Research: Many drivers might spew out less CO2 with a diesel engine than with ‘clean’ electric

“Beneath the hoods of millions of the clean electric cars rolling onto the world’s roads in the next few years will be a dirty battery,” Niclas Rolander, Jesper Starn, and Elisabeth Behrmann report for Bloomberg. “By 2021, capacity will exist to build batteries for more than 10 million cars running on 60 kilowatt-hour packs, according to data of Bloomberg NEF. Most supply will come from places like China, Thailand, Germany and Poland that rely on non-renewable sources like coal for electricity.”

“‘We’re facing a bow wave of additional CO2 emissions,’ said Andreas Radics, a managing partner at Munich-based automotive consultancy Berylls Strategy Advisors, which argues that for now, drivers in Germany or Poland may still be better off with an efficient diesel engine,” Rolander, Starn, and Behrmann report. “Just to build each car battery—weighing upwards of 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) in size for sport-utility vehicles—would emit up to 74 percent more C02 than producing an efficient conventional car if it’s made in a factory powered by fossil fuels in a place like Germany, according to Berylls’ findings.”

Year 1 includes manufacturing-stage emissions. Predictions based on carbon tailpipe emissions and energy mix in 2017. Source: Berylls Strategy Advisors

“‘It will come down to where is the battery made, how is it made, and even where do we get our electric power from,’ said Henrik Fisker, chief executive officer and chairman of Fisker Inc., a California-based developer of electric vehicles,” Rolander, Starn, and Behrmann report. “As it is now, manufacturing an electric car pumps out ‘significantly’ more climate-warming gases than a conventional car, which releases only 20 percent of its lifetime C02 at this stage, according to estimates of Mercedes-Benz’s electric-drive system integration department.”

Read more in the full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: Noise pollution, however, is immediately reduced, regardless of battery origin or electric grid power sources.

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    1. Not as much as you may think. Last I checked, fossil fuels accounted for only 68% of worldwide electricity generation. Of the fossil fuels, coal and oil are in steep decline and natural gas is the preferred economic choice in most regions. Solar and wind are seeing double digit growth everywhere.

      If i was a leader, I’d want the new growing industries to be successful. At the very least, having more tech and more options would be a good thing for the future. But if there is no national leadership, then why act surprised when innovative companies push new disruptive products? Why act surprised when state and local governments set their own standards to solve their well documented pollution issues? One would have to be very ignorant not to see the shit spewed out of diesel trucks as harmful to health and ecology. My guess is that oil and coal executives don’t live within 100 miles from their mines, derricks, and refineries. They can afford to choose healthier locales for their multiple mansions.

      1. Coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear make up 82% of American electric power. At night time, solar provides zero American power and so these evil carbon based sources must be there to supply electricity to liberals. And also when the sun doesn’t shine. Sun and wind are essentially joke forms of power. The world would not operate without carbon based electricity. Or nuclear.

      2. Last I checked 68% is well over hallf, leaving 32% as non fossil fuel. At best electricity as a moderately good band-aid.

        Frankly I would much prefer a hydrogen economy, using nuclear as the intermittent band aid.

      3. Kent, the issue here isn’t whether the world can drop all polluting sources of power tonight and continue on tomorrow with nothing but renewable sources. Nobody believes that. It is whether electric vehicles are already a reasonable replacement for diesel.

        Even if 100% of the electricity used to charge the batteries comes from coal plants of only average efficiency, the CO2 emissions per vehicle/mile would still be less than for individual diesel engines. Big power plants are inherently more efficient than small ones, as the chart above (from a diesel apologist) shows.

        Besides, very few car batteries are recharged with 100% coal electricity. In Texas it would be 32% (on a relatively calm day), and in California 7%. In Norway and most of Canada, it would be 0%, and it is also be 0% for car owners with their own solar arrays or wind turbines. Comparing the CO2 operating emissions (much less Nx and soot) for electric and diesel cars in one of those places would generate a divide by zero error.

        We do not need to wait until renewable power can provide 100% of our needs to take advantage of the efficiencies that it can already provide. We are not holding off on the use of chemotherapy until it can cure every cancer patient. Use as a chemical feed stock is a better use for coal and oil than burning it to fire steam boilers, so we should be moving in that direction.

