Ensuring electric mobility is at the heart of a circular economy
In November 2022, COP27 focused the world’s gaze on the urgency of climate action. The reality is that we’re not cutting emissions fast enough and far enough. Electric vehicles are critical to cutting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But to truly transform the planet, we need to create a circular economy where energy is used efficiently, material use is optimized, and all emissions are cut.
What are circular cities?
Attendees at COP27 heard that we need drastic action involving technology, infrastructure, and networks to get close to the Paris Agreement targets. So, given that Paris is driving change, it’s a great place to start.
The energy consumption of Paris has grown almost ten times since 1800. Today, the city of lights struggles to find enough power to turn them on. Yet, the city has announced an ambitious plan to be carbon neutral by 2050, reducing emissions by an incredible 100%. How is this possible? By becoming a leading circular city as part of a circular economy that covers France. It's part of a wider movement across Europe to become climate neutral by 2050.
COP27 defined circular economies as critical to tackling biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution. The circular economy describes the sharing, reusing, repairing, remanufacturing, and recycling products and materials. Emissions are minimized, waste is eliminated, and vital resources are reused.
An estimated 180,000 vehicles enter Paris daily – churning out millions of tons of carbon dioxide annually. Replacing these with hybrids or electric vehicles (EVs) could cut emissions to a fraction of current levels – but that's just the start. Shifting from fossil fuels to electricity offers us incredible opportunities to change how we think about the role of vehicles and wider mobility in our lives.
Circularity in automotive has three core dimensions:
- Emissions minimization
- Energy efficiency
- Materials optimization
Here's what each focus area is and why they matter:
- Emission minimization
Electric vehicles can break our reliance on fossil fuels, benefiting us all. Replacing petrol passenger cars with electric vehicles could immediately remove almost all city street emissions. New megawatt charging provides an alternative to diesel for heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) and mass transit systems that could decarbonize public transport and logistics.
Much of the electricity used by vehicles is already supplied by renewable sources. In France, for example, 20% comes from sustainable sources, and the figure is set to multiply. Across Europe, other countries, such as Norway and Germany, have a far higher amount of renewable energy in the mix, including wind and solar.
In the future, sustainable energy sources will provide enough safe power for all passenger, commercial, and mass transit systems. As well as dramatically reducing individual emissions, switching to EVs could eliminate the hugely damaging fossil fuel supply chain.
We’re on the cusp of eliminating emissions, but the principles of circularity are changing how we think about mobility entirely.
- Energy efficiency
EVs can transfer 85-90% of energy into momentum, compared to the average ICE that converts less than 30% to motion. This figure can sometimes be as low as 12% - even after over 100 years of engine optimization.
Per mile, battery-powered EVs are incredibly energy-efficient – but that’s just the start. The technology inside could play a role in tackling the global energy crisis. EVs can – and will – change from becoming a drain on the grid to an integral part of a smart network.
Recent energy supply issues have highlighted the challenges nations such as France, the UK, and Germany face in getting the energy they need. Vehicle-to-grid technologies will use h batteries inside electric vehicles as a store to hold power, which can be accessed when required. Instead of losing renewable energy from wind, water, and solar sources, it can be stored in car batteries. The grid can take power from the batteries during peak times to smooth flows. Vehicle owners can also earn money from connecting their vehicles to the smart grid.
An intelligent grid of vehicles could provide more than enough battery capacity to power a smart grid that could produce, store, and share 100% sustainable energy.
- Materials optimization
Vehicle manufacturers are increasingly shifting away from traditional "heavy" metals to alternatives, such as aluminum, composites, and carbon. These materials are much lighter than conventional alternatives, which means less power is required to propel them.
Circularity means that designers consider how vehicles will be disposed of at the end of life with the aspiration that nothing will be wasted. Moreover, many advanced materials are completely recyclable – which is good news as the End-of-Life Vehicles (ELV) Directive mandates the increasing use of recycled materials in car production. While it may be impossible to create 100% recyclable vehicles, engineers are engaged in the challenge.
Life cycle analysis
Circularity is more than cutting tailpipe emissions; it’s about minimizing environmental damage from the entire lifecycle of every vehicle. A recent study published in Nature Electronics calls for us to consider the complete life cycle of electric cars, including the materials used, their manufacture, operation, and eventual disposal.
We must recognize that manufacturing all motorized vehicles is energy and resource intensive. Almost a quarter of the world’s steel is still used to manufacture vehicles. The systems inside EVs use a massive array of silicon chips. Finally – and perhaps most importantly – the current generation of EV batteries uses several rare-earth materials, including lithium and cobalt. While any form of heavy manufacturing is resource intensive, it’s essential – we can minimize it where possible.
The challenge is that we don't swap one ecological disaster (fossil fuels) for another (materials extraction). The costs of owning an EV are increasing, but mass adoption is becoming a greater priority, so we need to search for alternatives. One potential solution is a shift away from individual ownership to mobility-as-a-service (MaaS). Such systems use a subscription model that enables us to access – but not own – the vehicles we need. MaaS models are inherently circular and could provide a sustainable urban transport solution.
Making it happen
Imagine a city where there’s no smog or pollution and less noise. Where your groceries, books, and building materials arrive by EV. You’ve got an EV in the garage (or access to one parked on the street) and a battery-powered bus on the corner. There’s a rapid charging point whenever you need one, and there’s always a free space and charger because you booked a slot online. When you park at night, the battery feeds power back to the grid to keep your lights on.
It's a future that’s closer than you think. The shift is already happening, but there are still barriers we need to break down. For example, owning and driving a gasoline or diesel power car is easy because the infrastructure is available and the behavior entrenched. Culturally, we're comfortable and familiar with filling the tank with fuel. But circularity involves us all considering the impact of our actions.
Every mile we drive in a fossil-fuel-powered vehicle releases carbon emissions from the engine. But every vehicle journey contributes to a global system of extraction, manufacturing, logistics, and disposal that's environmentally and economically damaging. To achieve true carbon neutrality, we should all travel less and make the most sustainable choices where possible. This may mean walking, cycling, or using public transport instead of jumping in the car. To create more livable cities, we may need to introduce car bans – as some European cities are already doing. To avoid destruction, we need drastic action.
Access to infrastructure is simpler to solve. Heliox has developed a range of affordable, high-power EV charging points suitable for domestic, commercial, and mass-transit systems. Our ongoing pilot project with Netherlands-based supermarket giant Albert Heijn showcases how we can decarbonize deliveries. New megawatt charging systems can recharge trucks and buses far faster than any fossil fuel vehicles – at a fraction of the cost.
Electric mobility is at the heart of a circular economy – and Heliox is playing a crucial part in the change.