Our Burning Planet


Should electric cars be used in a country with an energy crisis as serious as South Africa’s?

Should electric cars be used in a country with an energy crisis as serious as South Africa’s?
A Go Ultra Low Nissan LEAF charges on a London street.

Thinking about swapping your petrol-driven car for an electric vehicle to reduce your carbon footprint? It’s not as simple as a one-for-one exchange.

If you plugged your battery electric vehicle (EV) into a charging port connected to the grid in South Africa, you would produce more greenhouse gas emissions than if you stuck with your petrol or diesel-driven car.

South Africa is still heavily reliant on coal for energy production, being the world’s seventh-largest coal producer. Coal provides nearly 75% of South Africa’s primary energy needs, and coal-fired power plants produce 90% of the country’s electricity, according to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy.

As MJ Booysen, professor of Engineering and chair in the Internet of Things at Stellenbosch University told Daily Maverick, “decarbonisation is definitely not the same as electrification, in South Africa specifically”.

A Journal of Industrial Ecology study, “Comparative Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Conventional and Electric Vehicles”, found that while EVs can reduce global warming potential by 20-24% compared with gasoline ICEVs [internal combustion engine vehicle] and 10-14% compared with diesel ICEVs — if EVs are powered by coal-generated electricity, they would increase the global warming potential by 17-27%.

At last year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), leaders of 45 nations asked the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) to produce an independent assessment of the status of the global transitions in five major greenhouse gas-emitting sectors, and make recommendations for strengthening international collaboration ahead of the next conference, COP27, which is set for Egypt next week.

So the IEA and Irena published the Breakthrough Agenda Report 2022 in September in collaboration with the UN Climate Change High-Level Champions and reported that road transport has the highest level of reliance on fossil fuels of any sector today — accounting for more than 20% of global energy-related direct carbon dioxide emissions, and producing a significant share of air pollution and related threats to public health.

They reported that just over 1% of cars on the road in 2021 were zero tailpipe emission vehicles (ZEVs) globally, versus the 20-25% needed to meet climate targets by 2030.

Timur Gül, head of the Energy Technology Policy Division of the IEA, said at the media launch for the breakthrough report, “It took us in fact around 10 years to get electric car sales from basically nothing to the nearly 10% that we have today.

“But we only have eight years left to bring these figures up to around 60% for zero-emission vehicles — electric vehicles as well as others — by 2030, while at the same time, commercialising zero [tailpipe] emission vehicles and make them mainstream as well.”

Battery-electric vehicles — commonly referred to as EVs — don’t produce any carbon dioxide while they’re driving, and are therefore one of the ZEVs the international market is pushing for.

SA’s transport sector accounts for 13% of CO2 emissions — emitting 43 million kilograms of CO2 per year from combustion engines alone — with road transport accounting for 91.2% of these GHG emissions.

So decarbonising the transport sector is integral to addressing overall emissions: unfortunately, there is no such thing as purely green or clean alternatives — every technology and development has an impact, and we need to consider how best to manoeuvre that as we transform our transport sector.

electric cars south africaHigher overall life cycle impacts

A common criticism of battery-electric vehicles is that their overall life cycle — which includes mining for raw materials, manufacturing, fuel cycle, use and end-of-life recycling — has higher environmental impacts than ICEVs.

The study from the Journal of Industrial Ecology also found that the production phase of EVs is significantly more environmentally intensive than the production phase of ICEVs — explaining that nearly half of an EV’s life cycle global warming potential is associated with its production.

Daily Maverick has previously reported that, “In the South African context, electric cars are currently the dirtiest means of personal transport available, and will remain so until we have fixed our electricity generation.

“EVs, due to the rare earth metals of their batteries and their greater average weight, have a larger manufacturing footprint than equivalent internal combustion engine vehicles.”

Booysen acknowledged that “there are limited resources available for battery production, and the places where they are available do not have good controls on labour legislation”.

Tobias Bischof-Niemz, energy expert and CEO of renewable energy company ENERTRAG South Africa, said, “Like any mining activity, the environmental impact has to be observed. But it has to be put into perspective. What is much, much worse for the environment are the millions and millions of tonnes of liquid fuels that we are getting out of the earth every year.”

Energy expert and electrical engineer Chris Yelland agreed to the relative emission outlook, pointing to a study that found that minerals mined for batteries — lithium, cobalt and rare earths — only accounted for 0.0032% of the world’s mining in 2021.

“There are always waste streams, but look at the waste streams that are happening right now,” said Yelland.

So out of the 28 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted in 2021, eight billion of that came from coal, four billion from oil, 2.7 billion from gas and only 100,000 tonnes from lithium.

Our grid can’t support EVs

But even without those emissions, it’s pretty clear our grid can’t support charging EVs right now.

Booysen said whenever he’s asked how many EVs our grid can take at the moment, “The answer is… it’s a negative number. Because we have load shedding we can’t take a single vehicle that’s electric at the moment, because every single vehicle that you put on the grid steals electricity from elsewhere that can actually be used.”

