Is the electric car a relevant option?

The electric car ^[By “electric car,” we mean a 100% electric car and a so-called “range extender”, which contains a small auxiliary combustion engine used solely to recharge the battery. Hybrid cars are not included in this category.] will be part of the energy transition, as it has several unique advantages and few major drawbacks. This technology is currently undergoing significant expansion, with more than 350,000 electric cars worldwide and just over 3,500 on the road in Switzerland by the end of 2014. Some 30 models of electric cars are now available on the Swiss market.

The electric car significantly reduces final energy consumption, thanks to its overall efficiency of nearly 40% (including electricity generation), compared with an average of around 20% for petrol engines. Admittedly, if we take into account the energy required to manufacture these vehicles (grey energy), the comparative advantage of electric cars decreases sharply. Indeed, the production of current batteries consumes a lot of energy, which reduces the benefit of the high efficiency of electric motors.

But above all, the main advantages of electric vehicles lie elsewhere. First of all, the electric car does not generate fine particles or CO2 locally, since electric motors have no direct emissions. They therefore have significant potential for cleaning up urban environments. They nevertheless have indirect emissions, mainly for the production of the electricity they consume. If the electrical mix has a low carbon intensity, as is the case in Switzerland [→ Q12], then the electric car will have a low impact on the climate. In Switzerland, an electric car emits between 7 and 23 grams of CO2 per kilometre travelled, compared with an average of 145 grams for a petrol-driven car. A “tank-to-wheel” analysis, therefore, without understanding the carbon impact of the production phase, showed that electric cars in Switzerland emit about 8 grams of CO2 per km travelled, compared with 71 grams in the European Union. The electric car therefore offers a unique opportunity to decarbonise our transport sector. Apart from first-generation biofuels, which Switzerland does not wish to support [→ Q56], we have no other short-term options for doing without fossil fuels.

In addition, the electric car can strengthen Switzerland's energy independence (and at the same time its balance of payments) by substituting imported petrol with electricity that can be produced locally.

However, the electric car has certain disadvantages, most of which can be mitigated by appropriate accompanying measures. First, the electric car will obviously increase electricity consumption and thus intensify the challenge of nuclear power phase-out. Nevertheless, the impact on our total electricity consumption is expected to remain modest; a fleet of vehicles with 10% electric cars will increase electricity demand by about 2 to 3%. The impact on the peak power of the electricity grid could, however, prove problematic, especially at the end of the day when users will all be trying to recharge their batteries at the same time, precisely when demand is already at its peak. It will require so-called “smart” charging stations that allow the recharging of batteries to be spread out over time, and to promote charging stations in the workplace.

For the next decade, the two main barriers to the adoption of this technology will remain the high purchase price and limited range. Moreover, the latter disadvantage is exacerbated by low temperatures, as cold temperatures reduce battery performance. However, electric cars are already virtually competitive today, since their higher purchase price is offset by their very low operating costs: driving 100 km costs around 3 francs of electricity compared to 11 francs of petrol for a conventional car of comparable size. In addition, electric cars require comparatively little maintenance, saving some 35% on service costs.


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