Renewable energy production without emissions can improve air quality in China

Poor air quality causes the premature death of about 1.2 million Chinese citizens each year. And public health outcomes are especially ominous during poor air quality events, such as the infamous ‘Airpocalypse’ winter fog.

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Now a research team from Northwestern University has speculated whether the widespread use of electric vehicles (EVs) could help China prevent these fatalities. The solution depends on several factors.

Researchers concluded in a recent study that air quality and the benefits of EVs to public health – as well as the potential of these EVs to reduce carbon emissions – in China depend on the composition of the electricity grid and the type of electrified transport.

A new study was recently published in the journal Earth’s future magazine, February 16thth, 2021.

A significant portion of Chinese electricity is currently generated by burning coal, which is a highly carbon energy source. When heavy coal energy is used to charge light vehicles, carbon emissions are reduced due to the efficiency of light electric vehicles. Heavy-duty electric vehicles require significantly more energy, so we are seeing a net increase in carbon dioxide emissions.

Jordan Schnell, lead author of the study, Cooperative Institute for Environmental Science Research, University of Colorado at Boulder

Schnell continued, “However, even when the power of heavy vehicles is fully powered by coal-fired electricity, we still see an improvement in air quality because reducing emissions on the road outweighs what power plants add. Emissions of fine particles, which are the main component of the nebula, have been reduced. ”

We found that the real obstacle in China’s infrastructure is in its electricity generation sector to achieve the net beneficial benefit of adopting heavy vehicles in EV. Greater adoption of zero-emission renewable electricity generation is needed. For light vehicles, approvals are already in place in line with current infrastructure.

Daniel Horton, senior study author, Northwestern University

Horton is also an assistant professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University. During his studies, Schnell worked as a postdoctoral fellow in Horton’s laboratory.

He is currently a researcher at the Cooperative Institute for Environmental Science Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Pollutants come from a variety of sources, both human and natural, and include emissions from production facilities and during transport.

Although the adoption of EV reduces the emission of greenhouse gases and air pollutants from vehicle exhaust pipes, the overall emission calculation should be a factor in redirecting emissions to power plants used to charge EV batteries.

Energy consumption and vehicle distribution by country also contribute to overall emission profiles. For example, light and heavy vehicles differ significantly, which further complicates the net results.

Therefore, to address these complex factors, researchers integrated chemical-climatic modeling with weather, emissions, and public health data. They analyzed climate benefits, air quality, as well as light duty compromises against the adoption of heavy vehicles, using meteorological conditions from the infamous Airpocalypse event that took place back in January 2013.

But unlike previous research on EV-quality aimed at chronic exposure, the team focused on the serious consequences of exposure to this brief but very dangerous haze event on public health.

Investigators have found that the adoption of EV could likely play a modest role in reducing the public health consequences of separate events from Airpocalypse, to the extent that it is based on the type of electrified vehicle. The team also noted that the shared benefits of climate and public health relied on the inclusion of zero-emission renewable energy in the electricity grid.

Earlier in January 2013, most of the Chinese area, including the main settlements of Hebei, Beijing and Tianjin, had episodes of extreme pollution by the poisonous nebula.

Extreme exposure to record high concentrations of nitrogen dioxide and fine particles has also increased stroke, heart disease and pollution-related respiratory diseases, which researchers say caused about $ 14.7 billion in health care costs and led to about 32,000 premature deaths.

To evaluate the results of EV adoption, the researchers used a specific model simulation scenario in which they replaced about 40% of Chinese heavy vehicles (such as buses, construction equipment, and long-haul trucks) with electrified models. The second scenario repeated the replacement of about 40% of Chinese light vehicles with electric options.

In both scenarios, it was determined that the energy required to charge EV batteries was equal and that energy was supplied from the power plants on the grid. The discharge of air pollutants and greenhouse gases is established on the basis of the power plant profile and the battery charging load.

The team noted that electrification of about 40% of heavy vehicles reliably improved air quality and prevented up to 562 premature deaths. However, this did not reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, the adoption of light EV vehicles reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 2 megatons, but provided more modest benefits in terms of air quality.

To repeat this point once more, the team provided another scenario comparison. When all traffic emissions from the 2013 events are eliminated, improvements in air quality have reduced acute premature death by as much as 6%. But when all emissions in the electricity sector are eliminated, there is a 24% drop in acute premature mortality.

Overall, we found that changes caused by EV-induced pollution and avoided premature deaths were modest for extreme events. But air quality will improve more drastically as the electricity generation sector moves away from fossil fuel electricity.

Jordan Schnell, lead author of the study, Cooperative Institute for Environmental Science Research, University of Colorado at Boulder

The study, entitled “Potential for Adoption of Electric Vehicles to Relieve Extreme Air Quality Events in China,” was funded by Ubben’s Carbon and Climate Science Program and the U.S. National Science Foundation under grant number CBET-1848683.

The team included researchers from Northwestern University, the Environmental Protection Fund, the U.S. EPA, UC Irvine, Tsinghua University, Boston University and Fudan University.

Journal reference:

Schnell, JL, and others. (2020) The potential for the adoption of electric vehicles to mitigate extreme air quality events in China. Earth’s future.