Electric cars: technical characteristics and environmental impacts
Institut für angewandtes Stoffstrommanagement (IfaS) am Umwelt-Campus Birkenfeld, Trier University of Applied Sciences, P.O. Box 1380, Birkenfeld, D-55761, Germany
Environmental Sciences Europe 2012, 24:14 doi:10.1186/2190-4715-24-14Published: 26 April 2012
Electric vehicles have been identified as being a key technology in reducing future emissions and energy consumption in the mobility sector. The focus of this article is to review and assess the energy efficiency and the environmental impact of battery electric cars (BEV), which is the only technical alternative on the market available today to vehicles with internal combustion engine (ICEV). Electricity onboard a car can be provided either by a battery or a fuel cell (FCV). The technical structure of BEV is described, clarifying that it is relatively simple compared to ICEV. Following that, ICEV can be ‘e-converted’ by experienced personnel. Such an e-conversion project generated reality-close data reported here.
Practicability of today's BEV is discussed, revealing that particularly small-size BEVs are useful. This article reports on an e-conversion of a used Smart. Measurements on this car, prior and after conversion, confirmed a fourfold energy efficiency advantage of BEV over ICEV, as supposed in literature. Preliminary energy efficiency data of FCV are reviewed being only slightly lower compared to BEV. However, well-to-wheel efficiency suffers from 47% to 63% energy loss during hydrogen production. With respect to energy efficiency, BEVs are found to represent the only alternative to ICEV. This, however, is only true if the electricity is provided by very efficient power plants or better by renewable energy production. Literature data on energy consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission by ICEV compared to BEV suffer from a 25% underestimation of ICEV-standardized driving cycle numbers in relation to street conditions so far. Literature data available for BEV, on the other hand, were mostly modeled and based on relatively heavy BEV as well as driving conditions, which do not represent the most useful field of BEV operation. Literature data have been compared with measurements based on the converted Smart, revealing a distinct GHG emissions advantage due to the German electricity net conditions, which can be considerably extended by charging electricity from renewable sources. Life cycle carbon footprint of BEV is reviewed based on literature data with emphasis on lithium-ion batteries. Battery life cycle assessment (LCA) data available in literature, so far, vary significantly by a factor of up to 5.6 depending on LCA methodology approach, but also with respect to the battery chemistry. Carbon footprint over 100,000 km calculated for the converted 10-year-old Smart exhibits a possible reduction of over 80% in comparison to the Smart with internal combustion engine.
Findings of the article confirm that the electric car can serve as a suitable instrument towards a much more sustainable future in mobility. This is particularly true for small-size BEV, which is underrepresented in LCA literature data so far. While CO2-LCA of BEV seems to be relatively well known apart from the battery, life cycle impact of BEV in categories other than the global warming potential reveals a complex and still incomplete picture. Since technology of the electric car is of limited complexity with the exception of the battery, used cars can also be converted from combustion to electric. This way, it seems possible to reduce CO2-equivalent emissions by 80% (factor 5 efficiency improvement).