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How Germany's Plan for 100% Electric Cars Could Backfire

Volkswagen has just revealed the Cedric self-driving car in Geneva.

Germany has ambitious plans for both electric cars and renewable energy. But as things stand,  writes Dénes Csala of Lancaster University, Germany’s well-meaning but contradictory ambitions would actually boost emissions by an amount comparable with the present-day emissions of Uruguay or the state of Montana. Courtesy The Conversation.

In October 2016 the Bundesrat, the country’s upper legislative chamber, called for Germany to support a phase-out of gasoline vehicles by 2030. The resolution isn’t official government policy, but even talk of such a ban sends a strong signal towards the country’s huge car industry. So what if Germany really did go 100% electric by 2030?

To environmentalists, such a change sounds perfect. After all, road transport is responsible for a big chunk of our emissions and replacing regular petrol vehicles with electric cars is a great way to cut the carbon footprint.

But it isn’t that simple. The basic problem is that an electric car running on power generated by dirty coal or gas actually creates more emissions than a car that burns petrol. For such a switch to actually reduce net emissions, the electricity that powers those cars must be renewable. And, unless things change, Germany is unlikely to have enough green energy in time.

Adding up the extra renewable electricity needed to power millions of cars, and that required to replace nuclear plants, gives us a total of 321 TWh of new generation required by 2030. That’s equivalent to dozens of massive new power stations

After all, news of the potential petrol car ban came just after the chancellor, Angela Merkel, had announced she would slow the expansion in new wind farms as too much intermittent renewable power was making the grid unstable. Meanwhile, after Fukushima, Germany has pledged to retire its entire nuclear reactor fleet by 2022.

In an analysis published in Nature, my colleague Harry Hoster and I have looked at how Germany’s electricity and transport policies are intertwined. They each serve the noble goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, when combined, they might actually lead to increased emissions.

We investigated what it would take for Germany to keep to its announcements and fully electrify its road transportation – and what that would mean for emissions. Our research shows that you can’t simply erase fossil fuels from both energy and transport in one go, as Germany may be about to find out.

Less energy, more electricity

It’s certainly true that replacing internal combustion vehicles with electric ones would overnight lead to a huge reduction in Germany’s energy needs. This is because electric cars are far more efficient. When petrol is burned, just 30% or less of the energy released is actually used to move the car forwards – the rest goes into exhaust heat, water pumps and other inefficiencies. Electric cars do lose some energy through recharging their batteries, but overall at least 75% goes into actual movement.

Each year, German vehicles burn around 572 terawatt-hour (TWh)‘s worth of liquid fuels. Based on the above efficiency savings, a fully electrified road transport sector would use around 229 TWh. So Germany would use less energy overall (as petrol is a source of energy) but it would need an astonishing amount of new renewable or nuclear generation.

And there is another issue: Germany also plans to phase out its nuclear power plants, ideally by 2022, but 2030 at the latest. This creates a further void of 92TWh to be filled.

Adding up the extra renewable electricity needed to power millions of cars, and that required to replace nuclear plants, gives us a total of 321 TWh of new generation required by 2030. That’s equivalent to dozens of massive new power stations.

If Germany really does want a substantial reduction in vehicle emissions, its energy and transport policies must work in sync

Even if renewable energy expands at the maximum rate allowed by Germany’s latest plan, it will still only cover around 63 TWh of what’s required. Hydro, geothermal and biomass don’t suffer from the same intermittency problems as wind or solar, yet the country is already close to its potential in all three.

This therefore means the rest of the gap – an enormous 258 TWh – will have to be filled by coal or natural gas. That is the the current total electricity consumption of Spain, or ten Irelands.

Germany could choose to fill the gap entirely with coal or gas plants. However, relying entirely on coal would lead to further annual emissions of 260 million tonnes of carbon dioxide while gas alone would mean 131m tonnes.

By comparison, German road transport currently emits around 156m tonnes of CO2, largely from car exhausts. Therefore, unless the electricity shortfall is filled almost entirely with new natural gas plants, Germany could switch to 100% electric cars and it would still end up with a net increase in emissions.

