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New full LCA highlights complexity of environmental advantages and disadvantages of EVs relative to ICE vehicles; the importance of life cycle thinking

7 October 2012

Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) have compared the emissions resulting from the production, use, and end-of-life of electric and internal combustion engine vehicles (EVs and ICEVs) in a full life-cycle analysis (LCA). They found that electric vehicles (EVs) powered by the present European electricity mix offer a 10% to 24% decrease in global warming potential (GWP) relative to conventional diesel or gasoline vehicles assuming lifetimes of 150,000 km (93,206 miles).

However, they also found that EVs exhibit the potential for significant increases in human toxicity, freshwater eco-toxicity, freshwater eutrophication, and metal depletion impacts, largely resulting from the vehicle supply chain. Their results, they cautioned in an open-access paper published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, are sensitive to assumptions regarding electricity source, use-phase energy consumption, vehicle lifetime, and battery replacement schedules.

Because the production impacts of EVs are more significant than for conventional vehicles, a vehicle lifetime of 200,000 km (124,274 miles) would increase the GWP benefits of EVs to 27% to 29% relative to gasoline vehicles or 17% to 20% relative to diesel. However, a lifetime of 100,000 km decreases the benefit of EVs to 9% to 14% with respect to gasoline vehicles and results in impacts indistinguishable from those of a diesel vehicle.

EVs offer advantages in terms of powertrain efficiency, maintenance requirements, and zero tailpipe emissions, the last of which contributes to reducing urban air pollution relative to conventional internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs). This has led to a general perception of EVs as an environmentally benign technology. The reality is more complex, requiring a more complete account of impacts throughout the vehicle’s life cycle. Consistent comparisons between emerging technologies such as EVs and their conventional counterparts are necessary to support policy development, sound research, and investment decisions.

...The production phase of EVs proved substantially more environmentally intensive. Nonetheless, substantial overall improvements in regard to GWP, TAP [terrestrial acidification], and other impacts may be achieved by EVs powered with appropriate energy sources relative to comparable ICEVs. However, it is counterproductive to promote EVs in regions where electricity is produced from oil, coal, and lignite combustion.

The electrification of transportation should be accompanied by a sharpened policy focus with regard to life cycle management, and thus counter potential setbacks in terms of water pollution and toxicity. EVs are poised to link the personal transportation sector together with the electricity, the electronic, and the metal industry sectors in an unprecedented way. Therefore the developments of these sectors must be jointly and consistently addressed in order for EVs to contribute positively to pollution mitigation efforts.

—Hawkins et al.

To be able to compare EVs to ICEVs, the researchers had to create their inventory with more detail than they could readily obtained from prior public inventories; the study thus also contributes a higher-resolution, transparent comparison of an ICEV and an EV to the publicly available literature.

The new study offers significantly more resolution regarding the manufacture of vehicle components, full transparency, consideration of a range of battery technologies, and includes a broader array of environmental impacts than prior works, the researchers suggested.

The researchers established a common generic vehicle glider and customized powertrains for gasoline, diesel, and EVs. They investigated two types of batteries in the EV case: LiFePO4 and LiNCM. In the use phase, they tracked electricity and fuel consumption, together with their full supply chains. Use phase energy requirements were based on the performance of the Mercedes A-series ICEV and the Nissan Leaf EV, vehicles of comparable size, mass, and power. For the end of life, they modeled treatment and disposal of the vehicle and batteries.

In the study, they assessed six transportation technologies in terms of ten life cycle environmental impact categories: an LiNCM or LiFePO4 EV powered by European average electricity (Euro); an LiNCM EV powered by either natural gas (NG) or coal (C) electricity; and an ICEV powered by either gasoline (G) or diesel (D).

Among the other high-level findings of the study:

  • For all scenarios, human toxicity potential (HTP), mineral depletion potential (MDP), and freshwater eco-toxicity potential (FETP) are caused primarily by the supply chains involved in the production of the vehicles.

  • The use phase dominates for GWP, terrestrial eco-toxicity potential (TETP), and fossil depletion potential (FDP).

  • End-of-life treatment adds only a marginal contribution across all impact categories.

  • The EV production phase is more environmentally intensive than that of ICEVs for all impact categories with the exception of terrestrial acidification potential (TAP).

