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Are electric cars really the most environmentally friendly choice?

By Remy Maisel

Maybe it was the weeks of climate change protests in London 1. Or the talk of an extreme heatwave in Europe that’s about to ruin your holiday 2. Or maybe you read about the oil spill that’s been happening for 14 years 3.

Or maybe you’ve just been doing the maths and realised that an electric car could actually be a smart investment.

But if you’re considering buying an electric car, you’re probably doing it because you care about the environment. So it’s worth asking – is it actually the best choice? We spoke with Stephen Errity, Managing Editor at DrivingElectric magazine, and Andreas Mavroudis, Aviva Futures Mobility Lead, to find out.

Stephen became the editor of DrivingElectric because of his love of both cars and writing. “It's exciting to be seeing first-hand how fast things are developing in the areas of electric cars, charging infrastructure and renewable energy,” he says. Each week, he test-drives an electric or hybrid car as part of his job, so he’s uniquely positioned to talk about the pros and cons of switching to electric cars.

Andreas, meanwhile, has a passion for industrial design, engineering, and marketing. “How people, goods, and services move around (mobility), has always interested me -- from the invention of the first automobile through to the developments of new fuel types, more efficient engines, electrification and autonomy. In this job, I get to explore all those things. The best bit happens when all that knowledge comes together to reveal a picture of the future.”

How do people feel about electric cars?

According to Stephen, the three main reasons that people want to buy electric cars are to lessen their environmental impact, to reduce their motoring costs and to own and use innovative, new technology.

But, although electric cars have been seen as the environmentally friendly choice for some time, UK drivers have been slow to make the switch. “Based on Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) registration data, there are around 230,000 electric and plug-in hybrid cars and light commercial vehicles on the UK's roads in 2019. That compares to around 30 million cars on the road in total. I don't have an exact number for 2009, but only a few hundred electric cars would have been registered then,” says Stephen.

That’s because there are some common concerns that people cite which makes them hesitant to change from petrol to electric: the initial cost of battery-powered cars, that the range won't be sufficient (known as ‘range anxiety’), and that they won't be able to charge up easily when they need to.

“From a production perspective, there are loads of reasons people choose not to own an electric vehicle, and some are more obvious than others,” says Andreas. “Examples include the fact that the advertised range compared to the actual range seems to vary depending on which report you read on any given day, as well as the cost.”

A recent Aviva survey (PDF 297 KB), conducted by YouGov, supports this point: 81% of respondents said they would be concerned about ‘battery charge/range’ when purchasing an electric vehicle . It's worth noting that Zap Map currently lists over 10,000 publicly accessible charging points for electric vehicles around the UK, however 4.

Electric cars also aren’t the perfect solution to our environmental concerns. “While they’re on the road, they are definitely considered environmentally friendly, as they produce no tail-pipe emissions,” says Stephen. “However, concerns have been raised about the environmental impact of their construction, and the fact that the electricity used to charge them is not always from renewable sources.”

Andreas agrees: “The perception is that, because they are electric, they must be environmentally friendly. Well, in most cases, that’s absolutely true. However, digging deeper into the individual components that make up and propel a vehicle, this may not be as true.”

According to Andreas, around 60% of global electricity is generated by fossil fuels, so an electric car could be considered to produce nearly as much CO2 per kilometre as a petrol or diesel car. That’s why we need to look into alternative energy production.

“One thing is certain: the catastrophic effect that air pollution and noxious emissions have on health is serious. In the UK, air pollution is considered to be the contributor to around 40,000 premature deaths per year!” he says.Health deteriorates where emissions cause health problems. But you have to evaluate the whole end to end process – i.e. the brakes, the tyres, the road surface, the electrification. On the whole, they are far better for the environment and for people, certainly.”

How do electric cars work?

As Stephen explains, petrol and diesel cars work by igniting and burning a substance that has been extracted from the ground, to create a small explosion of energy that drives the mechanical parts of the engine and ultimately the wheels. This process creates emissions which come out of the car’s exhaust pipe.

Electric cars are driven by an electric motor, which gets its energy from a battery. This battery is charged with electricity, just like a laptop or mobile phone battery. Generating the electricity can create emissions depending on how it's done, but there are no emissions from the car itself.

“Most people in the UK charge their electric cars at home from a domestic 'wallbox' charger – the recent Electric Nation large-scale smart-charging trial found that 87% of users' charging was done there,” says Stephen.

Andreas points out that roughly a third of UK car owners don’t have a driveway. “Even so, most electric vehicle owners still plug in at home, at work, or both,” he says. “Most cars are parked for hours on end outside houses or offices, and it’s the perfect time to top up the battery so you have a full ‘tank’ whenever you need it. A modern 7kW unit will take a Nissan Leaf from flat to full in about four hours, easily achievable during an overnight or working-day charge. If you’re charging from a normal household power supply though, the process will take significantly longer.”

