With apologies to Leonard Reed…
So how green is that electric vehicle? Let’s start with the “no emissions” claim. While it may be technically true that that shiny Tesla in your driveway does not emit “emissions” in the general sense of an internal combustion vehicle, it is not emission free. Let’s look at why not.
First there is the emissions of the electrical plant that supplies the power to the charger which charges the vehicle. By far the two most common methods of power generation in the US are natural gas and coal. In the grand scheme of things, “renewables” account for an insignificant amount of power generation: however, solar panels come with their own emission problems not exposited on here. So, in reality, that shiny EV has just displaced the emissions to the power plant supplying the electricity for charging.
What about the rest of vehicle though, isn’t that better for the environment than burning gasoline or diesel? Setting aside the common inputs to vehicle production (such as steel/aluminum body parts, rubber, etc.) there are some significant problems with EVs (and hybrids too). Namely, those lithium ion batteries. Setting aside the chances of getting roasted alive by the chemical fire when the batteries get breached or burning your lap (internal combustion car fires rarely happen as gas tanks are located in the rear and are not subject to the same side impact breaches as lithium ion batteries across the entire bottom of the car). Let’s take a look at the lifecycle of a lithium ion battery pack found in the typical EV.
So what goes into the lithium ion battery pack? First, there are the metal inputs: lithium, nickel cobalt and manganese. Of these, cobalt is the most expensive and is the largest (in terms of weight) in each pack. Depending on the Tesla, there is between 7-11 kgs of cobalt. Where do these metals come from? The short answer is mining and there is only one mine in the world where cobalt is mined directly (The Bou-Azzer mine in Morocco). Most cobalt is produced as a by-product of either nickel or copper mining. Fortunately for our Tesla, nickel and cobalt are often mined together, getting a two-fer. However, approximately 87% of cobalt production is produced in just four countries: Democratic Republic of Congo (46%), Zambia (17%), Canada (13%) and Russia (11%). For those paying attention, the DRC and Zambia are home to some of the most horrific human rights violations (particularly the raping of women in the DRC), so the provenance of cobalt is itself problematic. However, these mining operations themselves are a not so green ecological disaster: from the water table defilement, heavy metal tailings, general removal of millions of tons of earth moved and aesthetic raping of the earth and poisonous sulfur dioxide spewing into the sky:
Plumes of sulphur dioxide choking the skies, churned earth blanketed in cancerous dust, rivers running blood-red – environmental campaigners have painted a grim picture of the nickel mines and smelters feeding the electric vehicle industry.https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/aug/24/nickel-mining-hidden-environmental-cost-electric-cars-batteries
And all of that mining is still done by internal combustion machines belching emissions into the atmosphere…yet more emissions that the smug green Tesla owner doesn’t see. And as they say on TV, “wait, there’s more!” The more being the disposal problem. Let’s take a look at that angle…
There are only a few options available when the battery pack goes end of life: re-use, re-manufacturing, re-furbishment and disposal. Disposal is not a great option and in fact is banned in several states, due to the potential water contamination or worse, the spontaneous combustion problem which has the potential to ignite landfills into burning conflagrations (all that methane would just fuel any fire).
Disposal of LIBs in municipal solid waste is the least desirable option as it can cause sanitation truck and landfill fires (Foss-Smith 2010), soil contamination from the organic electrolyte (Shin et al. 2005), and groundwater pollution from landfill leachate (Kszos and Stewart 2003). It also excludes opportunities for resource and energy savings.https://www.nae.edu/181102/Lifecycles-of-LithiumIon-Batteries-Understanding-Impacts-from-Material-Extraction-to-End-of-Life
Thus, re-use, re-manufacturing and re-furbishment are the best options, however, as the above article explains, all of these options are in their infancy and not much headway has been made in making it economically viable (think of newspaper recycling which costs more than making new newspaper). Thus, that battery pack is the gift that keeps on giving to ecological problems throughout it’s lifecycle.
In conclusion then, the smug “green” EV driver is actually doing more environmental harm than someone driving a late model 4 cylinder compact. So where did this narrative come from that EVs are better, cleaner and will reduce our dependence on offshore oil? I honestly don’t know but I leave the question of cui bono to another post.