But we need to find a way.

Not just because of the huge emission the transport sector currently has, but because, as the international market shifts, we’re going to feel it.

“Europe, and all the other countries that import from South Africa, have indicated that they will stop using internal combustion engines very soon, in the next — at most — 10 years. By that time, South Africa will be in deep trouble,” said Booysen.

This means our local vehicle manufacturing industry — which right now solely produces internal combustion engine vehicles — is at risk of dying very soon, putting at risk 500,000 jobs that rely on that industry directly or indirectly.

Our ability to export vehicles also affects the exchange scheme when it comes to import tax rates on vehicles we get overseas.

For example, as Alex Shahini from Car Magazine highlights, 90% of vehicles produced at BMW’s South African plant are vehicles exported to the European market.

And as Europe looks to reposition toward battery-powered vehicles, Shahini reported that “BMW South Africa has been lobbying for the local government to embrace the changing trend that will inevitably require the Rosslyn plant to start adapting for electrification in the near future, after the EU had voted to ban all new ICE-powered vehicle sales by 2035”.

Booysen’s research has focused on the electrification of minibus taxis, which constitute the bulk of public transport in SA.

One study Booysen co-authored, “Electrification of minibus taxis in the shadow of load shedding and energy scarcity”, highlighted that “electrification is expected to decarbonise transportation and forms part of the agenda to delay climate change. Electric vehicle sales have ballooned and production of combustion engines will stop soon”.

But “in sub-Saharan Africa, the transition is slow. Minibus taxis carry more than 70% of commuters and little is known about their electrification requirements”.

Booysen’s study found that SA has between 250,000 and 300,000 minibus taxis, and based on their power efficiency of 1kWh/km and approximate travel of 200km a day, the energy requirements are approximately 200 kWh/day on average.

Booysen’s study found that to charge all the minibus taxis from the national grid would require 9.72% (61.27GWh) of the current daily national energy generation.

“This may not seem like a lot, but it would cover approximately 70% of the country’s commuter trips, while incentivising investment into renewable energy infrastructure,” said the study.

So what’s the solution?

Given that the grid is extremely constrained as it is and can’t take on more demand, we need another solution.

“This is solvable by introducing smart charging strategies and renewable energy sources, especially in the region’s sunny climate,” said Booysen’s study.

So either we need to drastically upscale our renewable energy generation on the grid, or use off-grid solutions.

Booysen’s studies recommend that, given renewable sources are intermittent, we will need substantial investments in batteries in the form of stationary battery storage at charging stations, or batteries used in swapping schemes.

“That’s exactly where we need to be heading. And that’s actually some of the things that we’re developing now, where you use solar charging and wind charging to charge batteries. And these batteries are then used to charge the electric vehicles,” said Booysen, explaining that they are using second-life electric vehicle batteries to do that.

“I think that’s one of the best and easiest solutions to the charging challenge that we have.”

Nick Singh, Smart Grid CoE manager at Eskom Research Testing & Development, explained to Daily Maverick that containerised solar microgrids — like the ones that will be assembled at the repurposed Komati Power Station — are going to play a big role in charging infrastructure as the number of EVs increases in SA.

To put it into context, Singh explained that one of the first microgrids they set up in the Free State has 90kWh of battery storage — which could power an entire community (these containerised microgrids were designed for rural communities that are far from the grid), but the new Jaguar electric SUV has a battery that holds 90kWh.

“If you can power a community with 90 kiloWatts, now you have this in one car. Can you imagine 10 of these cars trying to charge? What sort of infrastructure would we need to upgrade to accommodate it?” said Singh.

“But if you put in these microgrids, and if you configure them as a buffer between the network and the car… so the car can charge from the microgrid — the microgrid takes all that impact.”

Retrofit existing vehicles with batteries

“All the modelling that we’ve done shows that — especially with buses, minibus taxis, fleet vehicles from big companies like Eskom and municipalities — retrofitting existing vehicles with electric propulsion is completely doable,” said Booysen.

“There are many vehicles on the road that are completely roadworthy, and all you need to do is swap out the propulsion — the diesel engine or the petrol engine — with an electric motor and regenerative braking, add a big battery and a battery management system.

“And as soon as you’ve done that, you’ve got an electric vehicle that’s cheaper to run.”

There is clearly a huge charging infrastructure — off our national grid — that needs to be developed, as well as upskilling and training programmes for people to learn how to maintain this new technology.

The breakthrough report identified six priority actions for international collaboration which will be brought up at COP27 — standouts include the need to improve technical and financial assistance for developing countries for mobilising investment and accelerating the deployment of recharging infrastructure.

There’s also a need to agree on standards for the sustainability and social responsibility in the life cycle of this new technology — including extraction of minerals and recycling towards end-of-life.

