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When Electric Cars Cross Over (From a CO2 Standpoint)

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Interesting video above on a study from Volvo about when, from a total production and use point of view, its electric cars become less of an overall emissions burden than their most-equivalent internal combustion cars (Volvo’s own report on it, in pdf form, is here). The gist of it is that EV cars are less of an emissions burden in the long run, but the point at which they become so may be later than you think, and will depend on where you live, how you drive and how you get your electricity in general.

Which… yes? This finding, if accurate, is not a huge surprise for me. I don’t expect EV cars to be magical creatures without carbon and other environmental burdens. That said, some points popped up in the video are relevant to me: ICE cars are close to being as efficient as they can be, from an environmental point of view, while electric vehicles are only at the beginning of their efficiency journey; power grids across the world are getting cleaner and will continue to do so over time; and there are local benefits to EVs (cleaner air, etc) even if the larger-scale benefits are not a great in the immediate time frame.

There’s also a benefit which is not mentioned in this video but which is not trivial for me from a philosophical point of view, which is reducing my contribution to propping up various petrochemical regimes and organizations, both foreign and domestic. Every little bit counts in this regard, if you ask me.

All of which is to say that we’re still in the early days of the electric vehicle conversion, and I have reasonable faith that things will get better from here. And in the meantime, the next car we get, barring an immediate emergency purchase, is still going to be an electric one. I’m looking forward to it.

— JS

By John Scalzi

I enjoy pie.

48 replies on “When Electric Cars Cross Over (From a CO2 Standpoint)”

I was thinking the other day how nice living in Seattle would be without the incessant background noise from traffic. This afflicts the city and state parks, which are often not big enough to create noise buffers.

As someone who has owned an EV for almost 3 years now, I have followed this debate for some time. Mostly it is motivated by the fossil fuel industry and their minions and often they grossly exaggerate their claims of how bad EVs are. There are issues with the production of EVs and some manufacturers (like Tesla) are trying to address these by doing things like using less of certain types of chemicals in their battery production but regardless, EVs are better for the environment.

Volvos report assumes that the battery is recylced. Current research shows that modern batteries will likely last for several houndred thousand kilometers and then will still be useful as immobile power storage.
The next issue i see is that the lifetime of a modern BEV can be 2-3 times that of an ICE car, making the initial CO2 costs from even smaller in comparison.
Rory does an ok job to paint a bigger picture, it’s still to small ;)

That report doesn’t mention how they calculated the use-phase emissions from ICE vehicles. Many such studies have used tailpipe emissions only. When you include the emissions from extracting, refining, and transporting gasoline or diesel, the numbers look even worse for ICE vehicles.

Did you know, for example, that 40% of global shipping is fossil fuels being moved from place to place? Yep, nearly half of those hard-to-decarbonize giant ships will be decarbonized for free once we decarbonize everything else.

There’s also the issue of where the power-generation emissions are emitted.
It’s nice to reduce the amount of automobile exhaust in my neighborhood.

I’ve wondered what the environmental burden of a new car is–the steel/aluminum in the body and components, the plastics, all the shipping involved in moving parts around, (cars are sourced from world-wide parts these days), and everything else involved. How long does it take for a new EV’s impact to equal that of holding onto the existing ICE vehicle whose envionmental impact is a sunk cost?

Picking up (turning over?) my new Nissan Leaf tomorrow. Been puzzling over a lot of this stuff since I bought my last car, when I first realistically considered electric but ended up buying a tiny and fuel efficient ICE (due to the immaturity at the time of both the electric car industry and my buying power). An interesting post, but also some really fascinating comments here – especially Kevin Boyce’s comment about the carbon cost of moving all that carbon fuel. I think it is important also though to support the industry in its infancy, to help make it robust enough to move through the early phases and get to a place where it is more advanced, mature, and efficient.

The International Council on Clean Transportation (theicct.org) has lots of good information about all aspects of this problem. (I’ve been an occasional copyeditor of ICCT’s publications since 2010.)

