Towards a LIFE CYCLE economy

Towards a LIFE CYCLE economy

With tightening legislation forcing us to rethink our attitudes to resource consumption, energy use and harmful emissions, a long-established mindset is fast gaining new ground. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a valuable instrument in the planner’s toolbox for examining policies, projects and products to assess their environmental impact over their complete lifespan – and, Ricardo is an important LCA player on the international stage.

Should I buy organic vegetables or the ordinary varieties? Shop on the high street or online? Take the plane or the train? Choose a woollen sweater instead of one made of synthetic fibres? Or, raising the budget somewhat, should I replace my car with a standard gasoline model, a hybrid or an electric?

These are everyday dilemmas faced by environmentally conscious consumers in many parts of the world, and they touch on several sensitive issues – ethics, cost, health, convenience and personal politics. On a much broader level the consequences of decisions like these
present a dilemma for planners, too. Take the car example: just as the rush to diesel in the past two decades has had air-quality knock-on effects in Europe, so a wholesale migration to electric vehicles might have other unforeseen consequences besides the obvious one of pressure on the electricity supply industry.

These are all areas where the technique of life cycle thinking can be useful in helping both individuals and public policy makers come to a balanced and level-headed decision – one that weighs up the positive and negative impacts of the various alternative policy choices.
The assessment can be framed in many different ways: the most familiar of these metrics is money, central to life cycle cost analysis and the total cost of ownership (TCO) calculations that help operators of costly trucks, aircraft and other machinery to decide which vehicle packages will offer them the best return on their investment.

Increasingly, however, life cycle techniques are being employed to examine much broader aspects of issues than just the familiar question of cash. Life cycle assessment (LCA) looks to evaluate the environmental (and sometimes social) impacts of a product or service, across
its entire life cycle. A good example is provided by the recent analysis conducted by Ricardo on behalf of the fuels industry research body Concawe, and reported on in the Q4 issue of RQ last year. The study looked at two contrasting pathways to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from Europe’s vehicle fleet by 2050, comparing an all-electric approach
with one in which low-carbon liquid fuels play a major part. The report took in a broad spectrum of parameters, from biofuel supply chains to rare-metal resource scarcity, and concluded that a halfway house position, with a more limited role for liquid fuels, could provide the optimum balance between cost, environmental impact and security.

On a more micro level, as we show below, LCA can also flag up important warnings when it comes to engineering choices – such as deciding on the optimum capacity for an electric vehicle’s battery.

High-level planning tool

In recent years LCA has taken on a whole extra dimension as a valuable tool to inform governments and legislators and to aid them in key macroeconomic policy decisions, especially when it comes to weighing up the environmental consequences of alternative courses of action under consideration. LCA is becoming increasingly important in the public sphere, says Simon Gandy, principal consultant in sustainability and LCA knowledge leader at Ricardo Energy & Environment. “If you look at what’s going on at the European Commission, they are advocating for all their environmental policy that decisions be taken on a lifecycle basis,” he reveals. “And initiatives like the circular economy and trying to
make things last longer, a lot of that is predicated on LCA.”

Ricardo Energy & Environment (REE) is working with Zero Waste Scotland, for instance, to reduce the nation’s waste. “Life cycle thinking underpins a lot of what they do,” says Gandy, “and the same is true of the UK Department for Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).”

Businesses in the transportation sector are becoming much more conscious of their public image, notes Nik Hill, also of Ricardo Energy & Environment. “They are already using LCA in a variety of ways, not just for costs but also for environmental impacts. They are very conscious of their corporate responsibilities to minimize the environmental impact of their activities.” While climate impact assessments are central to most of today’s analyses, Simon Gandy also notes a broadening of LCA applications: “We’re seeing a lot more interest in things other than global warming: companies come to us as they want to think about resource consumption – and I think that is going to be the biggest issue we face in the future.” LCA can also address other issues such as local air quality, pollution, acidification,
and ozone depletion, says Gandy. “These are existing issues, but also very important looking into the future.”

A case in point: EV battery capacity With almost every international automaker having now woken up to the reality of an electric vehicle future, there is much jockeying between rival brands to offer the longest possible driving range, thus allaying perhaps the greatest perceived concern of potential customers. But is bigger necessarily better when it comes to car batteries? Does higher capacity equate with a lower overall environmental impact? And how do the various technology choices influence the holistic picture? These are among the
many questions being examined in detail by Nik Hill and his team in two significant studies for the European Commission, the first entitled Circular Economy Perspectives for the Management of Batteries used in Electric Vehicles, and the second Determining the Environmental Impacts of Conventional and Alternatively Fuelled Vehicles through Life Cycle
Assessment. Throughout the studies, LCA methodologies are employed to weigh up the multitude of choices available to engineers, policymakers and consumers. As is often the case in environmental matters, this picture is not as straightforward as it initially appears.
Looking across the lifetime of an electric vehicle, and assuming the energy on which it runs is largely renewable, one of the biggest of its environmental impacts typically arises from the manufacture of its battery. The bigger the battery, the higher the vehicle’s embedded GHG emissions, the greater its weight and the lower its efficiency – so on the face of it, for drivers
who don’t cover much daily mileage, a smaller battery might appear better. But, as ever, there are competing factors at work.

A smaller battery, recharged more frequently, could prove a false economy. Though cheaper and lighter and better for short-term economy, it has a higher likelihood of reaching its limit of chargedischarge cycles and, critically, it might need replacement sooner, thus increasing
the vehicle’s embedded emissions impacts. A larger battery might not need replacement within an average vehicle’s lifetime as it would require fewer cycles. Yet there could be further mitigating factors. What would be the influence of alternative battery chemistries better suited to frequent charge-discharge cycles? And what if the potential second lives (in domestic energy storage, for instance) of ex-automotive batteries are taken into account?

Again, the range of factors in the equation is immense, but, as Hill reveals, there may be a sweet spot. “How these things play out is really complicated,” he says. “It’s not like saying
a smaller battery is better and a big one worse. It may be that if you have a bigger battery you don’t have to replace it. What this illustrates is that you have to be careful. LCA is a brilliant tool, but if you miss or over-simplify certain elements you can end up making the wrong decisions.” It all comes back to thinking more holistically about the issue, argues Jane
Patterson, technology strategy consultant at Ricardo Strategic Consulting. “It’s not necessarily bigger or smaller,” she says. “What matters is to right-size the battery. It’s not so much the vehicle segment, either: it comes back to who is the operator, and how they want to use the vehicle. The powertrain solution for someone who has a daily commute of 10 miles each way would be very different to that for the driver who’s up and down the motorways all day.”

In addition, she points out, other likely future EV applications such as on-demand mobility services will further tax the ingenuity of engineers when it comes to providing the best possible battery configuration for each purpose. And again, LCA can be a very useful tool in exploring the multitude of variables and identifying the more environmentally favourable solutions.

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