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Electrification: opportunities, challenges and alternative pathways in transportation

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By Sanghamitra Chattopadhyay Mukherjee

· 10 min read

The latest IPCC report is a stark reminder for humanity of the need to act urgently on climate to have any hope of meeting the goals of the Paris climate agreement. Accordingly, all sectors of the economy must decarbonise rapidly. Transportation is still notably one of the slowest sectors to transition to low carbon fuel sources, although massive efforts have been made globally to electrify certain modes of transport such as light commercial vehicles and passenger cars. Electric vehicles (EVs) are not only technologically more efficient, but they also release no carbon emissions or local pollutants such as SOx and NOx gases at the point of use, which makes them attractive from an environmental point of view in their locations of use. There are still emissions, however, that are associated with the power source and battery manufacturing. Moreover, when vehicles are imported into a country, there are additional carbon emissions associated with transportation and other supply chain processes.

In addition, there is a large body of evidence suggesting that EVs cause environmental degradation in addition to social justice issues in countries where its components, namely lithium and other raw materials, are extracted.

But although EVs are not the be-all and end-all of clean transportation solutions, they are definitely part of a sustainable future, and are worth exploring further.

Several life cycle assessments have shown that emissions from battery manufacturing can be paid off within as little as two years of vehicle use, which provides a stark contrast to internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles that spew out emissions and pollutants for life. As battery technology has developed and manufacturing processes have benefited from economies of scale, battery costs have drastically reduced, meaning that EVs, once almost exclusively the sole privilege of luxury car owners and wealthy tech enthusiasts, are now affordable for many middle-class drivers upfront. Besides, EVs are cheaper to run and maintain over their lifetimes. With further technological development, more EV models are expected to reach price parity with traditional ICE vehicles and most models should become cheaper with time even without taking into account the vehicles’ total cost of ownership.

In general, there are three predominant types of electric cars in use today: battery electric vehicles (BEVs), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), and hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs). An HEV has a petrol or diesel engine that works in combination with a separate electric motor, and can drive using either the electric motor alone, just the engine, or a combination of the two. The on-board battery that powers a hybrid car’s electric motor is relatively small, meaning that although the battery can be recharged by the car as it drives along, the car can only drive short distances using the battery alone. A PHEV has an extra battery and electric motor to support the work of a petrol or diesel engine. The main difference, however, is that the battery is bigger, allowing the car to drive much further on electric power alone but also necessitating plugging in the car to recharge the battery. Finally, fully electric cars or BEVs have the largest battery power but no engine support and need to be recharged via an electrical socket. Countries that have high uptake of EVs often tend to have a large share of PHEVs and HEVs as they provide a suitable ‘transition technology’ option. There has been a recent push in the EU however to phase out support for PHEVs and HEVs due to concerns over the true environmental benefits of these types of EVs. BEVs may therefore form the largest share of EVs in the future. Although the high initial investment, range anxiety and lack of access to charging points are a few of the factors that still make consumers hesitant to buy BEVs, big strides have been made in developing battery technology and improving the range of BEVs. An average BEV now easily has a bigger range than the average distance a European driver commutes per day.

However, even in places where the range of BEV models precludes the need for an extensive public charging network or where the charging network is already well developed, range anxiety is still often cited as a strong barrier to purchasing BEVs, especially amongst long distance drivers. In these cases, the barrier may sometimes be in psychological rather than material terms. Public charging infrastructure still needs to be revamped in many countries, however. As the number of BEVs on the road grows, the expansion of public charging infrastructure still lags behind, meaning that countries that have traditionally had a well-developed charging infrastructure in place are now facing the prospects of increasing queues and waiting times. Overall, the installation of charging points has been a classic chicken-and-egg story, with debates arising around which needs to come first to promote the other, as investment in extensive new infrastructure often follows a demonstration of the need for it, while EVs cannot run without sufficient infrastructure to power them. At the very least, home charge points for slow charging need to be ensured for all households, whether they currently own an EV or not, in order to prepare for an all-electric future. Drivers looking for a rapid charger at home may require a home upgrade, however, as most residential property would not currently have a three-phase electricity supply and are therefore not three-phase compatible to support rapid charging safely and effectively.

Certain other challenges exist such as concerns around materials and mining for battery manufacturing as alluded to earlier. The elements currently used in lithium-ion batteries are predominantly lithium, nickel and cobalt for which there may be a global mining capacity shortfall unless significant investments are made now to meet projected BEV demand. These metals are particularly scarce in Europe. For context, over 70% of the world's entire cobalt production in 2019, totalling around 100,000 tonnes, was sourced from Congo in the Global South. Due to dubious labour laws in some of these countries, and because there is very little legislation governing the sourcing of raw materials in the Global North, human rights violations in the form of aiding and abetting child labour and instigating conflict are not uncommon side-effects of mining for minerals that make up technologies such as EVs. In addition to these social challenges, environmental challenges abound. Extraction of lithium has, for instance, increased competition for scarce water resources in the world’s driest regions in Latin America, while mining of cobalt and other metals has caused extensive groundwater depletion, soil contamination and other forms of environmental degradation in parts of Africa, thereby compelling forced migration of affected communities away from their indigenous lands. Furthermore, the dust from excavation of cobalt and graphite contains toxic metals that cause respiration diseases and birth defects in exposed communities.

