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How sustainable are electric vehicles?

How sustainable are electric vehicles?

Western plans to install 58 more electric vehicle charging stations on campus by mid-2025, but some experts say sustainable transportation goes beyond switching to electrical vehicles.

How the EVs are charged up and manufactured can change whether or not they are green as the government believes. Canada plans to phase out the sale of new gasoline or diesel-powered cars by 2035, and will require auto manufacturers to increase hybrid or zero-emission vehicle options for consumers.

The new EV charging stations will help Western University achieve its pledge to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

Miriam Capretz, a software engineering professor, said the nature of the electricity grid powering an EV charger must be considered when evaluating the sustainability of EV usage.

Capretz is a lead researcher on an EV research project led by Western in collaboration with Fanshawe College and London Hydro.

“When you are charging your car and don’t know how this electricity was generated, are you really being green conscious?” said Capretz.

Over 10 per cent percent of the electricity distributed by London Hydro in 2022 was sourced from natural gas. The Ontario Energy Board reported that in 2022, 76 per cent of electricity in Ontario was from hydropower and nuclear — both zero-emission sources — but similarly, 10.2 per cent was from natural gas. This means the electricity powering EVs in London is not guaranteed to be emission-free.

“If electric vehicles are to make a significant dent in transportation-related emissions, there needs to be a massive reconfiguration of how electricity is sourced,” said geography and environment professor Tony Weis who echoed Capretz’s sentiment.

The materials used in EVs, particularly metals such as cobalt and lithium for batteries, are also associated with emissions and environmental degradation.

The extraction and mining process of cobalt creates harmful sulphur oxide emissions and byproducts which permeate into neighbouring ecosystems and harm them.

Pumping out brines to extract lithium is an extremely water-intensive process — making manufacturing electric vehicles roughly 50 per cent more intensive than creating combustion engines.

The extraction of these elements is an energy-intensive process which requires fossil fuel-powered machinery, resulting in carbon emissions. For every tonne of lithium mined, 15 tonnes of carbon dioxide are emitted.

Despite their electricity sources and material not being completely emission-free, Weis said EVs are still less destructive to the environment than traditional carbon-emitting combustion engine vehicles which run off petroleum or diesel.

The joint program to bring more electric vehicle chargers to Western’s campus is funded by two sources: $460,000 in funding from Natural Resources Canada through its Zero Emission Vehicle Infrastructure Program, and $995,400 in funding from Western.

For Capretz, encouraging EV usage across campus is a major step forward for sustainability, but it’s also important to address charging challenges related to user-friendliness and accessibility when promoting EV ownership.

“There are so many questions when you want to travel. You don’t know how long it's going to take and what if you get to that charging station and all the stations are taken? Then how long do you need to wait?” said Capretz.

According to Heather Hyde, Western’s director of sustainability, the university was set to install 72 level-2 and two level-3 charging stations in campus parking lots for all Western community members to access. Level 2 charging stations can take multiple hours to charge, and Level 3 charging stations take only 15 to 30 minutes.

Before the funding was announced in May 2022, Hyde said there were six EV charging stations across campus — at the Visual Arts, Alumni/Thompson and Elborn College parking lots.

On March 25, Hyde said the university has installed 16 of the 74 EV charging stations since May 2022 and will install the remaining 58 by mid-2025, including a station at D.B. Weldon Library. All 16 chargers on campus are level 2 chargers which take three to eight hours to fully charge a vehicle.

There are four new charging stations at the Ivey Spencer Leadership Centre, four at the Graphics Services Building and eight at the Visual Arts Building. Before the joint program started, there were only six chargers on campus — two at Elborn College, two at the Alumni/Thompson Parking lot and two at the Visual Arts Building.

“The goals of the program are to provide them across campus,” said Hyde. “The engineering team right now is trying to figure out the best locations.”

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