        You keep harping on the storage problem. Electricity need not be generated locally; a significant share of PG&E power used in Southern California is generated by the Columbia River. My local interconnect network (the Electric Reliability Council of Texas) covers an area the size of France. The sun is shining somewhere in that area an average of 13 hours a day, and the wind is blowing somewhere in Texas all the time. We don’t have much appropriate topography for pumped storage reservoirs, but much of the country does.

        Until the storage problem is solved, quick-response natural gas turbines provide a better answer to the “what if the sun isn’t shining or the wind blowing” problem than coal-fired steam boilers that have to be kept fired all the time in case they are needed.

        To repeat, nobody claims that carbon-based electricity can be eliminated worldwide overnight. They do claim that replacing diesel vehicles with electric has benefits even today that can only improve with time.

        1. Your statistics about Texas and Norway and California are not correct. California gets huge amounts of electricity from outside of California because its own laws prevent it from producing enough power for its own needs. So it buys power at night from other states that are not so stupid and locked in on solar and wind, both of which require excess capacity of coal and nat gas be built to satisfy demand when it is dark and no wind. These sources of power are by definition unreliable.

          Second, I don’t believe that power plants are necessarily cleaner than diesel engines. By the way, when did California last approve a coal or natural gas or nuclear power plant?

          1. You’re right. I was looking at old data. California does not get 7% of its electricity from coal. The correct figure is 4.1%. That includes power from out-of-state as well as local generation. In addition, there is 9.3% “unspecified” because it is bought off the grid and cannot be traced back to a specific source. A part of that might come from coal. Even if ALL of it did, and it doesn’t, that would still mean that only 13.4% of California energy use came from coal.


            The 32% figure for Texas is correct.

            As for power plants being cleaner than Diesel engines, just look at the chart in the article, used to illustrate the best case for diesel over electric. It clearly shows that operational CO2 emissions are lower for electric (although the article argues that the savings never catch up with the emissions from manufacture).

    2. This is important question. But after reading the article it seems to be comparing apples with oranges. Where is the data on the cost of exploring drilling, refining, transporting, diesel? If you’re going to factor in the lifecycle cost of manufacturing electric battery storage, the same environmental costs on the diesel side of the equation should be included too for any kind of meaningful comparison.

  1. The major advantage of electric vehicles here is that the production of excess CO2 is LOCALIZED to the battery factory, and is therefore easier and cheaper to deal with (due mostly to economies of scale). A single, fixed source of pollution is far easier to remediate than hundreds of thousands of mobile sources, none of which you have control of once they leave the factory.

    1. “…that rely on non-renewable sources like coal for electricity.”

      Or are you only going to use the initial charge in the battery and throw it away? I suspect most people will recharge their batteries using electricity generated from coal and other fossil fuels.

      1. “I suspect most people will recharge their batteries using electricity generated from coal and other fossil fuels”.

        You are correct. But it’s also correct that diesel engines emit four times the amount of non-combusted hydrocarbons that gasoline engines emit. And that black soot is not good for the lungs.

        It just proves that, while everyone can argue the pros and cons of the various power generation method for road vehicles, there is currently no perfect solution.

        Personally, I’m hanging my hopes on fusion/flux capacitor technology. /s

          1. The downside of solar is zero power at night. And when its cloudy. And fried birds. And the fact it could never compete on cost without massive government subsidies. Other than these things its great.

            1. Kent, you are entirely misinformed. Solar is already cost competitive across the south.

              Since you pretend not to understand how the electrical grid works, here’s a clue: power is routed where it is needed when it is needed. Nighttime demand is relatively low. Clean natgas from Colorado and Hydro from Niagara or Pacific NW easily fills in coast to coast when wind or solar is not kicking out the watts. To top it all off, municipal demands such as freshwater and sewage plants can reschedule their power demands when power is cheap and available rather than sticking to a fixed schedule based on when coal shipments used to be delivered.

              You might consider learning more about the industry rather than spouting off obsolete notions of how electric utilities used to work a generation ago.

      2. Andy, the article – if you read it – complains about the CO2 generated by battery MANUFACTURE – not usage. But the same argument goes for any electric source; if it’s from a polluting source, it’s easier to deal with the pollutants at a small number of fixed sources than a huge number of mobile sources.

  2. The major issue that this writer neglects out is that the Tesla batteries are not being produced in Germany or Poland. They are being produced in Nevada with soon to be 100% solar power. Mercedes is going to produce their batteries in Alabama. Basically, this is a stupid article that uses assumptions that are 100% incorrect.

