Germany’s plan for 100% electric cars may actually increase carbon emissions

7 04 2017

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Bjoern Wylezich / shutterstock

Dénes Csala, Lancaster University

Germany has ambitious plans for both electric cars and renewable energy. But it can’t deliver both. As things stand, Germany’s well-meaning but contradictory ambitions would actually boost emissions by an amount comparable with the present-day emissions of the entire country of Uruguay or the state of Montana.

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.

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.

Germany’s grid is struggling to cope with all that intermittent power.
Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH / shutterstock

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.

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.

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.

Dénes Csala, Lecturer in Energy Storage Systems Dynamics, Lancaster University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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7 responses

7 04 2017
Chris Harries

I’ve realised this issue occasionally in Tasmania. Here if you buy an electric car and don’t also provide the power source for it then ALL of the power to drive it comes from mainland coal. That’s because Tasmania is not self sufficient in electricity and so every additional kilowatt-hour of power demand has to come across Basslink.

Essentially the same argument applies anywhere in Australia. Electric cars are power by collard will be for the medium future.

OK, when I argue this case the maths does not get challenged. Rather, the argument goes that you’ve got to start somewhere. And once the nation’s vehicle fleet is converted to EV then, as the proportion of renewable energy is gradually built up in the centralised grid system, they will then come into their own.

My answer to that is that it may take most of a generation for that second part of the equation to come into being. More so, it has been calculated that if all of the world’s current oil uses are converted to electricity then global power demand globally would need to be trebled. If this is true, then what is sitting in the wings is the nuclear power industry, patiently waiting for conditions to arise where they come into their own. Nothing will suit them better than a trebling of power demand.

I support EV development, but the dreamy world that says we can all simply ditch our petrol car and slip behind the wheel an electric one is not a radical or sustainable position to hold. It needs to be tempered with hard, cold reality.

7 04 2017
W'Shawn Gray

Damn the Matrix, you folk really need to read the comments on source articles before you repost them. As the comments under this one strongly high-lights some of the poor reporting in the article. The flagged German legislation IS NOT “to go 100% electric by 2030” but rather to not allow selling of fossil fuel burning cars after 2030. Thus all the maths assuming Germany will have only electric-cars by 2030 is silly to the point of stupidity. How long does it take a nation with as many cars as Germany to replace their whole fleet? 30 years? 15 years? 7 years?
Second more important mistake is that the act is mandating non-fossil fueled vehicles, NOT electric cars. Germans are already selling Internal-combustion engines that burn hydrogen, you can also burn hydrogen in fuel-cells, India & France have been making great strides with compressed-air powered cars. The Brits have technology for running vehicles on liquid Nitrogen, while other countries are exploring yet other power vectors for cars.

8 04 2017
mikestasse

I googled “hydrogen cars “for sale” in Germany” and found…….. NONE. Sure, it appears that Germany is spending some $265 million to ‘support’ and ‘bankroll’ a hydrogen car economy, but I’m frankly amazed that this is still being considered, because it’s an even more stupid idea than EV’s.

Furthermore, even if this goes ahead, I fail to see how it will not impact the grid as much as EV’s, because to make Hydrogen requires shed loads of electricity. It doesn’t matter HOW one’s car is propelled, it takes energy, and in the case of Hydrogen, which is just another kind of battery, it may well take more than for conventional EV’s…..

Great strides with compressed air? SHOW ME….. where are the cars? At least, one can occasionally see a Tesla or a Leaf…

Now consider this: IF we end up with all these different technologies, just to move inefficient cars that mostly move one person, we will need several networks for each energy type distribution, as opposed to the one we currently have selling us liquid fuel.

As far as I am concerned, cars are FINISHED. We built the 20th Century (and what still stands as the 21st) one brick at a time, with increasing amounts of ever cheaper fossil fuels, oil in particular, being the MASTER RESOURCE…. today, we have to replace the ENTIRE SYSTEM, virtually immediately, certainly in a lot less than 100 years. Exactly HOW do you think we’ll do that?

Not one of the technologies you mention are possible without lots of oil (and coal and gas), so your arguments are rather moot in my opinion……

8 04 2017
W. Shawn Gray

Mike Stasse wrote; “*I googled “hydrogen cars “for sale” in Germany” and found…….. NONE.*” that is probably because like many other car companies they prefer to rent new technologies until they have any bugs ironed out. Some reading for you.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrogen_vehicle https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrogen_internal_combustion_engine_vehicle https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compressed_air_car

While I agree with the rest of your assertion about “cars are FINISHED” I once hoped the globe would be as sane about Climate Change as they had been about addressing the dangers of CFCs.

All the best, *W’Shawn Gray*

8 04 2017
mikestasse

I’m well versed on all this stuff, because at the turn of this Century, I was also taken in by the Hydrogen hype……. now I know it’ll never happen.

9 04 2017
W'Shawn Gray

Mike totally understand your viewport, hydrogen has lots of cons, but batteries also have their own set of cons. As I’ve written on AuzGnosis hydrogen while making sense in some countries, Auz is just too arid. As to your confidence “now I know it’ll never happen” I learnt with future gazing decades ago to never say never.

9 04 2017
mikestasse

The reason it will never happen is because we are fast running out of NETT ENERGY… we are heading over the energy cliff, big time, and we may have just five years left… and frankly it doesn’t even matter if it turns out to be ten!

https://damnthematrix.wordpress.com/2016/10/23/do-we-have-five-years-left/

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