John Muirnaturalist and noted environmental advocate, said, “When we try to figure something out on our own, we find it’s linked to everything else in the universe.”
And so it is with electric vehicles – their operation and especially the production of their batteries.
How “green” are electric vehicles? Are they good for the environment? Are they fighting “climate change”?
To answer, one must know:
- What is the real energy source for electric vehicle batteries?
- How much energy is used to produce electric vehicles?
- Where is their effect especially good for the environment?
- What potential environmental, economic and social impacts are there if all combustion engine cars, trucks and construction vehicles are replaced by electric vehicles in the proposed time frame?
- What is the energy expenditure and the cost of natural resources for the production of electric batteries?
Numbers 4 and 5 are topics for another time. For now I focus on 1, 2 and 3.
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An electric vehicle is only as “green” as the fuel source used to generate the electricity to charge the battery. In the United States, 86% of electricity generation — and thus used for battery charging — is produced from fossil fuels (61%), nuclear (19%) and hydropower (6%), with the rest coming from a mix of renewable sources other than hydropower.
The global energy mix is about the samein which nuclear and hydroelectric power plants switch places.
So the claim by President Biden and others that if we only drove electric cars, we wouldn’t need oil and natural gas, just isn’t the case. Only in a few countries, such as Albania, Norway, Paraguay and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the electricity grid is completely or largely powered by hydropower, would the operation of electric vehicles be truly “green”.
According to the World Economic Forum, producing an electric vehicle contributes on average twice as much to the “warming potential” and consumes twice as much energy than is used to produce a car with an internal combustion engine. The reason is the battery.
A 1000-pound electric car battery contains 25 pounds of lithium, 60 pounds of nickel, 44 pounds of manganese, 30 pounds of cobalt, and 200 pounds of copper. A Tesla Model S battery weighs 1,200 lbs. The battery in a GMC electric-powered Hummer weighs nearly 3,000 pounds.
It takes 25,000 pounds to get these metals for one 1,000 pound battery brine for the lithium, 30,000 pounds of ore for cobalt, 5,000 pounds for nickel and 25,000 pounds for copper. These are extracted from a total of 500,000 pounds of rock and soil to be excavated and processed for one battery.
The extraction of cobalt and lithium is associated with purchasing and health problems. Only one country – the DRC – owns 70% of the world’s cobalt reserves, and one of the DRC’s major customers is China. Inhaling the dust of both elements can be harmful.
So, what are the benefits of electric vehicles?
The main advantage is the environment. Its use avoids emissions of air pollutants from fossil fuels from gas engines – a benefit most evident in urban areas. Using it in cities can vastly improve air quality by reducing air pollution from combustion engines.
That’s the use case for electric vehicles that needs to be highlighted in order to help the environment as much as possible. By car, the production of the smaller batteries needed for city trips over shorter distances also has much less impact on the environment. The smaller electric batteries can be charged in homes and at work, using cheaper charging stations and without the need for upgraded power grids.
The federal infrastructure law passed in late 2021 proposes to use $7.5 billion for nationwide charging stations and to “strategistically deploy (electric vehicle) charging stations to power a national network along our nation’s highway system.” build” rather than concentrating their efforts in metropolitan areas, where they do the most good.
The new law also plans to spend $65 billion on charging stations along the country’s highways. This plan is flawed for several reasons.
First, Level-3 charging stations, which are needed to charge electric vehicles on the highways, cost 50 to 100 times the number of home and workplace Level-2 stations.
Second, the demand for electric vehicles in rural areas will be less, and the reason to go electric to reduce air pollution in rural areas is less.
Third, electric vehicle batteries for highway and rural use would be much larger and much more expensive.
And finally, the number of electric vehicles will remain limited for several years to come, especially in those areas where their use is less advantageous for the potential buyers.
For these reasons, the focus on expanding access to electric vehicles for rural and highway travel to “compensate” for the deprived areas is excessively expensive and not in line with the real needs and benefits of electric vehicles.
Focusing on the development, production and use of electric vehicles for use in urban environments makes a lot of sense and would help avoid the potential social, economic and political problems that would arise from trying to replace all existing vehicles with electric vehicles.
Larry Von Thun lives in Lakewood.
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