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The biggest arguments against electric cars - and how they're completely wrong

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By Arvea Marieni

· 6 min read

Speaking at a conference last week, Dallara CEO Andrea Pontremoli sharply criticised the pressure to transition to electric power trains in the automotive industry. His statements, taken up widely and uncritically by the Italian press, are not new. But above all, they are based on wrong figures and data. I take this opportunity to set the record straight and correct misinformation.

For prudence's sake, before writing, I consulted a number of authoritative experts, including Maurizio Maggiore, who works at the European Commission's Directorate General for Research and Innovation.

Pontremoli said: 'Let me give you a number: electricity consumption in Italy is 310 terawatt hours per year. If tomorrow morning the 32 million cars we have in Italy all became electric, they would consume another 310 terawatt hours per year. So we have to double our energy production. We are creating a problem for ourselves'.

The statement is simply wrong. Electric cars would lead to a mere 12-17% increase in annual electricity consumption. Using the available data, we can do some simple calculations. Today we consume around 7 million tonnes of petrol a year, which equates to around 10 billion litres. If one litre of petrol is equivalent to 8.9 kWh of energy, we arrive at approximately 89 billion kWh, or 89TWh (versus the 310TWh stated by Dallara).

Of course, the consumption of diesel cars must also be added to the calculation. This leads us to multiply by two (the fleets are more or less the same), giving a total of about 40 million vehicles, and not 32 as Pontremoli stated. This results in a consumption of about 180 TWh (not 310TWh).

What the public is not told is that electric cars today consume (conservative figures) only 20%-30% of the energy of a petrol car. This range varies greatly depending on the size and weight of the vehicle. Simple maths therefore results in a total of somewhere around 35-45TWh.

Errors are always possible. Below I provide the sources of my data for ease of verification.

We are therefore a long way from doubling our annual electricity consumption. The expected growth, instead, is quite limited and it will happen gradually, as it will be spread over twenty or thirty years.

We shouldn’t forget that EVs batteries can help stabilise the electricity grid and increase its capacity to absorb renewables. Peak shaving and load shifting are well-known terms in the energy industry that have existed long before electric cars. Smart EV charging solutions are being developed with V2G (vehicle-to-grid) being the one of the first of the emerging industry buzz names.

With the improvement of public transport and car sharing in cities, a reduction in car use is also foreseen. According to the long-term strategy published at the end of 2020 by the Italian government, we will go from 40 million cars today to 24 million by 2050.

In sum, EVs do not represent a drain on our electric grids; but they are rather an opportunity that can be exploited while we proceed to decarbonise the power system.

To take a glimpse of the future, look at China. The question is whether we are not putting our industrial capacity at risk while fighting rearguard battles.

While in Europe we cling to the past, our car industry is losing market shares to international competitors. EU companies are struggling in the Chinese market, while the Chinese newcomers (and Tesla) are gaining ground here. Last week, the car rental company Sixt announced the purchase of 100,000 electric vehicles made in China (the manufacturer is BYD) for its European fleet between now and 2028. This is self-inflicted harm.

A final point on eFuels, which Pontremoli (like others) considers a miracle solution. These are his statements: “If you watch Formula 1 you will notice a sponsor that appears more and more, Aramco. The Arabian American Company, among other things, has a photovoltaic field in the desert in Arabia measuring 120 kilometres by 120 kilometres that produces a few million kilowatt hours of electricity that is used to separate hydrogen from oxygen using sea water. They then combine the hydrogen with CO2. They put this synthetic fuel into normal pipelines so they can distribute it over traditional oil channels. Even now there are canisters of synthetic petrol that can be used in today's engines: only the injection has to be changed. You can also use it on ten or twelve cylinders and during combustion you re-introduce into the atmosphere the CO2 that you used for production: so from a carbon dioxide point of view it is neutral”.

Assuming that the photovoltaic field exists (and that would be good news indeed), if you understand thermodynamics even a bit, this is energy blasphemy.

The simple truth is that eFuels are highly inefficient. In fact, they consume five times more electricity than an electric car for the same number of kilometres driven. This should suffice to close the argument. eFuels are far from being a viable solution to the many concomitant problems of the transition to sustainable mobility and transport systems. Perhaps they might have a role in aviation, which is a difficult sector to decarbonise.

Moreover, and I will spare quick calculations, the production of synthetic fuels would divert valuable clean electricity from primary uses and channel it into extremely inefficient ones. The simplest and most energy-efficient solution is always to use electricity directly without conversions, which cost money and waste precious energy. The war in Ukraine has made it clear how important it is to avoid wasted energy. These days - and in the midst of a worsening climate and ecological emergency - we certainly cannot afford it.

Another sore point is the cost. We are talking of several euros per litre, without profit and tax. I challenge Pontremoli and others like him to present this as a truly sustainable and affordable market solution for all.

Of course, motor racing is another matter. I doubt, however, that the average person would embrace the logic as applied to Formula 1 cars.

And these costs will always remain significantly higher than those of electric cars. That being the case, synthetic fuels are a transition dead end – and a red herring – rather than a solution for the mass market.

Interestingly, even Dallara's founder, the iconic Gian Paolo, also seemed to agree when he was asked for his two cents on sustainable mobility in an interview a few years ago. The gist of his reasoning was simple. If you wanted to continue to race and pollute, he said, you had to be willing to pay €4.5 per litre for petrol. Dallara probably already thought at the time that eFules could become a 'rich man's' fuel for niche products, 'pour faire rouler', forgive my French, Oldtimers and luxury cars.

Issues of competitiveness and resilience of the European industrial system deserve some final thoughts. While we debate, China is forging ahead towards its climate goals. Europe could be left behind in every transition critical sector. Here, I would like to give you one last thought-provoking number. In 2022 alone, Beijing is installing a record 156GW of new renewable capacity (wind and solar PV), building on the total of 635GW installed in the country as of 2021.

Europe is trailing behind. Perhaps we had better do the maths, stop talking and finally DO what we need to secure a future beneficial to everyone in Europe.

Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Arvea Marieni is the Director of the Regenerative Society Foundation, the leading alliance for a regenerative economy. She is also member of the board and Partner at Brainscapital Benefit Company and a Principal Consultant at GcM Consulting Srl. Previously, she was Head of the Energy Transition Programme at the Strasbourg Policy Centre.

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