Electric Vehicles: A Stop Gap or the Ultimate Solution?
The current technology used in electric vehicles (EVs) involves batteries to store energy. Clearly battery technology is advancing, but are battery electric vehicles (BEVs) just a temporary solution until alternative technologies, such as hydrogen fuel cells, become more mature?
Government initiatives such as policy and financial incentives will help transform, create innovation and cause advancement in technology. This comes with both environmental and economic benefits to Canada.
While EVs have brought significant performance improvements over gasoline vehicles, some argue that these improvements are just a marketing tactic to distract from the challenges of owning an EV. Without question, technological innovation takes time and needs to appeal to successfully transform the markets.
Moving forward is impossible without innovation, and the rapid evolution of electric vehicles is unquestionably driving this innovative momentum.
Currently, Lithium-ion BEVs dominate the market, and their battery technology continues to advance. But it can be argued that Lithium-ion battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are a temporary solution until other technologies such as solid-state batteries or hydrogen fuel cells become more advanced and offer a more sustainable solution in the long run. After all, the widespread adoption of gasoline vehicles in the past has helped to develop internal combustion engines (ICE) to the levels of efficiency and lower emissions that we enjoy today.
Without question, EVs have revolutionized the passenger vehicle market. They have presented drivers with super car performance from regular passenger vehicles. Companies like Tesla have been instrumental in changing the market forever. Technological advancements have also contributed to enhancing vehicle safety, reducing driver fatigue, and improving overall driving experience. However, this revolution stands at the intersection of hope and skepticism.
The investment required to completely electrify our day to day lives is significant and in the meantime power system overload is a reality. The time required to construct new generating stations and local utility infrastructure requires years, maybe decades. Is electrification too far ahead of the infrastructure necessary for its support?
It's important to remember that everything we do has a carbon footprint, and this includes electric vehicles (EVs) and the construction of new generating stations to support electrification. We need to be aware of regional disparities in generation methods and local climate when considering the carbon footprint of EVs and a one size fits all approach is not optimal.
Additionally, lithium, a major component in the manufacture of batteries, is a finite resource, and its extraction from the earth has an environmental cost like the extraction and refinement of gasoline products. The looming question of whether the current stock of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) is a temporary solution adds complexity to this issue and without government policies and incentives, is likely to limit uptake.
As we navigate this transformative period, it’s crucial to engage in open dialogue and continually challenge manufacturers to constantly develop new technologies, and challenge building owners to look at other ways to reduce their reliance of carbon-based fuels to heat buildings. It's clear that investment in our utility generating and distribution systems is lagging behind the advancement of electrification and this must be addressed to enable our electrified economy to continue to grow.