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Electromobility and the power sector challenge
All in the mix: emissions gains from electromobility are inextricably linked to power sector decarbonisation

The sales share of electric passenger and light commercial vehicles in Europe reached 2.7% in the first-half of 2019, according to electromobility analysts EV-Volumes, with Germany for the first time becoming the largest market ahead of Norway.

So far, the penetration of electromobility in Europe has been confined to light vehicles where model choice increases year on year, but taking market share in heavy-duty road transport is proving more of a challenge, with one important exception – electric buses.

Consultants CME Solutions estimate that 562 city e-buses over 8 tons were registered in Western Europe and Poland last year, up 48% on 2017, to give a market share of 5%, higher than for passenger car sales. The data refers to Class I buses and does not include electric trolley bus sales.

According to Interact Analysis, 650 e-buses, again excluding electric trolley buses, were delivered in Europe last year, bringing the total on European roads to 2,200 at the end of 2018.

The numbers arriving on European roads should grow quickly as new orders in 2017 reached a record 1,516. In 2018, orders were again high at 1,200.

A new record could be set in 2019. E-bus manufacturer Solaris alone won orders for 560 e-buses in the first half of the year, with large deals struck with municipal authorities in Berlin, Milan and Warsaw. These sales make up about 25% of tenders issued for e-buses in Europe in 2019, according to Solaris, implying that more than 2000 e-buses orders could be made this year. 

Municipal pull 

The sharp rise in e-bus deployment reflects a strong governmental push towards electrification at the city and municipal levels as almost all buyers are public transportation companies.

The reasons are simple: reduced local air pollution on busy city roads, reducing healthcare costs, less noise, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. According to non-governmental organisation Transport and Environment, when external costs are included, the total cost of ownership over eight years for an e-bus, including charging infrastructure, is already lower than for the equivalent diesel bus.

When only air quality and noise are included, e-buses are roughly at parity with diesel buses. Although the capital cost of an e-bus is higher, savings are made because electricity is cheaper as a fuel than diesel, and electric engines have lower operating and maintenance costs. 

Heavy-duty transport 

The electrification of heavy vehicles is an important development in the fight against climate change because they avoid the use of much more fossil fuel than an electric passenger vehicle. In the UK, the average family car will travel only about 20 miles (32 km) a day with an average fuel efficiency of about 50 miles per gallon (5.5 litres/100 km) for a new car. This means that over a year, an electric car would avoid the emissions from 146 gallons (664 litres) of fossil fuel.

Reducing carbon emissions with e-buses
E-buses in Europe have been ordered for routes with an average daily distance of 111.4 miles (179.3 km). The diesel buses they replace have a much lower fuel efficiency than a new passenger car of about 5 mpg. Assuming a week a year off-road for maintenance, an e-bus displaces emissions from 7,976 gallons of diesel a year, over 50 times more than an electric passenger vehicle.

E-buses are the first heavy duty vehicles to electrify and can do so because they have fixed routes with defined ranges, allowing the installation of overnight charging facilities at depots or ‘opportunity charging’ for example using roof top pantographs at bus stops and route end terminals. 

EVs not emissions free 

However, that isn’t the whole story. Electric vehicles do create greenhouse gas emissions just not in the street.

Emissions are produced in their manufacture, particularly the energy used in making lithium-ion batteries. However, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), manufacturing the average electric car generates 21.5% less CO2 than making the average combustion engine car.

The real emissions savings then add up from the use of electricity rather than gasoline or diesel for locomotion. However, here too, it is not all plain sailing, it depends on the way in which the electricity is generated. 

All in the mix 

On average across the EU, an electric passenger car will cut CO2 emissions compared with a combustion engine car by 50%, according to the ICCT. ICCT data puts the total CO2 emissions from the average EU car at 258 g/km in 2017 in comparison with a range of 73-185 g/km for electric cars.

The low end, 73 g/km, is in Norway, where electricity generation is almost entirely renewable, owing to the widespread availability of hydro power. The high end, 185 g/km, is Germany, which retains a relatively large proportion of coal-fired power plant.

As the generation mix becomes cleaner, for example by switching from coal to gas or building new renewable energy capacity, the greater the benefits of electromobility become. The UK’s figure of 125 g/km for 2017, for example, will almost certainly be lower in 2018, owing to less coal-fired generation. Last year, UK coal-fired power generation fell 25.3%, largely as a result of higher renewable energy generation, which was up 13.1%, led by gains in offshore wind generation. 

Rising electricity demand 

While e-cars and e-buses displace fossil fuels, they also increase electricity demand. A fleet of 5,000 all-electric buses across Europe, for example, which is likely by 2021, would consume about 377 GWh of electricity a year. In effect, energy consumption is being transferred from one energy source to another.

In China, which has as many electric passenger cars and light commercial vehicles as the rest of the world put together, as well as over 400,000 e-buses — 99% of the world total — transport electrification is becoming an important driver of electricity demand.

And herein lies the dilemma; despite a rapid expansion of renewable energy, China’s electricity generation remains dominated by coal.

In Europe and in China, as elsewhere, the gains to be made from the electrification of transport are inextricably linked to the decarbonisation of the power sector. 

Deep decarbonisation 

Many EU countries, including big economies like France and the UK, have adopted net zero carbon targets by 2050. This will require the decarbonisation of transport. Electromobility will make electricity provision even more central to the workings of a modern low-carbon economy.

Share of renewable energies in the electricity, heat and transport sectors in Germany

Share in percent (Federal Environment Agency on the basis of Renewable Energy Statistics Working Group)

To give an idea of the scale of change, electricity accounted for 21.6% of final energy consumption in the EU in 2016 and 30.2% of this electricity was generated by renewable energy sources.

Transport accounted for 33.2% of final energy consumption with about 4% met by biofuels and 2-3% from electrification, mainly of rail transport. The remainder was met by fossil fuels, which also represent a high level of import dependency – 89.7% for the EU-28’s petroleum and oil products use.

Renewable electricity generation thus needs to more than treble to achieve 100% clean power, but then more than double again to meet new electricity demand from transportation alone based on final energy consumption in 2016.

Meanwhile, the global industry association for road transport, the IRU, expects passenger transport to grow by 42% by 2050 and freight transport by more than 60%.

Photo credits: © Solaris Bus & Coach S.A.

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