Early days? Thank Reagan for that. Jimmy Carter responded to the oil crisis in a rather hit-and-miss manner, but he did take it seriously. Aspects of it were rather clueless (anyone else remember even-and-odd days for gas?), but much of it was spot on. Tax credits and direct support for clean energy alternatives were designed to make the US less vulnerable to the whims of Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iran. Reagan cancelled all the Carter policies. I suspect supporting Iran in this regard was part of Reagan’s quid-pro-quo with Iran to keep the hostage crisis going during election year and then some.

Yeah, I’m in the same place, more or less. My current vehicle is a pretty efficient ICE, and it’s nice; I like it, but it has years left in it. When it needs to be replaced, my intent is to replace it with an electric, but I’m hoping the electric field will be better by then, because my tastes run more toward the high-end Tesla, but what I can afford is a car with much less range. I hope to be in a better position in a few years.

Noise is a big deal too.

EVs have essentially zero engine noise, but they still have tyre noise and braking noise, so all-EV roads won’t be silent. But they will be much quieter.

If an IC car is trundling around a residential street at 20mph, then the noise is engine-dominant. If it’s racing down the highway at 85mph, then the tyre noise is a much bigger factor, and you also start to get noise from air turbulence. However, far fewer people live close to highways to hear the traffic noise than live on residential streets.

So EVs might lower noise overall by less than you would expect… but they will lower noise in the places where people hear it much more than elsewhere.

I did not review the Volvo piece presented but I know Tesla claims their batteries will last between 300K and 500K miles, so longer than most folks will own a car – especially the type of person who would buy a Tesla.

So there will eventually be (in the not too distant future) a generation of used electric cars that will require a battery replacement. Tesla says the cost of replacing their batteries would be $7K-$9K.

I have saved family and friends hundreds of dollars replacing bad cell phone batteries so I’m thinking I could do the same with an older Tesla. I’m just going to need a bigger spudger pry tool. A LOT bigger!

I’m planning on joining the ranks of early adopters and buying an EV in early 2023 when I retire and move to Arizona, to a home that will have solar panels installed that will charge both the EV and the home. Doing this will cost more money upfront than keeping an internal-combustion vehicle, and I’m sure there will be times when it will be inconvenient to have an EV when waiting for a charging station to become available. It’s the right thing to do though for the planet and as I save money by not having to buy fuel I figure I’ll eventually break even money-wise

I wonder if big oil and oil regimes will get replaced by big battery and battery element regimes. I suspect that whatever the system used to move our vehicles there will be disadvantaged people who do not see the fruits of their land or labor because it is taken from them by a company or their government.
Not sure how to avoid this, but just suggest we temper our excitement about the (predicted) fall of big oil.

I got a Tesla Model Y in November and I love it. I love that it’s constantly updated and not stuck in the year it was made. I love not pumping gas into my car anymore. I actually find the whole idea of gas kinda gross, so I’m glad it’s out of my life now. And I love how quiet it is. Soooo quiet. Noisy cars pass me on the freeway and I cringe. You won’t hear me coming. Lol.

I am glad you have decided to buy an electric vehicle. Before taking delivery, take a serious look at installing solar panels. If you have the south/west exposure, find out what panels might cover both the cost of the car AND your home electricity demands. If you can cover both, then the maturation of the grid etc does not matter. AND you don’t need to be too concerned with charging stations. I have solar and an plug-in EV and love both. I wish I had planned for the car too. But still it means in the summer I am no beholden to the electric company!

I’m all in favor of more electric cars. BUT:

Let’s not forget about the range problems, especially as vehicles get older. If your driving is entirely inside an urban area, that’s not that much of a problem. If you’re in Wyoming…

Don’t forget about the other necessary uses for petrochemicals. Not using them for fuel is great! They’re still the best feedstocks for an awful lot of materials, and they’re still the most-economical, widest-temperature-range-stable lubricants that don’t create more problems with the rest of the process.

Don’t forget about the human and environmental costs of mining for the rare-earth minerals necessary (in relatively small quantities… but they come in small quantities, and have to be transported somewhere for smelting) for making the batteries etc. in the first place.

And those are just the obvious things that are easy to explain. We won’t get into thermoelectric “pollution” from power lines, or toxic waste from bigger and more-common transformers, or…

Even if we were farther along the curve, electric vehicles would not suddenly create environmental nirvana. We’d be a helluva lot better off, but prepare for some disappointment down the road in how much better off things are.

