As sea levels rise and climate-change protestors grow ever louder around the world, the owners of electric cars may feel they are doing their bit to avert a global-warming crisis. If so, they may be deluding themselves.
Electric vehicles currently account for less than half of one percent of the world’s cars. That will change soon. Many countries, including France, Canada, the UK and Norway, have set target dates for ending the sale of gasoline or diesel vehicles between 2025 and 2040, and major car manufacturers are racing to dominate this new and lucrative market.
Around the world, consumers have so far been reluctant to embrace electric cars, but a tipping point will come when there are sufficient charging points and drivers realize that a car that runs on fossil fuel has no resale value. And when that happens, whether the electric car is going to save us or destroy us will depend on what type of power we use to charge its batteries.
When the UK announced in 2017 that the sale of new gasoline and diesel vehicles would be banned from 2040, there was a sharp intake of breath from the national grid. With nine million vehicles being charged daily, the current maximum peak-time demand for electricity could increase by as much as 50 percent, which is beyond current capacity. As this scenario will be replayed wherever millions of electric cars are plugged in, the most pressing question will be: where will we get the electricity to charge them?
If it comes from renewable sources, all well and good. Some countries are already gradually increasing the share of renewables in their power mix. But the overall, global picture looks very different. According to oil company BP’s 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy, the contribution of solar and wind power to global electricity production in 2018 was just 9.3 percent. Coal is still king at 38 percent and coal usage is actually increasing, mainly in the rapidly expanding economies of India and China. This is despite a 25 percent increase in the use of renewables in both those countries last year, which BP warns is not enough to keep pace with rising demand for electricity. A sudden escalation in the production and use of electric cars will only compound this reality.
Away from Asia, natural gas is becoming more important in electricity generation. In the Middle East, about 73 percent of electricity comes from natural gas. In Saudi Arabia, the mix is 60-40 between gas and oil, while the UAE is almost entirely reliant on gas. But that doesn’t necessarily mean natural gas can help to limit global warming.
Here’s a fact you won’t read in any of the glossy brochures for electric cars: in countries that rely on natural gas for electricity, a sudden and dramatic increase in electric-vehicle usage could tip the world over into irreversible ecological disaster. Far from making the world cleaner, we will simply be transferring the pollution from the tailpipe to the power plant.
Natural gas does have some advantages over oil and coal. According to the US National Energy Technology Laboratory, when burned in the most efficient, up-to-date power plants, gas emits between 50 and 60 percent less carbon dioxide than a comparable coal-fired plant.
But the Union of Concerned Scientists says emissions are not the whole story. Extracting and transporting natural gas releases significant amounts of methane, a component of natural gas that is 86 times more efficient than carbon dioxide at trapping heat over a 20-year period. In short, it’s not certain that natural gas emits less greenhouse gas than coal and oil, so adopting the electric car en masse could be a terrible and irreversible mistake.
Singapore is a case in point. In January, Elon Musk took to Twitter to complain that the government was “unwelcoming” toward electric vehicles – or, more specifically, toward his own Tesla brand. In fact, the country is pressing ahead with an alternative model to electric-car ownership.
On October 1, Singapore-based company Blue SG, which in 2017 launched the island’s first electric-vehicle car-sharing service, announced it had installed its 1,000th car-charging point. With 530 “Bluecars” already on the streets, it is halfway toward meeting its commitment to the government to have 2,000 charging points and 1,000 electric vehicles in operation by 2020. The problem is that 95 percent of Singapore’s electricity is generated using natural gas and the island state will rely on it more and more as the demand for electric cars grows. As in the rest of the world, the use of renewable energy is growing in Singapore, but not nearly fast enough to meet any sudden extra demand.
Nuclear energy is one obvious alternative, but building nuclear power stations is immensely costly and time-consuming and the impact is limited. For example, it has taken the UAE more than a decade to build four nuclear generators. By the time they come online over the next few years, demand for electricity in the Emirates will already exceed their capacity– and that’s before factoring in demand from the electric cars the UAE is keen to embrace. Add those in and the carbon dioxide bill from natural-gas combustion will skyrocket.
It sounds counterintuitive but until any nation is in a position to generate the bulk of its electricity from solar, wind, nuclear or hydropower, electric cars could cause at least as much harm to the planet as continuing to run gasoline- or diesel-powered cars.
The environmental ramifications of widespread electric-car use are largely unknown. The costs of gasoline consumption, on the other hand, are predictable and can be mitigated by improving efficiency and developing green travel policies, including taxation, car-sharing and the expansion of public transport.
Until our power comes from renewables, this could be the safest road ahead. Embracing electric cars may salve our conscience, but ditching the devil we know for the one we don’t yet understand could be a well-intentioned move that backfires badly.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.