Is the electric avenue paved in green?

There are many ways to get from A to B, but two other letters, E and V, are gaining more traction in conversations about climate change and transportation. This is understandable, given that transportation is the second largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Nova Scotia. GHGs trap heat in our atmosphere, creating extreme weather conditions and worsening other effects of climate change.

But as electric vehicles become an exciting new option for some car owners, many are wondering if electric vehicles are as environmentally friendly as advertised, especially in Nova Scotia, where most of our energy It is still generated by burning coal.

“Are electric vehicles really green?” It’s a question Brendan Piper of Next Ride, an electric vehicle education program offered by the Clean Foundation, CAA and the province of Nova Scotia, gets asked all the time. The answer is important as electric vehicle sales soar across Canada.

The E could also mean efficient

One of the advantages of electric vehicles is their efficiency in converting the energy used into kilometers traveled.

“Electric vehicles are 75 to 90 percent efficient, while gasoline vehicles are only 16 to 25 percent efficient,” says Piper, an electric vehicle specialist. “At best, a gasoline vehicle wastes 75 percent of the fuel you pay for. In other words, for every $4 you spend on gas, only $1 goes toward moving the vehicle. The rest is lost as heat and friction.”

Brendan Piper is Next Ride’s EV Engagement Specialist. Photo courtesy of Clean Foundation

Jeremie Bernardin, director of electric vehicle innovation and training at Integrated Automotive Experience, agrees. “Although a battery doesn’t contain as much potential energy as a tank of gasoline, it is incredibly efficient at converting energy into motion and distance traveled,” he says. “And gasoline-powered cars tend to pollute more over time, as they age, and the engines become a little less efficient.”

A greener grid, but still not green enough

When you plug in your electric vehicle, unless you’re completely off-grid and 100 percent solar, that electricity will include polluting energy sources. While Nova Scotia has plans to reach 80 per cent renewable energy and move away from coal by 2030, the reality is that today our grid still includes about 60 per cent of the energy generated by burning fossil fuels: coal, coke oil, natural gas. and oil.

Nova Scotia’s power grid is far from 100 per cent renewable. Are electric vehicles still a good environmental option?

While the full benefits of electric vehicles will be realized only after electricity sources become truly renewable, there are still advantages to electric vehicles being on the roads now.

“Consider this hypothetical,” says Next Ride’s Piper. “Even if Nova Scotians charged their electric vehicles from a 100 per cent coal-powered grid, their vehicle emissions would still be about 30 per cent lower than a comparable gasoline vehicle. And that is without taking into account the production and shipping of gasoline.”

A new car, even if it is electric, still requires energy to build

There are doubts about the energy consumption involved in building an electric vehicle compared to a traditional vehicle. Electric vehicles have a lower lifetime carbon footprint than cars with internal combustion engines, but it takes about two years before lifetime emissions (including production) are considered lower than those of internal combustion vehicles.

“The more electric vehicles are driven, the faster they pay off what some call an ’emissions debt,’” Piper says.

There are also critical ethical and sustainability concerns associated with the extraction of raw materials needed for electric vehicle batteries, such as cobalt and lithium. “You can’t ignore the environmental cost of mineral extraction,” says Bernardin, who is also co-founder of the Electric Vehicle Association of Canada. “However, the efficiency of electric motors changes the CO₂ equation within a few years. And fewer kilometers are needed to achieve a net benefit, the cleaner your electrical grid is.”

Aside from that, Bernardin agrees that improvements in batteries and more research into their recycling are needed; The good news is that Nova Scotia is home to the best battery performance experts.

Next Ride’s online EV charging station map. Image courtesy of Clean Foundation

How many people can afford to drive an electric vehicle?

The truth is that electric vehicles are still not within the budgets of most households. “In this economic climate, this is absolutely true,” Bernardin says. “All the cars are so expensive now it’s eye-watering.”

Over time, he says, we should see more and more electric vehicles on the second-hand market. But even though they’re more expensive up front, electric vehicles still make sense… and they cost pennies.

“They pay for themselves in the long term,” says Bernardin. “There are also significant cost savings in maintenance. And because they are so efficient, if I can go the same distance on $10 of electric charging compared to a $50 fill-up of gasoline, those savings at the gas pump really add up.”

But it does require a longer-term vision. “I wish there were more things like low-cost financing for people to buy electric vehicles,” Bernardin says. “What saddens me is that people who can’t afford the upfront costs of an electric vehicle will be stuck with rising fuel costs and less efficient vehicles.”

That is why it is still necessary to invest in public transportation. For those who cannot afford a car (EV or other), without public transportation you have no reliable, safe, and affordable way to get to work, school, or medical appointments.

The costs of a driver’s license, personal vehicle, gas, maintenance and parking may simply be too prohibitive for many Nova Scotians already struggling to get by.

And no one likes being stuck in traffic, and replacing gas vehicles with electric vehicles doesn’t change that.

“There is no silver bullet to addressing climate change,” says Piper. “Active transport options such as bicycles and e-bikes, accessible public transport and heavy-duty electric vehicles are needed to reduce emissions and avoid the worst climate forecasts. “Electric vehicles are a fantastic option, but not the only one out there for Nova Scotians.”

This story is shared by the Climate Story Network, an initiative of Climate Focus, a nonprofit organization dedicated to covering stories about community climate solutions.

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