I feel it is safe to assume that people who buy electric cars do so because they feel that doing so will help protect environmental quality and slow climate change. Is that really the case?
Based on the 2015 Paris Agreement, there will need to be a 50-fold increase in electric vehicles worldwide. With current technology, that means a huge increase in the use of lithium-ion batteries. Their manufacture uses natural graphite, cobalt and nickel.
Most of the graphite comes from China and in order to get one ton of natural graphite, 1,250 tons of earth must be mined. About 60 percent of the cobalt mined comes from the Congo and most of the nickel mined comes from Russia. The constituents that make up a lithium-ion battery don’t just appear. They must be extracted via mining and most of that mining is done in remote areas of countries with far less stringent regulations than mining companies in the U.S. would operate under. Extracting the materials used to make the batteries that power electric vehicles is nasty business.
If the goal of the Paris Agreement is met, electric-vehicle manufacture will comprise 90 percent of the lithium-ion market by 2025. Is that good for the environment? Scientists now know that electric vehicles can generate more, not less, carbon emissions than gas or diesel-powered vehicles.
How can that possibly be? While actually driving the vehicle can result in emission reductions, the other
parts of its life-cycle – mining the raw
materials, processing the mined
materials to extract the desired components, transporting them from remote areas to the location where the raw materials are combined into the manufacture of a lithium-ion battery, manufacturing the batteries and the subsequent recycling of the batteries – are very carbon intensive.
Producing an electric vehicle contributes about two times as much to climate change and uses about two times as much energy to produce as a comparable combustion-engine vehicle.
The batteries have about a 10-year effective life (when they produce enough energy to power a vehicle). That’s about how long it takes for an electric-powered vehicle to break even with a
traditional combustion engine – the problem is that most people only keep a car for 5-7 years.
Thus, not only did electric-car drivers actually contribute more, not less carbon, to the climate change phenomenon, they actually made a poor financial investment, i.e. they never recaptured the incremental cost of the electric vehicle over the gas- or diesel-powered version via a savings in fuel cost.
What about recycling the batteries at the end of their “useful” life? Because of the rarity of the metals involved, recycling is essential. The problem is cost.
Recycling a lithium-ion battery costs five times as much as it did to mine the material. To get one ton of graphite, 28 tons of batteries must be recycled. However, if they aren’t recycled, someone, either the vehicle owner or the manufacturer, will face the cost of hazardous waste disposal.
Are we really saving electricity by using electric vehicles? The dirty little secret that no one likes to talk about is that the vehicles have to be plugged into a source of energy to recharge the batteries. This is often done at night for two reasons.
First, daytime is the period when the cars are being used for transportation. Second, it’s cheaper (an economic decision) to plug them in at night because you’re billed at a cheaper “off-peak-power” rate.
But the real question is this – what is the source of the electricity? Is it a nasty old coal-fired power-plant or a solar plant? Since solar panels don’t work at night, it’s most likely coming from a coal-fired plant. Whoops!
As we collectively seek energy sources that are capable of meeting our needs, are “environmentally friendly” and cost effective, it is important that we not engage in symbolism over substance. There is no one “silver bullet”, but there are options that allow us to use combinations of currently available energy sources that minimize environmental impacts.
In closing, I’d like to quote one of my fellow authors for this series. In an earlier column focused on Populism, he stated, “for there can be no political independence without economic independence.” I submit that it is not only the “evil” large corporations that can stifle independence.
Consider, for example, those groups or individuals who, based on their biases either for or against certain forms of energy, deprive others in our community from economic opportunity.
a former DEC commissioner
in the Pataki Administration
and an environmental
lives in West Davenport.