How are electric cars made?

Another concern that has been raised about the environmental impact of electric cars is the energy and materials it takes to construct and transport them – and how that may compare to a petrol car.

“It's impossible to put a single figure on this, as there are so many variables around the type of car: where it's built, where it's sold, how it's transported, what materials it contains and where the manufacturer's suppliers are located,” says Stephen.

Andreas agrees. “This purely depends on the design and specifications of that vehicle,” he says. “For example, this could be the capacity required for its charging infrastructure and the materials and components employed in the production. This is an extreme example, but recently I was lucky enough to look at an electric vehicle that cost £1.8million to build!”

However, we do know that there are some non-renewable resources used in the production of electric cars, such as lithium. This is a key component of batteries, including the ones in your smartphone, but the global reserves of the lightweight metal are finite. “There are also some human rights concerns over the working conditions experienced in lithium mining,” adds Stephen. “However, petrol cars need to constantly use a non-renewable resource – oil – to keep moving!”

Manufacturers of electric cars are also looking into how to reuse or recycle electric car batteries, which eventually lose their ability to hold a charge – again, just like a smartphone battery does. According to Andreas, the average electric car battery can be used for over 10 years if properly maintained – sometimes longer than the cars themselves. So, battery capacity loss isn’t as dramatic as you might think.

And when the batteries do need to be repurposed, they can be reused. “Manufacturers such as Nissan have been developing 'second-life' applications for electric-car batteries as early electric cars come to the end of their time on the road,” Stephen says. “The batteries can be used for power storage, both domestically to store electricity generated by home solar panels or wind turbines, and on a large scale to store energy from renewable sources and help balance demand on the National Grid.”

Is it worth buying an electric car?

Whether it’s worth buying an electric car is a question most people will have to answer for themselves, but there’s no question about one thing: “Electric cars are more energy-efficient from the word go,” says Stephen. “Depending on the exact model, around 60% of the energy stored up goes towards powering the wheels, compared to a maximum of around 20% of the energy in fuel for an internal-combustion-engine car.”

Stephen says that it’s difficult to put a precise figure on how many years or miles you would have to drive an electric car before you recouped the initial investment, as the exact cost of running an electric car varies depending on factors including your electricity tariff and whether you charge your car at public points. “Also, with so many people buying cars on finance these days, cars are seen as more of an ongoing monthly cost, like a phone or utility bill, than a big 'investment',” says Stephen.

“One example I use is this,” says Andreas. “In Germany, more than half of their electricity is generated from coal and gas. A person charging an electric car with what regularly comes out of a German power socket would need to drive 100,000km (62,000 miles) in order to "pay off" this eco-debt and produce overall less CO2 than driving a petrol vehicle.”

However, Andreas doesn’t consider personal ownership of an electric car to be an investment, unless it’s a highly desirable, collectable, or rare vehicle that may increase in value over time. “Commercial fleets and finance companies may see them as an investment, mainly through the revenues they may generate via leasing, hire, car sharing etc. But as ownership models are changing to accommodate more flexible use of vehicles and other mobility solutions, it’s clear that some business models are designed to remove the burden of personal vehicle ownership.”

Ultimately, if money weren’t a consideration, both Andreas and Stephen would buy an electric vehicle:

“I would probably buy a Jaguar I-Pace, as I love the look of it and it's great to drive,” says Stephen.

“With an unlimited budget, I’d buy two!” says Andreas. “Assuming I have access to the right charging capability at home… Right now, it would have to be the Pininfarina Battista – though, not available until 2020, this is a vehicle that manifests all of my needs in terms of aesthetics, design, engineering, innovation and heritage into a wonderful product that’s ultimately desirable. The Battista marks the birth of the era of the electric hypercar, and they only plan to make 150 of them. I only want one! The other one would be the new Lotus Evija…Google it!”

What’s the verdict?

Stephen: “Electric cars on their own are not a perfect 'silver bullet' solution for all environmental woes. Increased walking, cycling and use of public transport also have a part to play. However, electric vehicles do make an immediate and positive impact on local air quality when they're used, and as battery and renewable energy technology continues to develop, their global environmental impact will continue to reduce. They're definitely an essential part of the move towards a net zero carbon economy.”

Andreas: “We mustn’t get distracted by efficiency and material costs. The issue is bigger than this. It’s about internal combustion engines and the poisonous gases and particulates being emitted into our local environment for us to breathe in. Any other poisonous leak would be considered a major incident and whole areas would be ‘shut down’ to remove contamination. We know that fossil fuel combustion emissions are poisonous, and we know that they kill people. That should be the focus!”

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