Electric vehicles not the answer - expert

2012-02-16 14:35
The Joule electric car is scheduled for production in 2014. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

The Joule electric car is scheduled for production in 2014. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Cape Town - Wits researchers have reported that electric cars will not reduce greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming.

"We found that, as the bulk of South Africa's electricity is generated from relatively low-quality coal and the advanced exhaust clean up technologies are not implemented in the current coal-fired power plants, the use of electric vehicles in South Africa would not help to cut greenhouse gas emissions now (2010) or in the future, " the researchers reported.

Electric vehicles have been suggested as a way to reduce the carbon emissions in urban centres, but researchers Diane Hildebrandt, David Glasser and Xinying Liu said that the generation of electricity should be taken into account.

"If you do a whole analysis of the entire system, the electric vehicle doesn't look necessarily, on the systems approach, to be the cleaner option," Hildebrandt told News24.

She said that if one based the impact of electric vehicles on the entire system of power generation, they were worse than petrol and diesel vehicles.


"When you look at the system globally, you get various emissions at various points, now electric vehicles at their point - in other words - the vehicle itself is incredibly clean, but when you step further back and take the power station into account, then suddenly the answer is not as clear cut.

"With current technology, the emissions are at least as bad, if not much worse than say for example, other processes like using oil, or even coal to liquid."

Policymakers have suggested that electric cars are an answer to urban pollution and in 2011, the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle won the car of the year title.

Hildebrandt said that a mix of power generation would limit the pollutant impact of electric vehicles.

"If you're struggling in a city where there's a lot of smog and dirt, then electric vehicles would clear the city problem up, and that might be a reason to clear the cities.

"And if your electricity is generated from gas, you might also get a different answer, but in our case we're using coal to produce our electricity."

In SA, Optimal Energy is scheduled to begin selling the Joule electric vehicle in 2014, but one of the challenges is the lack of charging infrastructure for an anticipated mass production of electric vehicles.


The company agreed that electricity generation was key to making electric vehicles a cleaner technology option.

"The problem thus does not lie with electric cars, but rather with the way that electricity is generated," said Optimal Energy communications manager Jaco van Loggerenberg.

Many countries in European cities offer incentives for users of electric vehicles, but Hildebrandt cautioned that solutions from developed countries be implemented in SA without due diligence.

"One has to be very careful about taking concepts from oversees and applying them to our situation without fully understanding what the impact is," she said.

Last year, Eskom was granted a $100m loan from the African Development Bank for a solar and wind power plants in the Western and Northern Cape province, expected to produce about 100MW.

"So it's not an experimental project, it will be a real power station. A 100MW is a lot of power - it is scale - it's significant," Eskom spokesperson Hilary Joffe told News24.

Hildebrandt acknowledged that as SA moved further away from coal-fired plants, the pollution impact of electricity generation would decline.

"As one gets different sources of producing electricity, then the answer does change. So certainly, if one could go with solar collectors or wind, then it changes, but it's just if we're using coal to generate our electricity that one has to be very careful about what one is trying to achieve by going to electric vehicles."

- Follow Duncan on Twitter
Read more on:    technology  |  climate change

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