To Help Electric Cars Clean Up Our Air, World Leaders Need To Clean the Grid, Study Warns

When it comes to climate change, there are some simple facts that we can’t ignore. Firstly, climate change is real and causing some pretty weird weather all around the world. Secondly, it’s caused — or at least exacerbated — by the large amount of carbon dioxide society is producing through the burning of fossil fuels. Finally, if we want to reverse, halt, or just slow the effects of climate change, we need to find cleaner, greener ways of moving around and powering our homes and businesses.

Electric cars are great for the environment, but some countries need to green their grid to cut global warming

Electric cars are great for the environment, but some countries need to green their grid to halt global warming

Electric cars, most experts agree, are at least one way to help us achieve that, since powering electric cars from even the dirtiest of electricity grids in most countries produces less carbon emissions that mining, refining, transporting and consuming gasoline. Charge electric cars from renewable sources such as wind or solar power as many early-adopting, environmentally-conscious electric car owners already do, and they’re the cleanest form of high-speed personal transport currently available.

Now a study from the University of Toronto says that while those who opt to charge their cars using renewable sources are a great start, drastic and urgent work is needed to green up the entire electrical grid if electric cars are to really make an impact on worldwide carbon emissions.

Published in the March edition of Nature Climate Change, the study — authored by University of Toronto Civil Engineering Professor Christopher Kennedy — argues that countries around the world need to reduce the carbon intensity of their respective power grids in order to make electric cars the smart choice moving forward.

Push electric car sales in countries where the electricity grid is mainly powered by burning fossil fuels, and overall emissions will go up, he warns.

According to the study, nations around the world need to cut the carbon intensity — a measurement that plots emissions versus energy produced — of their electrical grids below 600 tons of CO2 per gigawatt-hour of electricity generated by 2020 in order to meet the goal of ensuring global temperatures do not raise more than 2 degrees Celsius as set out in the Copenhagen Accord of 2009. Beyond that point, nations will need to reduce their electrical grid’s carbon footprint by more than 90 percent before 2050 to prevent further warming.

Some countries are already below the 600 tons of CO2 per GWh target.

Some countries are already below the 600 tons of CO2 per GWh target.

By 2011, Kennedy reports, Brazil, Canada, the Russian Federation, the UK, Mexico, and Germany all fell below the carbon intensity goal needed to meet that 2020 target.

Taking into consideration all of the member states of the EU, average European emissions per Gigawatt hour fall well below the threshold, but it’s important to note they vary dramatically from member state to member state.

The U.S, Japan, South Korea and Iran fell into a zone Kennedy calls the ‘transition zone,’ where emissions are either slightly above or slightly below the 600-ton CO2 per GWh threshold.

So far, so good. Ignoring the EU — which isn’t a country — ten of the fifteen countries studied by Kennedy already have a carbon intensity below the 2020 target. But five of the countries studied — Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, China, Australia and India — have carbon intensities far beyond the 600 tons CO2/GWh laid out in the Copenhagen Accord.

Unless those countries take drastic and urgent action to green their power grids, owning a plug-in car will have little or no effect on climate change, Kennedy warns.

More renewable energy sources -- such as wind, solar and wave -- are needed.

More renewable energy sources — such as wind, solar and wave — are needed.

Of course, not all of the world’s nations are included in the study. Iceland, for example, would fare better than Brazil thanks to its almost 100 percent reliance on geothermal energy to produce its electrical power. It’s also worth noting that the study appears to assume that existing fleets be replaced with electric-powered ones, and doesn’t take into effect the change in trends in some countries away from personal car ownership.

The challenge then, is not just for governments around the world to encourage more of their citizens to make the switch to an electric vehicle, but for them to work hard to ensure that the grids that power those cars continue to get cleaner, and greener too.

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  • BEP

    Sometimes people forget than no “green” car exists. The energy required to move such a heavy object at high speeds is huge. Even when you are using your own solar energy, the balance is still negative, since you have to look at the global situation, where clean energy is clearly underrepresented. The best way to reduce energy use is to avoid having to move too far in the first place (e.g. avoiding to live far away from one’s workplace), followed by public transportation.

  • Richard Glover

    I am a Leaf lover for mainly two reasons. I wanted to drive the technology and I resent the cost of fuel.nnSo I am more mean than green.nnI donu2019t like waste and I care as much about the environment as the next man. But I know in my heart that until we as a species accept that we are too successful for our own good and the good of the planet, all our efforts and rhetoric are in vain.nnThere is a forecast that the worldu2019s population will peak at 11 billion in about 2050. Weu2019re over 7 billion now! and already counting the cost.nnShould we just do our best for the environment and continue to pretend our numbers are of no consequence?nnShould we just wait and see if we do peak at 11 billion and allu2019s well?nnOr should we have a world two child only policy to show we mean business?

  • BenBrownEA

    …and breaking, our Dear Leader in Michigan, has said he will not increase our Renewable Portfolio Standard beyond 10%. He will now move though to additionally require any alternative energy generating group that uses the grid to have their own 24 hour baseload capacity for the next several years at a time. So if there is a wind farm group in the thumb area of Michigan, they can’t rely on the already existing dirty coal plant to provide capacity, they have to build a gas plant to keep operating or shut down. My interpretation which could be really wrong, is the new move is designed to shut down and discourage wind and solar plants, unless they are owned by (or sold to) the current big fossil fuel utilities… which if they are the only game in town won’t have much incentive to strive to reduce carbon dioxide at any meaningful speed. …gotta love those Koch servants in office… Clean cars in Michigan… less than could be…

    • BenBrownEA

      there is a real move in Michigan to consider among clean energy sources, burning tires… hmm…n nA description of discussions and plans of Michigan legislators..nnhttp://www.midwestenergynews.com/2015/03/06/michigans-renewable-efficiency-standards-on-chopping-block/

      • vdiv

        21% of my “100% Green Power” provided by Dominion is burning “biomass”. Bastids!nnIs it better than >40% from burning coal…

        • BenBrownEA

          Depends on how clean it is burned and what the source is. in Michigan we largely burn among the dirtiest coal available and til recently didn’t work too hard to clean any emissions. We need to move at ‘warp speed’ to personally reducing our own energy demands while maintaining a quality of life AND encourage our energy providers to do the same.