  • The supply chains involved in the production of electric powertrains and traction batteries add significantly to the environmental impacts of vehicle production. For some environmental impact categories, lower emissions during the use phase compensate for the additional burden caused during the production phase of EVs, depending on the electricity mix. However, this is not always the case.

Lca
Normalized impacts of six vehicles (4 EVs, 2 ICE) across 10 environmental categories: Global warming (GWP), terrestrial acidification (TAP), particulate matter formation (PMFP), photochemical oxidation formation (POFP), human toxicity (HTP), freshwater eco-toxicity (FETP), terrestrial eco-toxicity (TETP), freshwater eutrophication (FEP), mineral resource depletion (MDP), fossil resource depletion (FDP), internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV), electric vehicle (EV), lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4), lithium nickel cobalt manganese (LiNCM), coal (C), natural gas (NG), European electricity mix (Euro). Hawkins et al. Click to enlarge.

The shift in emissions that EVs are poised to bring about— an elimination of tailpipe emissions at the expense of increased emissions in the vehicle and electricity production chains— brings new opportunities and risks for policy makers and stakeholders. On the one hand, EVs would aggregate emissions at a few point sources (power plants, mines, etc.) instead of millions of mobile sources, making it conceptually easier to control and optimize societies’ transportation systems. On the other hand, the indirect nature of these emissions— which are embodied in internationally traded commodities such as copper, nickel, and electricity— challenges us as a society. It poses the question of how serious are we about life cycle thinking, and how much control and oversight we, customers, and policy makers believe should be exerted across production chains.

—Hawkins et al.

Resources

  • Hawkins, T. R., Singh, B., Majeau-Bettez, G. and Strømman, A. H. (2012), Comparative Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Conventional and Electric Vehicles. Journal of Industrial Ecology. doi: 10.1111/j.1530-9290.2012.00532.x

October 7, 2012 in Batteries, Electric (Battery), Engines, Lifecycle analysis | Permalink | Comments (99) | TrackBack (0)

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Who financed the study?

LCA was the subject of my thesis for a masters degree in environmental engineering. The three most important things are location, location, location. Kind of like buying a house.

What this LCA is telling us is that zero emission vesicles are really elsewhere emission vehicles or EEV. The environmental impact is where the the electricity is produced. So it depends on the location of your fantasy world.

The power that is going to meet the increase demand is most likely to come from coal-based generation. This makes the EEV 25% worst than the ICE in the figure provided..

Just for the record this is not a new result. For those who bother to read the reports rather than the fluff that passes for journalism would know that.

" However, a lifetime of 100,000 km decreases the benefit of EVs to 9% to 14% with respect to gasoline vehicles and results in impacts indistinguishable from those of a diesel vehicle."

Huh? Why would vehicle lifetime drop to 100,000km/60,000 miles? Are they not saying that EVs and diesels have the same impact for the first 60k miles due to manufacturing inputs and then the fuel vs. electricity differences really start to show?

"What this LCA is telling us is that zero emission vesicles are really elsewhere emission vehicles or EEV."

That holds, Kit, only as long as the electricity is produced using fossil fuels. Since Europe and the US are moving away from fossil fuels any "elsewhere emission" is only a temporary state.

And wherever the grid is supplied by less than 100% coal (essentially everywhere) "elsewhere" is already better than burning oil.

The energy sources used to compare are always dictated by how/who the study is financed to arrive to the preferred conclusions.

For the last month or so, Canada's current Central government and Tar Sands industries are spending $$$M to convince Canadians and Americans (coast to coast) that Tar Sands are very good for our health, well being, schools, environment, hospitals, Old age, Universities etc. They are financing many University Studies to demonstrate that we could even eat that stuff and feel better. A lot like the Tobacco and Asbestos Industries were doing for 100+ years.

In other words, it is wise to question most studies, specially those paid by the groups concerned.

"However, they also found that EVs exhibit the potential for significant increases in human toxicity, freshwater eco-toxicity, freshwater eutrophication, and metal depletion impacts, largely resulting from the vehicle supply chain."

Potential. Don't pour industrial waste into the river. Do stuff the correct way. Reduce, reuse, recycle.

A hammer has the potential to give you a severe headache. If you hit yourself in the head with that hammer.

Metal depletion impacts. EVs use more metal than ICEVs? More copper, less steel. All recyclable.

I'm sorry, this piece seems like a huge piece of nothing and we can expect to see it used for many coming attacks on EVs. Anti-EV folks will drop the "potential" in their attempts to keep us back in the 20th Century.

