How green are electric vehicles really, for a smart city future?

26 April 2021

A driver uses a fast-charging station for electric in the cell phone lot at JFK airport .(Photo by SPENCER PLATT / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Electric vehicles have been steadily ticking up in consumers’ consciousness over the past few years, and interest in the game-changing automotive technology has been peaking with record EV sales expected this year. In some countries, lawmakers have incentivized EV makers to set up shop there, and of course everyone has heard of Elon Musk’s Tesla.

A big driving factor of the discussion is the reduced environmental impact of electric vehicles. EVs have been positioned as one of the major pillars as urban centers transform into smart cities – primarily in terms of revolutionizing transportation needs in the city. Along with studies into self-driving vehicles and autonomous public trains and buses, electric-powered vehicles are pegged to make traveling around the smart city of tomorrow much more sustainable.

But research is also revealing now what was less clear before: electric vehicles might not be as green as what was hoped initially. In fact, carbon emissions released from the vehicle are just one of several factors that can help ascertain how harmful it can be to the environment.

After all, the electric power needed to be generated in order to power the vehicles charging stations is likely produced in a power plant that runs on fossil fuels. There are other factors that should be of concern for consumers comparing electric vehicles with traditional internal combustion engine vehicles, says Benjamin Chiang, Ernst & Young government and public sector leader in Southeast Asia (Asean).

“Comparing the lifecycle emissions of the latest, high-efficiency ICE vehicles and EVs can be a fraught exercise, because so much depends on the assumptions made,” Chiang told Business Times. For instance, those assumptions also involve how much waste the vehicle makers had already produced in the manufacture of it, what kind of resource-intensive mining was done to procure the raw materials, as well as whether EV batteries are recycled once they’re exhausted.

Electric vehicles could turn out to unexpected energy vampires. Assuming that every private car drives 52km per day on average, EVs will need about 10.4 kilowatts per hour (kWh) of electricity each day. This roughly translates to 10x the power needed to run a refrigerator for a full day, or keep an air conditioner for seven hours.

And according to Soo Han Sen, an assistant professor from the Nanyang Technological University’s School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, using electric vehicles just moves carbon emissions from the cars to the power plants. “If we want to be more sustainable, then the more fundamental change is that our electricity production should also be from renewable energy, which is still changing slowly,” says Professor Soo.

The professor’s home country is Singapore, the tiny island-state that makes a perfect backdrop of a burgeoning smart city, with its city-sized proportions, comparable population size, and access to innovation-driven solutions that can improve city systems and the quality of life of citizens.

But Singapore is still largely powered by fossil fuels, with about 95% of energy supplied by natural gas with the remainder a mix of coal, oil, municipal waste, and solar energy. But the city-state has plans to reduce its carbon output and to adopt sustainable, low-energy solutions by 2030, as part of the SG Green Plan 2030.

The Plan should help curb a certain amount of carbon production as well as how resources are utilized in resource-scarce Singapore. The mining and production of EV batteries has also been linked to high mining and resource usage, so observers are suggesting that to properly transition towards sustainable transportation for the smart city of tomorrow, battery-powered cars need to replace internal combustion engine ones while battery technology and its energy sources need to be cleaner.

While reducing private transportation overall would be more beneficial to the environment, replacing traditional cars while making taxis and other passenger vehicles also convert to electric will see a dramatic improvement in emission rates.

The country is also developing its own solar power capabilities while tapping the renewable energy grids of its neighbors like Malaysia, which has vast access to hydropower. Relying on renewable power sources will result in cleaner energy being produced, and will therefore be even more efficient than lowering carbon output from vehicles.