Electric Cars Underline a Larger Problem with the Energy Landscape
You may have seen headlines floating around in the last day or so claiming that electric cars aren’t as green as some think. While, yes, these are written to be catchy, they also leave out a large part of the actual news.
Electric cars, as a technology, are green. It’s hard to argue that a vehicle with zero emissions is polluting the environment as it drives. However, the electricity powering said electric vehicle may not be so green. The article making the rounds cites a study from the University of Minnesota which claims that if the electricity powering a vehicle “comes from coal, the electric cars produce 3.6 times more soot and smog deaths than those powered by gas, because of the pollution made in generating the electricity.”
Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science, wasn't part of the study but praised it to AP.
"Unfortunately, when a wire is connected to an electric vehicle at one end and a coal-fired power plant at the other end,” he explained, “the environmental consequences are worse than driving a normal gasoline-powered car.”
Here’s the rub: the problem lies not with electric cars, but with electricity generated from coal. Electric cars have made the jump to modernity and it’s about time coal does, too. Gasoline, diesel and ethanol are all better options than coal.
Green Car Reports cites the introduction to the study:
We find that powering vehicles with corn ethanol or with coal-based or “grid average” electricity increases monetized environmental health impacts by 80 percent or more relative to using conventional gasoline.
Conversely, EVs powered by low-emitting electricity from natural gas, wind, water or solar power reduce environmental health impacts by 50 percent or more.
Consideration of potential climate change impacts alongside the human health outcomes described here further reinforces the environmental preferability of EVs powered by low-emitting electricity relative to gasoline vehicles.
GCR’s ultimate conclusion: “Charge an electric car on anything except coal, and it's greener than a gasoline car.”
Also important to note is that the states with the coal-heaviest grids (Illinois, Ohio, North Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming) have the lowest electric car sales in the country by far. With headlines spun this way, it’s easy to see the problem as being with electric cars.
Co-author of the study Jason Hill noted to AP that EV will be much better once connected to a cleaner grid. I would disagree. I think EV technology is currently great and it’s our grid that needs work. Still, a good energy mix is currently conducive to growing our economy.
“Results given here should not be taken as a final statement that environmental improvements are best achieved by existing light-duty vehicles with less-polluting light-duty vehicles, nor that EVs are the best technology for every need,” the study concludes. “Instead, these results can be seen as an indication of how light-duty transportation fuels could shift to reduce increased pollution, and as an encouragement into the research of less polluting, more sustainable transportation options for the future.”
Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield of Transport Evolved perhaps sums it up best.
“When making academic papers and studies palatable for the masses, important facts are nearly always left by the wayside,” she wrote. “Only by reading the paper yourself will you gain the full picture, because every outlet—even this one—will add some form of spin, even if we try hard not to.”
Carbon dioxide removal revenues worth £2bn a year by 2030
Carbon dioxide removal revenues could reach £2bn a year by 2030 in the UK with costs per megatonne totalling up to £400 million, according to the National Infrastructure Commission.
Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades - although costs are uncertain given removal technologies are in their infancy - and revenues could match that of the UK’s water sector by 2050. The Commission’s analysis suggests engineered removals technologies need to have capacity to remove five to ten megatonnes of carbon dioxide no later than 2030, and between 40 and 100 megatonnes by 2050.
The Commission states technologies fit into two categories: extracting carbon dioxide directly out of the air; and bioenergy with carbon capture technology – processing biomass to recapture carbon dioxide absorbed as the fuel grew. In both cases, the captured CO2 is then stored permanently out of the atmosphere, typically under the seabed.
The report sets out how the engineered removal and storage of carbon dioxide offers the most realistic way to mitigate the final slice of emissions expected to remain by the 2040s from sources that don’t currently have a decarbonisation solution, like aviation and agriculture.
It stresses that the potential of these technologies is “not an excuse to delay necessary action elsewhere” and cannot replace efforts to reduce emissions from sectors like road transport or power, where removals would be a more expensive alternative.
The critical role these technologies will play in meeting climate targets means government must rapidly kick start the sector so that it becomes viable by the 2030s, according to the report, which was commissioned by government in November 2020.
Early movement by the UK to develop the expertise and capacity in greenhouse gas removal technologies could create a comparative advantage, with the prospect of other countries needing to procure the knowledge and skills the UK develops.
The Commission recommends that government should support the development of this new sector in the short term with policies that drive delivery of these technologies and create demand through obligations on polluting industries, which will over time enable a competitive market to develop. Robust independent regulation must also be put in place from the start to help build public and investor confidence.
While the burden of these costs could be shared by different parts of industries required to pay for removals or in part shared with government, the report acknowledges that, over the longer term, the aim should be to have polluting sectors pay for removals they need to reach carbon targets.
Polluting industries are likely to pass a proportion of the costs onto consumers. While those with bigger household expenditures will pay more than those on lower incomes, the report underlines that government will need to identify ways of protecting vulnerable consumers and to decide where in relevant industry supply chains the costs should fall.
Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, said taking steps to clean our air is something we’re going to have to get used to, just as we already manage our wastewater and household refuse.
"While engineered removals will not be everyone’s favourite device in the toolkit, they are there for the hardest jobs. And in the overall project of mitigating our impact on the planet for the sake of generations to come, we need every tool we can find," he said.
“But to get close to having the sector operating where and when we need it to, the government needs to get ahead of the game now. The adaptive approach to market building we recommend will create the best environment for emerging technologies to develop quickly and show their worth, avoiding the need for government to pick winners. We know from the dramatic fall in the cost of renewables that this approach works and we must apply the lessons learned to this novel, but necessary, technology.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency estimate a global capacity for engineered removals of 2,000 to 16,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year by 2050 will be needed in order to meet global reduction targets.
Yesterday Summit Carbon Solutions received "a strategic investment" from John Deere to advance a major CCUS project (click here). The project will accelerate decarbonisation efforts across the agriculture industry by enabling the production of low carbon ethanol, resulting in the production of more sustainable food, feed, and fuel. Summit Carbon Solutions has partnered with 31 biorefineries across the Midwest United States to capture and permanently sequester their CO2 emissions.
Cory Reed, President, Agriculture & Turf Division of John Deere, said: "Carbon neutral ethanol would have a positive impact on the environment and bolster the long-term sustainability of the agriculture industry. The work Summit Carbon Solutions is doing will be critical in delivering on these goals."
McKinsey highlights a number of CCUS methods which can drive CO2 to net zero:
- Today’s leader: Enhanced oil recovery Among CO2 uses by industry, enhanced oil recovery leads the field. It accounts for around 90 percent of all CO2 usage today
- Cementing in CO2 for the ages New processes could lock up CO2 permanently in concrete, “storing” CO2 in buildings, sidewalks, or anywhere else concrete is used
- Carbon neutral fuel for jets Technically, CO2 could be used to create virtually any type of fuel. Through a chemical reaction, CO2 captured from industry can be combined with hydrogen to create synthetic gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel
- Capturing CO2 from ambient air - anywhere Direct air capture (DAC) could push CO2 emissions into negative territory in a big way
- The biomass-energy cycle: CO2 neutral or even negative Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage relies on nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere for use elsewhere