E-mobility: Highly charged driving

Do electric vehicles help to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the transport sector? Oeko-Institut is working on the questions of electric mobility – from user acceptance, via greenhouse gas mitigation potentials, to recycling – in a number of research projects.

The pressure to take action to counter climate change is increasing, including that on the transport sector to reduce GHG emissions and become independent of fossil fuels. Electric vehicles are a much-discussed option in this context.

One million electric vehicles on the German market by 2020 – that’s the target that the German government set itself in its National Development Plan for E-Mobility published in August 2009. Several support programs were established for this purpose. At the same time automobile manufacturers and utility companies are intensifying their efforts to develop electric vehicles and the corresponding charging stations. Similar activities can be observed in other European countries and other important automobile markets like Japan, the USA and China.

Only “green” when driven with additional electricity from renewable energies

The project results of Oeko-Institut from the beginning of 2012 show that electric vehicles can pass the one million mark in Germany in 2022; in 2030 six million such vehicles could be moving on Germany’s roads. But only if the electricity for these vehicles comes from additional renewable energies are they zero emission and can contribute to climate protection. Oeko-Institut researchers have calculated that in 2030 electric mobility will entail an additional electricity demand of approx. 11 terawatt hours in Germany, corresponding to approx. two per cent of the country’s current total electricity consumption. Thus the question of what time of day the electric vehicles are connected to the grid and what power plants or renewable energies deliver the necessary electricity is crucial in the assessment of the climate protection potential.

In 2030 electric vehicles can entail savings of approx. 5.2 million tonnes of CO2 – compared to a scenario without electric vehicles – if the additional electricity demand is met with renewable energies. This corresponds to an approx. 6 % reduction of the total emissions of passenger transport in Germany.

Detailed results can be found in Oeko-Institut’s OPTUM project report in which the market potentials of battery electric vehicles are analysed, along with their impacts on electricity demand and climate protection. The “OPTUM – Maximising the reduction of environmental impacts of electric vehicles” project was funded by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety.

Further information: Press release “Electric mobility only contributes to climate protection with additional renewable electricity production” 

Electric vehicles as company cars? A fleet test at SAP Germany

One of the crucial factors for the market penetration of electric vehicles is user acceptance. In the “Future Fleet” project the central question was therefore whether electric vehicles can be incorporated in company vehicle fleets. Are they accepted by the drivers and does their mobility behaviour thereby change? Together with the Institute for Social-Ecological Research (ISOE) Oeko-Institut provided expert support for a fleet test at SAP Germany. ISOE analysed the usage behaviour and the acceptance of battery electric vehicles amongst SAP Germany’s staff and Oeko-Institut assessed the environmental benefits of company electric vehicles. 

Both institutes assessed the data of 27 battery electric vehicles in SAP Germany’s company car fleet in detail. The Future Fleet project found that battery electric vehicles could make up a fifth of SAP Germany’s company cars by 2030. If plug-In hybrid vehicles, which are powered by both an electric and a conventional propulsion system, are also taken into account, this total could increase to 80 per cent of the company’s car fleet. In this way, approx. half of the CO2 emissions could be saved by 2030 compared to a conventionally powered fleet. 

Further information: Press release for the Future Fleet project

Increasing acceptance with falling prices

In cooperation with Daimler AG Oeko-Institut analysed the usage patterns and market potentials of electric vehicles for private and commercial usage.

A survey of more than 30 fleet operators – conducted by Oeko-Institut on the acceptance of battery electric vehicles in a commercial context – received a positive response.  The majority of companies surveyed stated that they are willing to accept higher costs to incorporate electric vehicles in their car pools.

The researchers found that the current cost disadvantage of electric vehicles will fall to approx. 20 per cent by 2020. In 2030 electric vehicles even have a cost advantage in most vehicle categories compared to vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. The team of experts forecast that both companies and the wider population will have greater acceptance of electric vehicles when the additional purchase costs fall compared to cars with conventional propulsion systems.

The problem of resources: are rare earths a stumbling block?

Even though a lot can be said in favour of the expansion of electric vehicles on the German market, we should not lose sight of the problematic sides of the equation. Possible solutions have to be elaborated now for both the increasing demand for raw materials, particularly for rare metals for batteries and electric motors, and for the well-planned recycling of electric vehicles. In a research project on the resource policy aspects of electric mobility, which Oeko-Institut carried out in cooperation with Daimler AG, Umicore and TU Clausthal on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU), the project partners identified 12 metals that are particularly important in the manufacture of electric vehicles: copper for all components, rare earths like neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium and terbium for the electric motors, and indium, gallium, germanium, gold, silver, platinum and palladium for other components, e.g. the power electronics. The project team subsequently assessed the possible future demand for these important metals due to electric mobility. The most striking was the increase in demand for dysprosium. The limited availability of this rare earths metal, which is predominantly produced in China today, stands in contrast to a constantly growing demand.

Possible solutions: recycling strategies and efficiency

Oeko-Institut has named two key strategies for the reduction of supply shortages in the medium and long term: on the one hand resources have to be used more efficiently and be substituted by other technologies where possible. On the other hand recycling strategies for rare earths and other critical metals have to be developed now and made ready for market launch to avoid shortages in the long term.

Further information: Press release on technologies of the future and resources

Recycling processes are currently being developed for lithium-ion batteries which are needed for electric mobility and which include important metals like lithium, cobalt, and nickel. At the end of October 2011 Oeko-Institut completed two comprehensive life cycle assessments for two different recycling processes for lithium-ion batteries in the automobile industry. They both focused on recycling processes that are currently still in the research and development stage: the “LiBRI – Development of a feasible recycling concept for the high-performance batteries of future electric vehicles” project (coordinated by Umicore) and the “LithoRec – The recycling of lithium-ion batteries” project (coordinated by the Technical University of Braunschweig).

Further information: Press release on the recycling processes of lithium-ion batteries from electric vehicles (in German)

New projects in the field of electric mobility

Oeko-Institut is also currently working on further questions in the field of electric mobility – for example, how the components of electric motors can be recycled as efficiently and in as an environmentally friendly way as possible so that valuable raw materials are recovered. In the “Recycling of components and strategic metals from electric propulsion systems – Motor Recycling (MORE)” project the institute is working closely with partners from industry and research. The project is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) within the field of “Key technologies for electric mobility” (STROM). 

Another key research focus is the development of long-term scenarios for 2050.On the one hand we are analysing the future potentials of electric mobility – not only in passenger transport, but also in freight and public transport. And on the other hand we are focusing on the possible interactions of an increasing electricity demand of the transport sector and an electricity sector in which the share of renewable energies is growing.

These issues are currently being addressed in the following two research projects conducted on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU): “Expert support in the elaboration of scenarios for the possible contribution of electric mobility to long-term climate protection” and “Scenarios for the possible contribution of electric mobility in freight and public transport to long-term climate protection”.