Electric vehicles not the answer - expert

2012-02-16 14:35

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

  • Marthinus - 2012-02-16 14:57

    Its ugly and what is that saving? We still burn coal to generate electricity. Electric cars drawback is batteries. Its expensive and not feasible. The cars of the future MUST be hydrogen.

      wesleywt - 2012-02-16 15:32

      Hydrogen is not that easy to find. Unless you get it from a nuclear power station. The greenies will hate that too.

      Lorenzo - 2012-02-16 15:43

      @Wesleywt - What do you mean? Hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements in the world. Maybe you mean it’s just difficult to extract… because it is? AND the only thing it emits out of your exhaust pipe is Water!!

      Mike - 2012-02-16 16:31

      It's the most abundant element in the universe.

      stevie0064 - 2012-02-16 16:35

      @wesleywt Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. What's not so abundant is the form it is needed in to be an energy carrier that can replace fossil fuels. If there is a way to produce hydrogen using wind and/or solar power (rather than connecting to the national grid) we would be well on our way to being less dependent on oil from other, less politically stable countries. Do you think the big oil conglomerates are going to allow this? Not any time soon, I would wager.

      Ernst - 2012-02-17 14:38

      So what is the solution then? Continue burning fossil feuls? We are in the 21'st centuary and we still rely on pathetically primitive sources of energy. Oh and does this "expert" take into account the emissions caused in refining oil into petrol and diesel, transporting petrol to filling stations etc.?

      NrGx - 2012-03-28 15:45

      and hydrogen is one the most unstable elements. Can you picture a taxi with a hydrogen combustion engine. And second, some plonker will assume he can repair it himself, and blow up half the neighbourhood. Thirdly, to produce hydrogen fuel cells on a mass market scale will be just as damaging to the environment, both during the making of it, and disposing of it. Hydrogen has been proven to be one of the worst "sustainable" ideas.

  • NIt - 2012-02-16 15:11

    The biggest problem is the cost of purchasing and running electric vehicles. Paying over R300 000 for an EV and then having to lease the batteries for another R3000 per month is not going to sell very well in South Africa.

      wesleywt - 2012-02-16 15:34

      If more people buy it then the price will decrease and the technology improve as well.

      Neil - 2012-02-17 08:17

      If you visit the Transport museum in Johannesburg, you will find on display an electric car built in the 1970s. Imagine if it was not suppressed then, all the RnD thats gone into petrol would have gone into Electric. Humans are like that, they perfect things.

  • Phoenix - 2012-02-16 15:21

    OMG how incredibly short-sighted. If everyone drives electric cars now there will be no saving; but the moment clean power generation is introduced those vehicles are at an immediate advantage; and the environment will benefit immediately.

      Peter - 2012-02-16 17:39

      Wouldn't it be more logical to first generate clean power (and enough of it) before we all start using EV's though?

      Phoenix - 2012-02-16 21:37

      No. It will take too long to get people to buy new vehicles. If they start now (or soon rather) one change in the power grid has the immediate benefit of all electric vehicles on the road. Surely this is more logical?

      piet.strydom - 2012-02-16 22:06

      Short-sighted indeed = it is a 100 year problem, and they are concerned about the next two years.... And no, Hydrogen is not a viable solution, you need to much energy to extract the hydrogen into the form that a vehicle is used. Why use a lot of electricity to generate hydrogen to power a vehicle, if you can just use electricity to start of with?

  • Rudie - 2012-02-16 15:27

    100MW may be a lot of power, but when you consider its costs the same as a 4000MW conventional plant (on a $/MW basis) and has at best 15% utilisation (because the sun only shines for so long) solar is clearly not a clever utility scale option. Spending that money on cleaning existing generation will have an order of magnitude higher reduction in emissions. What these solar projects do very effectively is get economies into very large, very long term debt.

      stevie0064 - 2012-02-17 12:55

      What if solar energy (and/or wind, wave, ocean current) were instead not connected to the national grid but used to create hydrogen fuel instead? Clean fuel made from clean energy, produced locally...

  • Viv - 2012-02-16 15:37

    What they forget is the amount of greenhouse gas created while converting crude oil to petrol or diesel. Add that to what is produced when the petrol or diesel is used by vehicles and the balance is definitely in favour of electric cars despite the coal fired power stations.

  • Wolfgang - 2012-02-16 15:52

    I agree with the general statement but one needs to look at the complete circle of production. There is no use in producing electrical cars if manufacturing these produces more CO2 then the life cycle saving of that car. We must get away from CO2 intensive production completely but that will take time. Therefor shooting down electrical cars must be seen within that context. Regards Wolfgang, Berlin

  • Deon - 2012-02-16 15:59

    2012 now not 2010.

