E-volution - The ecological footprint of an electric car

Sponsored content Switch to German for original article

Listen to this article

We dive into the world of electromobility in this series with SWIO and show the way people, whether convinced users or pioneers, think. We also explain the exciting developments in this field and show how visions of the future are gradually becoming reality.

"Transport is just one of the sectors that need to follow the defossilisation path, but in the same time it is the one that is most difficult to reform." Dr. Aleksandar Damyanov's statement makes it clear why the energy transition could not be a sudden 180-degree turn but is rather comparable to a sluggish tanker that changes course: It takes time. But the Technical Manager at Green NCAP says that electromobility has already gained momentum. He should know. Green NCAP is an independent initiative that promotes the development of clean, energy-efficient vehicles that are as environmentally friendly as possible. The consortium has been active in the field of vehicle testing and consumer protection for decades – analysing cars, measuring their performance and communicating with manufacturers.

The electrical powertrain has an unmatched efficiency, but, according to Damyanov: "The real advantage of electric vehicles today lies in the possibility to use sustainably supplied energy and you see that suddenly the responsibility is shared – nowadays manufacturers offer very attractive, highly efficient, affordable electric models, but the energy industry and policy makers need to enable these vehicles to make use of clean electricity, otherwise the potential of the electric powertrain remains unused. Luckily, the European Union as a whole seems to be on the right way, but a lot of members states are lagging behind."

Dr. Aleksandar Damyanov

© Green NCAP

Anyone who talks about energy and resources cannot ignore the production process tied to the vehicles. The true environmental impact of cars can only be revealed by the methods of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). Aleksandar Damyanov explains: "The greenhouse gas emissions and the high energy demand associated with the production of batteries is a drawback, which is being compensated by high efficiency and increasing renewable energy share. Manufacturers are increasingly aware that their products will need to be competitive in the LCA race and take measures – by shifting battery production to Europe or going for renewable energy in their factories." The supply of materials under socio-economical standards and in an ethically representative manner is gaining importance too, according to Dr. Damyanov. "Soon people will want to know what materials and energy manufacturers use in their products and whether manufacturers’ green claims are really justified. The term green washing gains importance and there is nothing worse than losing trust and confidence."

Joanneum Research in Graz, Austria, pursues cutting-edge research at an international level. The research company is a scientific partner of Green NCAP and provides state-of-the-art Life Cycle Assessment methodology and data. "It is important to know that LCA should consider at least the two aspects greenhouse gases and primary energy demand. There is not much sense ignoring one of them as both are important for understanding the total impact. The effect of the gases on climate change is summed up and expressed as CO2-equivalent. The term primary energy demand describes all the energy that needs to be extracted from nature to deliver the transportation service – raw oil, gas, sunlight, wind and hydropower, nuclear energy, etc." The phases that are analysed are production of vehicle and battery, maintenance, supply of fuel and energy, usage of fuel and energy and dismantling and recycling (known as end-of-life), says Aleksandar Damyanov.

"There is nothing worse than losing trust and confidence."

Dr. Aleksandar Damyanov, Technical Manager Green NCAP

"For the vehicles we have tested, the usage phase calculations are based not only on the legal WLTP consumption values (Worldwide Harmonized Light Vehicles Test Procedure), but also on those that we measure in out tests under different conditions. This allows us to additionally show a best/average/worst case and by that help consumers to understand the impact of their driving style."

Damyanov emphasizes that the assessment of the production and end-of-life phases make use of publicly available data about global generic supply chains and doesn’t account for the production or recycling processes of specific vehicle manufacturer brands. This data is not available yet or in case it is, it needs to be proven and certified. "So, for the time being, we cannot tell whether the production of a 50 kWh battery of manufacturer A emitted more or less CO2 than that of manufacturer B. But the interest in this aspect is growing, also on a political level, and we hope to be able to present such data in the future. Our current system identifies the car’s mass, powertrain type, energy usage, exhaust emissions, driven mileage and country of vehicle operation as the main parameters influencing the environmental impact." Here are some recent European LCA results.

On December 1st, Green NCAP has released a new consumer interactive LCA tool, which allows users to select up to three cars they are interested in, set annual mileage and country, and analyse and compare the Life Cycle environmental impact of the chosen vehicles. "This is the next step we can offer on the way of strengthening the consumers’ role in a more sustainable mobility, for the sake of nature and people’s benefit, " Dr. Aleksandar Damyanov underlines.

Prof. Dr. Martin Wietschel has also tried to provide clarity in this context. The head of the Competence Center Energy Technologies and Energy Systems at the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI was involved in this year's study Langfristige Umweltbilanz und Zukunftspotenzial alternativer Antriebstechnologien. The study dealt with the economic and ecological evaluation of alternative fuels and drive systems for passenger cars. Cars that were or will be purchased in 2020 or 2030 and then used over the next 15 years were compared. "With our assessment method, we tried to include all effects, from the extraction of raw materials to disposal, and we took further developments into account. For example, the electricity system also has an influence on how electric cars are valued, " says Martin Wietschel. The study is based on the political objective of greenhouse gas neutrality. When asked about the complexity of such a comparison with all its variables, Prof. Dr. Martin Wietschel admits that it is naturally fraught with uncertainties. "But you need a basis for decision-making on political goals. One tries to cushion uncertainties with different scenarios. You change individual parameters for decision-relevant variables and see how big the influence is. Complexity must not lead to blindly going into the future."

