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Environmental impacts of hybrid and electric vehicles—a review

Abstract

Purpose

A literature review is undertaken to understand how well existing studies of the environmental impacts of hybrid and electric vehicles (EV) address the full life cycle of these technologies. Results of studies are synthesized to compare the global warming potential (GWP) of different EV and internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV) options. Other impacts are compared; however, data availability limits the extent to which this could be accomplished.

Method

We define what should be included in a complete, state-of-the-art environmental assessment of hybrid and electric vehicles considering components and life cycle stages, emission categories, impact categories, and resource use and compare the content of 51 environmental assessments of hybrid and electric vehicles to our definition. Impact assessment results associated with full life cycle inventories (LCI) are compared for GWP as well as emissions of other pollutants. GWP results by life cycle stage and key parameters are extracted and used to perform a meta-analysis quantifying the impacts of vehicle options.

Results

Few studies provide a full LCI for EVs together with assessment of multiple impacts. Research has focused on well to wheel studies comparing fossil fuel and electricity use as the use phase has been seen to dominate the life cycle of vehicles. Only very recently have studies begun to better address production impacts. Apart from batteries, very few studies provide transparent LCIs of other key EV drivetrain components. Estimates of EV energy use in the literature span a wide range, 0.10–0.24 kWh/km. Similarly, battery and vehicle lifetime plays an important role in results, yet lifetime assumptions range between 150,000–300,000 km. CO2 and GWP are the most frequently reported results. Compiled results suggest the GWP of EVs powered by coal electricity falls between small and large conventional vehicles while EVs powered by natural gas or low-carbon energy sources perform better than the most efficient ICEVs. EV results in regions dependant on coal electricity demonstrated a trend toward increased SO x emissions compared to fuel use by ICEVs.

Conclusions

Moving forward research should focus on providing consensus around a transparent inventory for production of electric vehicles, appropriate electricity grid mix assumptions, the implications of EV adoption on the existing grid, and means of comparing vehicle on the basis of common driving and charging patterns. Although EVs appear to demonstrate decreases in GWP compared to conventional ICEVs, high efficiency ICEVs and grid-independent hybrid electric vehicles perform better than EVs using coal-fired electricity.

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Acknowledgments

This research was made possible by the Norwegian Research Council under the E-Car Project, grant #190940. The opinions are those of the authors. We thank Edgar Hertwich and Francesco Cherubini for their critical reviews of earlier drafts of this work and three anonymous reviewers for their comments which contributed to significant improvements in our manuscript.

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Correspondence to Troy R. Hawkins.

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(1) Discussion of EV technology, (2) discussion of choices made in the review, (3) tables providing an overview of the content of studies included in our survey, (4) additional information related to the GHG comparison, and (5) results for non-CO2 emissions are available as supporting information online at http://....

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Hawkins, T.R., Gausen, O.M. & Strømman, A.H. Environmental impacts of hybrid and electric vehicles—a review. Int J Life Cycle Assess 17, 997–1014 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-012-0440-9

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Keywords

  • Batteries
  • Electric vehicles
  • Greenhouse gas
  • Plug-in hybrid
  • Transportation