Making cars electric is the easy part. In order for electric vehicles to be truly green, they will also have to be powered by clean energy.
The world’s roads are becoming increasingly congested with more than 1 billion passenger cars already on them. Millions more are added each month as well over 70 million new cars are manufactured every year. The vast majority of those vehicles have internal combustion engines, which means they emit large amounts of CO2, which exacerbates climate change. They also release pollutants that continue to befoul our air.
A solution to both problems — rampant CO2 emissions and air pollution — lies in electric vehicles. This is especially true in China and India, the world’s most populous countries with the highest CO2 emissions, where rapid economic growth is driving an upsurge in the number of privately owned passenger cars and other vehicles.
In a bid to cut back on harmful emissions, both countries have been turning to electric vehicles. China already boasts the largest share of EVs in the world and Beijing is exploring an ambitious plan to ensure that 60% of all automobiles sold in the country will run on electric motors by 2035. India is following suit by pushing for a large-scale adoption of electric vehicles from passenger cars to motorcycles to motorized rickshaws.
However, making cars electric is the easy part. In order for electric vehicles to be truly green, they will also have to be powered by clean energy. And in that area both China and India are falling short as they continue to rely heavily on coal for electricity generation. In China nearly two-thirds of domestically generated electricity is still produced by the burning of coal, while in India coal-fired plants generate 72% of the country’s electricity.
China remains the planet’s largest producer and consumer of coal, as well as the world’s largest user of coal-derived electricity. The percentage of coal in the country’s energy mix has fallen from 80% in 2010 to 60% today, yet that ratio still means that 4.4 billion tons of coal are burned annually. The more than one million electric vehicles currently on the country’s roads are powered by electricity derived largely from coal.
The situation is even more dire in India. In its embrace of renewables, the South Asian country is seeking to increase its installed renewable energy capacity from 78 GW to 175 GW by 2022, especially by boosting its solar power capacity.
Yet even as the country is eyeing a larger share for renewables, its energy needs will balloon in coming years. And those needs will mostly be met by burning even more coal, often at outdated plants that release plenty of airborne pollutants. India’s continued addiction to coal has worsened chronic levels of air pollution, already among the worst in the world.
Coal-fired power plants are here to stay both in China and India, two countries that together account for the lion’s share of CO2 emissions globally. Needless to say, this does not bode well for the environmental credentials of locally driven electric vehicles.
Some observers have called electric vehicles powered by coal-fired plants “coal-burners, once removed.” “[T]he advent of electric cars is not necessarily a boon for the environment if it means simply trading our reliance on one fossil fuel — oil, from which gasoline is distilled — for an even dirtier one: coal, which is burned to create electricity,” Scientific American explains.
For the foreseeable future, renewables won’t be able to meet either of the two countries’ energy needs. As a result, locally driven electric vehicles will continue to run largely on coal for years to come.
That is why they should embrace nuclear energy on a larger scale, some experts argue. By supplementing their growing share of renewables with more nuclear energy, China, India and other countries can reduce their carbon footprints significantly, argues Riley Adams, a senior financial analyst for a tech company who previously worked as a regulatory policy analyst in the utility industry.
“Nuclear energy, when handled safely, is an excellent resource to combat climate change. The resource provides immense amounts of greenhouse gas-free electricity and serves as valuable baseload resource,” Adams tells Sustainability Times.
“The [latest reactor generation] provides high capacity factors, near its maximum potential for 90-95% of the time. Most other resources on the power grid offer far lower capacity utilization and far more greenhouse gas emissions, should the resource match an equivalent output. Other fossil fuel sources provide high amounts of electricity output, such as goal and gas, but come with carbon dioxide among other harmful chemicals,” Adams explains.
“Renewable resources, on the other hand, offer far lower capacity factor scores. Single-axis tracking solar farms average 20-35% capacity factors if well-situated in a sun-rich area,” he goes on. “To increase this output would require energy storage which is currently uneconomic. Wind power offers similar capacity factors but often during off-peak periods when energy is less in need. Nuclear power generates on the hottest days or the coldest nights and emits no greenhouse gases.”
Current mobile EV charging systems place peak demand on the power grid in the morning and evening – times of the day when renewables like solar are only producing insufficient amounts of power. According to CEO of Bannerman Resources Brandon Munro, this is where nuclear’s advantage fully comes to bear. “That’s where nuclear comes in, namely in covering the increased base-load requirement resulting from EV charge demand. In home charging – where people get home and then plug their vehicle in – overnight electricity storage resources will be depleted. This highlights the opportunity for nuclear energy in sustaining base-loading during off-peak non-solar periods.”
Indeed, as EVs are set to become a staple even in the West, policy-makers should be aware what this means for electricity generation if these vehicles are to reach their full potential.