Driving electromobility forward only makes sense with 100% renewables

In light of the climate urgency, the massive roll-out of electric vehicles is the way forward. But who would like to drive a nuclear-fuelled or a coal-fuelled car? Not many people I guess. For that reason, I propose a solution: ensuring that all new electric vehicles in Europe run on electricity generated by new renewable power plants (compromise amendments 11 and 17, as well as amendment 1248 to the Renewable Electricity Directive, which you can find here).

The deepening shadow of climate change forces us to take action in all sectors simultaneously, as solutions need to be deployed rapidly to reach a net-zero carbon economy by 2050, at the latest, in compliance with the Paris Agreement. The transport sector is destined to undergo massive emissions cuts, being responsible for a large and growing share of greenhouse gas emissions. In the EU, 26% of the greenhouse gas emissions result from transport, in which road transport (individual passenger cars and heavy-duty vehicles) is the largest contributor. In addition to its climate impact, transportation is also the source of a significant portion of air pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and non-methane volatile organic compounds. According to the EEA’s Air quality in Europe – 2016 report, air pollution is causing around 467 000 premature deaths in Europe every year!

The growing demand of private cars outweighing technological advances, coupled with the revelations of the Dieselgate scandal, it has become clear that the solution will not be found in combustion engines. Several technological options are on the table to contribute to decarbonise the transport sector and a considerable amount of research has been and is done on biofuels, synthetic gas, hydrogen and electrification. Given the fact that we cannot dispose from an unlimited amount of biomass in order to preserve our carbon sinks and avoid competition between food and feed and that synthetic fuels are a very costly, not yet mature, largely inefficient technology, the immediate solution to be deployed heavily in the road transport sector is electrification. The car manufacturers have been reluctant to this transition for a long time, but after some early movers such as American Tesla and Chinese BYD, all major European car manufacturers start to massively engage into electrification.

Electrification of the transport sector is a realistic part of the solution to the global energy problem, also inducing other important co-benefits. Removing combustion engines from the traffic will significantly improve air quality, having thus a positive impact on public health. It further encourages to soft mobility by enhancing (carbon-free) public transportation and promoting electric bikes, which will contribute to a healthier and more pleasant urban environment. The long-term economic and health-related benefits of the production and usage of electric vehicles will by far outweigh the concerns over short-term loss of jobs in the car industry.

Electrification goes with a 100% renewables power system

Electrification of the transport sector does not mean having electric vehicles running with electricity produced with fossil fuels or nuclear power. It is essential to make sure that 100% of the electricity used in electric vehicles comes from new renewable sources. In my book (Energy Transformation: An Opportunity for Europe), I propose new legislation that requires vehicle manufacturers to ensure this, and if failing, “assigning vehicles the average emissions level of the European energy mix”.

In order to guarantee that the electricity comes from renewable sources, the system is currently based on a mechanism of guarantees of origins (GOs). GOs are tradable electronic certificates for electricity from renewable sources, providing customers with information on the source of their electricity. This mechanism is good for the traceability of green electrons but desperately lacks additionality, notably because the GO market is flooded with GOs traded from Norway.

For that reason, all new electricity consumption induced by electromobility should be accompanied by an equivalent additional capacity. Our proposal for a new Article 25 of the revised renewable energy directive (compromise amendments 11 and 17, as well as amendment 1248) should solve this problem: it states that the Commission should determine for each Member State the volumes of final electricity consumed for transport and publish projections on the expected volumes surpassing this baseline. The fuel suppliers would need to purchase new additional renewable electricity in volumes covering at least the expected amount of additional electricity used for transport. This would significantly contribute to the construction of new renewable power plants, solving the problem of additionality.

The impact of electrification on public infrastructure and networks

An important point to address is the potential stress on the grid due to the mass electrification of transport. However, we should not overestimate the issue: all sources indicate that the overall electricity consumption would remain stable as new usage are compensated by efficiency gains in other sectors like appliances and heating. While the increase in electricity consumption will not be of high significance, the network spikes will require more flexibility from the power system. This will be achieved by involving demand side management, liquid power markets and storage solutions at the operator site. One solution could be to implement time-of-use rates encouraging off-peak charging.

Another means of ensuring the grid functionality is finding a balance for fast and slow charging. Fast charging, meaning charging up to 30 minutes, enables faster operability and attracts customers, but it is also more burdensome to the grid. Slow charging is usually over-night charging at home and it would be the main method. However, fast charging is still needed notably alongside EU mobility corridors.

In order to secure a comprehensive charging network for customers, a mix of the private sector and the public sector contribution is needed. For the private sector, all commercial buildings, office spaces and tertiary sector buildings should be equipped with charging stations or be at least pre-cabled. For the fast-charging stations and the public charging stations where there is little market interest (such as in remote and rural areas), Member States should be allowed to mandate DSOs to deploy the infrastructure.

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