Motor vehicles are one of the main sources of greenhouse gases that we produce at an individual level. In the grand scheme of things, industry and agriculture contribute more to emissions globally, but we can’t as individuals make significant changes to lessen their environmental impact. That’s why it’s important that we focus our efforts on the areas where we can make a difference, and one of those is driving better, greener cars. Right now electric cars and hybrids are experiencing a boom in popularity; with their prices becoming more and more affordable and the required infrastructure to use them becoming more widespread, it’s time to begin seriously considering them as a viable replacement for Internal Combustion Engine vehicles (ICEs).
Why go electric?
There are two main reasons to buy an electric car or a hybrid over an ICE: price and environmental friendliness.
When electrics and hybrids first began to appear on the market years ago, adoption advanced at a snail’s pace due to many (real and perceived) issues. Reliability, short range, and affordability were all common concerns. The market has now matured significantly and with a wealth of new models in both categories becoming available at different price points most consumers will be able to find one that fits their budget. As electric cars and hybrids have become more affordable, the potential savings they can generate over ICEs in the mid to long term have grown too. Hybrids have combustion engines that are supplemented with an electric motor and a battery, while EV’s are completely battery powered, meaning the fuel expenditure they generate is much lower than ICEs.
According to data from Department of Transport Statistics, in 2013 the average new British car could drive 100 kilometres on 5.6 litres of petrol or on 4.9 litres of diesel fuel (chart ENV0103). In that year the average car accumulated 12,700 km of mileage, meaning that the average new British vehicle consumed 711 litres of petrol or 622 litres of diesel (12,700 / 100 km, multiplied by the average fuel consumption per 100 km). With an average fuel cost of approximately 135p/litre for the year 2013, British drivers of ICEs spent close to £1,000 on fuel for petrol vehicles and £840 for diesel ones.
In contrast, hybrid vehicles typically consume half the fuel as ICEs (with some variation according to model and environmental circumstances) and given that many of the most popular hybrid models are self-charging thanks to regenerative braking, this means their overall fuel expenditure every year is only half that of ICEs. Add these numbers up over the lifetime of the car and you’ll find that in the mid to long term many hybrids are significantly cheaper than traditional vehicles.
Electric cars take this to a whole new level because their fuel consumption is 0. Full-scale electrical vehicles run only on their internal batteries, they burn no petrol or diesel, and the only thing that is required to keep them running are the electrons that power their motors. Electric vehicles need to be charged between uses and drawing power to load their batteries has a cost, but it is typically much cheaper than repeatedly refilling a car’s petrol tank. Electric vehicles can be recharged directly from a home’s power outlet, and studies show that 80% of EV owners charge theirs overnight at home instead of using public charging stations on the street. Most new EVs offer a range of 100 miles per charge, and the electricity cost of a full charge is typically in the £2 to £3 range. In contrast, an average ICE vehicle will need £8 to £10 of fuel to travel that same distance. Like with hybrids, over time this adds up to become some very significant savings. If we add in tax credits (EV owners don’t pay the Road tax) and government grants to EV purchases (between £2,500 and £4,500 depending on the rating of the vehicle), Electrical vehicles become a very attractive proposition. The biggest downside is range, which is limited to 100 miles per charge for most EVs, but with charging stations growing exponentially, making longer trips simply requires a bit of planning and intelligent route-drawing in advance.
What about the other big advantage, emissions?
Emissions reductions vary from country to country and region to region based on each place’s power generation mix (prevalence of fossil fuel power plants, renewables, nuclear, etc.), but broadly speaking, electric cars and hybrids produce about 50% of the emissions of traditional vehicles. For hybrids this makes sense, as they do consume fuel, but it is somewhat counter-intuitive for EVs. They run on electrons so their carbon emissions should be zero, right? That statement is half true. Electric cars have zero tailpipe emissions –they don’t even tailpipes!– but they consume electricity, a significant portion of which is produced by burning fossil fuels, mostly natural gas, at thermal power plants. What we need to look at when evaluating a car’s carbon footprint is the “well to wheel” cost, as in oil well to car wheel. Since most of our electricity is produced by natural gas, even electric vehicles are indirectly responsible for carbon emissions. For an average British EV the well to wheel figure is about 80 grams of CO2 per km, while for petrol and diesel cars the figure is approximately 155g/km. For hybrids and plug in hybrids the figure is also in the 50% to 60% range so overall, for both types of vehicles, it can be said that they produce a very significant reduction of CO2 emissions over traditional cars.