Electric vehicles (EVs) are one of the most promising technologies for reducing emissions in global transportation, but the benefits they bring depend on the provenance of the power they run on. Today, too few EVs are powered by renewable energy. For them to be a truly green option, this has to change.

The EV revolution is upon us. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the number of electricity-powered passenger vehicles on the world’s roads could surpass 250 million by 2030, while the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that electric buses and other mass transit vehicles could number well over 10 million.

Because they have an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine, EVs emit no exhaust from a tailpipe, which means that, unlike traditional vehicles, they don’t pump carbon dioxide, ozone, and particulate pollution into the air we breathe.

This is important, because transport accounts for around one-fifth of global emissions, with road travel accounting for fully three-quarters of that amount. The majority of this comes from passenger vehicles – cars and buses – which contribute 45.1%. The other 29.4% comes from trucks carrying freight.

Moreover, this number is only set to increase, as population growth and demographic shifts drive ever more demand for road travel – not to mention the rise in e-commerce pushing up the need for freight and last-mile delivery.

With the World Health Organization (WHO) estimating that air pollution causes one in every nine deaths worldwide, transforming our global transportation matrix to one run by EVs would all but guarantee a safer and greener future for everyone – or would it?

Dirty power

EVs need anywhere between 24 and 50kWh of electricity to travel 100 miles, and this electricity comes from the grid. With a US Department of Energy study showing that increased electrification will boost national consumption by as much as 38% by 2050, in large part because of electric vehicles, in some cases, EVs could result in substantial greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or even help extend the life of fossil fuels, if charged primarily with fossil fuel-generated power.

In fact, a recent study by China’s Tsinghua University found that EVs charged in China – where a majority of electricity comes from coal-fired power plants – contribute two to five times as much particulate matter and chemicals versus gas-engine cars. 

Essentially, unless the electricity that powers EVs is clean, EVs can never be a fully green option.

With the vast number of EVs that are projected to come online in the coming years, it is crucial that both users and utilities find a way to charge them with renewable energy sources. Indeed, EVs might be the key to linking the renewable power and low-carbon transport sectors, for the good of everyone.

Making EVs the largest renewable buyers

By 2030, the amount of electricity needed to power all the EVs will be a whopping 640TWh. To put that into perspective, the over 300 global corporations that have signed the RE100 pledge to go 100% renewable purchase in aggregate around 220TWh a year – or just over a third of that amount. 

This creates a major opportunity to position EVs as one of the biggest buyers of renewable electricity globally. Not only that but the electricity needs of EVs could be harnessed to drive the roll-out of more renewable capacity around the world.

The model already exists: corporate procurement of renewable energy via bilateral power purchase agreements (PPAs) has created significant voluntary demand for new renewable energy projects worldwide. Last year, corporations purchased a record 23.7 GW of clean energy, up from 20.1GW in 2019 and 13.6GW in 2018, according to new research published by BloombergNEF (BNEF) – and this came in spite of the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing global recession.

Through PPAs, EV original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), charge point operators, electric mobility service providers, and the growing number of companies that are committing to switching their vehicle fleets over to EVs can both develop seamless green solutions for the future, as well as facilitate the development of new renewable energy projects – which will, in turn, bring the world closer to meeting the Paris Agreement targets.

Not just the electricity they run on

It isn’t only the juice that powers the vehicles’ batteries that’s important. Half of the lifecycle emissions from the lithium batteries in EVs come from the electricity used to assemble and manufacture them, which means that the electricity mix at OEM facilities is also a key part of the equation. A recent study by IVL, the Swedish environmental institute, found that lithium batteries produced in regions with a zero-carbon grid had emissions of 61kg of CO2 equivalent per kWh of battery capacity (CO2e/kWh). This figure more than doubles – to 146kg – when the electricity used in battery manufacture comes from fossil fuel.  

The climate benefit of EVs, therefore, doesn’t just depend on how green the electricity used to charge their battery is, but also on the carbon intensity of the electricity used to make that battery – creating yet another imperative for EV manufacturers to switch to renewable energy. 

A stable grid

The rise in the adoption of EVs can also drive the growth of renewable energy in other ways. Private cars spend 95% of their time parked, and energy planners are looking at ways to utilize this dead time to solve one of the biggest problems for scaling up renewable grids: stability.

“EVs at scale can create vast electricity storage capacity,” says Dolf Gielen, director of IRENA’s Innovation and Technology Centre. “Smart charging, which both charges vehicles and supports the grid, unlocks a virtuous circle in which renewable energy makes transport cleaner and EVs support larger shares of renewables.”

The technology to make this happen is still in its infancy – so far, the Nissan Leaf is the only mass-production EV on the market that enables vehicle-to-grid (V2G) charging. However, at Atlas we’re pleased to see more OEMs starting to consider this capability: for example, Hyundai, Kia, and Lucid all plan to include it in future vehicles.

With good planning and the right infrastructure, EVs can reduce emissions, replace polluting vehicles, and boost the roll-out of renewable energy infrastructure, and, when parked up and plugged in, act as battery banks, stabilizing electric grids powered by renewable solar energy. For renewable energy providers such as Atlas, this gives us the opportunity to provide ever-increasing amounts of clean electricity to a growing number of industrial sectors.

A driver of electrification 

As governments around the world unveil plans to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles, it won’t be too long until electric vehicles are the mainstay of both public and private transportation. From privately-owned electric cars to commercial taxi fleets and self-driving electric buses, EVs are fast redefining the market. 

What’s really exciting about this is what it means for overall electricity demand. IEA projections show that global electricity demand will grow by more than a third by 2040, mainly due to the adoption of EVs, which will take the electricity demand for transport from pretty much nothing to 4,000 TWh a year. This raises electricity’s share in total final energy consumption from 19% in 2018 to 31% in 2040, overtaking oil and leaving coal in the dust. 

At Atlas, we see this as an unprecedented opportunity to decarbonize the energy matrix. As EVs drive electrification, ensuring that this energy comes from renewable sources will take us another step closer to slashing power sector CO2 emissions and ensuring a more sustainable future.

EVs are here to stay, but for them to be truly a green option for the future of transportation, it is vital that we don’t miss the chance to link them with renewable energy. At Atlas, our bilateral PPA structure means that we can assist OEMs, charging infrastructure providers, and battery manufacturers in ensuring that EVs are a real green proposition, end to end.