The Geneva International Motor Show 2018 opens in two days. Running from 8 until 18 March 2018, the show will present close to 180 exhibitors. This year the focus is on electric cars.
Electrification of transport offers the hope of lower emissions, however there is a huge challenge that many are only starting to seriously consider: how to cleanly produce all the extra electricity needed.
Le News recently attended a presentation by a Swiss Telsa representative who opened by saying electric car drivers in Switzerland can sleep well knowing the electricity they use is clean.
How sound is this logic?
Electricity grids span multiple countries and power is fungible. Around 11% of Europe’s electricity flows through Switzerland. During winter it is a net importer and during summer a net exporter – see Swissgrid data here.
Once power is in an international grid, attributing any taken out to a particular source is arbitrary and meaningless. It must be looked at in aggregate. If taking extra power from the grid leads to an increase in grubby generation somewhere then emissions have gone up. It doesn’t matter by whom or from where the electricity is drawn.
The real question is: how humanity as a whole can cleanly produce the incremental electricity needed to power all these new electric cars? If, for example, the electrification of vehicles delayed the shutdown of coal-fired power stations, then electrification would effectively just shift us to coal-powered transport.
If we compare the emissions of a Tesla 90D Model S, running on power produced by the UK’s most polluting coal power station, to an Audi A7 3.0 TDI, running on diesel, the Audi is the clear winner. It comes in at 122 g CO2 per kilometre1. The ‘coal-powered’ Tesla comes in at 198 g CO2 per kilometre2, 62% higher.
If we take the more moderate example of the average electricity emissions in Poland of 683 g per kWh, the Tesla still loses with emissions of 137 grams per kilometre.
The emissions figure for the Audi comes from the UK Vehicle Certification Agency. The same agency calculates the Tesla’s emissions at zero. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EVA) does a better job. It shows the Tesla consuming 32 kWh per 100 miles or 0.20 kWh per kilometre but doesn’t attach a CO2 figure to the electricity consumed.
Car companies are starting to address this challenge. Tesla has come up with solar roofs, and Mercedes offers power storage solutions to help home owners get more out of solar generation. More storage helps to clean things up by reducing peak production. Electric cars can also be used as batteries to store off-peak power.
If electric car owners could take their homes off the grid, and use them to power their cars, then we’d really be moving forward.
Of course installing solar panels, exchanging your car for a bike, and putting any excess clean power generated into the grid to accelerate the closure of coal-fired power stations would be even better.
Energy is energy. As long as there is pollution in the system, taking energy out contributes to the problem by forestalling the shutdown of the polluting bits. The only actions leading to improvements are adding clean energy, storing off-peak power, and taking less out.
Energy expert Tony Seba is very optimistic about clean energy generation and storage. He thinks solar power production and storage will skyrocket. Because it is technology based, he thinks it will follow the S-shaped development curve seen in fields such as computing.
When the cost of solar production plus storage goes below the cost of transmission it is the beginning of the end of the power grid as we know it. Under this scenario most electricity could be generated, stored and used locally. In a world like this electric cars are the only sound choice.
If people then stopped owning electric cars and used them on-demand from a pool of autonomous ones we could take 80% of cars off the road, reckons Seba. If correct, this could really lighten the load on the environment. And a lot of city car parks could be used for something else.
At the same time, the far fewer shared autonomous cars needed could make life very difficult for car makers.
1 Data from UK Vehicle Certification Agency.
2 The UK’s worst coal-fired power station emits CO2 at a rate of 990 grams per kWh. A 2017 Tesla 90D Model S uses 0.20 kWh per kilometre. 990 x 0.20 = 198 grams. This calculation is approximate. It excludes the logistical emissions associated with the diesel, the transmission losses associated with electricity transmission and the gains from local storage. It also ignores the changing mix of power production between peak and off-peak periods.