As for non fuel use for petrochemicals, my favourite is for shampoo bottles so that I. don’t have to pick shards out of the bathtub when I drop my bottle.

I can remember when vandals would target the outdoor basketball courts for smashing their bottles. Our response was to sweep just half the full courts, and leave the other half with broken glass.

I’m always amused by the contrast between concern shown for the environmental impact of Lithium/Cobalt mining against the lack of concern for the environmental impact of petrochemical extraction.

reduced terrorism — here’s my dream tagline for Tesla: “By 2047 Saudi Arabia’s major export will be racing camels” … as an American who is pro-vote, pro-women, pro-capitalism, the end of Saudi Arabia having $100B/Y to piss away on flawed economic policies and brutal international policies will be a happy day for all of us… it will force them to reverse many (but not all) of these destructive policies… such as supporting terrorism and preventing women from getting equal access to education-employment-politics-etc… likely Saudi Arabia will fall from grace with “G8” and be shown the door and not allowed to retain a seat at the adult table at international power conferences… good news I look forward to reading

reduced crash rate — in addition to overt air pollution, what nobody seems interested in measuring is all the dribbles-leaks-slimes left behind by ICE… complex transmission gearing and high temperature combustion requires complex lubrication and complex cooling… one of my first lessons as a driver as teenager was my dad warning me never to drive on a highway for the first fifteen minutes of a light rain… heavy rain was okay… but too light resulted in water co-mingling with dribbles-leaks-slimes resulting in a thin friction-less layering of what was akin to soap or 10W40 (which was part of it)… my dad had noticed more wrecks happening in those first fifteen minutes of a light rain than during heavy downpours… I did research in high school and figured out the chemistry-physics basis of my dad’s empirical observations… my gut-guess is two years after 80% of all cars being EV, we will see a reduced crash rate

more toxic waste — reluctance to decommission coal plants will be hand-waved off as being driven by coal senators but in bitter point of fact, each such utility being decommissioned will reveal hundreds (thousands?) of tons of seepage under the structures… tars, resins, petrochemicals, dissolved ashes, etc… never mind being a ‘brown field’, each of these decommissioned coal plants will like-as-not become deemed low level toxic waste sites… which is describing a crisis due to “discovery of the obvious”

Q: anyone not yet bored onto snores? …I could continue for another dozen

As for decommissioning coal energy, the standard business practise, back in the 20th century, for switching to computers, was to use the old paper style side by side until the computers were proven. If the switch badly hurt or bankrupted your company, as actually happened, then there was no court remedy against the computer consultants as you should have used both for a while.

Hence coal mills should be left in place as new energy sources are being built and proven…

Not like in the province of Ontario, (energy prices and debt shot through the roof, becoming the worst non state jurisdiction in the world) …and not like how the Canadian federal government switched to a new “Phoenix” computer payroll system (without keeping the other one) that has been a Frankenstein’s monster for many seasons.

The range problem keeps me from considering an electric vehicle. My ICE Volvo can go as far as my butt can stand (usually about 600 miles on a trip). No EV can do that without recharging at least once, which could add as much as 8 hours to that 600 mile trip and that is simply not acceptable.

Once the energy density of battery technology improves to the current level of gasoline operated vehicles it will then be a fair comparison between EV and ICE vehicles as to which is better for the environment.

I thought instead of putting money into infrastructure the gov’t should have put out an order replacing all vehicles in their fleet with electric ones. This would give the auto makers the money and the motivation to get hopping on development. Instead we’ll have nicer roads and bridges to burn gas on. I do not think the country has the sense of urgency it needs to possibly head this crisis off before it gets REAL bad.

One of the most welcome changes with electric vehicles is occurring bottom-up. The video essentially ignores this remarkable groundswell.

Yard and garden tools from Makita and DeWalt and SnowJoe are all built to use the same battery packs across ranges of tools. Mopeds and e-bikes in China are now using quickly swappable battery pods which avoid having to deal with recharging and battery management.

These easily exchanged and upgraded batteries are making their way into larger tools and vehicles that have traditionally needed relatively powerful gas engines, such as two-stage snow blowers, lawn tractors, ATVs, and UTVs. It won’t be long before motorcycles and small cars will have comparably swappable batteries.

