The new Chief Scientist wants you to buy an electric car


By Lauren Davis
Thursday, 29 October, 2015

The man set to take over as Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, has made no secret of the fact that he has a vision for an emissions-free world. In April this year, he wrote an article for COSMOS magazine (which he co-founded) outlining why he believes electric cars — such as his own Nissan Leaf — will be the way of the future.

Dr Finkel acknowledged in his article that electric cars on their own are not the sole solution to emissions reduction, stating that in Victoria, “most of the electricity is produced by brown coal generators that emit more than 1200 grams of carbon dioxide for every kilowatt hour of electricity”. But for Dr Finkel’s car, this isn’t the case: “In our house we pay a premium so that 100% of our electricity is ‘green’,” he said, coming from renewable sources such as wind and solar.

The key to a sustainable outcome, Dr Finkel said, is to power your car with electricity where the associated carbon dioxide emissions are 700 grams per kilowatt hour or fewer. “That’s the crossover point at which a Nissan Leaf produces fewer emissions per kilometre than a similarly sized, best of breed fossil-fuel car such as the Mazda3 diesel,” he explained.

This point may be coming sooner than we think, according to Dr Finkel, who stated, “The average emission level across the national grid in 2010 was 841 grams per kilowatt hour” — and this number will only continue to decrease. Other countries’ emissions are already well below the required level: 461 g/kWh in Germany, 79 g/kWh in nuclear-powered France and 17 g/kWh in hydropowered Norway.

But what about the emissions that go into creating the car itself? Dr Finkel concedes that the Nissan Leaf’s battery is “heavy and complex to manufacture, leading to higher levels of carbon dioxide emissions during the manufacture of an electric car compared with an equivalent fossil-fuel car. Furthermore, emissions also rack up when you count the costs of mining lithium, which is inefficient.”

But battery technology will improve over time, Dr Finkel said, with experts predicting that the energy density of electric vehicle batteries will double over the next decade. “This means that next decade’s electric cars will deliver the same range for half the battery mass,” he said. And while he agrees that future generations of diesel-, petrol- and gas-powered cars will become more efficient, Dr Finkel said it is “not conceivable that their per kilometre emissions can ever be as low as what is achievable with electric vehicles charged by renewable electricity”.

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