In recent years, the need to shift towards more environmentally friendly options for our modes of transport has become extremely important. Climate change and the impact of petrol and diesel cars contributing to greenhouse gas emissions has seen a move in the market towards electric vehicle use, but are electric cars better for the environment?
While the concept of an electric car has been available to buy since the early 2000s, the introduction of electric cars to the domestic market has been a more recent trend with Jaguar, Ford and Tesla amongst the manufacturers creating EV specific lines.
The UK government has announced its intention to become a net-zero emissions economy by 2050, and we all have a part to play to achieve this goal.
Earlier electric vehicle models came under intense scrutiny from critics, due to manufacturing concerns, battery sourcing and overall efficiency, but recent advancements in technology and the release of EV’s into the wider domestic market have seen these fears dissipate.
But the question still remains, are electric cars better for the environment?
To answer this, we need to look at the components of an electric vehicle, and the comparisons between EV’s and traditional fuel-based vehicles.
First things first, any product that is manufactured by humans will have some detrimental effects on the environment, whether it’s the materials they are made from, the way they are sources, or how they are produced.
However, electric cars are designed to be less damaging to the environment than traditional vehicles, from the way they are built, to how they run.
While traditional cars guzzle petrol or diesel made from fossil fuels and emit vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere - which is a huge contributor to climate change - EV’s are battery-powered, so no harmful emissions are produced. Great news for the planet!
The lack of fumes from the exhaust also means no other pollutants are released into the atmosphere. Petrol and diesel vehicles emit sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other nasty gases, all of which contribute to climate change and are detrimental to our health.
Traditional vehicles also emit plenty of noise pollution, all of which is reduced when driving an electric car.
While electric vehicles are not emission-free, on average EV’s emit three times less carbon dioxide than petrol or diesel cars. This statistic takes into account the impact of driving, electricity generation used to power the EV and the manufacturing production.
When asking are electric cars better for the environment, it’s important to look at the whole picture, starting with production and sourcing of materials for the build.
At present, the production of an electric car doesn’t differ too much from that of a traditional vehicle. Many of the same raw materials are used and transported in the same way, and assembly isn’t too dissimilar.
The main difference between an EV and a traditional vehicle is that electric cars don’t have an engine, they have a lithium-ion battery. Currently, this is an electric vehicle’s biggest contributor to carbon emissions. However, where EV’s create some emissions during the manufacturing process, this is balanced out later in their lifecycle.
The creation of electric car batteries contain a few materials sourced from nature, including nickel and cobalt. The batteries are often built in countries such as China and Japan, where electric generation often relies on fossil fuels like coal, meaning there is sadly some CO2 emission release from their creation.
Currently around 50% of the emissions from making an electric vehicle battery come from the electricity used to produce them.
It is hoped that as technology continues to advance, the production of batteries can move away from using fossil fuels for assembly, but there is a way to go in the wider world before we reach net-zero emissions.
In more positive news, while the emissions created during manufacturing are still a problem, within two years of owning an electric car, the carbon emissions will be balanced out, unlike traditional petrol or diesel vehicles, which will continue to emit carbon dioxide for the rest of their lifecycle.
A great example of emissions balancing out is in the instance of the Nissan Leaf, which takes under two years to re-balance its emissions deficit once it’s on the road. The Nissan Leaf emits three times less carbon dioxide in its lifetime than a petrol or diesel car in the UK.
The batteries that power an EV, lithium-ion, are essentially a larger and more powerful smartphone battery. They can run in a car for roughly 15-20 years, depending on the circumstances, and while they currently create emissions during production, their lifecycle as a working vehicle creates nothing, making them carbon neutral.
The electric car’s entire lifespan must be taken into account to determine are electric cars better for the environment, so what happens when an EV battery reaches the end of its lifespan?
There are two environmentally-friendly options when it comes to the end of a batteries life. Once a battery is no longer capable of running a car, it can be recycled for energy storage in a home or workplace.
Renewable energy such as solar power can be stored in former EV batteries, which is great news for the environment, and the national grid.
Eventually, as technology advances, we could see the factories that create new EV batteries use defunct EV batteries to manufacture them, talk about reuse and recycle!
Some EV manufacturers, including Nissan, have launched battery recycling incentives, giving old EV batteries a new life as storage systems in homes.
Like anything, batteries can’t be used forever. Eventually, the material they are created from will run out. There isn’t a process for recycling the precious metals found inside an EV battery just yet, but once EV battery recycling becomes more efficient, the need to extract raw materials from the ground to create them will reduce. This means in future, EV will become even better for the environment.
A halfway point between traditional petrol and diesel cars and electric vehicles, hybrids have a battery and a fuel engine.
While completely electric cars are better for the environment, hybrids produce fewer emissions than a conventional car. Although hybrids may not be emission-free, they certainly go a step towards helping to reduce climate change.
We can’t determine are electric cars better for the environment than traditional fuel vehicles without looking at the impact of EV charging on the national grid.
In an ideal world, one which we are working towards, both at-home EV chargers and public charging stations will be powered by renewable energy sources, such as solar power.
This shift to renewable energy as the source for EV charging will see electric vehicles be all but emission-free, which is great news for the planet!
In the mean-time, while many homes still rely on the national grid to provide energy for their home, EV owners can become more energy efficient by undertaking smart charging.
Smart-charging is a step EV owners can take to reduce their environmental impact, and reduce their energy bill if they rely on the national grid for their energy needs.
The concept of smart charging means EV owners can benefit from lower charging costs if they charge their electric car at times when the national grid is in less demand.
Smart charging comes into effect during the late evening and overnight when the demand on the grid has reduced and the electricity supplier has reduced its tariff.
Smart charging benefits EV owners who can take advantage of the lower electricity rate and reduce the strain on the national grid.
While there is some way to go during the manufacturing stage of producing an electric car, research and evidence show there is a substantial long-term benefit to owning and driving an EV.
With further advancements in technology and electricity production no longer relying on fossil fuels, electric cars will see their carbon footprint reduce further, meaning electric cars are better for the environment.
Switching to an EV is a smart choice for the environment, and can save you money. If you have started your journey to EV, or are already an electric car owner and want to discover your at-home charging options, get in touch with our team today.
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