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Opinion | Automotive: which electric batteries for Europe?

Europe has undertaken to get out of China's dependence on batteries by launching a major program to build a "gigafactory" for electric car batteries.


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By Christophe de Charentenay, M@Air's CEO.

Published on Nov. 25, 2021 at 3:25 pm - Updated on Nov. 25, 2021 at 7:36 pm


Choosing a car while trying to limit its carbon impact has become an exercise for mathematicians. Electric car or plug-in hybrid, urban or long-distance use profile, recharging in France or elsewhere in Europe, so many parameters that have a strong impact on the carbon footprint of the different options.

If we stick to the carbon footprint and for use in France, the ideal solution is to have a 100% electric car equipped with a battery manufactured in France or Sweden (a country with low carbon electricity).

By way of comparison, a motorist driving in Germany with an electric car equipped with a battery manufactured in Germany would emit at least seven times more CO2 than a motorist driving in France with a battery manufactured in France. Indeed, manufacturing a battery requires a lot of electricity (about 160 kilowatt-hours per kilowatt-hour of capacity), hence the importance of producing these batteries with decarbonized electricity.

But it is possible to further improve the carbon footprint by choosing medium-capacity batteries (200 to 250 kilometers of range). The 2019 mobility surveys show us that the French make an average of three return trips per year by car more than 200 kilometers from their home.

With a range of 200 kilometers, they can make all the other trips without stopping, covering the needs of 98% of the days of the year. To gain an hour or two of recharging time for 6 trips per year, should they double the size of their battery and pay for it between 3,000 and 5,000 euros of additional cost?

Speaking of battery size, let's look at what happened very recently in the world's largest electric car market, China. In October 2021, almost 40,000 small electric cars of the Wuling brand were sold, putting this model well ahead of all its electric competitors and even in second place among all car models sold in China, all categories combined (thermal, electric, hybrid...).

While the low autonomy is the argument against electric cars, it is precisely the model with the lowest autonomy (about 100 kms) that wins the support of customers. Young Chinese women, living in the poorer inland provinces, form the bulk of the clientele. They pay 3,700 euros for access to carbon-free automotive mobility.

Another original feature of this model is that, unlike its competitors, it has not received any direct subsidy for the purchase. The tens of thousands of monthly sales of this model cost nothing to the public finances of the Chinese state or regions.

The considerable success of this model invalidates the two "conditions" usually claimed for the development of the electric car: increased autonomy and public subsidies.

Let's go back to the European case, Europe has undertaken to get out of the Chinese dependence on batteries by launching a major program to build a "gigafactory" for electric car batteries. The ambition is to reach a capacity of 500 gigawatt hours (Gwh) per year by 2025. Germany is taking the lion's share of the responsibility for building this capacity.

This program will have two consequences:

- It will feed excess storage capacity distributed in electric vehicles since we see that they will only be used 6 days per year on average (three round trips). At least 150 Gwh/year of capacity out of the 500 Gwh/year will only be used to put quasi-permanent overcapacities distributed in the hundreds of thousands of electric cars.

- The battery production capacities installed in areas with carbon-based electricity will slightly reduce the carbon impact compared to diesel. The additional carbon emissions will be 12 million tons per year: four tons per battery produced in this 150 Gwh/year capacity.

If carbon impact is a priority for the French and European public authorities, they have the means to act to put Europe back on track for a "carbon friendly" electric vehicle.

Four measures are necessary:

- Make subsidies for the purchase of electric cars and the CAFE* impact conditional on the carbon-free origin of their batteries: an AFC certificate (controlled low-carbon appellation) similar to the AOC would be introduced.

- Reserve subsidies for the purchase of vehicles with a battery of less than 30 Kwh, or 250 kilometers of autonomy, sufficient for 98% of the days of the year.

- Reserve European investment subsidies for battery gigafactories built in countries with low-carbon electricity.

- Relaunching rail transport of cars on a few long-distance routes to manage the three average annual long-distance trips.

For the same service and without changing its lifestyles, Europe could thus save about 10 billion euros in investment (about 150 Gwh/year) and save 12 million tons of CO2 per year.

Christophe de Charentenay is the president of M@Air.