A boom in electric cars means Europe would have to look at building the equivalent of nearly 50 power stations the size of the UK’s planned Hinkley Point nuclear plant, EU experts have warned.
And if big fleets of plug-in cars are charged with electricity from power plants burning coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, overall levels of sulphur dioxide air pollution are likely to rise, a study from the government-funded European Environment Agency shows.
Cars that run on batteries are widely regarded as an unalloyed environmental blessing compared with dirtier, smellier petrol or diesel vehicles and the new research confirms that a big shift to plug-in transport offers many benefits.
On average, there would be a noticeable fall in emissions of some types of air pollution, such as nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, as well as planet-warming carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas produced by human activities.
However, in countries such as Poland, where most electricity comes from coal power plants, the benefits of shifting to electric cars could be “questionable”, said Magdalena Jóźwicka, project manager of the research at the European Environment Agency.
“There are clear local benefits and opportunities but there are also some risks,” she told the Financial Times.
Electric passenger car sales have grown sharply across Europe over the past six years, boosted by hefty subsidies launched by governments trying to curb climate change. But they still accounted for only 0.15 per cent of all passenger vehicles on Europe’s roads last year.
If the vehicles reach an 80 per cent share by 2050, the EEA study found this would require an extra 150 gigawatts of electricity for charging. The Hinkley Point nuclear plant due to be built in the UK will have a 3.2GW capacity, making it one of the country’s largest power plants.
The need for so much new power for electric cars “may put stress on electricity infrastructure”, the EEA report warns, especially in countries with plenty of renewable energy.
“In countries with highly fluctuating renewable energy supplies, co-ordinating the energy demand from electric vehicles may become a major challenge,” the study said.
The amount of electricity generated by clean renewable power plants has risen significantly across the EU since 1990, according to EU data that show wind, solar and hydropower accounted for 25 per cent of the bloc’s electricity in 2014.
Nuclear power plants contributed 27 per cent but nearly 48 per cent still came from coal, natural gas and oil.
The EEA study builds on work by the agency showing that if coal power alone were used to charge electric cars, the vehicles’ lifetime carbon emissions would be higher than that of petrol or diesel counterparts.
Air pollution experts said the agency’s findings underlined the need for countries to consider carefully how to generate greener electricity as plug-in car numbers grow.
Dr Annette Pruss-Ustun of the World Health Organisation said: “It has to come from cleaner sources of energy so that it really makes a huge impact, otherwise you just change the location of the pollution from cars to power plants.”