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November 26, 2019

Sustainable Implementation of Electric Vehicles

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The implementation of Electric Vehicles is accelerating. In even the most modest scenarios, they are projected to make up 29% and 23% of the US and EU car fleets respectively by 2030. A drastic change from their current 0.5% market share, which will leave existing charging infrastructure struggling to keep up.

Implementation of Sustainable Technologies

Technologies, including in the automotive, are themselves not inherently sustainable or unsustainable. For example, a combustion engine powered by sustainably sourced 3rd generation biofuel could claim to be more environmentally friendly than an electric motor powered by electricity from fossil fuel power plants.

Generally, the environmental impact of a vehicle depends on material efficiency, production and disposal methods and the energy consumption during use.

What matters, in order to measure impact in this case, is the ecosystem in which the vehicles are being developed and used. The knock-on effects of the technology on other aspects of the ecosystem need to be understood in order to make a certain technology truly sustainable.

In other words, we need to take a look at the hidden emissions and possible disruptions caused by electric vehicles. What are the infrastructure investment costs in terms of the grid or charging infrastructure that need to be made? What will the implementation of EVs truly cost?

(Hidden) Emissions

When looking at electric cars, there is a decoupling from the emissions and the vehicle. Instead of being emitted at the exhaust pipe, they are, in some cases, outsourced to distant power plants.

This poses little problem in countries such as Norway and France, which have electricity available with low carbon emissions due to hydroelectric and nuclear plants, or countries with substantial solar and wind power. However, in the case of the USA or China where a significant proportion of energy still comes from coal (25% and 52% respectively) the indirect emissions of electric cars during use can be worse than petrol-based vehicles.

Related to the source used for electricity generation for the gird, the difference between an electric and a petrol car becomes dependent on where the car is charged. (see figures below).

Figure 1: CO2 Emissions per kilometer for different cars in The Netherlands (462g CO2/kWh)

Figure 2: CO2 Emissions per kilometer for different cars in China (800g CO2/kWh)

Furthermore, all cars are an important source of small particle emissions which comes from tire wear and tear while driving. Due to their on average heavier weight, some EVs contribute more to these types of emissions than other vehicles.

Infrastructure costs

There are approximately 1 billion passenger cars globally, of which currently 5.1 million (0.5%) are EVs. Scenarios for EV adoption suggests approximately 125 - 250 million EVs could be on the road by 2030 in China, the European Union, and the United States.

There are currently globally 5.2 million charging points, of which 89% are private charging points, 8% public charging points and 3% fast or supercharging points. Total charging-energy demand for the EV population across China, Europe, and the United States is expected to grow dramatically from 2020 to 2030, increasing from roughly 20 - 40 billion kilowatt-hours to about 280 - 560 billion kilowatt-hours. Based on charging profiles and available technologies, the industry could require approximately 40 - 80 million chargers across China, Europe, and the United States, representing an estimated $50 - $100 billion of cumulative capital investment through 2030.

Charging an EV, especially with Fast or Supercharging infrastructure consumes a substantial amount of power. This is not a problem when EVs make up only 0.5% of the entire car fleet, but when they become more widespread blackouts risk can become widespread and the grid will be unable to handle peaks in electricity demand generated by electric cars.

This could mean turning highway stops into medium-sized power stations, increasing the voltage of power lines and increasing grid storage capacity to accommodate Electric Vehicles.

Lightyear One: Leapfrogging the grid

A car that is as efficient and as light as possible minimises energy consumption and the emissions of particles from tyres. This makes Lightyear One the car with the smallest CO2 impact, regardless of the carbon intensity of the energy it uses to charge.

By being so efficient, it also provides the opportunity to leapfrog the grid: limited need to invest in building additional power plants, reinforcing the electricity grid or setting up multiple fast-charging stations and heavy home chargers.

The solar cells mean that for extended periods of time, no charging will be needed at all, and when necessary, a regular power socket is enough to recharge the car.

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