Innovation needed to cut energy consumption in EV production

EVs may have zero tailpipe emissions, but the carbon intensity of the production process is a very different story. By Paul Loustalan

Electric Vehicles (EVs) have grown in popularity in recent years, with governments and industry queuing up to announce bold green commitments and new product launches. Over the past decade, we’ve seen EVs arrive from manufacturers like Tesla and Nissan. However, 2021 will see scores of new entrants from big brands and new start-ups will appear.

It is well reported that operational emissions are much lower in EVs than in conventionally fuelled vehicles. In fact, the most up-to-date data shows that electric cars in the EU emit almost three times less CO2 on average[1]. Yet, at this point in the life cycle the carbon intensity of the EV production process is a very different story. Perhaps 50% or more of the CO2 emissions from an EV occur before a wheel ever turns; this proportion only goes up with increasing use of renewable energy to supply the electricity network. With this in mind a full life-cycle analysis of the production of EVs is needed.

It is evidentially clear the industry has a lot of catching up to do and that collaboration is needed to ensure the overall supply chain drives down the carbon intensity of the EV production process

The clean revolution

How clean an EV is depends on how the electricity is generated, the efficiency of the vehicle and the efficiency of the supply chain. As the popularity of EVs starts to grow exponentially, so will the demand for raw materials such as lithium, nickel, and cobalt. These materials are used in batteries to power EVs but are also associated with significant greenhouse gas emissions and linked to environmental damage and unethical practices in many deprived countries. Developing innovative methods to recycle and extract raw material from batteries now seems critical to reduce the need to mine for ‘fresh’ materials and to alleviate future pressure on supply chains.

Moreover, a recent report from the European Patent Office (EPO)[2], which analysed the trends and innovations in battery storage patent filings, shows that while patent filings for battery recycling have increased, they remain significantly low, at just 436 in total between 2000 and 2018. These figures indicate that there is an urgent need for further investment, and research into developing new methods so that recycling rates can keep up with the surge in EVs and avoid further environmental damage. This is needed more than ever, as industry analysts predict that by 2030 the world will generate 2 million metric tons of used Li-ion batteries per year[3].

Perhaps 50% or more of the CO2 emissions from an EV occur before a wheel ever turns; this proportion only goes up with increasing use of renewable energy to supply the electricity network

Driving efficiencies in the supply chain

However, there are technical solutions to these problems, including among others, second-life use of automotive battery packs in stationary applications, and alternative battery chemistry that would make recycling easier and safer. There are also clearly related areas which will assist in achieving the ultimate goal of significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, including improved control systems for EVs, improved powertrain efficiencies, light-weighting, and heat management in battery packs to improve lifetime.

We are cautiously optimistic that industry can go on to develop many of the enabling technologies that will underpin a successful transition to the uptake of EVs in the next few years. However, it is evidentially clear the industry has a lot of catching up to do and that collaboration is needed to ensure the overall supply chain drives down the carbon intensity of the EV production process.

[1] https://www.transportenvironment.org/news/does-electric-vehicle-emit-less-petrol-or-diesel#:~:text=The%20most%20up%2Dto%2Ddate%20data%20shows%20that%20electric%20cars,more%20and%20more%20on%20renewables.

[2]http://documents.epo.org/projects/babylon/eponet.nsf/0/969395F58EB07213C12585E7002C7046/$FILE/battery_study_en.pdf

[3] https://cen.acs.org/materials/energy-storage/time-serious-recycling-lithium/97/i28


The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Automotive World Ltd.

Paul Loustalan is Partner at Reddie & Grose

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