    1. “Most supply will come from places like China, Thailand, Germany and Poland that rely on non-renewable sources like coal for electricity.”
      “It will come down to where is the battery made, how is it made, and even where do we get our electric power from.”

      Sounds to me like they did take it into account. And if “drivers in Germany or Poland” are getting engines/batteries from Nevada or Alabama, they also”may still be better off with an efficient diesel engine.” Just because it may not directly apply to you in the US doesn’t mean it is 100% incorrect.

    2. The charts (prepared by diesel advocates) make several best-case assumptions that are not necessarily valid:

      1. All the batteries are going to be made in third-world countries that rely almost exclusively on high-emissions coal plants. As noted above, they might be made in places that rely on renewables, hydropower, nuclear, natural gas, or even on coal plants with advanced emissions controls. Most countries, even in the third world, are headed in that direction.

      2. That the cars are going to be made in Germany or some other country that currently relies largely on legacy coal plants for industrial power.

      3. That the vehicle will be driven only 9000 miles/year for 10 years. and will be recharged exclusively with power from legacy coal generators, That may be true in Germany, which moved away from nuclear without having an immediate alternative to legacy coal plants. It would not be true in California, where only about 7% of the electricity comes from coal, or in several European countries that are phasing out coal completely. It will probably not even be true in Germany at the end of the 10 years.

      4. Across the entire 10-year life of the cars, they are both going to be maintained to preserve their original fuel economy. In the real world, old diesels use more fuel and generate more particulates as they grow less efficient.

      5. Neither car will be running the air conditioning more to compensate for higher temperatures towards the end of the 10 years.

      1. Batteries can be recycled and the critical materials recovered with a high degree of efficiency.

        Try recycling the burned diesel fuel byproducts into diesel fuel…

        This is another example of an analysis tailored to produce the desired outcome. Unfortunately, the world (and the U.S., especially) is full of stupid people who thrive on sound bites that reinforce their established viewpoints. They don’t care if the information is factual…they just want to be “right,” even when they are clearly wrong.

  3. This headline has more to do with the source of electricity in different countries rather than the electric vehicles themselves.

    Note the example shown of an electric vehicle in Norway, which runs on electricity generated without the use of fossil fuels ( 95% of their electricity is generated from hydropower ). Taking into account the extra carbon used in the manufacturing process of the car, it only takes about 20 months to become better than that diesel. Germany generates it’s electricity predominately from fossil fuels ( they have large resources of coal and lignite ) offering a marked contrast with Norway. Each European country has varying natural resources and therefore different mixes of energy production, but most are reducing reliance on fossil based fuels.

    Electrically powered cars are part of the way forward, but carbon-free electricity generation makes the use of electric vehicles massively more beneficial.

  4. One word, diesel-gate. German car companies lied about the efficiency of their diesel cars. People went to jail and big fines were paid. Do we now trust this “report” with qualifiers like “might” and “may”. I wonder how good the assumptions used are and what was left out to reach the conclusion they wanted

  5. Pure BS. What about all the noise insulation in a gas car that you don’t need in an electric mufflers, catalytic converters, piping? What about the motor oil you don’t need in an electric car that won’t be improperly disposed of? What about the Antifreeze that you don’t need in an electric car that won’t be spilled across parking lots and yards? What about the power steering fluid you don’t need in most electric cars? What about the fact that soon (10 – 20 years) we will be able to power electric cars with ZERO emmission solar and wind generation created at our homes. This is just FUD distributed by the incumbent polluting infrastructure that wants just a few more years to milk profit at the cost of the environment….

    1. What about all the enormous toxic batteries that will one day need to be disposed of…. where ? Its not all roses. In 20 years the batteries are still going to be toxic waste.

      1. Let’s assume lithium batteries were toxic and nonrecyclable, and that all future electricity will be coal generation (all untrue).

        Would you prefer to have your toxic waste scrubbed at the power plant, as coal plants do today, or do you prefer your diesel toxins belched out in front of your child’s bus stop? Would you prefer that oil and diesel spills occur on every navigable body of water or would you prefer that your hypothetical non recycled battery keep its toxins inside its sealed box?

        Wise regulation, just like in kindergarten, requires people to clean up their own messes. Let electric car makers figure out how to manage their businesses but do the same for fossil fuels. Then you will see how many trillions of dollars the fossil fuel industries have spent undermining reasonable regulation at the expense of us all.

