When are electric vehicles getting cleaner than gasoline cars?

You glide silently out of the Tesla showroom in your sleek new electric Model 3, content to look great and do your part for the planet.

But keep going, you’ll have to drive another 21,725 ​​kilometers before it harms the environment less than a gas-guzzling sedan.

It’s the result of a Reuters analysis of data from a model that calculates lifetime vehicle emissions, a hotly debated issue that is taking center stage as governments around the world push for greener transportation. in order to achieve climate goals.

The model was developed by the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago and includes thousands of parameters ranging from the type of metals in an electric vehicle (EV) battery to the amount of aluminum or plastic in a car.

Argonne’s Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Technology (GREET) model is now being used with other tools to help shape U.S. Agency policies of Environmental Protection (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board, the two main regulators of vehicle emissions in the United States.

Jarod Cory Kelly, senior energy systems analyst at Argonne, said electric vehicle manufacturing generates more carbon than combustion engine cars, mainly due to the extraction and processing of minerals in electric vehicle batteries. and the production of power cells.

But estimates of the size of that carbon gap when a car is first sold and the break-even point of electric vehicles over their lifetimes can vary widely, depending on the assumptions.

Kelly said the payback period then depends on factors such as the size of the electric vehicle’s battery, the fuel consumption of a gasoline-powered car, and how the energy used to charge an electric vehicle is generated.

Norway is a winner

Reuters connected a series of variables to the Argonne model, which had more than 43,000 users in 2021, to find answers.

The Tesla Scenario 3 above was for driving in the United States, where 23% of the electricity comes from coal-fired power plants, with a 54 kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery and a nickel, cobalt, and aluminum cathode, among other variables. .

He was up against a gasoline Toyota Corolla weighing 2,955 pounds (1,340 kilograms) with an fuel efficiency of 33 miles per gallon (14 km per liter). Both vehicles were speculated to travel 173,151 miles (278,659 km) in their lifetime.

But if the same Tesla were to drive in Norway, which generates almost all of its electricity from renewable hydropower, the breakeven point would come after just 13,518 km.

If the electricity to charge the EV comes entirely from coal, which generates the majority of electricity in countries like China and Poland, you will need to travel 78,700 miles (126,655 km) to achieve carbon parity with the Corolla. , according to Reuters. analysis of the data generated by the Argonne model.

Nissan Leaf electric vehicle at the British Embassy in Tokyo in 2018 | REUTERS

Reuters analysis showed that the production of a midsize EV sedan generates 47 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per mile during the mining and production process, or more than 8.1 million grams before. reach the first customer.

In comparison, a similar gasoline vehicle generates 32 grams per mile, or over 5.5 million grams.

Michael Wang, senior scientist and director of the Systems Assessment Center in Argonne’s Energy Systems Division, said electric vehicles then typically emit significantly less carbon over a 12-year lifespan.

Even in the worst-case scenario where an electric vehicle is charged only from a coal-fired grid, it would generate an additional 4.1 million grams of carbon per year, while a comparable gasoline car would produce more than 4, 6 million grams, according to Reuters analysis.

“From well to wheel”

The EPA said it is using GREET to help assess standards for renewable fuels and vehicle greenhouse gases while the California Air Resources Board uses the model to help assess compliance with the fuel standard. low carbon state.

The EPA said it also used Argonne’s GREET to develop an online program for U.S. consumers to estimate emissions from electric vehicles based on the fuels used to generate electricity in their area.

The results of the Reuters analysis are similar to those of a lifecycle assessment of electric and combustion engine vehicles in Europe by the IHS Markit research group.

Its “well-to-wheel” study showed that the typical carbon emission break-even point for electric vehicles was around 15,000 to 20,000 miles (24,000 km to 32,200 km), depending on the country, according to the country. Vijay Subramanian, Global Director of IHS Markit. carbon dioxide (CO2) compliance.

He said that using such an approach shows the shift to electric vehicles has long-term benefits.

Some are less positive about EVs.

University of Liège researcher Damien Ernst said in 2019 that a typical electric vehicle would have to travel nearly 700,000 km before emitting less CO2 than a comparable gasoline vehicle. He then revised his numbers down.

Now he estimates that the breakeven point could be between 67,000 km and 151,000 km. Ernst said he did not intend to change these results, which were based on a different set of data and assumptions than the Argonne model.

Some other groups also continue to argue that electric vehicles are not necessarily cleaner or greener than fossil-fueled cars.

The American Petroleum Institute, which represents more than 600 companies in the petroleum industry, says on its website: “Multiple studies show that, on a lifecycle basis, different automotive powertrains cause greenhouse gas emissions. similar greenhouse.

The Argonne National Laboratory is funded by the US Department of Energy and operated by the University of Chicago.

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About Mohammed B. Hale

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