Methane vs Electricity

The Solar (and battery) powered Sion EV, to be made by Sono Motors at the former Saab car plant at Trollhatten, Sweden. A more environmentally friendly choice than a methane powered vehicle. (Photo Sono Motors)

A study from the Munich-based IFO Institute for Economic Research, claims that battery electric cars are dirtier than those that are diesel powered. It proposes methane based, hydrogen vehicles. This study is significantly flawed.

For inforation about the report see:

IFO is an acronym from Information and Forschung (research). As one of Germany’s largest economic think-tanks, it analyses economic policy and is widely known for its monthly IFO Business Climate Index for Germany. Its research output is significant: about a quarter of the articles published by German research institutes in international journals in economics in 2006 were from IFO researchers. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find more recent data to support this claim. According to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung ranking, it is also Germany’s most influential economics research institute.

Part of the problem is the recycling of disproved research. The claim promoted by ICE (internal combustion engine) automakers and the fossil fuel industry, is that electric vehicles are worse for the environment because they are powered by dirty electricity.

Studies looking at overall emissions based on electricity generation have debunked this and showed that electric cars are cleaner and becoming cleaner as renewable energy is becoming an increasingly more important part of the electric grid. Previous studies have shown that EVs are cleaner than diesel no matter which European grid electricity is used.

The new twist in the new report, is that EVs use significant amounts of energy in the mining and processing of lithium, cobalt, and manganese, which are critical raw materials for the production of EV batteries.

The major error here, is an assumption that EV batteries become hazardous waste after 150 000 km or ten years. This is untrue. First, 150 000 km is shorter than the warranty period for an EV battery, which is generally 160 000 km.

There are requirements in place throughout Europe for the recycling of batteries. Even in a depleted state, they are valuable because lithium is a scarce resourse. Lthium ion batteries are not considered hazardous waste, although lead acid batteries are, because of the lead.

Cobalt and manganese are also recycled.

The study also concludes that methane-powered gasoline engines or hydrogen motors could cut CO2 emissions by a third and possibly eliminate the need for diesel motors. Again the conclusions are not matched by the facts.

Most hydrogen is produced using steam-methane reforming, a production process in which high-temperature steam (700°C–1,000°C) is used to produce hydrogen from a methane source, such as natural gas. Methane reacts with steam under 3–25 bar pressure in the presence of a catalyst to produce hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and a relatively small amount of carbon dioxide. Steam reforming is endothermic, heat must be supplied to the process for the reaction to proceed.

This is followed by a water-gas shift reaction, where carbon monoxide and steam are reacted using a catalyst to produce carbon dioxide and more hydrogen. In a final process step called pressure-swing adsorption, carbon dioxide and other impurities are removed from the gas stream, leaving essentially pure hydrogen. Steam reforming can also be used to produce hydrogen from other fuels, such as ethanol or propane.

Steam-methane reforming reaction
CH4 + H2O (+ heat) → CO + 3H2

Water-gas shift reaction
CO + H2O → CO2 + H2 (+ small amount of heat)

The production of 1 ton of hydrogen produced 19 tons of CO2.

Hydrogen can be produced through other processes, including the partial oxidation of methane, and the electrolysis of water. Neither is in significant use.

While Germany currently uses more coal power than most of Europe, it is cleaning up more quickly than most. By 2030, 2/3 of its energy will be provided by renewables. This was not considered in the study.

Other mistakes arise from using the flawed NEDC driving cycle. This gives unrealistically optimistic numbers for diesel emissions, and unrealistically pessimistic numbers for electrical emissions.

One of the most significant mistakes involves the comparison of the full production and lifecycle emissions of an electric vehicle, including the emission from the electricity uses, versus those for a diesel vehicle. Unfortunately, the study does not account for all the energy used to produce the diesel and supply it to the cars.

The German auto industry has under-reporting diesel emissions, going so far as to install cheat devises on vehicles. These emissions have caused thousands of deaths, something that billions in fines cannot compensate.

Fossil fuel extraction requires large amounts of energy, machinery and in many cases has detrimental effects on the environment. A Canadian favourite, tar sands oil, requires strip-mining tar mixed with sand, this has to be liquified and cleaned for transportation. Then there are transportation costs including tanker grounding, railcar derailments and pipeline leaks, all resulting in massive environmental damage, including ground water contamination.