 

Germany’s electricity sector in 2030? Denes Csala, Author provided

The above chart shows a more realistic scenario where half of the necessary electricity for electric cars would come from new gas plants and half from new coal plants. We have assumed both coal and gas would become 25% more efficient. In this relatively likely scenario, the emissions of the road transportation sector actually increase by 20%, or 32 million tonnes of CO2 (comparable to Uruguay or Montana’s annual emissions).

If Germany really does want a substantial reduction in vehicle emissions, its energy and transport policies must work in sync. Instead of capping new solar plants or wind farms, it should delay the nuclear phase-out and focus on getting better at predicting electricity demand and storing renewable energy.

This article was first published on The Conversation and is republished here with permission.

Dénes Csala's picture

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Jarmo Mikkonen's picture
Jarmo Mikkonen on March 9, 2017

I have made the same point in my comments earlier. If you want to get environmental benefits from electric cars, you have to clean the grid first.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on March 9, 2017

The main problem with ICE cars is the poisonous exhaust gas (including mp’s). It shortens life of people living near busy highways and in busy city centers with up to two years according to EU study. Hence the rules that older and diesel cars are not allowed in many German city centers.
That problem would be solved greatly with electric cars. Even if all electricity would be generated by lignite burning power plants, it would be far more healthy for the population (those power plants have filters that take pm’s etc. out of the exhaust gas).

Anyway, the transition towards electric cars will go much slower. Even much richer Norway won’t take ICE cars off the road though it plans that people will buy only electric cars after ~2024. So even in Norway ~50% of the cars will be ICE in 2030.

The idea that there would be a cap regarding the share of renewable (45% in 2025) as stated in the reference of the post, is wrong. It’s a target. And history shows that the Energiewende usually surpasses its targets.
E.g. For 2020 the renewable target was 35% of consumed electricity. But that target is left behind as in 2016 it was already 32% and the av. increase in past 6 year is 2.4%/a, so that target would be surpassed greatly.

Sébastien Yaouanc's picture
Sébastien Yaouanc on March 10, 2017

In my opinion, electric cars will help cleaning the grid…
If you use the good incensitive, peoples will charge their car when there is too mutch electricity (in the middle of the night, during WE…). So more EV means more renewable energy.
Anyway, today the CO2 content of german electricity was 477g/kWh in 2012, witch gives you 71g/km for a car that consume 15 kWh/100km. That’s 30% better than the équivalent ICE car.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on March 10, 2017

It’s certainly true that replacing internal combustion vehicles with electric ones would overnight lead to a huge reduction in Germany’s energy needs. This is because electric cars are far more efficient.

Actually, this is not true. If the energy is produced by thermal sources such as gas, coal, biomass, solar thermal or nuclear, the primary energy requirement is just about the same. Losses in thermal plants, distribution and charging is pretty close to losses in ICE vehicles. There’s no free lunch to be had there.

For non-thermal sources, most calculations adjust for energy quality by dividing non-thermal energy production by 0.38 or so, to put them on even footing. (Otherwise, global nuclear would look larger than hydro even though hydro is producing more electricity.)

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on March 10, 2017

Wind varies on too long timescales to get help from charging, and using solar requires workplaces to put up a lot of infrastructure in company parking lots. In Germany, charging at night and weekends does the opposite of helping to clean up the grid (if nuclear isn’t retained). Charging at night will then mostly utilize excess fossil baseload capacity.

My Nissan Leaf use 16 kWh/100 km in summertime and at least 20 kWh/100 km in wintertime. With 18 kWh/100 km average, most of your gain has vanished.

But I think electrics are good anyway. They do offer fuel flexibility and no local emissions. Cleaning the grid can and should be done in parallel. We all know Germany should go for nuclear instead and it might wake up to that insight in the 2030-ies or so.