  • renesongs - 2012-02-16 16:10

    EV's because they are many times more efficient than the internal combustion engine - Nuclear and Hydroelectric Power plants while other clean energy becomes viable. The future has to start somewhere.

  • andre.redelinghuys - 2012-02-16 16:30

    I believe the internal combustion engine is about 70% inefficient.. meaning only 30% of the energy you put into is used to drive the vehicle and electric engines are roughly the inverse: 30% wasted.. 70% used. So even if the energy source is equally dirty, electric cars are still the way to go.. no?

  • pvuuren - 2012-02-16 16:34

    didn't read the whole article, but... any which way we cut this cake, the answer to alternative fuel is with the further development of and research into the feild of nuclear power.

  • Preshen - 2012-02-16 18:10

    When ignorant people fail to do research is when we are heading for trouble. Hydrogen is abudant in water H2O. You split the h2 atom from water using electrolysis. You power electrolysis using wind and solar. You store H2 in tanks that can be filled into your car in 5 minutes. This way you dont even need a logistical networks. Service stations only need an electolysis machine, wind turbine and solar. Noregians are already doing it. They have built a network spanning from Johannesburg to Durban equivalent where you can power your car on hydrogen. You can even use this method to power your homes. Hydrogen is safer than gasoline. and for those of you still skeptical just think of what people said in the steam engine days when they were told future cars will be powered by explosions with a gasoline tank on board.

      carnun - 2012-02-16 19:11

      ...and what form of energy is used to do the electrolysis? and how much energy is needed for the electrolysis? Answer these questions and you'll see where the problem with hydrogen is.

      Phoenix - 2012-02-16 21:41

      Errr carnum you need to read more carefully before commenting? Preshen said wind and solar... and he is correct that there is a hydrogen highway in Nothern Europe where all hydrogen is generated at the fueling stations using renewables.

      JPWhiteHome - 2012-02-16 23:19

      But if the gas stations are powered by solar and wind power in norway as you suggest, then why not store in batteries and transfer stored electric directly into an EV at charge time? Why convert the electric to hydrogen, pressurize it (lost efficiency here), store it, pump it and then once it's in the hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle, the fuel-cell converts the hydrogen back into electric and drives the wheels around. Converting back and forth from electric and hydrogen will be very wasteful. I fact when explained this way, one wonders how hydrogen fuel cell technology will ever be more efficient.

      Preshen - 2012-02-17 11:24

      @JPWhiteHome, Hydrogen will take up less space and weight than batteries. Batteries are more expensive, and resouces for current battery technology is not sustainable. There is also and inconveinance factor of exchanging batteries, batteries also have a life span in terms of efficiency and you would not know the condition of battery you would be getting when you exchange. You also loose energy when charging batteries. The entire production energy requirements (the compression and pumping you talk about)is a drop in the ocean compared to current refineries. There are disposal costs for batteries as well. The convenience of hygdogen will be no different to our current gasoline system in fact there can be less logistical issues involved. Just like batteries it will be alot more efficient in converting energy to our drive wheels than gasoline engine, and it will solve the convenience issue that batteries currently pose. At the same time take up less space and weight, making it an even more efficient technology than batteries.

      stevie0064 - 2012-02-17 13:42

      @JPWhiteHome From what I've read, a hydrogen fuel cell is not the only way to generate electricity with hydrogen. Current fuel cell technology also requires the use of platinum, which is prohibitively expensive at the moment but by all accounts a cheaper replacement will soon be developed. Pressurised liquid hydrogen can also be burned in very much the same way as a petrol internal combustion engine. Unfortunately the reciprocating piston engines, which the world's car manufacturing facilities are equipped to produce, are not ideally suited to being retrofitted to run on hydrogen. Conversely, the Wankel rotary engine is almost *perfectly* suited to run on hydrogen, in addition to being lighter, smaller, no vibration, better thermal efficiency, and fewer moving parts. As evidenced by Mazda's research on their RX-8 RE duel-fuel vehicle, if hydrogen is the fuel of the future, the rotary is the engine of the future.

      piet.strydom - 2012-02-17 22:01

      @Preshen, Do not be so quick to call people ignorant.