One day, we’ll be able to swap the batteries in our SUVs and pickup trucks while we’re shopping at Target or WalMart. Hey, the new gen batteries have a little longer range, weigh less, and have better built-in fire suppressors, plus the upgrade is covered by our battery lease program, so why not. 20 minutes later, our Silverados and Outbacks are faster, better, safer vehicles.

We’ll look back at the 2020s-era electric cars with their fussy, dangerous, non-swappable batteries, and see them as barely any better than the rolling explosion ICE buckets still beloved by the petrolhead weirdos. And we’ll laugh at videos like this one as bemusingly misguided.

Regarding Mike Grupa’s claim that charging “could add as much as 8 hours to that 600 mile trip.” That’s wrong.

I make a trip to a summer vacation place in Maine every year, and it’s 620 miles one way. Charging adds between 10 and 30 minutes to the trip compared to the best-case ICE travel. If you refill on the NJ turnpike at the wrong time, the EV is faster than gassing up.

And yes, you could build a specific trip in the wilds of Montana where if you had an EV with much less range you might have to stop at a Level 2 charger for a couple hours. And yes, non-Teslas still have a less-optimal selection of chargers. But unless you are specifically planning a trip through an area without fast chargers, an EV will get you there almost as quickly. And making the additional stops will get you there feeling a lot better too.

For people interested in where their electricity is coming from, https://www.eia.gov/state/ has breakdowns.

A few years back there were a handful of people on the econ job market who were all doing papers about where it makes sense to have an electric car from an environmental standpoint and what the ideal subsidies would look like. Californians, electric cars make a ton of sense. West Virginians, less so for now (or at least for now when now was a few years back)– you’re better off with a hybrid.

Could we please stop conflating the future fleet of all electric cars with…. “Tesla”? Also, so fking tired of Musk disciples asking me if i want to talk about my lord and savior, Elon Musk. Musk is a douche. Makes tons of money on government subsidies, but whines incessently about any sort of government regulations. He has repeatedly endangered employees by flaunting covid restrictions, causing numerous workers to get sick just so he could make his bonus numbers.

And when a bill was forwarded to give government subsidies for electric cars with union labor, decidedly anti union Musk started saying how more subsidies arent needed. Especially since they would help his competition.

He insists on selling his cars advertised as “full self driving” even though that will get you killed. He keeps getting fined by the SEC for stock manipulation for his tweets.

He owns a bunch of patents that others designed. One of the few patents with his actual name on is for a charging coupler that would have a proprietary connector on it, showing an attempt to monopolize not just electric car subsidies but charging stations as well.

Musk is so anti-government, he challenged the UN to explain how 6 billion dollars could solve world hunger, and maybe then he would sell a few shares and end world hunger. When the UN gave him a plan that showed how it would work, Musk got bored and walked away.

The man is a raging libertarian narcissist who thinks he is John Galt. His long term plan is to make enough money to establish humans on mars so he can live there in his version of a libertarian utopia, whose tagline will be “Delta City: The Future has a Silver Lining”.

Tesla is not where we will get all our electric cars.
They are number one right now.
But we need every manufacturer to switch over.

So, please stop saying “tesla” when you mean “electric car” or “ev manufacturers”

Musk isnt our savior.

One of my Best Teacher’s Ever was my college environmental science teacher (Audus W. Helton), and he taught me that there’s ALWAYS a trade off to every environmental decision. I have invested big time in an EV car, (a Mustang Mach-E) and couldn’t be happier with it. Given that I live in the environmentally clean energy area of the Great Northwet, I expect my trade-off will be closer to 30,000 miles. Still, every choice has a cost, and I have traded the security of the established gasoline infrastructure of an ICE car for the somewhat shakier structure of EV chargers. I expect this will improve over time, but still, I have to plan road trips more carefully in order to hit a charging station when I need one.

