March 23, 2022

Do electric cars pollute?


Knowing if electric cars pollute and, if so how much, is very important to the many motorists who choose these vehicles at least partially, if not mostly, for their sustainability. We can say for sure that electric vehicle engines do not emit exhaust gases, because they do not undergo an internal combustion process, which translates into the complete elimination of CO2, nitrogen oxide (NOx) and fine particulate matter (PM). For this reason, electric vehicles are often referred to as zero-emission cars, which greatly benefit air quality in urban centers.

The question, however, is broader and also encompasses energy sources as well as the production of the vehicle and its components, starting with batteries. As we shall see, even broadening the analysis to include these aspects, electric mobility still proves to be sustainable.

How much does an electric car pollute?

The question of how much an electric car pollutes requires a fairly complex response. Electric cars, as previously explained, do not emit exhaust gases. In fact, the only polluting elements from their circulation come from the consumption of tires on asphalt streets and brake pads from braking. Which is why this type of car’s environmental impact analysis needs to begin upstream, both for energy sources and the vehicles production.


As for the energy used to power electric vehicles, those in Italy who today choose to charge their cars using Enel X Way’s public infrastructure (map of charging stations) already are using electricity coming from 100% certified renewable energy sources. After all, the Net Zero target of climate neutrality in Europe by 2050, and the intermediate goal of the Fit for 55 package by 2035, are helping to increase the share of renewables in the energy mix of the various European nations. In Italy, for example, 35% of gross domestic energy consumption in 2021 was reported as RES (source: MITE), which would have been higher if it had not been for a reduction in hydroelectric energy due to drought conditions.


The same goals are driving a more sustainable production of all vehicles, not just when making electric cars. In fact, some car manufacturers already have carbon-neutral factories for their battery-powered cars. And speaking of batteries, we will return to their environmental impact shortly.

Does an electric car pollute as much as a gasoline or diesel car?

A comparison with more traditionally powered cars is very important to be able to understand how much pollution electric cars actually cause. It turns out electric vehicles pollute less than fuel-powered ones in every part of the globe, as reported by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). According to their study, the CO2 emissions from battery-powered cars, “well-to-wheel,” are about 66-69% lower in Europe than those of gasoline cars in the same category, 60-68% lower in the United States, 37-45% lower in China, and 19-34% lower in India. The same study, moreover, predicts that by 2030 this gap between battery and gasoline cars is likely to increase, as the chart below shows. Indeed, it is electric cars that pollute the least.


How much do electric car batteries pollute?

The production of electric car batteries requires major processes for the extraction of materials to be used and the production of the accumulators themselves. We are talking about production factors that create their own carbon footprint, which are destined to be greatly reduced depending on how the batteries are disposed or reused. Our engineers predict that by 2025 Europe will be able to reuse 26 GWh of batteries and that by 2030 Italy will recycle 60,000 tons of batteries per year. This will contribute to making the automotive supply chain more sustainable by eliminating waste over the entire lifetime of batteries.


Moreover, the disused batteries that still have a good residual capacity, meaning between 70 and 80%, can continue to be used as second life batteries in other ways, in particular as energy storage systems. For example, to store energy from domestic photovoltaic plants or to have a reserve of electricity for industrial plants in case of malfunctions or sudden blackouts, as is the case for the Enel plant in Melilla.

How can electric cars reduce pollution?

Electric cars are making a major contribution to the decarbonization of the transportation sector and, in Europe, to the achievement of the Net Zero target set for 2050. Especially in urban centers, they will help improve air quality and reduce noise pollution, with significant benefits to the mental and physical wellbeing of residents and motorists. Think about every time you get stuck in traffic with the smog and the din of the cars lined up in front of you. Wouldn’t you prefer they were electric?


Already now, as noted previously, electric vehicles report a significant reduction in CO2 emissions from “well-to-wheel” compared to traditional cars, which confirms their sustainability. Besides, the percentage of renewable energy sources in the energy mix of European countries (and not only Europe) is growing, and the production of batteries is also set to become increasingly sustainable. This will happen both because of modern techniques for the disposal and recovery of battery materials as well as their potential use in other ways when batteries with a fair amount of residual capacity are no longer useful for electric vehicles.


Will the use of electric cars mean that more energy will need to be produced?

We will waste less energy, even if we produce more electricity. According to a recent BloombergNEF study, two possible scenarios are predicted for 2040: there will either be 730 million or as many as 1 billion electric cars on the road.


Both cases would include a modest increase in electricity consumption, 7% and 9% respectively, with up to 15% if buses and commercial vehicles are also taken into account.


So, will we consume more energy? No, because of the efficiency of electric cars, which exceeds 80% or even 90%, double that of the most efficient internal combustion engine. Simply put, while much of the fuel burned by conventional engines is converted into heat and not kinetic energy, in contrast, almost all of the energy used for electric powertrain engines positively contributes to the motion of the vehicle. In fact, the efficiency of the car’s electric motor is such that waste is reduced to a minimum.


The same can be said for the efficiency of electric car batteries, which can be as high as 96% for lithium-ion batteries, the current standard. In practice, almost all of the energy used to charge the vehicle actually ends up in the battery.

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