“Climate change is, quite simply, an existential threat for most life on the planet – including, and especially, the life of humankind.”

— António Guterres (2018)

For the past decade, the world has witnessed the incremental transformation of the mobility industry, largely through the phenomenon of electric cars. Nowadays, beyond Tesla’s Gigafactory walls, traditional carmakers are making the necessary steps to phase-out the combustion engine. Several prominent and prolific car makers expect the majority of their income to come from all electric car sales by 2030 and to have an all-electric offer – counting hybrids and other mixed-possibilities as well. In the short to medium term, expect as many as 500 electric car models to be available by 2022.

Concurrently, the energy sector is slowly weaning off its thirst for fossil fuels through renewable energies. As countries rethink their energy concerns – a matter of debate that goes well beyond the environment – and implement change through public policy, the automotive industry is being remade with battery powered electric vehicles.

This transformation, slow as it may be when contextualized with the environmental crisis we are in, is crucial but not without its own set of problems. Energy from renewables is largely dependent on factors beyond our control; how feasible would it be to have a fully renewable electric grid, and what good is it to power car batteries if the electricity produced comes from fossil fuels? And in the topic of car batteries, what about their environmental cost, how reliable are they, what alternatives could we consider?

This semester, the team behind the Technology articles at Nova Awareness Club has been tasked with two other topics – Health and Environment. This is no small task in the year of 2020, a time where the world has been ravaged by a global pandemic and where there is a sense of urgency about taking the necessary steps to prevent irreversible damage to the environment.

Although the choice for this article has mostly been fortuitous in a sense – the main idea was to showcase what the readers of The Awareness News should come to expect this term – the underlying message has never been truer. Within our scope, the team pledges to bring awareness to several environment related questions; and to do so using language that portrays the environmental crisis we are in as well as reducing unnecessary technical jargon to a minimum.

Renewable Energies, the Powergrid and the duck-related neologism

Duck Curve . The practical effect of renewable energies on power grids, as seen in California (The curves vaguely shape the outline of a duck). Source: Vox

Duck Curve. The practical effect of renewable energies on power grids, as seen in California (The curves vaguely shape the outline of a duck). Source: Vox

As previously stated, renewable energies are often dependent on factors beyond human control, namely, the weather. Solar farms only produce solar energy when the sun shines (usually not at night). A drought, in the aforementioned hydroelectric example, is typically a factor of extreme weather conditions.

Learning how to juggle these power outputs is key to one day achieving a fully renewable electric grid – a concept that has yet to materialize in real life. For this next part, consider the graph pictured above.

The Duck Curve is a recently coined term that shows the discrepancy between peak power production and peak power needs. Ultimately, this graph shows a very specific example likely to occur in places with an elevated solar output. Different electricity profiles – in other words, the different ways you power an electric grid with all different types of energies – dictate the circumstances.

Keep the following takeaways in mind before we delve into a practical question:

  1. As of yet, there is no such thing as a powergrid fully supplied by renewable energy sources

  2. Consequently, the electric cars you see run on electricity generated by fossil fuels. The degree likely depends on the electricity profile of the place you live in.

The question of whether an electric car is better from an emissions standpoint is often finicky; an article by The Guardian in 2017 states that the benefits of an electric car emissions’ wise throughout its lifetime are just 20% lower than a traditional combustion car. There is, however, a reduction in day-to-day use, and it relates directly to your electricity profile.

The burning questions behind the ‘B’ word… for Batteries

For a consumer, the limitations of an electric car largely revolve around its battery. From an environmental standpoint, making batteries also posts an acute environmental cost.

The deeper we go into the topic, the more fraught it is. The production of lithium-ion cells is energy intensive and demands rare metals – in other words, analysing battery production as a greener or environment friendly alternative to traditional cars starts off as an opportunity cost analysis between both. Fortunately, as energy is increasingly sourced from renewables, it becomes less of a question.

Taking into account the pollution from old batteries – which has not been overlooked in the research for this article – the real environmental cost of batteries seems to be hidden behind several layers of externalities. As such, the next part of this article is dedicated to the often-overlooked brother to battery powered vehicles – hydrogen and hydrogen powered cars. The process behind it is simple enough; joining hydrogen with oxygen generates energy and clean water vapor.

From a functional perspective, hydrogen cars work similarly to battery powered electric cars but with the added benefit of discarding the battery. Albeit with its own set of challenges, hydrogen powered vehicles offer conventional and green mobility. As such, it has gained attraction in spite of its obscure media coverage.

The challenges, however, should not be overlooked. Although hydrogen is the most common substance in the universe, it is rare to find it in its pure form. In what accounts to a net negative energy exchange, to produce it we must spend X amount of energy to obtain X – Y amount of hydrogen in fuel form. It is also very difficult to contain. There are two alternatives here: either pressurise a container, or turn it into a liquid by reducing the temperature. Both these options are costly. With everything tallied up, the average price per kilometer at the time of writing is estimated at $0.17 versus $0.02 in electricity.

Ultimately, Hydrogen can be seen as a tradeoff between efficiency (creating it is a net negative in energy) and storage capacity; of which hydrogen wins in spades against current lithium-ion battery technology. This, in turn, opens up possibilities that seemed impossible or too far off with batteries – namely the possibility of replacing fossil fuels in commercial air travel.

Some governments are ready to invest and incentivize the transition into hydrogen. Japan was the first country to develop a Basic Hydrogen Strategy, in 2017, the most promising initiative to establishing hydrogen as the main energy source in not just mobility. So far, Japan has succeeded in extracting hydrogen from other sources such as manure and waste plastic and with a decent-sized hydrogen car fleet, it is an important proof-of-concept for hydrogen’s efficiency and sustainability. It is the most successful case of a country committing to hydrogen for its energy needs.

Germany is another adherent to hydrogen, producing already 20 billion standard cubic meters, although 95% comes from fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. The Bundesregierun – the German federal government – has adopted a national hydrogen strategy in June of this year. This will ensure support on Hydrogen innovation and technology for both German and European companies in the international stage.

Sources: The Guardian, Vox, New York Times, BBC, Youtube Videos, UN News, BloombergNEF, California Energy Comission, NREL, European Environmental Agency.

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