Smart people have been working on this for at least three decades. I’ve been paying attention for about 25 years and there hasn’t been a new “oh but what if?” in at least 10.
Honestly, if you’re trying to come up with gotchas about EVs at this stage then you’re nothing more than an antivaxxer of electricity

Jake Errs: Swappable vehicle batteries will only work if (i) many manufacturers all agree to the same basic specifications, or (ii) only one kind of vehicle is part of the swapping network. The second method was attempted years ago without success (see Wikipedia entry “Better Place”), and I don’t know how you (or anyone) would ever get a sufficient number of competitors to agree on a common design.

Gottacook

I read that (based on having more than a few battery-operated tools around) as swappable within various tool lines. So, for example, IIRC, the drill/screwdriver shares it’s battery with a jigsaw or a low-level air-nailer provided they’re all from the same line, or from another line, the hedge trimmer shares batteries with the string trimmer.

Overall, it’s something we find quite handy, as each tool has tended to come with one battery for it, so we can always have a battery charging for a particular line, then swap them out as needed.

We also thought hard about the Ford Lightning ourselves when upgrading vehicles, but ended up going hybrid – too many places we like to go would be out of range – esp if towing a trailer for camping (it’s at least 45 minutes one way from the nearest gas station for one favored campground – and no guarantee of a charger in towns), and at least once we’ve had family friends “stranded” here because they didn’t have enough of a charge to get home with their EV.

I think that, in a few years, we will see the entire Lithium Ion battery thing as a first generation on E Vs.

I have seen some ionic polymer capacitors that already have more power than Ni Cad rechargables. There are also four or five ideas about making a car that recharges as you drive it. Those include small ducted fan generators and silicone paint that works like a solar cell.

Then the cars can become part of the power grid. Take a half charged car to work, bring it home charged, and use it to charge your battery wall.

That wall can cover your part of the energy peak and allow lower scale power plants that don’t have to keep blowing out huge amounts of excess energy.

A couple of separate points.

One proposal for redundant coal powered power plants is to use them for thermal storage – you store surplus power by heating a suitable material, and when there is a shortage use the already existing turbines to covert it back to electricity.

As a pedestrian I worry that the quietness of electric vehicles will adversely effect my awareness of the presence of motor traffic (especially when walking on country lane and housing estate roads).

Yeah one of my least favorite arguments against electric cars is “Well now you’re just getting energy from coal power on the grid and so it’s dirtier than petrol, haha!”

No I agree, let’s get rid of the coal power on the grid. Is that even a counterpoint? What are you trying to prove there?

Swapping batteries wont work.

The only real world transaction based on swappable energy containers that i can think of is… propane tanks for grills. Places that dont have a big tank to fill your small one will take your empty and give you a new, full tank. But the tank costs $30 and the propane costs $30. A few swaps, and the company has paid for the tank. If someone breaks a tank after that, the company still made a profit.

Diffusion of responsibility means no one is going to treat the tank very well. If it stops working, gets a leak, or whatever, people take it to a store that does swaps, and its mot their problem anymore.

Ev car batteries cost $10,000 to $30,000.
And carry $20 of energy.

The numbers make swapping ev batteries like propane tanks basically impossible. Plus, ev batteries are extremely complex, very sensitive, and nothing like a dumb steel tank with two moving parts.

The only reason anyone is talking about swapping batteries is because we cant fast-charge batteries very well right now, and that is mostly because we havent quite figured out some thermal issues. But the first model T had a hand crank starter and you controlled the spark plug advance with a lever on the steering column. We are basically at the model T stage for electric cars.

Folks in various labs have much faster charge times.

On the subject of the sound from EVs: as much as I would love more quiet, my personal experience of EVs in places like parking garages and streets with no sidewalks is that EVs need to at least make some noise at low speeds or the drivers will (at best) end up either frustrated behind some slow pedestrian, or terrifying the pedestrian who didn’t know that the car was there.

(I’m hoping to take delivery of a EV in the summer, and I’m excited about figuring out medium-distance road trips. For my Tesla-based road trip from Portland to Sacramento this past summer the charging stops aligned well with our human-needs stops.)

A couple of commenters have worried about smacking a pedestrian with a silent car. The European Union has anticipated that by mandating that electric cars have an artificial engine noise that kicks in when going 12 miles an hour or less.

Presumably you wouldn’t be going any faster when you are behind a pedestrian.