“And finally, to prevent vehicle dumping in developing countries, we also believe it’s important to agree on harmonised regulations for vehicle trade.” DM/OBP

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Alastair Stalker says:

    Finally, a good analysis of why South Africa is not suitable or ready for EVs. I’m not sure it ever will be. Can you imagine travelling from Joburg to Cape Town in an EV. If you are lucky, you will reach Bloemfontein where you will need to spend 45mins to achieve 80% charge. Then, you should reach Colesberg where you can 80% recharge again. This should enable you to reach Beaufort West where you will need another recharge. However, just think how many charging stations will be required at each point. and how much time is lost charging. With my diesel SUV, I can reach Beaufort West on one tank, and it takes me 5 minutes to fill up.
    However, I’m not totally negative. There are vehicles which travel short distances and can be charged from excess solar. I’m thinking of game drive vehicles which sit for part of the day or urban commuters.
    Ev’s are definitely not the answer for SA. Even in developed countries like the UK with a reasonable charging infrastructure, people who make long journeys are changing back to conventional vehicles.

  • Evan Rice says:

    Julia, the lifecycle assessment study cited in this article is from a decade ago! Batteries and the efficiency of battery production have come a long way since then. There are many recent peer reviewed publications debunking this myth that EVs charged on dirty grids emit more CO2 than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Check out Auke Hoekstra’s publications for a nice summary of the typical errors made when assessing EV vs ICE lifecycle impacts.
    We also need to factor in that SA gets 20% of our liquid fuels from coal via Sasol, which has some of the highest carbon emitting plants in the world. So our fuel here is even more carbon intensive than most.
    None of this negates your obviously valid point that SA has an electricity shortfall currently, but please can we not perpetuate falsehoods about the impact of EVs.

    • Peter Atkins says:

      Thank you Julia and Evan. How about an SA study on an ICE versus EV life cycle analysis, including the Sasol effect on hydrocarbon carbon footprint. This study should also take into account things such as charging the EVs when Eskom has a surplus ( using time of use tariffs as a price signal for smart EV chargers and incentivising EV owners to sell any spare battery energy back into the grid). This would suit EV owners who use their cars for urban commuting. And EV owners with rooftop PV would be able to use their EV batteries for storing surplus daytime energy. EVs are going to take over and the sooner the better. What a great Master’s or PhD thesis topic!

    • Andrew Grant says:

      For those of us who can afford a car, and want to be responsible to the environment, we should consider home PV ( solar panels) as part of the cost of buying a new vehicle and seriously consider buying an electric vehicle. For me that will be more likely once
      1. ESKOM has a clear plan how they will buy back my excess generation for when I drive less.
      2. when there is more choice of less luxury EVs in SA
      3. possibly buying a plug in hybrid to cover longer trips while our electricity is still so very dirty (or renting an ICEV for those trips or using one supplied free by the EV manufacturer (as Volvo is offering) if that becomes more widely available).

  • Johan Buys says:

    Some real clangers in this article. My EV is not a taxi but it consumes 14.1kWh/100km or 1kWh/7k . Heaven knows where 1kWh/km comes from. I looked at electric bus opportunities and a 36 seater would run about 1kWh/1.2km. If the author were correct on energy per passenger km, there would be no metros or trams operating in the world. I suggest these experts and their comments about our energy being dirty coal study how dirty our fuels are given that half come from coal through a process that itself emits more than burning the fuel and consumes an enormous amount of electricity which comes from – coal. Then come compare to my EV and 16sqm of solar panels…. The author entirely ignores that many EV owners take the trouble to spend R40k on a single garage worth of solar – enough to offset a million km of my EV’s electrical energy needs. As usual our “experts” with a few years’ theoretical experience are at odds with actual experts with combined thousands of years practical experience. Nobody thinks retrofitting electric to old vehicles is clever. Nobody thinks swappable batteries is clever. Nobody should take articles like this seriously.

  • Bruce Sobey says:

    This is another of the “can’t do” articles. We should easily be able to install enough solar and wind for transport. Vietnam installed just 200 MW of solar in 2018, a figure which rocketed to 5 GW in 2019, and 12 GW in 2020. And we have much better solar irradiance than Vietnam!
    The other point is that ICE transport is going to die fast as Europe and the USA transition. We will simply have no choice but to follow suit. If you don’t believe me I suggest the you look at the latest Tony Seba videos on “The Great Transformation”. Part 2 is on on the disruption of transportation. Tony has been uncannily accurate in his past predictions and makes a lot of sense. His work is also available on the RethinkX website.

  • Harro von Blottnitz says:

    Well done on tackling this important topic, and on citing some credible literature on emissions of EVs if powered by different energy sources. What you omit to note is that a fair share of liquid fuels in South Africa are actually also made from coal, doubling the per km emissions for cars running on such. Our own life cycle assessments indicate that in this case, EVs are already now the greener option in South Africa.

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