E-cars are considered “zero-emission vehicles”. In truth, only the exhaust is somewhere else. Germany’s energy policy worsens the eco-balance of cars. In France, electric vehicles cause a fraction of the emissions because of the high proportion of nuclear energy.

While the EU has committed itself to phasing out internal combustion engines from 2035, there are increasing question marks as to whether this strategy will actually contribute to the EU’s climate goals. Up to now, electric cars have by no means been clean and CO2-free – not in production and disposal, but certainly not in operation. And the problem is getting worse with the Ukraine conflict.

Because now several negative factors for the German electricity mix are coming together: functioning nuclear power plants are being shut down and the gas volumes supplied from Russia are being shut down. That means a renaissance of coal. Economics Minister Habeck rules out a return to nuclear power – with the support of the coalition partners FDP and SPD. This not only makes electricity more expensive, but also dirtier. Even when electric cars are charged with it – and of course also when the label “green electricity” is on the charging station.

Professor Thomas Koch from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) has calculated the amount of energy required to operate an average electric car from battery charging to the wheel. With an average electrical energy requirement of 18.4 kWh per 100 kilometers, he assumed a total requirement of the power plants of 23.6 kWh per 100 kilometers.

According to its own statements, the KIT also included losses that are normally not taken into account; among other things, high-voltage line and transformation losses, losses in distribution networks and losses during charging of the vehicles and other adverse effects. On the other hand, special conditions such as particularly low temperatures or lossy rapid charging were not taken into account.

So far, the overall CO2 balance of electric cars has by no means looked as optimistic as is often published. Because their CO2 emissions are measured correctly based on the predominantly non-regenerative part of the energy network. Why? Because the regenerative energies are not sufficient to cover the country’s needs and everything that is required in addition to the basic requirement typically has to come from other, more flexible energy sources. And that is the well-known mix of hard coal, lignite and increasingly less gas and nuclear energy.

Under this premise, the KIT determined the CO2 emissions of an average compact electric car for the 1st and 2nd quarter of 2022, i.e. in the first half of 2022, on the basis of real-time data from the year 2022. A half of the year with a colder quarter 1 and a warmer quarter 2 is representative for an entire year. The scientists came to the conclusion that the average CO2 emissions are 175 g CO2 per km.

However, this value will no longer be reached in the future: In the 1st and 2nd quarter of 2023, i.e. in the first half of 2023, CO2 emissions will increase significantly compared to the 1st half of 2022, assuming identical weather conditions mainly due to the discontinuation of nuclear power on April 15, 2023. This would then result in a value of 184 g CO2/km.

According to the calculations, this value will increase to 196 g CO2/km when nuclear power plants are completely shut down in 2024. Here, the KIT has assumed for the year 2024 that an expansion of wind power plants and photovoltaic systems of 10 percent will be achieved compared to September 2022.

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In fact, things could get even worse: If the gas supply remains critical due to the war in Ukraine and the electrical energy contribution from gas-fired power plants therefore has to be replaced in part, then from 2024 Germany will only have hard coal and lignite as an alternative. As a result, the CO2 emissions continue to rise: With a gas reduction of 20 percent, the vehicle-related CO2 emissions of an electric vehicle in 2024 increase from 196 g CO2/km to 201 gCO2/km. A 40 percent reduction in the natural gas contribution even leads to emissions of 207 gCO2/km. In the next few years, electric cars would then be even dirtier than they are today.

For comparison: A modern compact class diesel has CO2 emissions of 153 g CO2 per km in a holistic view – beyond the pure consumption in the car. Filled up with the eco-diesel R33, the result is a value of approx. 115 g CO2 per km. As a hybrid variant, such a vehicle would emit around 85 g CO2 per km – and with pure HVO eco-diesel it would even be just 11 g CO2 per km. It is true that renewable fuels are not yet available in large quantities, so that the full potential is more of a theoretical nature. But even a normally fueled diesel could soon have an emission advantage in Germany because of the “reversion” to coal. Incidentally, the CO2 emissions from the necessary infrastructure development for electric cars are not yet included in the KIT analysis.

