Electric cars have higher lifecycle emissions than liquid fuels, says renewables expert

The UK government’s decision to ban petrol and diesel cars by 2040 risks “handcuffing” the country to an “unrealistic policy”, according to renewable energy expert Devin Walker. Significantly, Walker also notes that in some circumstances the manufacture of electric cars themselves can actually produce even more harmful emissions which need to be taken into account when assessing the overall lifecycle of electric vehicles.

"The ban of conventional petrol and diesel cars by 2040 may ultimately end up handcuffing Britain to an unrealistic policy.  I believe some major factors are being overlooked in the rush to draft a plan to tackle air pollution that can lead to costly and ineffective policy and regulation changes.” Walker says. 

“The policy is only directing its efforts on energy consumption and emissions by vehicles; neglecting the process of actually producing the energy and the emissions associated with this.”

Walker is chief technical officer of Renovare Fuels, based in London. He has worked as a biofuels analyst and process developer.  

“You have to look at the energy consumption and emissions of the manufacturing of new electric vehicles.  In some circumstances the manufacturing of the batteries and electric cars themselves produce even more harmful emissions which must be accounted for in the overall life cycle impact of the vehicle electrification movement.” Walker continued. 

“The goal should be to actually reduce current levels of carbon, NOx, and other harmful emissions in our atmosphere and the only way to do that is to use renewable feedstocks.  Wind, solar, and hydroelectric power generation infrastructure will have to be greatly expanded to ensure no net carbon emissions are emitted in the electricity generation.  One of the few renewable energy resources that actually removes carbon currently in our atmosphere is biomass.  This is because during the natural photosynthetic process CO2 is actually pulled from our atmosphere and incorporated into the backbone of the plant. 

“If you really want to reduce the cost of healthcare due to air pollution then you need to remove the harmful pollutants from the atmosphere.  Otherwise, you can expect healthcare costs to remain the same or be even higher and if you add more carbon to the atmosphere in the actual production of electricity you can certainly expect healthcare costs to rise even further.”

Walker also addressed Volvo’s recent announcement that all of its cars manufactured from 2019 will have an electric motor.

“You will notice that Volvo doesn't specifically state it will manufacture only fully electric cars.  Instead, it is being realistic in stating that hybrids will be a major focus in vehicle manufacturing.  This is because in certain circumstances, the power requirements and consumption rates of vehicles, buses, and heavy equipment make fully electric applications unrealistic; ultimately contributing to even higher overall life cycle emissions than compared to liquid fuel applications. 

“Clean energy technologies are now rapidly advancing towards the use of biomass feedstocks to produce liquid fuels. Utilising these renewable liquid fuel production technologies effectively uses the carbon already present in our atmosphere and incorporates it into the backbone of the fuel molecule, therefore closing the carbon life cycle loop.”

“If Britain handcuffs itself to only use electric power by spending billions in vehicle and charging infrastructure it will effectively remove options to take advantage of sustainable, renewable, and clean biomass based energy resources and may totally miss the mark in the goal to reduce air pollution and the associated negative healthcare impacts".