While research is ongoing to reduce or eliminate the need for mining in the first place, moving to a circular economy approach in the use and disposal of batteries now will mean that more of these minerals stay in use for longer and are made available locally in Europe at the end of life of a vehicle without necessitating the mining of new raw materials for every new car. The latest battery chemistries could also help circumvent some of these social justice implications by scaling back on scarce and toxic mineral use and using more abundant minerals such as silicon and sodium instead to make the next generation batteries. Importantly, it will be crucial to increase the fraction of lithium-ion batteries that are currently recycled through research into technological innovations and investment into stronger recycling capabilities such that societies do not end up with a battery waste crisis. Overall, the improper planning of the end of life of vehicles could exacerbate water and air pollution issues and cause adverse health problems for recyclers that handle these materials.

A further concern relates to the need to recharge BEVs through the electricity grid, which is a whole different ball game to refilling a vehicle at a gas station. Not only does it entail significant behavioural changes for the user, but peak electricity demand may also become less predictable and with more and more renewable capacity on the grid, grid resilience may suffer to the extent that blackouts and brownouts become more common. However, energy analysts have predicted that this is an unlikely situation at least for a good few years especially with the onset of bidirectional charging capability.

Eventually, smart metres will also help manage demand more effectively and battery storage will have developed sufficiently to strengthen the grid’s delicate management of instantaneous demand and supply of electricity. Vehicle-to-grid solutions are another excellent demand response strategy to help with grid resiliency wherein the vehicle acts as an energy storage system and returns power to the grid or alters its charging rate when demand for energy peaks. Our current grid systems are however less able to cope with ultrafast charging, which has started to penetrate the charging infrastructure market globally. Although they have the potential to drastically reduce charging times, making refuelling times comparable to filling an ICE vehicle tank at a gas station, they are power hungry and expensive, and therefore a poor choice when home or workplace charging can be used instead and is often the preferred choice anyway. Fast charging also runs down battery lifetimes faster. Currently, ultrafast public chargers have a place in some public venues such as motorway junctions but have to be supported with additional substation capacity close to the installed charging stations.

Finally, while high income individuals have tended to be the primary BEV takers thus far, public incentives such as grants, tax breaks and special privileges such as parking spaces for fuel efficient cars and access to bus lanes have helped other socio-economic groups perceive BEVs as true competitors to conventional petrol and diesel cars. Community take up is however not randomly distributed. Rather, it tends to be geographically clustered and socially connected, creating spatial pockets of adopters and non-adopters. Incentives like subsidies remain the best way to help reduce the economic burden of investing in EVs and thereby motivate individual uptake. However, societies cannot have large, sustained uptake using economic approaches alone if social processes such as social contagion are not harnessed simultaneously, specifically the influence of early adopters on other segments of the population through increased visibility and word-of-mouth recommendation. Social norms form the basis of much radical transformation through the construction of informal understandings of acceptable behaviour within social groups while establishing and maintaining trust within communities. Policymakers must take advantage of every tool at our disposal; peer effects are an often ignored yet critical facilitator of new technology uptake.

Notwithstanding the many benefits of electrifying transport, current transportation models are unsustainable in many countries. Planning to convert every ICE vehicle to a BEV will help to massively curb carbon emissions and local pollutant levels and is a welcome move. However, restricting passenger travel to individual cars provides little benefit for the optimal use of our limited land resources. With more and more urban spaces being dedicated to car parking in most industrialised countries, private car ownership has become a poor model of scarce resource use. In the UK, for example, private cars are not typically used at full capacity, with the average car transporting ~1.6 passengers for any given journey. Alternative pathways such as mass transit options that run on renewable electricity or other clean fuels and those that encourage mobility as a service offer opportunities to reduce traffic congestion on roads, are much more environmentally sustainable and potentially cheaper for the end user. Developing an efficient public transportation system especially in rural areas and redesigning our cities and towns to be more walkable and cycle-friendly are also more socially equitable and healthier solutions. Examples from India, China and others in emerging market economies show how public transport can be effectively implemented to serve the needs of vast numbers of commuters even at peak hours.

Overall, we need to rethink why we need transportation facilities in the first place and bring offices, shopping centres and other amenities closer to people. While the electrification of private vehicles has their place, most human needs can be met with even more sustainable alternatives. We need a plurality of solutions that rely less on mass electrification to solve the climate conundrum, and instead use the energy transition as a unique opportunity to completely upend how we design our neighbourhoods and lifestyles to meet broader societal goals. Given that we are also on the cusp of a biodiversity crisis, we have for instance an urgent need for more green areas that nurture more biodiverse habitats in our urban spaces. The climate emergency provides a unique opportunity for us to create a more connected world based on a common purpose and shared values that help us appreciate our place as human beings in an interconnected, complex and intelligent web of life.

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Sanghamitra Mukherjee is a recent PhD graduate from University College Dublin having recently completed a thesis on new renewable energy technology adoption for the Irish case study.

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