Electric vehicles: Not all they're 'charged up' to be?

Image by Quinn Dombrowski | flickr.com

Image by Quinn Dombrowski | flickr.com

The electric car - designed to reduce emissions that are detrimental to our health and our environment (CO2, most infamously) - is an increasingly feasible alternative to the typical gasoline or diesel vehicle. Electric vehicles are becoming increasingly popular amongst drivers, and companies are taking advantage of incentives to encourage customers to make the switch to electric vehicles. British Columbia is a province that has taken the initiative to provide some of these incentives; for example, the 'BC Scrap It' program offers financial incentives for British Columbian residents to put towards replacing their existing vehicles with cleaner alternatives - including electric cars.  Although many people view the electric car as the best option to help reduce emissions, new research shows that this might not be the case, as total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions may not decrease. Why is this the case? It largely depends on where the electricity comes from, and where people live.

According to a study conducted by Sustainable Canada Dialogues, cleaner renewable energy sources are the key to more effective green technology.  If the electricity used to charge an electric vehicle is generated using coal or fossil fuels, this, in the end, can generate more emissions than an average gasoline vehicle. However, if solar or geothermal power is used to charge electric vehicles, adverse environmental impacts are minimal or potentially even negligible.

In order to prevent the average global temperature from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius by 2020, researchers out of the University of Toronto have concluded that we must not exceed an emissions intensity threshold of 600 tonnes per GWh.  Emission levels vary by country. Iceland is perhaps closest to being an emission-free country.  They rely heavily on hydro and geothermal power, which means that the carbon intensity of Iceland is close to zero. The overall estimated carbon intensity for the United States is around 500 tonnes/GWh. Canada sits at about 167 tonnes/GWh, nearly 3 times less than that of the U.S., thanks to hydropower generation in some areas.  Within Canada, provinces that are highly dependent on fossil fuels, such as Alberta and Saskatchewan, have a carbon intensity of more than 750 tonnes/GWh, while some other provinces come in at less than 20 tonnes/GWh. This inequality occurs at a global scale as well. Many developing countries, such as China and India, as well as coal-rich countries, such as Australia, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia, all have intensities over 700 tonnes/GWh of carbon dioxide. On the extreme end, Botswana's carbon intensity is 1787 tonnes/GWh.

To see improvement, we should be aiming to reach national carbon intensity levels below 600 tonnes/GWh throughout the next 40 years.  By investing effort in converting the electricity used by electric vehicles to renewable energy, improvements can also be made with regards to infrastructure and similar technologies.   Making the switch to cleaner energy will provide more opportunities for the renewable energy sector to develop and thrive.  It is possible that, over the long-term, the conversion to clean energy will be environmentally and economically viable.