Autos

Liam Denning is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering energy, mining and commodities. He previously was the editor of the Wall Street Journal's "Heard on the Street" column. Before that, he wrote for the Financial Times' Lex column. He has also worked as an investment banker and consultant.

China's offhand bombshell about potentially consigning gasoline-fueled cars to the scrapheap has met, predictably, with a round of cheers and jeers.

This is about one of the latter, which concerns the chart below:

Steam Engines
Almost 90 percent of China's power derives from fossil fuels, especially coal
Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance
Note: Data are for 2016.

With coal dominating China's electricity generation, a common refrain about electric vehicles is: What’s the point? A car fed by a wire stretching back to a coalmine doesn’t seem like much of an improvement over a gasoline pump.

It’s a legitimate point. But it risks obscuring a different, more fundamental point.

The question here is whether or not an electric vehicle truly results in less greenhouse-gas emissions than a traditional one with an internal combustion engine. This doesn’t just encompass how the vehicles use their energy, but also where that energy comes from and how the vehicles get built in the first place -- what are sometimes called “life-cycle” emissions.

The math around emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fuels and generating power is established. Meanwhile, some studies have also attempted to put numbers around the squishier concepts of emissions from building cars and batteries and producing and transporting fuels.

Different vehicles have different carbon footprints due to size, materials and so forth. For my purposes, I am going to use an assumption of 9.7 tons of carbon for a mid-sized vehicle, as per this study released by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2015.

Building a battery (I’m only considering full battery-electric vehicles here, not hybrids) adds further emissions for the electric vehicle. There are relatively few commercial-scale studies on this issue, with the ones I've seen offering estimates implying ranges of between roughly 150 to 330 pounds per kilowatt-hour of capacity. Taking the mid-point of that for a 60 kWh battery -- similar to what you might find in a Chevy Bolt or maybe a Tesla Model 3 -- equates to 7.3 tons of emissions.

Now the fuel, starting with gasoline:

Emissions from producing oil, refining it and distributing the fuel varies widely; Canadian oil sands, for example, require more energy to produce than many conventional fields. I’ve used the results of a model developed by the Argonne National Laboratory , which estimates about 5.2 pounds of emissions per gallon by the time it gets to the pump. Burning the stuff releases another 20 pounds.

Assuming a theoretical Chinese vehicle gets 35 miles per gallon -- a slight improvement on the figure for 2015 -- this adds up to just over 0.7 pounds per mile.

With the electric car, "fuel" emissions depend on the mix of power sources. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provides estimates of these before any fuel is burned. Using those, along with standard emissions for fossil-fuel combustion and assuming 6 percent of the power gets lost as it is transmitted over the grid, results in these estimates per kWh for the major power sources:

Measuring Footprints
Coal's emissions are more than double those for natural gas and dwarf all the other sources
Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Energy Information Administration, Bloomberg Gadfly analysis
Note: Assumes heat rate of 10,500 BTU and 8,000 BTU for coal and natural gas-fired plants, respectively, and 6 percent transmission losses. Solar and wind data are for utility-scale and onshore installations, respectively.

Let’s assume the electric vehicle gets 3.5 miles per kWh. This is 240 miles of range divided by 60kWh, subtracting half a mile as a conservative factor to take account of sub-optimal driving conditions and possible degradation of the battery over time. Use China’s coal-heavy power mix and you get emissions of just over half a pound per mile.

Now, assume both vehicles get driven 10,500 miles per year and last 12 years. Here’s how much carbon they emit overall:

Overtaken
The lower emissions from the electric vehicle's energy source eventually makes up for the bigger carbon footprint of its battery -- even with a lot of coal in the mix
Source: Union of Concerned Scientists, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Argonne National Laboratory, Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Energy Information Administration, Bloomberg Gadfly analysis
Note: Assumptions as per accompanying column, including China's 2016 mix of electricity generation.

So it takes about seven years to offset the emissions from making the battery, even with all that coal factored in. Granted, an 11 percent drop in cumulative emissions still may not seem worth the effort; a couple of alterations to the assumptions and you might end up with no savings at all.

But this brings us to the real story here: choice.

The vehicle with the internal combustion engine can be tweaked in terms of miles-per-gallon. But chemistry dictates that burning gasoline will always, more or less, send 20 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It’s a closed system.

The battery vehicle, in contrast, is an open platform. Its menu of energy options can change dramatically according to the types of generation in your region, whether you’re using centralized or distributed power sources, and even the time of day you charge up. Critically, all those inputs can, and will, change over time.

To see how this affects things, the chart below shows my estimate of life-cycle emissions for the two vehicles described above, but also for Chinese vehicles using the International Energy Agency's projected mix of power there in 2030 . For this, I've also boosted the efficiency of the vehicles by almost 30 percent, so the one using gasoline gets about 45 miles per gallon, while the electric vehicle gets about 4.5 miles per kWh. I've done the same for U.S. vehicles traveling 13,000 miles per year, and starting at 31 miles per gallon for the gasoline vehicle now, using the country's current and projected power mix:

The Power To Change
Projected changes in the mix of power sources imply dramatic reductions in life-cycle emissions for the electric vehicle versus what's on the road today
Source: Union of Concerned Scientists, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Argonne National Laboratory, Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Energy Information Administration, International Energy Agency, Bloomberg Gadfly analysis
Note: Assumptions as per accompanying column.

There are valid arguments against electric vehicles, be it their high cost or concerns around charging infrastructure, range anxiety or whatever. Yet it should also be acknowledged that all those concerns have diminished in importance over time and may well continue to do so. Certainly, much of the incumbent auto industry – not to mention some petro-states -- seems to be thinking that way.

When it comes to carbon emissions, though, the argument that electric vehicles are as bad or worse than those burning gasoline is already hard to square with today's numbers -- and that will get harder over time. It ignores the inherent potential for change and choice that an electric drive-train opens up versus burning gasoline. Oil bulls dismissing this should take note that governments look ever less likely to do the same.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. This is the Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Transportation, or GREET, model; released in late 2016 and updated earlier this year.

  2. This is the average for a passenger vehicle in China as estimated by Bloomberg New Energy Finance in a report published in March 2017.

  3. The IEA's "World Energy Outlook 2016" projects China's electricity output by source to be as follows (under the 'New Policies' scenario): Coal (51 percent), hydro (16 percent), nuclear (10 percent), wind (10 percent), natural gas (7 percent), solar (5 percent), other (2 percent). A new edition of the annual study, with a particular focus on China, is due in November 2017.

To contact the author of this story:
Liam Denning in New York at ldenning1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mark Gongloff at mgongloff1@bloomberg.net