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No wonder that France, which also relies heavily on e-mobility, is not even thinking of phasing out nuclear power. On the contrary: six new nuclear power plants are to be built and the first of them to be connected to the grid as early as the 2030s. Just a few days ago, French President Macron reaffirmed his plans. It helps that the EU – against the bitter resistance of the German traffic light government – has officially classified low-CO2 nuclear power as green energy. This simplifies financing and approval processes. In Germany, on the other hand, only the wind and solar lobby receives special rights from the traffic light government in order to be able to implement projects more quickly and even against the resistance of local residents.

One thing is clear: the expansion of these forms of energy will reduce the country’s CO2 emissions, but it will also take a very long time and, above all, due to the lack of storage technologies, will not change the fact that Germany will continue to need other energy sources if, due to the weather, renewables are temporarily unable to cover demand .

Professor Thomas Willner from the University of Applied Sciences (HAW) in Hamburg points out: “While we would actually have to reduce CO2 emissions immediately to achieve the 1.5 degree target, e-mobility will instead lead to a massive increase of CO2 emissions compared to the status quo and thus to an even faster exhaustion of the CO2 budget. The focus of politics on e-mobility also prevents the existing fleet, which runs more than 99% with combustion engines, from being made climate-neutral as quickly as possible.”

The CO2 emissions of the vehicle fleet can be reduced immediately with climate-neutral alternative fuels: “Waste-based fuels in particular could make a quick and significant contribution. There is an enormous surplus of waste worldwide, which urgently needs to be put to good use in the sense of a real circular economy,” says Willner. And adds: “The required technologies are available and the corresponding fuels with increased renewable shares of between 10 and 100% are already available in Europe outside of Germany at over 8000 filling stations.”

At least there is a ray of hope: “Electric cars could be of particular interest to owners of photovoltaic systems,” says Professor Koch. Because e-cars could store excess electrical energy and release it at night. The expansion of solar energy in private houses and public buildings is therefore also an essential and quite sensible aspect with which the traffic light government wants to promote e-mobility. In the overall view of the KIT, however, this potential has already been taken into account.

However, the electric car scene rejects the calculation method of the KIT for CO2 emissions, preferring to use a calculation based on the average electricity mix. This results in better values ​​for the e-car, which of course are still a long way from the official designation as a “zero emission” vehicle; in addition, network losses, for example, are not recorded.

Professor Martin Wietschel from the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research wrote in the summer of 2021 in an article for the Science Media Center that Professor Koch asked whether the total CO2 emissions of the electricity mix should be used for the electricity consumed by electric cars or but the CO2 emissions of the marginal electricity mix, i.e. the additional electricity required. There are “arguments for both positions”. The standard, however, is the use of average emissions. Because marginal current emissions cannot be clearly assigned. In addition, electric cars could in future serve as flexible storage systems for excess wind and solar energy. Patrick Jochem from the German Aerospace Center and space travel thinks: E-cars could accelerate the energy transition in power generation and lead to negative marginal emissions, especially if the e-cars are integrated into the energy system as mobile storage. There are actually plans for such applications – but it remains to be seen whether and when they will be realized to the extent necessary.

Professor Lino Guzella, former President of the ETH Zurich, considers the calculation method of the KIT to be the better one: “I explain to my students the concept of the limiting current, which is relevant in this context, with the following thought experiment. Question: If you need an additional kWh of electrical energy, which power plant will supply this amount of energy to the grid? Answer: That we will be the most CO2-intensive power plant because all other less CO2-intensive power plants are already delivering to the grid at full capacity. Otherwise, you would produce an unnecessarily large amount of CO2 in order to supply the previously required amount of electrical energy. So as long as lignite-fired power plants are still active in the grid, their CO2 intensity is relevant for the limit current analysis. Depending on the efficiency of these power plants, a value of 0.9-1.1 kg CO2 per kWh of electrical energy can be expected.”

Regardless of which calculation model is used, it is clear that the energy policy of the traffic light is not doing the CO2 balance sheet of the e-car any favors by phasing out nuclear energy while at the same time shutting down coal-fired power plants. This is likely to annoy the German auto industry in particular, which has committed itself to e-mobility in the EU for better or for worse. It gets a bit embarrassing when Habeck’s energy policy turns the electric car into a coal stinker, at least temporarily, while the car competition from France can show an almost snow-white emissions record thanks to green nuclear energy.

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