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Electric car, yes or no?

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Within the past years due to the increase of electric renewable production many concepts and technologies for electrical vehicles have been developed. What is the difference between an electric car and a traditional one from the environmental point of view? Would I pay more if I use electricity as “fuel” or if I use diesel, methane or LPG?

In order to answer to all these questions an introduction is necessary. Electric energy is produced by several kinds of fuels depending on a long list of factors (national energetic politics, global energetic market, local mines, etc.). If we would plug in our car to the grid we all, usually, do not care about where the electricity comes from. Nonetheless, its cost and its environmental impact depend on the fuel and on the technologies utilized for its production. In the following case, I hypothesize four different scenarios: electric kWh produced by natural gas, by coal, by nuclear power and by photovoltaic cells. Assuming a standard electric car, with an autonomy of almost 200 km:

  • In Italy (where the most used fuels in power plants are natural gas and coal), I would spend about 9 euros, releasing in the atmosphere 20 kg of CO2.
  • In France (where the most used electric source is nuclear power), I would spend 5 euros, releasing in the atmosphere an amount of CO2 very close to zero (0,4 kg).
  • In case of an entire photovoltaic electrical production, I would not spend anything (because sunlight fuel is free) but I would release in the atmosphere 8 kg of CO2.

CO2 emission values are calculated through the SEI (Specific Energy Impact) factor. The latter includes every possible carbon dioxide production from the technology’s construction to the decommissioning passing during the operational life.

Considering, on the other side, 200 km traveled by traditional vehicles in the following scenarios:

  • Diesel-working car would cost about 24 euros and would release 37 kg of CO2.
  • Methane-working car would cost 11 euros and would release 32 kg of CO2.
  • LPG-working car would cost 16 euros and would release 33 kg of CO2.

Electric cars, according to these calculations, are better from all points of view (both economic and environmental). Interestingly, it is observed that methane fueled cars and electric vehicles (reloaded in natural gas and coal energetic mix – such as in Italy) have almost the same cost and emission values. Nuclear power, whatever the downsides, is currently the most environmental friendly source based on carbon dioxide emissions.

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Lorenzo Rubino
Laureato magistrale a 24 anni in ingegneria energetica al PoliTO. Esperto in efficienza energetica industriale, commerciale, residenziale. Progettista tecnico di impianti rinnovabili e tradizionali. Responsabile di #EnergyCuE da marzo 2015. Appassionato di nuove tecnologie e policy, soprattutto se finalizzate alla sostenibilità della produzione di energia. Mi sento curioso, riflessivo ma anche spontaneo, diretto e pragmatico, da buon ingegnere!