New study claiming electric cars are dirtier than diesel debunked

Electric vehicle detractors are rejoicing after a new study from the Munich-based IFO Institute for Economic Research is claiming electric cars are dirtier than diesel, but the study is already being debunked for being extremely flawed.

Automakers and the fossil fuel industry have often pushed the idea that electric vehicles are worse for the environment than diesel and gasoline-powered vehicles because they are powered by dirty electricity.

Studies looking at overall emissions based on electricity generation have actually debunked this and showed that electric cars are cleaner and becoming cleaner as renewable energy is becoming a more important part of the electric grid.  Studies have been done specifically showing that EVs are cleaner than diesel no matter which European grid electricity you use.

However, the Ifo Institute for Economic Research came out earlier this month with a new study again using the same argument that dirty electricity is making electric cars worse for the environment than diesel:

“Considering Germany’s current energy mix and the amount of energy used in battery production, the CO2 emissions of battery-electric vehicles are, in the best case, slightly higher than those of a diesel engine, and are otherwise much higher.”

The professors behind the study were instead pushing for hydrogen-methane vehicles.

Notably, Germany currently uses more coal power than most of Europe, and is one of the dirtier grids in Europe, but is cleaning up more quickly than most.  By 2030 – when many electric cars sold today will still be in service –  Germany plans to produce 2/3 of their energy by renewables.

The problem is that the IFO’s study makes many of the same mistakes as other studies used electric vehicle detractors in the past.

For example, they assume that electric car batteries become “hazardous waste” after 150,000 km or ten years, which simply isn’t the case.  150,000km is shorter than the warranty period for an EV battery (this is required by law in California, so manufacturers generally offer the same warranty elsewhere as well).

Virtually all automakers working on electric vehicles are also working on recycling the batteries since they are going to still be extremely valuable after being depleted.  And lithium ion batteries do not have a hazardous waste designation in the US – however, the lead acid batteries in every diesel vehicle do.

They are also making many other mistakes, like using the flawed NEDC driving cycle, which is being phased out.

One of the biggest mistakes they are making is that they are comparing the full production and lifecycle of an electric vehicle, including the emission from the electricity uses, against the production and lifecycle of a diesel car without accounting for all the energy used to produce the diesel and supply it to the cars.

For gasoline at least, every gallon of gasoline takes 4-6kWh of electricity to refine, and if that 4-6kWh is delivered to an EV directly, the car will be able to travel ~20 miles on it.  A gallon of gasoline will drive the average gasoline vehicle a little over 20 miles.  So all told, gasoline vehicles actually use about as much electricity as EVs do, but they also have to burn fuel, which creates toxic fumes.  For diesel, these numbers are probably a little bit different, but quite similar.

Electrek’s Take

The study is clearly flawed.

It’s an old idea that is untrue in most markets and it’s a dumb way to look at the market in the first place since along with the electric revolution in the auto industry, renewable energy is becoming a more important part of the energy sector, which is making electric vehicles cleaner over time.

This isn’t the first time this has happened.  Many years ago a “study” was released claiming that a ~50mpg Prius was more polluting than a ~9mpg Hummer H2.  That study relied on one of the same tricks as this one – it estimated that the Hummer would last 300,000+ miles, whereas the Prius would last a fraction of that.  There were many other issues with the study, of course.

And let’s not forget the German auto industry’s recent experience with under-reporting diesel emissions, which resulted in thousands of deaths and billions in fines.

The problem with this thinking is so obvious that you would think someone making this argument is making it for the fossil fuel industry, but I don’t see any evidence of this in this case.

As far as I understand, the IFO is mostly funded by public money and doesn’t have any direct links to the fossil fuel industry.

Unless I’m missing something. Let me know what you think in the comment section below.

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