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When do electric vehicles become cleaner than gasoline cars?

Governments around the world push for greener transport to meet climate targets. A model is designed to calculate the lifetime emissions of vehicles. This model was developed by the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago. It includes thousands of parameters from the type metals in an electric vehicle (EV) battery to the amount of aluminium or plastic in a car.

Argonne’s Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions and Energy Use in Technologies (GREET) model is now being used with other tools to help shape policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board, the two main regulators of vehicle emissions in the United States. Jarod Cory Kelly, principal energy systems analyst at Argonne, said that making EVs generates more carbon than combustion engine cars. This emission is mainly due to the extraction and processing of minerals in EV batteries and production of the power cells.

Kelly said that the payback period then depends on factors such as the size of the EV’s battery. The Tesla 3 scenario was for driving in the United States, where 23% of electricity comes from coal-fired plants, with a 54 kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery and a cathode made of nickel, cobalt and aluminum, among other variables. It was up against a gasoline-fueled Toyota Corolla weighing 2,955 pounds with a fuel efficiency of 33 miles per gallon. It was assumed both vehicles would travel 173,151 miles during their lifetimes.

The analysis showed that the production of a mid-sized EV saloon generates 47 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per mile during the extraction and production process. Michael Wang, senior scientist and director of the Systems Assessment Center at Argonne’s Energy Systems division, said that EVs generally emit far less carbon over a 12-year lifespan. Even in the worst-case scenario where an EV is charged only from a coal-fired grid, it would generate an extra 4.1 million grams of carbon a year while a comparable gasoline car would produce over 4.6 million grams.

According to Vijay Subramanian, IHS Markit’s global director of carbon dioxide (CO2) compliance, the typical break-even point in carbon emissions for EVs was about 15,000 to 20,000 miles. This depends on the country. And then he added that using such an approach showed there were long-term benefits from shifting to electric vehicles. Some other groups also argue that EVs are not necessarily cleaner or greener than fossil-fueled cars. The American Petroleum Institute, stated that on a life-cycle basis, different automobile powertrains result in similar greenhouse gas emissions. Argonne National Laboratory is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and operated by the University of Chicago.

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