@Bob

Certain assumptions are made about hypothetical solutions like BEV to compare them to the existing data for ICE. If the electricity comes from fossil fuels it is a bad solution from day one and then gets worse. Batteries do not have the property of getting more efficient with age.
So if you you are trying to reduce ghg, the best solution is to not build BEV for general use until you have some data that show there will be a reduction.

LCA are a useful tool when comparing like to like. For example comparing base load power to base load power.

PV on your roof should be compared to rides at Disneyland. Except for those who live in California, most know that Disneyland is a fantasy world. Fun for the children!.

“Since Europe and the US are moving away from fossil fuels any "elsewhere emission" is only a temporary state. ”

First that is not true if you bother to check the data instead of the politicians. Second, wind and solar are only temporary. If we get back to LCA, the life of wind and solar equipment is an unverified assumption. There could come a day when there is excess wind generation exists at night in California but the best way to describe it now is a fantasy.

It takes more than a magic wand to make your fantasy a reality. It takes a really good plan, I only bad plans.

It is so easy to pay for a study to have it based on very selective input data. The results always depend on the data used and/or not used. Not too long ago, some smart very selective study came to the conclusion that a huge 4-tonne Hummer monster used less fuel than the Toyota Prius. Many actually believed that non-sense.

It is of the utmost importance to consider who paid for a study. It will always be biased towards the payer regardless of who did the work. That is the power of money.

It is only common sense to dismiss studies that have undesirable results and accept at face value those that bolster our self image.

In this case I am very skeptical of a study that comes from a strangely named university, supposedly residing in a country I have no proof even exists.

"Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim" - are you kidding me?.

Nordic, Scandinavian . . isn't that from a Harry Potter book?

It is a core truth and undeniable cultural fact that EVs, windmills and PV panel plants create jobs, are very good for our health, well being, schools, environment, hospitals, old age, universities (REAL universities) and obesity.

" the best solution is to not build BEV for general use until you have some data that show there will be a reduction"

I can agree with that. So, we need to be building and driving EVs in the US, Canada and Europe among other places since running EVs off existing grids would cause a lower CO2 emission rate than burning oil.

The rule of thumb is if the grid is 100% coal then EVs/PHEVs produce a slight bit more CO2 than efficient hybrids.

Coal is now contributing about 35% of US electricity. About 30% of our grid supply is natural gas. NG kicks out about half as much CO2 as coal, so our output is about like a grid run on 50% coal.

We're good to go. Bring on the EVs!

I want a BEV because they offer a much nicer driving experience than an ICE vehicle (quiet, smooth, lots of low-end torque, low maintenance, etc.), and do not have to be driven to gas stations to refuel (topped off every morning). When I buy one, I will also put a photo-voltaic array on the roof. (BEV manufacturers are starting to offer them packaged with a special deal on a solar electric installation). The reduced air pollution, reduced reliance on foreign oil supplies, etc. benefits are all gravy.

"Second, wind and solar are only temporary. If we get back to LCA, the life of wind and solar equipment is an unverified assumption. "

The correct word is not "temporary" but "variable". Yes, wind and solar are variable, but since cars spend about 90% of their time parked and could be plugged in while parked that makes them incredibly valuable partners for variable supply sources.

Wind farm operators would love a lot of EVs plugged in and controllable via smart metering at night.

As for expected lifetimes of wind and solar, the 30 year old turbines at Altamont Pass wind farm are just now being replaced with more efficient turbines mounted on taller towers.

Those first generation turbines gave us three decades of electricity and we should expect newer technology to last longer. We've got much better monitoring and lubrication systems. Better wind gust forecasting which will reduce shock loads. And some turbines are eliminating the gear trains which are turbine's weak point.

We've now got 40 year old solar panels in use and they are still producing in excess of 80% of their rated capacity. Newer panels should have better contacts and edge lamination sealing so expect panels to last a long, long time.

"“Since Europe and the US are moving away from fossil fuels any "elsewhere emission" is only a temporary state. ”

First that is not true if you bother to check the data instead of the politicians. "

I looked at the data. The data tells me that each year in the US we make a higher percentage of our electricity with renewable energy and a lower percentage with fossil fuels. We went from 9.3% renewables in 2008 to 12.7% in 2011. Fossil fuels fell from 70.2% to 67.6%.