"The cars have become more heavily motorised and thus the improvements in efficiency have been cancelled out. Yet the number of long-distance journeys is very small."

Prof. Dr. Martin Wietschel

The batteries have a significant influence on the ecological rucksack of electric vehicles. "The extraction of raw materials and the production of battery cells are energy-intensive. There is still potential for savings of 20 to 30 per cent with processes that are already known today. We must also brace ourselves for the fact that the battery will outlive the car in the near future. Furthermore, there are also interesting concepts for secondary recycling, for example in connection with domestic photovoltaic systems." Prof. Dr. Martin Wietschel points out that not all recycling makes ecological sense and that one should be careful how much energy is put into it. One should also take a closer look at the production of the entire vehicle, as this will account for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions from 2030 onwards. "There is still a lot that can be done more ecologically, for example producing steel on the basis of hydrogen. A holistic view is also important for plastics and glass to achieve closed-loop production." The expert estimates that electric cars will be economically cheaper than combustion engines in 3 to 4 years. However, he says it is necessary to do educational work, as the pure purchase price is still an obstacle, although the follow-up costs are significantly lower.

On the political level, the path towards electromobility has long been taken and, according to the results of the study, seems to be the right one. "The fuel cell is still relatively far away from the market and rather something for heavy vehicles that have very high range requirements, " explains Martin Wietschel. "Biofuels from plants or waste are a relatively cheap solution and contribute to greenhouse gas reduction. But we need them mainly in shipping and aviation or in industry where we have no alternatives." Plug-in hybrids have long been considered a transitional technology. "But in the company car sector, for example, the battery is only used 10 per cent on average. This technology is not very effective, " says the expert. If one aims for greenhouse gas neutrality and does not want to abolish individual mobility, the electric motor with efficiencies of up to 97 percent is the most sensible solution.

Prof. Dr. Martin Wietschel

Prof. Dr. Martin Wietschel pleads for a consistent expansion of fast-charging stations and criticises the trend towards heavy cars with a long range. "In the last few years, emissions from traffic as a whole have not fallen, but have remained more or less constant. The cars have become more heavily motorised and thus the improvements in efficiency have been cancelled out. Yet the number of long-distance journeys is very small." Since a car is stationary up to 95 percent of the time, bidirectional charging is the right way to achieve an efficient overall system, says Martin Wietschel. This means that cars can be charged in a controlled manner and then supply electricity to the grid again when needed. It has been shown that neither the service life of the battery suffers nor that there are problems with customer acceptance. The future is somewhat more uncertain when it comes to trucks. "In Germany, 200,000 heavy trucks cause as many emissions as 10 million cars. Industry and science are not yet in agreement on how to transform this sector."

Dr. Aleksandar Damyanov from Green NCAP reports some surprising findings from recent years that consumers are probably not aware of. "Electric powertrains offer the highest possible energy efficiency, but consumers should be aware that the advertised WLTP consumption values are gained in a test without climatization. Under cold weather conditions, the energy needed to heat the cabin is taken from the battery, whereas conventional cars make free use of wasted combustion heat." Damyanov points out that a significant reduction of the electric range occurs with increasing heating demand. Driving on the highway also generally uses much more energy than what many consumers expect, this is why, especially with electric vehicles, manufacturers need to further improve the aerodynamic properties of many of their models. "A cost hidden to consumers is found in the efficiency of the charging process. Often, people believe that the consumption figures on their board computers represent the real values, but they forget that this is only the energy withdrawn from the battery. The real energy use accounts for the electricity that came from the electric grid and depending on the model and the charging type, 10–20% of energy is lost, " says Aleksandar Damyanov.

Why use a wallbox at home?

  • A wall charging station can regulate the flow of electricity, which is gentler on the home's electrical installation. SWIO is a 360° charging management solution for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. With its charging capacity of 11 kW, the SWIO wallbox enables charging five times faster than at a household socket and is suitable for all e-vehicles thanks to its universal charging plug. The SWIO app and RFID card guarantee secure access to the wallbox. With the smartphone, the charging processes can be configured and controlled, and even adapted to the energy consumption of the entire house. For more information, visit www.swio.lu.

  • An appointment is made with the SWIO installation partner for a house check. The architectural conditions are checked and the application for the grid operator is filled out and sent in. In Luxembourg, all e-car charging systems with a capacity of more than 7 kW for three-phase connections (4.6 kW for single-phase connections) must be applied for and subsequently approved by the grid operator.

    After the application has been approved, the SWIO installation partner arranges a second appointment to install and commission the SWIO wallbox. At a further appointment, the grid operator checks whether the wallbox has been connected in accordance with the applicable technical guidelines.

    Each e-car charging system is connected to the SMARTY electricity meter with a control cable. If the grid is overloaded, the grid operator can switch the wallbox to a reduced load shedding mode. This means that the wallbox charges at reduced power for the required time. Afterwards, it automatically returns to normal charging mode, i.e. it charges again at maximum power. With the SWIO wallbox, you can therefore always charge, unlike other charging installations that cannot adjust their charging power.

  • The state subsidises intelligent charging points such as the SWIO wallbox with 50 percent of the acquisition costs (excl. VAT) and up to a maximum amount of 1,200 euros.