• Rodrigo Cubedo

No Longer for the People, It Is Now for the Volts

Updated: Apr 1

In late March, VW suggested its US subsidiary would permanently change its name to Voltswagen. While this may have been a joke, the change on the horizon is not. There are a lot of headlines on electric vehicles (EVs) and the phase out of the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) but what role does the electrification of transport play in the battle against climate change?

To put it in perspective, over a quarter of global emissions come from transportation, out of which about 45% of emissions come from passenger vehicles.

But that has not always been the case. Believe it or not, EVs aren’t exactly new. A century ago, EVs accounted for about a quarter of vehicles built in the United States. Before the ICE age, gasoline fueled vehicles faced strong competition from steam and electric vehicles, but their quieter engine and longer range accelerated their market penetration.

Formula None

Now, as the world races to decarbonize the automotive industry, the ICE phase out has become one of the most interesting stories to follow. The phase out relies on a progressive ban of ICE vehicles that limits the number of vehicles sold. Simultaneously, numerous initiatives and incentives are accelerating the adoption of EVs and zero emission vehicles (ZEVs).

In the race to decarbonize transportation, not surprisingly, Norway is leading with the most aggressive deadline yet, requiring that all new vehicles sold in 2025 are ZEVs. Not far behind, California has taken the North American lead by requiring new passenger vehicles be zero-emission by 2035. In Canada, Quebec mandated that 10% of vehicles be ZEV by 2025 and British Columbia adopted the “Zero Emissions Vehicles Act”, which requires automakers to progressively increase the sales share of new ZEVs from 10% of vehicles sold in 2025 to 100% of vehicles by 2040.

Even organizations are driven to adopt cleaner vehicles: the Biden Administration signed an executive order to replace over half a million ICE vehicles with American made EVs. The corporate fleets of delivery giants Amazon and DHL committed to achieve net zero transportation by 2040 and 2050, respectively. It is therefore no surprise to see vehicle manufacturers rebranding and shifting their focus towards EVs and ZEVs.

Are EVs truly more environmentally friendly?

Assuming phase out targets are met, emissions from vehicles already in the market will not just disappear. While developed countries reap the benefits of cleaner air and quieter roads, it is likely that developing nations will import used ICE vehicles which emissions will have only worsened over time. The ICE phase alone out will not make transportation pollution disappear. But there could be hope. In BC, Scrap-It incentivizes the disposal of ICE vehicles by offering residents rebates for EVs. Accordingly, an effective approach would emphasize the proper disposal of ICE vehicles as much as jurisdictions emphasize the ban on ICE sales.

On a lifecycle basis, EVs are significantly less polluting than their ICE counterparts. A study by T&E shows that an ICE vehicle requires close to 17,000 litres of gas during its lifetime compared with the recycling market in the EU, where only about 30kg of lithium is lost. But less does not mean none - processing two tons of lithium require a million gallons of water. The problem is that lithium is extracted from the drier parts of the world, mostly from underground brine reservoirs below the surface of dried lake beds in South America. In this region, Lithium processing accounted for 65% of water consumption.

Source: Ben Shannon/CBC

It is vital that we maximize the Lithium available. EV batteries usually last about 10 years, as their capacity degrades to about 80% and the battery is no longer suitable for driving. But while the battery cannot perform up to driving standards, old EV batteries could be repurposed to hold charge for less capacity demanding functions. This second battery life could be easily repurposed for less capacity restrictive purposes, such as smoothing out the intermittency of renewable energy generators such as solar and wind. Utility scale Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS) will soon play a major role in increasing the overall uptake of renewable electricity. Costs are still prohibitive to implement BESS on a large scale, but an aftermarket, repurposed EV battery may be the solution renewable energy players and utility planners have been waiting for.

The enthusiasm for the adoption of EVs and ZEVs around the world is encouraging. However, it is important that we address all potential repercussions of EVs with the same enthusiasm. Innovation and policy can play together to ensure that the introduction of EVs helps mitigate instead of aggravate the effects of climate change.

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