Electric and hybrid vehicles are better for the environment, right? Well yes, mostly. How much better EVs are for the environment depends on a few things, like where you live - and where your electricity comes from. Let’s see how New Zealand stacks up.
Once an EV is on the road it emits a lot less greenhouse gas and costs a lot less to run too. That part we know and love. But what’s creating chatter internationally are the ‘indirect emissions’ from building and powering EVs.
If you’re plugging in to electricity that comes from burning dirty fossil-fuels, it almost defeats the purpose. You’ll produce less emissions than a petrol-run car but slightly more than diesel. On the other hand, EVs that run on renewable electricity produce up to six times less carbon than a petrol vehicle.
Where you live matters
Norway - of course - is leading the charge in EV uptake as well as renewable energy. Hydro power provides over 96% of Norway's electricity and there are more than 110,000 electric cars on the roads. EV sales in March made up over 37% of new cars and thousands of people have their names on waiting lists. Thanks to a mix of tax breaks and reduced road user charges, the cost of buying an EV is on par with a conventional car.
In Germany EV buyers can get up to 4,000 Euros towards their new wheels. But with more than half the country’s electricity coming from coal and gas, you’d need to drive 100,000kms before clearing the ‘eco debt’ and emitting less carbon than a petrol car. Cross the border to France and EVs are powered mainly by nuclear. In the UK, a mix of fossil fuels and renewables. And in the US, some areas are into renewables, like California, but in the north-east they’re heavily powered by fossil fuels including coal.
So how about NZ?
Well we’re not Norway, but we’re not far behind! Thanks to renewables making up over 85% of our electricity, driving electric in New Zealand makes environmental sense. We’ve got plenty of supply too – enough to run every light vehicle in the country. Our 230-volt electricity system makes for easy charging and the average Kiwi commute of 22kms is a very doable distance for an EV. Our high renewable energy levels mean we stand to save more on emissions by switching to EVs than other countries. Plus, when you consider that our transport sector is one of the most emissions-intensive in the world, it’s a great way for us as a country to help combat climate change.
What about those batteries?
Concerns have been raised about what happens to EV batteries, at the end of a vehicle's life. Scientists are developing ways to recycle EV batteries into industrial processes and extending battery life in the car. Engineers are also figuring out how to use EVs as storage devices in the grid. We'll keep our eye on this.
What’s the upshot?
There’s international consensus that even though there’s room for improvement with EVs, they’re still better for the environment and our climate than conventional cars. The bigger issue is making sure more of our electricity comes from renewable sources and getting smarter about how EVs are made. When that happens, we can really feel good about EVs.