  • carnun - 2012-02-16 19:14

    Even the WWF research supports the claim that the well-to-wheel pollution for a pure electric is a third less polluting (an EV is approximately 3 times more efficient over the total cycle), so there must be something missing from this article; maybe there are some details the reporter has left out from the research? Take a look at

  • johangro - 2012-02-16 21:46

    Dear Boss, I cannot come in today because we had load shedding/no electricity. Sounds a good excuse for a freebie... Is that sick leave/Annual Leave/ Family Responsibility.....?

      JPWhiteHome - 2012-02-16 23:26

      Dear Boss, I understand you can't get to work today due to a gas shortage in Nashville, want a ride in my EV?. Any resource can run dry and leave consumers in the lurch.

  • JPWhiteHome - 2012-02-16 23:54

    Looking upstream to find pollution in the generation of electricity is a valid analysis. I am left to wonder if the researchers also accounted for the electric it takes to refine oil into gasoline, or the fuel to transport it half way round the world, cost of transporting refined gas to the gas stations. I find it hard to believe there is more pollution from electric generation than oil activities such as exploring, drilling, transporting, refining, transporting, pumping and burning. Not to mention the fuel expended to wage war to protect the supply of oil.

  • Victor - 2012-02-17 07:48

    Maybe not but it will cost you less to run with the way petrol prices are going. Why give all our money to the Arab nations ??????

  • Lauden Kirk - 2012-02-17 10:34

    Did that take some professor to figure that out. That's the simplest thing to work out. I think i was ten years old when I came up with that conclusion. Are we that stupid and in conscious

  • Lauden Kirk - 2012-02-17 10:35

    Water hydrogen= shot in the head

  • Wim - 2012-02-17 13:05

    It must be said that if electric vehicles charge at night, when demand is low, they could run in part without extra electricity capacity. If we do bolster our capacity using nuclear (which is by far the cleanest feasible source of electricity in South Africa), then electric cars would indeed run much cleaner than petrol, not to mention the economic advantages from reducing dependency on crude oil. Now two other points: - Extracting hydrogen is extremely energy (and water) intensive. - Hydroelectric power does not come without environmental risks, and has caused many more deaths worldwide (particularly Italy and China from dams collapsing) than nuclear power, not to mention the permanent catastrophic environmental impact of hydroelectric dams.

  • jacques.buckle - 2012-02-17 14:00

    couple years back my idea of electric cars was to save money not reduce greenhouse gas.

  • bruce.gast - 2012-02-17 18:41

    more small thinking. The reason the world is in depression caused by fuel prices. EV's are the answer, Duh the phase out of oil burning cars won't happen immediately, Duh the source for electric power to charge EVs won't be generated from solar immediately, both will take place on steps... First being having people pull their heads out of their butts to see the has to be done. Or, well we can drill more, ruin more oceans, continue to build 40 million gas cars per year (that's 400 million over the next 10 years)... and continue to ruin the planet and our economies waiting for "an immediate fix"... thankful more and more people are seeing, but not the lamos who right stories like this! Bruce Gast

  • Don - 2012-02-19 04:08

    First, "greenhouse gas emissions" are fake and are being used by Governments to generate cash. That's all. Secondly; the very important issue here is not whether electric vehicles cut those emissions, but we are loosing sight of their most important contribution... non-reliance on imported, expensive, dwindling reserves of foreign oil. Get real! We can't all survive by riding cycles to work. In fact, if we don't get an alternative to our dependence on oil, there will be no work. No food transported, etc, etc. Bring on electric cars now, then maybe hydrogen in the near future.

      gerhard.otto.77 - 2012-05-25 11:48


  • skootzie - 2012-04-03 20:05

    I'm still confused .. what's wrong exactly with a car that uses batteries and is charged by the sun? .. There is a car company that has released an electric car that does about 400 miles and is recharged by solar panels built cleverly into the roof. The bugger pushes out like 450BHP or something ridiculous (do not quote me on figures).

  • gerhard.otto.77 - 2012-05-23 15:27

    A motor car is free to use the roads throughout the country. This limits the extent to which emissions can be controlled. Power stations however, are in fixed locations and thus can be more readily accessed for inspections etc. The locations themselves can also be selected to minimize emission impact. Furthermore, there are many ways to generate electricity. The fact that we are currently using "dirty" methods, is not an excuse to hamper advancement on other fronts.Electric commuter vehicles will make a huge difference and should be mass produced starting NOW! The arguments to the contrary just makes no sense.

  • ryanwbotha - 2012-06-13 14:12

    Right now, I would love to save the planet, but my pocket needs saving first. If I had an electric car I would save a lot of money. There are so many EV manufacturers around the world, why does the government encourage those companies to introduce electric vehicles to the South African market?

  • pages:
  • 1