The manufacture of an electric car can pollute more than a conventional one. Credit: Nissan.

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The challenges of making the electric car greener


No noise and no exhaust. The automobile industry is moving towards an electric future. Japanese companies Toyota and Panasonic have recently reached an agreement to develop and manufacture better batteries while more and more cities are designing plans to take combustion cars out of the urban area. In addition, the European Commission has set an end to the era of fossil fuels in 2050 to reduce the emissions that cause global warming and air pollution. But the challenge of getting electric cars to have no negative impact on the planet throughout their life cycle still stands. How clean are these vehicles really?

The manufacturing stage

"One of the challenges of the environmental footprint of electric vehicles is in their manufacture," explains Arturo Pérez de Lucía, president of the Business Association for the Development and Promotion of the Electric Vehicle (Aedive). Making an electric car can pollute more than a conventional one. The production of a gasoline car would imply emissions equivalent to 5.6 tons of carbon dioxide, while to manufacture an electric car, the figure would rise to 8.8 tons, according to a report prepared by Ricardo. According to this international engineering consultancy specialising in transport and energy, half of these emissions would relate to the production of batteries.

Vehicle manufacturers have already taken the first steps to reduce this carbon footprint. An example of this is BMW, which has gone from getting 36% of the electricity in its plants from green energy in 2012 to 63% in 2016; there is also Nissan, which has installed photovoltaic self-consumption plants in its factories in Sunderland (United Kingdom) and in the Zona Franca (Barcelona). There are some factories such as Vesoul and Sochaux (France) of PSA that are already 100% supplied with renewable energy. And companies like General Motors and Volkswagen have set themselves the goal of achieving a carbon neutral emission result in all their activities by 2050.


Vehicle manufacturers, such as Nissan in Sunderland (United Kingdom), are supplying their plants with renewable energy to reduce its carbon footprint. Credit: Nissan.

The use of the vehicle

The use of traditional combustion vehicles generates more emissions than their manufacture, according to David Barrientos, director of communication at Nissan. On the contrary, an electric car does not contaminate during its use. The emission of carbon dioxide will depend on how the electricity is generated with which the battery has been recharged. The report Electric vehicles from life cycle and circular economy perspectives, published by the European Environment Agency, notes that a medium-sized combustion car emits an average of 143 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre while an electric car with similar characteristics emits between 60 and 76 grams. That is, between 47% and 58% less.

In Spain, approximately 40% of the energy generated in 2018 came from renewable sources and 20% from nuclear energy, according to the Report on the Spanish Electric System published by Red Eléctrica Española. The use of different sources of electricity varies depending on the country. Drivers of electric cars in Norway use mainly hydroelectric power, while those in France are principally supplied by nuclear power, according to the World Bank. In Germany and the United Kingdom, a mixture of fossil and renewable energies is used. In some countries like the USA it varies in different regions. California uses a large number of renewable sources, while areas in the northeast are more likely to use fossil fuels.


The batteries of the electric vehicles are used as energy accumulators, thus extending their useful life. Credit: Max Pixel.

End of life

The recycling and treatment of batteries at the end of their useful life is still a matter to be solved. However, according to Pérez, "the batteries of electric vehicles can last the useful life of the vehicle itself, and then the same period again for energy storage in stationary systems, which can mean more than 20 years of use before recycling." There are already companies specialised in the second useful life of the batteries of electric vehicles to optimise them for use in stationary energy storage systems. Nissan, for example, already uses the batteries from the old LEAF models as energy accumulators to provide electricity to football stadiums like the Johan Cruiff in Amsterdam.

Despite the negative impact that electric vehicles have on the environment throughout their lifetime, they are undoubtedly a cleaner option than traditional combustion vehicles. The total set of emissions from this type of car is about 20% less than that of diesel cars and 30% less than gasoline, according to the report Electric vehicles from life cycle and circular economy perspectives. But the difference could be much greater. If it were the case that the energy with which the battery was recharged came from renewable sources, the emissions would be almost 90% lower than those of a conventional car.

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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.

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