A New Hope?

Stinkers out of the cities – we drive electrically now. This could be the future credo of motorized private transport. But what does the eco-balance of electric cars really look like?

Electric cars – a good solution for better times and a cleaner environment? Photo: Fotolia-ferkelraggae-picturia, Montage: Haug

Electric cars – a good solution for better times and a cleaner environment? Photo: Fotolia-ferkelraggae-picturia, Montage: Haug

Exhaust affairs, driving bans and strict emission regulations have caught the Industry off-balance. To set themselves back on track, they increase their focus on automotive alternatives. A top candidate for better times is the electric car, which to a certain extent became an official hope carrier since the Electric Mobility Act (EmoG) came into force in June 12, 2015. Battery powered electric cars, so the public credo, have a sparkling clean life cycle assessment in comparison to diesel and gasoline. They do not emit local emissions and have a white vest in terms of harmful nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.
Looking at this vehicle concept under the microscope, however, shows that there’s no reason for euphoria.

The Ecological Potential of Electric Cars is Controversial

The scientific discourse on the ecological potential of electric vehicles is in full gear. Essentially, there are two aspects that cause controversy. The first concerns the life cycle assessment in the operating phase of an electric car. This would only be first class, if the power to charge the batteries came only from renewable energy. If, however, as is the case in Germany, mainly coal power is used, a surcharge on CO2 emissions is due. Another ecological mortgage are the batteries, which, for the European market, are produced especially in Japan and South Korea. Their production causes significant emissions of carbon dioxide.

Current Studies Focus on the Benefits of Electrics

But how many carbon dioxide equivalents are needed for producing a kilowatt-hour of storage capacity? And what does the balance look like, comparing electric cars and combustors oft he same size, considering total emissions of both, production and operation?

These studies are not conclusive truths. The current trend speaks for the electric car, though. A study presented by the research institute International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT),in January 2018, took a close look at about a dozen research projects, considering the effects of the production of lithium-ion batteries on the lifetime emissions of an electric car.

Elektrofahrzeuge könnten bei einem Ausbau der erneuerbaren Energie im Jahr 2030 rund 5,2 Millionen Tonnen CO2 vermeiden, so eine Studie. Foto: Fotolia - arneke

According to a study, electric vehicles could avoid around 5.2 million tons of CO2 if renewable energy were to grow by 2030.  Photo: Fotolia – arneke

Better Climate Balance After Three Years

Among other things, the study compares the life cycle assessments of an electric Nissan Leaf with a power of 30 kWh and a Peugeot 208 1.6 BlueHDi Active 5dr, ranked in the same class. According to the study, the electric car would have a better carbon footprint than the fuel-efficient diesel, after about three years. The rule of thumb is, that smaller batteries are less of a burden to the environment than large ones. If the range of the vehicle has high priority, this inevitably means larger batteries and thus more disadvantages for the environment.

Nevertheless, the ICCT scientists are convinced that electric cars are, considering their whole lifetime, significantly cleaner than internal combustion engines are – and indeed even if you have comparatively high carbon dioxide emissions for producing and charging the battery (175 kg CO2e / kWh) and the energy mix for charging the batteries has a high proportion of fossil energies.

The Electric Car Alone Cannot Meet the Climate Goals

Does the electric car have the makings of hope? This shoe, for now, is likely being still one size too big. The Freiburg Öko-Institut in a study concerned with ensuring the environmental benefits of electromobility, concludes that electric vehicles, together with a growth in renewable energies could avoid 5.2 million tons of CO2 in 2030. This would be a reduction in vehicle traffic emissions of about six percent. That’s a lot, but still too little to comply with the Paris Climate Agreement, which demands a reduction of about 40 percent for the transport sector. A sustainable transport policy must therefore also count on the interaction of the different drive concepts. In this automotive team, the electric car would have a regular place in any case.

Whether electric, diesel, CNG or another drive - the different concepts have to work together. Fotolia - Kamasigns

Whether electric, diesel, CNG or another drive – the different concepts have to work together. Fotolia – Kamasigns

The Different Drive Concepts Must Work Together

This also applies to hybrid vehicles that have an electric drive and a combustor on board. Also in the team would be the natural gas vehicle, which has been certified a gooenvironmental performance by the experts. Hydrogen vehicles, fuel cell and solar drive on the other hand, would only be an option in the long run. A fixture in the team remains the Otto engine. The turbocharged direct injectors meanwhile solve their particulate matter problem with the help of particulate filters, but ultimately cannot compete with the diesel in fuel efficiency. So the question remains about the current form of the auto-igniter, which is just as needed for achieving the EU’s climate protection goals as is Manuel Neuer in the goal of the German national team.

The Diesel will have Nitrogen Oxides under Control in the Future

In fact, the diesel has its problem areas in terms of nitric oxide under control. A test conducted by the ADAC in April 2018 proves that with SCR catalyst and demand-controlled injection of AdBlue equipped passenger cars already comply with the September 2019 Euro 6d TEMP emission standard. The German environmental aid (DUH) in turn attests two models excellent services in this sector. The exhaust aftertreatment system developed by Bosch, which among other things works with a special injection technology and intelligent temperature management, should undercut the nitrogen oxide limits announced for 2020 by a factor of 10.

Solutions for Older Diesel are in Demand

So the chances are good that the automotive industry will be doing their homework in the future to a good end. What is missing are practical solutions for here and now. Even newer diesel models with Euro 5 are on the worst way, soon to be outdated. On the political stage, however, the final word is not yet spoken about whether changes to software or hardware should lead to the goal. Interesting technical alternatives are definitely on the table. Companies like Twintec from the Rhenish Königswinter or the Bamberg-based Dr. med. Pley Environmental GmbH have developed retrofits based on urea solution (AdBlue), which Clean the Euro 5 diesel clean enough to meet the Euro 6 emission limits.

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