        It helps to take a forward long term view of these things rather than assuming the tweet from a bought politician who has obviously been working for dirty entrenched industries is telling the full truth.

  6. What a joke. They sandbag the study by assuming cars are drive a mere 15,000 kilometer a year or mere 9000 miles. No wonder the carbon output of a diesel is so low, because the damn cars are barely being driven according to the study

    Boost that to 15,000 MILES a year, and electric will easily win. And electric will win more and more as more renewable energy comes on line.

    Bet you this study was funded by diesel car makers.

  7. The article assumes that most — or all — electric vehicle owners fuel their vehicles exclusively with grid power. As a Tesla Model 3 owner with a 10kWp solar array and two Powerwall batteries, I can assure you and the author that his presumption is erroneous. I schedule my car to charge over the weekend from noon (after the sun has recharged my Powerwalls) until 6:00 PM so that the only electrons flowing into the battery come from my solar array. With over 300 miles (482+ km) of range, I only need to charge my car once or twice during the weekend.

    While I can’t speak to the ratio of electric vehicle owners with vs. without solar, many of my friends and acquaintances have arrays on their homes. Plus, I’ve talked to several new Model 3 owners who’ve invested (or will invest) in a solar array because of their vehicle purchase. I’m hoping more new electric vehicle owners are enticed to add solar to their homes. After owning my first electric car, the multi-beneficial results of harvesting more electrons from the sun are obvious.

  8. So, a dirty car built in a clean factory is cleaner than a clean car built in a dirty factory. Good to know.

    Now, let’s talk about Tesla: clean cars built in clean factories, plus clean power from consumer solar, also built in clean factories.

  9. Power of any origin creates some sort of pollution. Unless you intend to walk or swim everywhere you go, any form of transport create some level of pollution.

    The ultimate question, that no one as far as I am concerned has proved is whether an increase in CO2 is actually harmful, considering every person & plant on the planet needs it to live, And people exhale it every breath. The planet is actually greener due to CO2… Food grows more.. etc…

    1. Sadly you are mistaken as to final effect. As CO2 increases at a sustained rate unprecedented in measurable history, the planet temperature is rising in a manner that has already accelerated desertification and massive storms that destroy previously fertile land. Governments of course bear the burden of bailing out coastal zones that in a few generations will be underwater. That is precisely why governments need to be proactive to coordinate sustainability plans and , yes, regulations. Just as the road in front of your home has a speed limit for your personal safety, rhe globe needs to moderate its temperature. Humans are not incidental bystanders in all this. You can’t burn through millenia of dinosaur juice in 200 years and then pretend there was no effect on the climate.

  10. It would seem to me that MDN has a not so subtle anti-Tesla bias. Pretty much every story about Tesla covered here has been negative. MDN has. O obligation to cover Tesla since this is an Apple-specific site but when every Tesla story covered here in the past few months has been negative, I begin to smell a rat.

    This article is no exception. For the record, it is possible for an electric car to be dirtier than a diesel. If all the electricity used during production and use of the car comes from coal, and the car is driven sufficiently few miles, you can construct a scenario where the well to wheel emissions of the electric car is greater than that of the diesel car.

    However, this scenario is becoming less and less likely. Electric grids all over the world are becoming cleaner. For example, look at what happened in the US over the past decade or so. Around 10-15 years ago, over half the US electricity supply came from coal. Today that number is down to around a third, natural gas makes up another third and the rest is made up of non-polluting sources. Note that I did not use the word ‘clean’ since nuclear power, while non polluting, is hardly clean. Every country is going in this direction – China included.

    Even though natural gas is a fossil fuel, producing electricity from it results in far fewer emissions than any gas or diesel internal combustion engine. If an electric car is manufactured using electricity that comes from the same mix of sources as we currently have in the US and if the car is charged using the same mix of sources, it will produce fewer emissions than any gas or diesel car. When it comes to emissions, only the most efficient hybrids will be competitive.

    As the percentage of renewables in the US power supply continues to rise, the advantage that electric cars enjoy will continue to grow. Of course the US grid is not homogeneous. Some parts of the US have moved towards renewables faster than others and some are still heavily dependent on coal. In the latter case, an electric car may not be your best option. However with electric cars, there is a clear path towards a near-zero emissions future. With fossil fuel cars, there isn’t.

    – HCE

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