Sébastien Yaouanc's picture
Sébastien Yaouanc on March 10, 2017

The new EVs have a range about 300 km in real life,
The average distance drived per year is (in France, but I don’t think it’s very different in germany) 17000 kms for ICE and 10 000 for EV.
So, you don’t nead to charge each night, 300 kms will most of the times drive you for one week.
If you’ve got an option to choose “Full charge” (When you need long range) or “Half charge” (for job commuting), most of the times you’ll choose “Half charge”. In this case, the car will wait for an “oportunity” to charge full from renewables.

With this system EV help a lot in integrating more renewables to the grid (And they cost half the price of new nuclear).

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on March 10, 2017

EV distance will equalize with ICE distance. Possibly EV might go higher, since marginal cost for additional driving is lower. In practice, charging will happen when the owner can and also bothers to plug in. Probably night-time. People will want to not have too low a charge, because who knows when you need to go further?

That RE is half the cost of nuclear is green mythology. In Northern Europe (such as Germany) landbased wind and nuclear are similar in cost, whereas offshore and solar is more expensive.

Sébastien Yaouanc's picture
Sébastien Yaouanc on March 10, 2017

I don’t share your view on what people wil do, if they know the issues.
About the prices of nuclear vs renewable, yesterday we had the results of the last French auction on utility scale solar. The average price is 62.5 Euro / MWh (20 years 20% inflation-indexed), and that’s half of the price we had from UK for the Inkley Point EPR (35 years 100% inflation-indexed).
To be true I’m not a real nuclear oponent, but as a French, I know it will cost us a lot…

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on March 10, 2017

62.5 euro/kWh for solar is a bad deal. More costly, worse environmental performance than nuclear, with less valuable intermittent power. The German example should be a huge deterrent.

There’s a multitude of reasons the comparison with Hinkley is not good, and a multitude of reasons to not assume that the EPR is proof that the French has permanently lost the ability to make nuclear a great success. You have been successful and can and should repeat that, but you may need to make modifications to the EPR and scale back some regulatory ratcheting.
http://media.nejdetkanviinte.se/2016/02/nuclear-costs.png

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on March 10, 2017

EV distance will equalize with ICE distance

That seems highly unlikely given charging time is not on path to equalize with ICE refill time. So increasing battery size means increasing charge time going forward. A 120 kWh battery would be 1.2 hrs charge on the road, or multiple hours in a queue, and 20 hrs to charge on a 220V circuit at home.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on March 10, 2017

…that’s half of the price we had from UK for the Inkley Point EPR …

Those prices are not comparable because solar does not nuclear. Solar plus something else, usually fossil fuels, replace nuclear.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on March 10, 2017

At 200 Wh/km and charging on electricity from a CCGT burning methane (50 MJ/kg LHV) at 60% efficiency, you’re emitting just 66 gCO2/km even in winter.  There are some subcompact cars in the sub-100g category but I don’t think any are that low.  In summer you’re under 55 grams!

To the extent that you’re charging from hydro, nuclear, or the so-called “renewables” that number goes even lower.

I hypermile in my Fusion Energi for the lulz.  I can do a 22-mile (35 km) round trip on one battery charge, roughly 7.5 kWh.  That’s 214 Wh/km and 71 gCO2/km at 330 gCO2/kWH.  Running on the gas engine at 44 MPG, I make that about 125 gCO2/km.  This is a not insubstantial difference.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on March 10, 2017

…Losses in thermal plants, distribution and charging is pretty close to losses in ICE vehicles

Typical effciencies:
gas plant CCGT: 60%.
super critical coal: 40%
ICE: 20-25% (upstream refining another 12% loss)
EV: 85% inc charging losses.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on March 10, 2017

30-A dryer circuit @ 240 VAC, 80% of peak current (24 A):  5.76 kW, 20.8 hrs
50-A stove circuit @ 240 VAC, 80% of peak current (40 A):  9.6 kW, 12.5 hrs

Much more likely someone buying a 120 kWh EV would have a 50 A circuit installed than 30 A.

