Electric vehicles don’t emit harmful tailpipe emissions – but in both the electricity generation, component production and development processes, it’s not so clear cut.
The national grid already has a number of demands placed upon it from homes and businesses, before we begin to consider the potential impact of millions of electric vehicles. If predictions are right, in the future, the demand from these vehicles has the potential to outweigh that of residential demand at almost every given point. But the UK is already considering these challenges – a number of EV projects have been established to find solutions.
The ‘My Electric Avenue’ project has already evaluated the implications of EV clusters on the local grid, suggesting that across Britain 32% of local electricity networks (312,000 circuits) will need updating as we move towards 40% – 70% of families having EVs. However, the work in projects like these should help us adopt the right new technologies at a local level that could reduce the cost of these upgrades by around £2.2 billion up to 2050.
The follow-on project, Electric Nation, is now engaging 500-700 EV owners in the world’s biggest EV trial in a bid to find answers on a national scale – ensuring we have access to the energy we need and, importantly, how to ensure it is as green as possible.
Factories and manufacturing facilities place significant demands on the grid too. While many global (supply chain) companies are working hard to minimise factory emissions and water use, and improve material efficiency and recycling, it can’t be denied that through the many stages of production before the vehicle rolls off the assembly line, a lot of energy is used. More research and development in these areas to maximise efficiencies and minimise waste has the potential to be the next big breakthrough in delivering a more sustainable transport solution.
From the mines
We also have to recognise that the environmental impact of electric vehicles starts way before the grid. To ensure we deliver the most sustainable solution possible we have to go right back to the raw materials and ensure that transport sector challenges are understood as early as possible.
“Everything we use has to be made of something, which means a lot of products come out of the ground. Because of the way technology is changing, we are going to be mining for quite some time before we have enough raw materials in circulation to close the loop.”
says Frances Wall, Professor of Applied Mineralogy at the Cambourne School of Mines.
Mining is a complex and time-consuming occupation, “For the first stage of mining, you need the geologists to go out and find the materials,” says Wall. “There is plenty of everything though – and nothing we are going to run out of. It’s really a matter of how much we are prepared to pay – in terms of money and the environmental impact.”
After the geologists, it’s down to mining engineers, who dig the materials out of the ground, then on to the process engineers who get ore from the rocks. Finally, from the ores, materials are refined and transported.
“China accounts for over 90% of the rare earth production. The problem there is that previous environmental controls have not necessarily been at the same level as other regions, so if we are using Chinese rare earth mines then we are all partly responsible.”
“That applies to all materials in EVs. Companies need to think about responsible sources as well as price. There are various responsible sourcing schemes that have been established, so companies now have the means to ensure their resources are coming from the right place.”
Wall warns that there are many potential risks with mining. Done badly it can create environmental pollution, drain money out of the country, use up valuable energy supplies, displace local people and even finance wars. However, get it right and you are able to produce the metals and minerals needed, provide well paid jobs for local people and produce benefits for the national and local economy. It can also enhance the local community, improve quality of life, act as a catalyst for other industries to invest and drive sustainable development on a national scale.
The recycling issue
At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who are looking at end of life challenges that electric vehicles may face. “With items such as batteries, high-torque motors, touchscreen displays, autonomous features, complex circuits and composite materials, today’s car is almost like a laptop or tablet on wheels,” says Sam Haig, Head of Engineering and Research at Axion Recycling.
“It represents a sea change in design and material use, but what does this mean for recycling?”
By 2035, there will be 1.8 million traditional, ICE-powered vehicles reaching the end of their life each year, but, importantly, there will also be a large number of electric vehicles for which an end
of life supply chain doesn’t currently exist. “Companies such as Connected Energy are beginning to understand how to enable battery reuse in the UK, but it is a complicated process,” explains Haig.
“We need to understand communication protocols for batteries – many of which are manufacturer specific, so we need common open-access communication modules for batteries. There is also a requirement to understand the health of the battery and make the systems safe and secure enough for operators.” A lot of vehicles last longer than the average 12 years – and while the remanufacturing market for engines has matured, there is nothing you can currently do for batteries. “If an individual cell is degrading, the chances are the others are degrading so you have to swap them all out,” says Haig.
“In this case, it’s often better just to replace the battery as a whole straight away.”
Haig says it’s time to think about lifecycle management for EVs. “The process can’t start with the consumer who wants to get rid of a 12-year-old vehicle. It needs to start 15 years earlier before the vehicle has even been designed,” he reasons. “So, the people who will be dismantling the vehicles need to talk with the designers of the vehicle and the battery. It might cost extra now, but it will save money in the long run.
“The government is pushing for the UK to be a Centre of Excellence for battery production, but it not just about building them,” says Haig. “We need to ensure that all parts of the recycling industry understand both the opportunities and the broader health and safety challenges that come with these technologies. There’s lots of work going on and I’m confident that the UK could become a leader in not only manufacturing but also end of life process technologies.”
What the manufacturers say
Vehicle manufacturers are not shying away from their responsibilities, with the likes of Ford and Nissan committed to a better, cleaner future. Brett Hinds Chief Engineer – Electrified Powertrain Systems at Ford agrees there is a clear need to develop solutions to “minimise the impact of change.” He recognises that restrictions for consumer uptake of electrification are cost, range anxiety and infrastructure but maintains that costs will reduce, and the ultra-fast charge network will increase, making it more attractive for consumers.
Meanwhile at Nissan – a leader in electric vehicles – Peter Stephens, the company’s Head Of UK External and Government Affairs says the company has been involved in similar changes in driving habits before. “In the immediate aftermath of World War Two, the Japanese government introduced the Kei car standards to balance scarce resources with the need for mobility. Rather than restricting creativity, those standards inspired car companies to innovate,” he recalls. “The sustainability challenges we face today are likewise stimulating innovation.
In 2017, the industry has moved on to give consumers much greater choice in ultra-low emission vehicles. The EV market is booming, offering consumers much greater choice across the model range. Research and development is increasing, with government continuing to support through Innovate UK and the APC.”
Stephens believes that, while a petrol-powered phone may never have made sense, an electric-powered vehicle is the future. “What if I could simply ‘dock’ my car, charge it along with the rest of the devices in my life? What if my car was as integrated into my life as my phone, synced not only with my life, but with my home, my city?” he asks. “This is the journey I believe the automotive sector is on.”
Intelligent mobility to Nissan comes in three forms: drive, integration and power. “Our cars are bundling sensors and cameras to support the driver. The Nissan LEAF is equipped with all-round vision monitoring – five cameras that give the driver full visibility on the space around them,” Stephens explains. “It has sensors that read speed signs and cameras that detect when the car is drifting out of lane. All this technology makes driving safer and more enjoyable.
“In terms of integration, the functionality of pretty much all new cars has come a long way,” adds Stephens. “New cars routinely communicate with your phone, include GPS systems, many have on-board Wi-Fi or can connect to the internet through mobile data. And the electric car has the potential to extend that integration to power systems too.”
Intelligent power management is the vision of the car as a mobile energy storage device. One that is part of a charging network that feeds energy back into the home via static storage systems that can be charged by your vehicle. The so-called vehicle to grid (or V2G) approach. “In Denmark, we already have ten V2G chargers operational, making 100kW power available for the demand balancing market,” says Stephens.
If all 2.5m cars in Denmark were connected, it would give 25GW of flexible power storage, more than the total installed power generation in Denmark,” he concludes.