And I checked the data for the EU27. Renewables supplied 18.3% share of their total primary energy production. That was a 60.2% (avg 4.8% per year) increase from 1999 to 2009. I would bet they beat that 4.8% the last couple of years the way solar and offshore wind are booming.

"PV on your roof should be compared to rides at Disneyland. Except for those who live in California, most know that Disneyland is a fantasy world. Fun for the children!."

My posts are brought to you via Disneyla.., er, solar power.

Solar is much fun for adults who enjoy the electricity it produces.

@Bob
"The correct word is not "temporary" but "variable". Yes, wind and solar are variable"

Wind and Solar are both temporary AND variable. You have pointed out the variable bit well, and as you say, the more EVs plugged in while not being driven, the better, providing we have V2G standards up and running - which we don't as yet, but technically, it is all very doable (and desirable).

However, they are both temporary, once you look at a 30+ year timescale. Noone knows how long solar panels will last, but you can be sure it is < 100 years, probably < 30 years.

Ditto for windmills - noone knows how much maintenance they will need after a decade or two. And they consume rare earth metals which are not an unlimited resource.

The people who are selling wind and solar promote these as having zero impact on the environment, which they mostly do, while running, but not in construction.

Also, they didn't look at hybrids, and I wonder how much better they would be than the very latest/upcoming diesels, like the upcoming Golf Mk7 Blue Motion which gets 88mpg (UK) [they say].

“Wind and Solar are both temporary AND variable. ”

That is correct. Hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass are examples of renewable energy that can be used for base load. We also have a good handle on the costs of keeping them running year in and year out.

We do not yet know if the new generation of wind and solar will produce more electricity than the cost of maintaining them. Most of the 30 year old turbines at Altamont Pass wind farm which are just now being replaced, did not make electricity very well for many years.

People like Bob Wallace do not keep records on failure.

The fact remains that BRV power from fossil fuel increase ghg compared to ICE. Increase demand increases demand for fossil fuel because there is not excess supply of renewable energy or nukes. And there never will be.

Power plants are loaded on the grid based on marginal cost. After all the nukes and renewable energy plants are producing power then coal-based generation comes on line. Some new CCGT produce power cheaper than really old coal plants if the price of NG is very low. On very hot days and cold mights the most inefficient and therefore the most expensive are running.


Mining metals is fundamentally unlike mining fuels. It concentrates the resources, it doesn't destroy them. Who would ever throw out a battery that contains $3,000 worth of nickel? Batteries, rare earths, steels, etc, can all be recycled with low environmental impact, if done right.

The argument about charging EVs with coal electricity is tired. Computers were a niche market before the internet. EVs were a niche market before wind and solar power. We need to take a forward-looking systems-level perspective on sustainability.

As already noted this not a new result most past LCAs have had similar. The challenge with LCAs is setting the boundaries. One of the limitations of the studies I have reviewed is that they scrap the battery at end of vehicular life.

I have yet to find a study that incorporates second use into the LCA. This would seem have a significant impact on GHG emissions and EROI calcs.

I still think the problem is that we are thinking that EVs will be just ICEVs with alternative power trains. I don't know what they will look like but I suspect that the drive for energy efficiency will over time result in, on average, smaller, lighter and more aerodynamic vehicles, even in the U.S. where the current culture is not focused on these features (BTW do you think this is already beginning ro change?)

I do love being called a liar. Thanks Kit and mahonj.

Solar panel life -

"According to Andy Black at the PG&E solar class at the Pacific Energy Center, some of the very first solar panels made back in the ’70s are still pumping out power up in Northern California after 40 years, and they’re still at about 80% of their original power ratings.

According to Black, all solar panels lose about half a percent a year in efficiency. They are warrantied to 25 years because at a half percent a year, in 25 years they’ve lost 12.5% of their original power. The panel still retains 87.5% power output, it’s just that the panel manufacturer can’t claim a panel is producing X power when it’s producing 12.5% less power than when it was originally tested. After 25 years, a 10 KW system is now a 8.75 KW system, and a 4 KW system is now effectively an 3.5 KW system."