I’m anticipating some kind of charging-on-the-road, either by overhead wires or “third rail” accessed through a slotted guardrail.  Self-driving vehicles make this feasible.  You do a 15-minute charge at 200 kW cruising down the freeway at 45 MPH and you’ve got enough juice for several more hours of driving while covering 11 miles.  There are LOTS of ways to skin this particular cat.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on March 10, 2017

Potential fast-charging speed scales with battery size, so going to 80% charge should always be possible within 20 minutes, as long as charging infrastructure evolves to match batteries.

I live in a two-car household. The EV (a 24 kWh Leaf) does the 90 km two-way commute beautifully. The ICE does the 2 km two-way commute and the vacation/weekend trips. When both are available for short-distance trips on weekends, the EV is obviously preferred. Which one do you think does the most distance? It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? My EV does 25,000 km/year, the ICE 15,000 km/year, roughly.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on March 10, 2017

These are not typical, but rather ideal efficiencies. Average US efficiencies are 33% for coal and nuclear, and 43% for gas.

I switched a small Citroen C3 diesel (rated as an environmental car eligible for tax subsidies when I bought it) to a somewhat larger Nissan Leaf. The C3 required 5 litres/100 km and the Leaf draws 16 kWh/100 km on my daily commute. The diesel fuel represents 50 kWh thermal, so the ratio is pretty close to 3:1. With energy from your average nuclear or coal plant, it’s obviously a wash. From your average gas plant, you need 37 kWh thermal/100 km for my example, so then you save 25%.

Charging/transmission losses and refining/transport losses are probably pretty close too.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on March 10, 2017

7.5 kWh/22 mile electric vs half a gallon of gasoline = 1.9 litres = 19 kWh thermal. So that’s break-even for 7.5/19 = 40% thermal plant efficiency, and that’s probably what you get in real life.

And then we haven’t included that you kindof burden the Fusion with some battery weight, so it would be a bit more frugal if you went with an all-ICE.

So again, the thing with EVs is not that you save energy, because you don’t, at least not very much. The point is that you can choose your energy sources.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on March 10, 2017

Break-even?  The stock 2013 Ford Fusion 1.6 liter gets 27/29 MPG depending on automatic or manual transmission.  The straight hybrid is rated at 41 MPG; that battery weight comes with a huge efficiency boost, more than 50% better than the automatic.

My lifetime mileage indicator says 129.1 MPG right now.  Of course that’s only counting liquid fuel.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on March 10, 2017

Yes, fair point for road charging. However, at mass adoption levels (say, tens of thousands of US super chargers with 200KW plugs), I suspect pushing that kind of high power down to the road chargers will be very difficult for grid delivery, requiring new substations for instance.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on March 10, 2017

Not ideal but new plant efficiencies. The US average includes many old boiler plants, gradually being replaced. In the time frame envisioned above for electrifying German transportation, I imagine the efficiency of coal and gas there rises as well.

Point taken in the case of high efficiency ICE.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on March 11, 2017

The electrics shine in cities, but highway rating according to your link is 39 MPG and for gasoline 35-36 MPG. No major difference. I think gasoline eco-driving in cities would close some of the gap in city mileage as well.

But, ok, my perception might be colored by my main use being highway commutes and on top of that, I live in a very cold country where half of the year, the non-existing waste heat needs to be compensated by electric heaters.

In a warm country with mainly city use, I agree the electric with regen braking can save substantial amounts of energy over gasoline.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on March 13, 2017

highway rating according to your link is 39 MPG and for gasoline 35-36 MPG. No major difference. I think gasoline eco-driving in cities would close some of the gap in city mileage as well.

Yes, true.  A lighter vehicle has less rolling resistance and does better on the highway, but it’s interesting that the hybrid’s drivetrain still ekes out roughly 10% more.

I live in a very cold country where half of the year, the non-existing waste heat needs to be compensated by electric heaters.

I regularly drive very short legs which would never allow the engine to get fully warm, so even when it’s -20°C out I tend to not bother with the heating system.  I use ventilation to keep windows from frosting up, a 12-volt heater-fan for the one spot on the windshield that needs extra help, and aside from the electric seat I just bundle myself up.

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