F.Y.I., both Europe and Canada have mandated electric only vehicles after a certain year.

Many people miss the point of vehicle range. If you start the day with a full tank, how often do you have to refuel during the day? For most of us, a fully changed
EV in the morning will meet all our transportation needs for the day. Plug in at night and start again in the morning fully charged. If you routinely drive 1500-2000 miles a week, then maybe an EV is not for you. It might work better as a second car.

As urban retirees, we have two small suvs in the garage and seldom refuel more than once a week. The CR-V is now 14 years old and will be replaced with a EV which should meet almost all our needs. The newer CX-5 will become secondary to be used for occasional travel needs.

We bought a Toyota Prius (hybrid) in 2002. We bought a Mitsubishi MiEV (plug-in electric) in 2012.

The MiEV only has a range of 50 miles, but the other car serves as our long-range vehicle. The MiEV does require a garage, because we charged it every night when commuting (before the pandemic and WFH).

We are in Portland OR USA, which gives us advantages:

(1) Oregon has a law imposing an “urban growth boundary,” so the metro area of Portland is compact. Almost any round-trip can be done on a single charge. (On the other hand, this has push real estate prices to outrageous for decades.)

(2) A fair chunk of our region’s electricity is created by either hydro (think Bonneville dam) or windmills sitting in very unpopulated deserts.

Our next trick is remodeling a 1923 house (with an attached former church, as it happens). We intend it to be our forever home. We’ve put more than 50 solar panels on the roof of the combo building. A big local advantage for home solar is legislative: the power company has to give us credit at the retail price of electricity for any power we feed in. This will level out costs for us, given that her, summer is generating time and winter is usage time, on average. (The place is sitting there unoccupied — but generating — during the pandemic pause, so we’ll be donating lots of leftover credits to the power company’s “poor fund,” as required by the rules.)

We timed all this so we got federal tax credits on both cars. We also installed the home solar in the year before the federal tax credit for that started being reduced yearly. Just barely (December completion had us sweating!)

/brag

Coolest bit: After we move (after we finish the gut remodel), our EV will be charged with electricity coming from our own roof!

“Plug in at night “ sounds great. So who’s going to pay to install all the chargers for people who don’t live in single family homes with driveways? Because that’s not going to be cheap.

wiredog, charging your EV where you park for work is an option that would be simpler than dealing with putting chargers along every street where people park. Also installing chargers where people often shop would give people who take a half-hour to get groceries a chance to charge up.

One thing I can say is that the electric Harley motorcycle sounds a lot different than the old gas version. I actually expected Harley to add a recording of its patented engine noise to the electric. (Note: I own neither.)

I was looking forwards to someone hacking the sound system to play “Bat out of Hell” or “Ride of the Valkyries” when their electric Harley is moving over 60 mph.

That aside, when/if finances permit, I do plan to purchase an EV. Just not from Elon Musk.

Dear Mike,

That’s a ridiculous bit of FUD.

Charging an EV on a 600 mile trip adds an hour to the travel time, not 8! Maybe two, at very worst, if you’ve bought a relatively short-range EV.

Speaking from experience, as a Tesla X owner who has put 20K miles on his car over 2+ years, including several long trips.

More significantly for your needs, you should grab an app like ABRP, which will let you plug in different routes and models of EVs can calculate routes and charging stops and times (and even estimated charging costs). That will let you evaluate how feasible an EV might be for you. It is possible there are regular trips you’d want to make where it really doesn’t work! (I managed to find one corner case).

ABRP is free, BTW. We EV drivers swear by it, for good reason.

~~~~~

Dear Wiredog,

75% of the US population lives in single family homes. You’re imagining some impossible scenario in which it is mandated that every buy an EV right now, since as the number of cars grows gradually, so will the charging infrastructure.

Also, you are likely not aware that the average driver’s needs are more than satisfied by plugging the car into an ordinary 120 outlet each night. The 120 charger draws less power than your microwave– a 15 amp circuit is ample. It’ll put 40 miles or more on; the average driver drives less than 30 a day.

When you need to drive a whole lot in a short period of time? That’s what commercial fast charging stations are for. See previous remark about ABRP.

pax, Ctein

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