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Eco-conscious EV drivers unlikely to transform Taiwan’s emissions

How green electric vehicles work out depend on what powers the grid

(Taiwan News, Chris Chang image)

(Taiwan News, Chris Chang image)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — If cutting carbon emissions is a universal consensus to alleviate climate change, a holistic transition in how people get around is necessary, as almost 15 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide come from transportation.

That is why a strenuous if not impossible path toward a carbon-neutral future is foreseeable if no eco-friendly alternatives succeed to replace the over one billion diesel vehicles that currently dominate roads worldwide.

Back in 1996, General Motors began a new era for commercial electric vehicles (EVs) with its mass-produced EV1. Since then, more than 4.79 million EVs have been added to the streets. Many attribute the EVs’ rapid growth in recent years to their dwindling manufacturing costs and calls for greener transportation.

However, if drivers are choosing EVs as a good deed for the planet, some of them might be disappointed to know that in truth it depends largely on where they live.

One of the most appealing features of EVs as a way of decarbonization is that they do not gush out exhaust gas while running. That said, the EVs' entire manufacturing process can be extremely carbon-heavy.

As one previous analysis from Carbon Brief (CB), a U.K.-based media outlet specialized in climate science, pointed out, EVs' green benefit is mainly predicated on how a country generates its electricity.

The analysis concluded EVs enjoyed considerably lower lifetime GHG emissions than conventional (internal combustion engine) vehicles in many European nations, but in the countries with coal-intensive electricity mix, their lifetime emissions rose to the level similar to the most efficient conventional cars — such as hybrid-electric models.

To figure out how many carbon emissions EVs turn out throughout their lifecycle — from factory production to 150,000 miles racked up — the CB compared three models in the assessment: an average conventional European car; a hybrid vehicle with the then-best-available fuel economy, the Toyota Prius Eco; and a Nissan Leaf EV, the 2018 top-selling EV in Europe.

The result showed the Nissan Leaf produced less carbon than the other models across all six countries in the test. The difference was especially distinct in nations like France and Norway, where most of the electricity comes from zero-carbon resources, including nuclear or other sustainable forms of energy.

Eco-conscious EV drivers unlikely to transform Taiwan’s emissions

Margin of error (blue bars) exists as the emissions from battery manufacture vary in different countries. (Data adapted from Carbon Brief) (Taiwan News, Chris Chang image)

Nevertheless, when CB changed the Nissan Leaf to a Tesla Model 3 with its battery manufactured in Asia — where most countries run on carbon-intense power — the EV lost its advantages. In Germany, the Model 3 might have emitted even more GHG throughout its lifetime than the hybrid model.

However, the fact that Tesla's batteries actually come from Nevada, where its Gigafactory is located, makes a difference. The Model 3 regained its environmental benefits compared to non-EV models under this set of conditions.

Another comparative study in 2016 resulted in similar findings — after considering the vehicles' energy efficiency, driving conditions, and surrounding temperatures, the Nissan Leaf had lower GHG emissions when running in the urban counties of Texas, Florida, and much of the southwestern U.S. compared to a gasoline-powered Mazda 3. The results reversed in the upper Midwestern counties where coal-intense electricity grids prevail in rural areas.

Eco-conscious EV drivers unlikely to transform Taiwan’s emissions
Nissan Leaf only enjoys lower carbon emissions than a Toyota hybrid model in the U.S. counties mainly powered by clean energy. (Image adapted from Figure 2 in Yuksel et al 2016)

These tests offer a benchmark to examine whether Taiwan's fledging EV market has the potential to wield a significant environmental impact in the future.

As of September, there were more than 4,000 new EV owners in Taiwan this year, with Tesla snatching a whopping 93.5% of the market share. Given the popularity of its Model 3, which sold 738 units in just the single month of September, Tesla also sped up its construction of charging stations across the nation.

The American EV manufacturer now has set up more than 1,000 charging facilities and aims to open its 25th Supercharger in the country. Even though Tesla's Shanghai factory is the backbone of its overseas production — especially for the Model 3 — the imported Tesla models in Taiwan do not come from China, but the U.S. due to legal restrictions.

According to the mentioned CB assessment, the fact that Taiwan's Tesla models are put together in the U.S might give them extra green credits, but Taiwan's carbon-heavy electricity mix almost counteracts the entire effect: almost 80 percent of Taiwan’s electricity comes from fossil fuels, while renewable energy only accounts for 7.4 percent; the U.S., on the other hand, gets more than 20 percent of its electricity from green energy, as stated in its 2020 forecast.

Eco-conscious EV drivers unlikely to transform Taiwan’s emissions
Percentage rounded to integer (Taiwan News, Chris Chang image)

Does that mean Taiwan's early EV adopters have little chance to also be green pioneers? The answer depends on how fast Taiwan’s government can roll out its energy transition and assure a more encouraging environment for EV drivers.

"The development of fast-charging infrastructure is still in its early stage in Taiwan, so the range anxiety causes customers to shy away from the EVs," said Jun Hung (洪俊智) from Nissan Taiwan. As automakers currently have not unified the EV charging connectors, Hung believes this further hinders the prevalence of fast-charging infrastructure that could entice more EV buyers.

According to Hung, all of Taiwan's Nissan Leaf models are imported from the U.K. and mostly owned by married people of middle age. Given Leaf's previous sales figures and proven record of battery stability, the company is confident in its future growth.

He also admitted that more monetary incentives for EVs, including tax exemption and direct funding, are still needed from the government. He added that the authorities should take the leading role to ramp up the accessibility of fast EV chargers.

Aiming to diminish its GHG emissions to 50 percent of its 2005 levels by 2050, Taiwan is spending money and tightening regulations to rid the roads of dirty, fuel-hungry vehicles. Nevertheless, merely having more EV drivers will not help Taiwan comply with the Paris Agreement or transform it into a sustainable economy so long as its coal-fired plants are still in full swing.