How Green are Electric Cars?

We look at their life cycle to see if electric cars are worth the investment.

Electric cars and hybrid vehicles have long been touted as a more environmentally-friendly option than conventional cars. But how green are they? We look at everything from the manufacturing process to  energy consumption to determine if electric cars are worth the investment.

Despite lower petrol prices, consumers continue to drive the trend to greener vehicles. A recent study from Simon Fraser University showed that more than a third of Canadians were willing to buy an electric or hybrid vehicle with most more interested in hybrids. Both Ontario and Quebec offer rebates and incentives for drivers who purchase electric vehicles and some public parking facilities offer free recharging and preferential parking for hybrids and electric vehicles. In fact, on February 10, 2016 the Ontario government extended and enhanced their program. Electric car manufacturers continue to create more eco-friendly vehicles as consumer demand drives the shift to sustainability.

However, we must understand that electric cars are no panacea to reducing our carbon footprints. They are just one part of a move to a more sustainable future.

Some environmental experts believe that the influence of electric cars has been overstated.  In fact, electric cars have a greater production footprint of about 8.8 tonnes compared to the 5.6 tonnes it takes to create a conventional car. This is, in part, because the process of mining lithium for the batteries of electric cars is not an environmentally-friendly one.

If one considers the total embodied carbon footprint of a car from creation until it finds itself in the scrap yard, electric vehicles come out marginally better than their gas-guzzling counterparts in some areas. The biggest factor in their ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is what we use to charge them. In the US, electricity used to power the car is generated from fossil fuels. When electric cars are charged using green energy, they will come out on top as far as emissions go.

A 2015 study by University of Toronto engineer, Christopher Kennedy, found that electric cars aren’t effective carbon cutters unless the energy with which they are powered falls below an energy threshold of 600 tonnes of CO₂ for every gigawatt hour of electricity generated.

At 600 tonnes, conventional cars and electric cars will have equitable carbon emissions. This means that, thanks to hydro and nuclear power, only in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Manitoba is it beneficial to the environment for a Canadian to own an electrically-powered car. 

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