http://howsolarworks.1bog.org/how-long-do-solar-panels-last/

"In 1984, Sweden’s first grid-connected photovoltaic system was built in Stockholm. Since its installation, the façade-mounted 2.1kW system has been continuously and reliably providing the residents of an apartment building with environmentally-friendly electricity. The modules’ average annual power generation performance is still reliable — with no significant change since the system was installed 27 years ago.
Also in 1984, Kyocera established its Sakura Solar Energy Center just outside of Tokyo. At the time, the Center was equipped with a 43kW solar power generating system which to this day continues to generate a stable amount of power for the facility.
In 1985, Kyocera made a donation of a 10kW solar power generation system to a small farming village with no electrical infrastructure located at an elevation of 2,600m (8,500ft) in Gansu Province, China. In 1993, the area received electrical infrastructure, and the solar modules were moved to a regional research facility for clean energy, where after more than 25 years, they are still producing consistent levels of electricity."

http://kyocerasolarnews.wordpress.com/2011/12/20/kyocera-solar-modules-deliver-reliable-performance-after-more-than-25-years-in-the-field/

"After 20 years of operation, the degradation in most cases is between 5% and 8%.

The facility used for testing is still fine after 29 years of operation"

http://elfuturoeselectrico.blogspot.com/2012/09/que-tiempo-de-vida-tiene-una-placa-solar.html

The Altamont Pass turbines were installed over 30 years ago. They were still producing power but maintenance costs were rising and they were harder on birds than are taller, slower spinning turbines. For these reasons it was decided to pull them down and replace them with modern tech turbines. Do you really want to argue that improvements in wind turbines have not been made in the last 30-40 years?

Kit P - Welcome.

You and I see things very similar. I have been saying for several years that when you look at the total energy required to site, build, install and maintain windmills and PV's - over their lifetime - they never return that amount of energy.

Mostly what we are seeing today is very much like giant Ponzi schemes; designed to separate the investor from his money and enrich the perpetrators.

I wouldn't touch it with my ten foot pole. (Even if I had one!)

Lucas the literature does not seem to support your views.

EROI for wind seems to be around 25:1 SD 22.3 (source Kubiszewski, Cleveland, and Endres 2009)

PV is also EROI profitable at between 6 to 12 (source
Raugeia, Fullana-i-Palmera, and Fthenakis, 2012)

Norway is the largest oil and gas producer in Europe and mpeting with Russia. They are generating huge amount of cash on oil exports therefore it hard taking serious such a study. Norway 100% hydropower country therefore electric vehicles are ideal for them. For me much more important issue are urban polution and peak oil than those 'study' speculations. If not looking dor more advanced solutions lets go to the caves.

People are finally waking up to the fact that electric cars will cause more CO2 than a good hybrid (50+ mpg) will, because most of the extra electricity will come from having to crank up the inefficient coal plants.

It's about time. I've been talking about this for years now.

@Lucas- Ludicrously, you've ignored or are completely ignorant of all the technical and economic data about wind turbines and PV panels produced in the past several decades up to now! Just Ludicrous, Lucas!!!!
Tell it to him one more time, Bob!

@Kit P- Keep Pulling out and Keep Piling up those Oil-Promoting arguments again, eh?

Those who work for the oil industry would obviously use this study to promote the status quo, completely ignorant of the fact that oil is running scarce and will run out.

Those with a little bit of common sense would look at this study and conclude that while PEV's will give us the means to be independence of petroleum, to help reduce the impact of GW, we will need to move toward 100% GHG-free electricity generation. That's all. No need to delay the adoption of PEV's and suffer one oil shock after another, and finally, get caught with your pants down when the oil will run out!

When 100% of power generation will be GHG-free, then the GWP (Global Warming Potential) of PEV's will be ZERO. That's right, when all the manufacturing will be done using GHG-free electricity, there will be no longer any GWP from battery manufacturing.
However, if we keep using petrol-burning vehicles, we will continue to emit CO2 and other pollutants.

And here for some comic relief from the article:
"•For all scenarios, human toxicity potential (HTP), mineral depletion potential (MDP), and freshwater eco-toxicity potential (FETP) are caused primarily by the supply chains involved in the production of the vehicles[BEV's]."

Oh, yeah, have they counted the countless number of oil spills and how these have contaminated the environment? The amount of chemicals spilled into the ground and released in the atmosphere from the oil refinery process? How much lead and blood have been spilled in the Middle East to secure the oil supply to America et al?

How much pollution is released when Renewable Energy electricity is being generated? ZERO! Or when a PEV is being charged or operated? ZERO!

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