Comprehensive LCA report from Ricardo on behalf of EC confirms environmental benefits of electrified powertrains
Ricardo experts in sustainable transport, with colleagues from E4tech and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research Heidelberg (ifeu), have produced a comprehensive lifecycle assessment (LCA) of road vehicles on behalf of the European Commission.
With the shift to new fuels and powertrain electrification it is important to use life-cycle assessment (LCA) approaches in assessing the relative impacts of different options on a holistic basis.
The findings from this vehicle LCA study, the production of which was led by Ricardo and funded by the European Commission, DG Climate Action, confirm the significant environmental benefits of electrified powertrains (particularly of battery electric vehicles) for all of the road vehicle types assessed.
Our assessment has shown that over their entire life-cycle in the EU, new electric vehicles are expected to have significantly lower impacts on the climate compared to conventional combustion engined vehicles. The study also highlights key environmental impact hotspots for different road vehicle types, and illustrates the variability in impacts expected for different use cases local conditions in European countries, particularly due to differences in the carbon intensity of the national electricity generation mix.—Nikolas Hill, project manager and knowledge leader in transport technology and fuels in Ricardo’s sustainable transport team
The comprehensive report assesses the lifecycle impacts of representative European light- and heavy-duty vehicle types (cars, vans, trucks, buses and coaches) with 65 generic vehicle/powertrain combinations across 7 vehicle types.
It considers the production of 60 fuel chains for conventional and alternative fuels as well as 14 different forms of electricity generation, the impacts of vehicle (and battery) manufacturing, and vehicle use and maintenance including different ‘end of life’ scenarios.
In addition to greenhouse gas emissions, the report also assesses a number of other environmental impact categories, ranging from resource use, including cumulative energy consumption, mineral and metal resource depletion and water scarcity, to airborne pollutant emissions (like particulates and nitrogen oxides), and human- and eco-toxicity.
High-level results from the overall vehicle LCA analysis in the report:
Largely confirm / reinforce the findings from other LCA in the literature in terms of the identification of the main impacts and hotspots, and their significance for different stages of the vehicle lifecycle.
Demonstrate that the hotspots are similar between different powertrain types, though more significant for certain types or applications.
Show the overall significant potential benefits of xEVs (and particularly BEVs) already today (based on the current average EU grid mix, and projected improvements in this) across most of the impact metrics assessed in the study, for both light- and heavy-duty vehicle types.
Confirm a range of key factors that significantly affect the GHG emissions and other environmental impacts over the life cycle of different vehicles through the application of the LCA and detailed and comprehensive set of sensitivity analyses.
Substantiate that a number of other factors are significantly less important to the overall result than has been suggested by some previous reports.
Demonstrate that methodological treatments can significantly influence the overall comparisons (e.g. end-of-life stage methodologies for EVs; allocation of LCA impacts over co-products or the inclusion of counterfactual impacts for fuel production chains).
Results for the electricity production chains:
Renewable electricity production results in significantly lower impacts, compared to fossil fuel based generation except in the impact categories Land Use and Abiotic Resource Depletion (in most cases due to the footprint of and materials used in generation equipment).
Generally, the lowest impacts from electricity generation are seen with a renewable power generation mix with emphasis on wind power, hydro power, solar PV (photovoltaics) and—to a lesser extent—biomass.
Nuclear energy results in relatively low environmental impacts in most impact categories, on a par with renewables, with the exception of ionizing radiation.
Results for the fuel production chain:
When using mainstream LCA modeling choices (energy allocation, no counterfactual), are characterized by a good degree of “internal consistency”, i.e. they generally allow for like-for-like comparison of different vehicles within the boundaries, the data sources, and the data processing methodological) choices valid for the purpose of this study.
The implementation of LCA modeling choices (e.g. substitution approach for co-products, use of counterfactual impacts for secondary feedstocks, inclusion of direct and indirect land-use change emissions), provide meaningful conclusions and help identifying relevant future research areas. Limitations nevertheless exist with regards to the robustness of results obtained for several fuel chains when implementing those methodological choices.
Values for environmental impacts of fuel chains must therefore be taken with caution, with significant uncertainty ranges, due to methodological choices and limitations in the availability and robustness of data. The impacts of these methodological options are explored in the study through sensitivity analyses, and results for fuel chains were not included in the overall vehicle LCA analysis where data or methodological choices were judged insufficiently robust.
For the majority of fuel chains, results obtained for GWP impacts, using either a substitution approach to multi-functionality or an energy allocation approach, were similar. However, for syngasoline and syndiesel which are co-produced in an FT process, the results between the two methodologies can vary by more than 100%.
When considering the impact of diverting secondary feedstocks (wastes and residues) from an existing use in another sector (e.g. municipal waste incineration for power production), the results illustrate that for the scenarios considered, “counterfactual” environmental impacts could be several times larger than those from fuel processing but could also be large and negative (e.g. avoided emissions from manure storage).
The electricity sources (e.g. EU average grid vs 100% renewable) used to produce e-fuels significantly affect LCA impact scores.
The findings from the report also highlight the positive impact of existing European Union policy in directly supporting the move to a more circular economy and the initiatives aimed at developing a sustainable value chain for hybrid and fully electric vehicles and their batteries in driving down industrial emissions and improving resource efficiency.
The analysis also identifies further opportunities to improve existing policy instruments, such as in the areas of battery re-use or recycling and to further incentivise improvements in the operational energy efficiency of electric powertrains.
This has been an extremely important and ambitious project in terms of its scope and scale, and we’ve used a range of robust and novel methodologies and datasets to expand understanding in this area. The study has also helped provide clarity on the relative importance of a wide range of key assumptions affecting the environmental benefits of electric vehicles. We’re very proud of the research, analysis and methodology we’ve developed for this report, which will help European policy makers to better understand and subsequently reduce the impacts of transport on the environment and health.—Nikolas Hill
A Vehicle LCA Results Viewer has also been published alongside the report on DG Climate Action’s website, allowing stakeholders to explore the complete set of results for electricity production, fuels production and the overall vehicle LCA.