Are diesels cleaner than electric cars?

Posted on May 01, 2019 by Charles Morris

A constant stream of anti-EV hit pieces crosses our virtual desk, but this one sounded much more serious than the usual anonymous rants. A respected German research institute released a study claiming EVs are dirtier than diesel - exactly what many in the German auto industry were longing to hear.

Above: Pumping fossil fuels into a car (Image: Charged)

“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,” reads the study from the Munich-based Institute for Economic Research (IFO).

Journalists immediately predicted that automakers would use the new study to lobby policymakers to abandon support for EVs. But, as those who follow the EV scene know, dozens of earlier studies from around the world have come to precisely the opposite conclusion. Could this really be a legitimate scientific study?

Nope. The specious study was promptly and definitively debunked. A few days after it appeared, two of Germany’s major media outlets published detailed analyses that exposed a long list of errors and inaccuracies in the report.

The concept of the Long Tailpipe probably sounds plausible to many in Germany, which depends heavily on coal for its electricity, and has one of the dirtiest grids in Europe. However, as those who follow the EV industry know, earlier studies (see below) have found that, on average, EVs are cleaner than legacy vehicles, even if powered 100% by coal. Furthermore, Germany is steadily cleaning up its gird. By 2030, when many of today’s EVs will still be in service, the country plans to be producing two thirds of its energy from renewable sources. So, the basic premise of the study is misleading at the outset, and authors Hans-Werner Sinn, Christoph Buchal and Hans-Dieter Karl go on to present a litany of incorrect assumptions and unfair comparisons.

Above: Electric cars, like this Tesla Model 3, that are powered by solar are effectively "driving on sunshine" (Image: Tesla)

EV pundit Auke Hoekstra listed several of these, and wrote that it’s not even accurate to call the piece an academic study. “It is the opinion of three people...none of whom have any background in the (electric) car industry or batteries.” Hoekstra noted that he was not the first to debunk the article - just the first in English (Electrek’s Fred Lambert wasn’t far behind).

Focus, one of the three most widely read German weeklies, compared the IFO study to the infamous “Sweden Study” which was published by the environmental research institute IVL in 2017, and has been resoundingly refuted, as the business newspaper Handelsblatt explained.

WirtschaftsWoche, a German business magazine, pointed out that the IFO article’s conclusions are “in stark contrast to almost all serious international studies that have been done on the subject in the last few months.”

The EV news outlet electrive characterized the IFO article as an “unscientific opinion piece,” and suggests that Sinn and his co-authors began with a conclusion already in mind. In fact, the IFO authors imply as much in the preface to their article [translated from the German]: “We explain the current facts in such detail because we suspect in the claim that e-cars are completely emission-free a purposeful industrial policy deception.”

Dr. Markus Lienkamp, head of the Department of Automotive Engineering at the Technical University of Munich, noted (via electrive) that the IFO article was not subjected to any peer review process, and says it belongs in the file with “unscientific conspiracy theories.”

Some of the issues with the IFO article identified by Focus, WirtschaftsWoche, electrive and Hoekstra

  • The IFO piece incorrectly assumes that EV batteries become “hazardous waste” after 150,000 km. This is shorter than the typical warranty period for an EV battery (a federally-mandated 100,000 miles [160,000 km] in the US, and 150,000 miles in California). Furthermore, many automakers and others are working on recycling EV batteries, which are still quite valuable after reaching the end of their service lives. Today, the EU prescribes a recycling quota of 50 percent of lithium-ion batteries. Furthermore, Li-ion batteries are not officially considered hazardous waste in the US, but the lead-acid batteries used in all diesel vehicles are.
  • The report compares a Tesla Model 3 with a 75 kWh battery pack to a Mercedes C220 diesel, an apples-to-oranges comparison. The Tesla vehicle’s power output is up to 473 hp, whereas that of the Mercedes is 194 hp. It’s also worth mentioning that the Tesla, with its high performance and generous interior space, is far from the most efficient EV available, whereas the C220 is one of the most efficient diesel vehicles on the German market.
  • The IFO authors inexplicably calculate CO2 emissions for Model 3 that are 16 percent higher than the official figures published by Germany’s Federal Environmental Agency.
  • The article uses figures from the old NEDC emissions testing regimen, which is famously inaccurate, and is in the process of being replaced by the newer WLTP standard. WirtschaftsWoche calls the figures used in the IFO article “fairy-tale values that have nothing in common with reality,” and asks why Dr. Sinn chose to work with “the outdated, demonstrably inferior laboratory standard, where even more appropriate standards such as WLTP or EPA and even empirical consumption values ​​are easily accessible for both vehicles.”
  • In its calculations of full-lifecycle emissions, the article includes the emissions from electricity generation for EVs, but does not include the emissions generated in producing and transporting the fuel for diesel vehicles.
  • The IFO writers assume that every German EV is powered by the average mix of electricity sources supplying the German grid. In fact, an increasing number of EV drivers use electricity from their own photovoltaic systems. Many German utility customers also have the option of purchasing 100 percent renewably-generated electricity. 

As WirtschaftsWoche’s Stefan Hajek put it, the IFO article always assumes worst-case scenarios for EVs and best-case scenarios for diesel vehicles.

The purveyors of the Long Tailpipe myth often claim that this is an issue that’s been overlooked or ignored, but in fact, the issue has been discussed as long as modern EVs have been around, and has been covered very extensively by both the pro- and anti-EV media.

Several recent studies have reinforced the spurious nature of the EVs-are-dirty trope. An April 2019 report from the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research Heidelberg (IFEU) found that “Electric vehicles are already at an advantage over burners today, sometimes more, sometimes less, and the lead will grow.”

The Fraunhofer Institute reported in March that EVs typically produce “28 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than a luxury-class diesel, up to 42 percent less than a small car petrol engine.”

A February report from the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) examined greenhouse gas emissions from the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries, and found that “a typical electric car today produces just half of the greenhouse gas emissions of an average European passenger car.”

In 2017, a report from Belgium’s VUB University found that “electric cars emit significantly less greenhouse gases over their lifetimes than diesel engines, even when they are powered by the most carbon-intensive energy.”

In 2012, a detailed study from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that even if it were charged 100% from coal, an EV would still be cleaner than the average ICE vehicle.

Charged has reported on study after study after study after study after study after study that has reached similar conclusions (writer David Herron has published a digestible summary of the issue).

Unfortunately, as Jonathan Swift (apparently) said, “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” Many media outlets reposted the IFO’s disingenuous document, and few of these are likely to issue corrections. Many people surely just read the headline and took it at face value. Fortunately, Focus and WirtschaftsWoche are popular and influential magazines, and one hopes that German EV advocates will soon be forwarding copies of their reports to policymakers.

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This article originally appeared in Charged. Author: Charles Morris. Sources: Focus, WirtschaftsWoche, electrive, Electrek

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Posted in big oil, climate change, Dieselgate, Electric Vehicles


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