John Muir, naturalist and noted environmental advocate, said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched 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? Do they combat “climate change”?
To answer, one needs to know:
- What is the actual energy source for electric-vehicle batteries?
- How much energy is used to produce electric vehicles?
- Where is their operation especially good for the environment?
- What potential environmental, economic and social effects result if all combustion engine cars, trucks, construction vehicles are replaced by electric vehicles in the time frame proposed?
- What are the energy expenditures and natural resource costs of producing electric batteries?
Numbers 4 and 5 are topics for another time. For now, I’ll focus on 1, 2 and 3.
An electric vehicle is only as “green” as the fuel source used to generate the electricity to charge its battery. In the United States, 86% of electricity generation — and, thus, used for charging batteries — is produced from fossil fuels (61%), nuclear energy (19%) and hydroelectricity (6%), with the balance coming from a mix of renewable sources other than hydro.
The global energy mix is roughly the same, with nuclear and hydro power swapping places.
Thus, the claim, made by President Biden and others, that if we would just drive electric cars we would not need oil and natural gas, is just not the case. Only in a few countries, such as Albania, Norway, Paraguay, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the electricity grid is powered completely or mostly with hydroelectricity, would electric-vehicle operation truly be “green.”
According to the World Economic Forum, producing an electric vehicle contributes, on average, twice as much to “global warming potential” and uses double the amount of energy than is used to produce an internal combustion engine car. The reason is the battery.
A 1,000-pound electric-vehicle 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 almost 3,000 pounds.
To get these metals for one 1,000-pound battery requires 25,000 pounds of 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 that must be excavated and processed for one battery.
Mining cobalt and lithium come with sourcing and health problems. Just one country — The DRC — holds 70% of the world’s cobalt reserves, and one of the DRC’s big customers is China. Breathing the dust of either element can be harmful.
So, what are the benefits of electric vehicles?
The primary benefit is environmental. Their use avoids the emission of fossil-fuel air pollutants from gas engines — a benefit that is most evident in urban areas. Using them in cities can greatly help the air quality by reducing air pollution from internal combustion engines.
That is the use case for electric vehicles that should be emphasized to best help the environment. On a per-car basis, producing the smaller batteries required for shorter- range city driving also creates much less environmental impact. The smaller electric batteries can be charged in homes and workplaces, using less costly charging stations, and without the need for enhanced electrical grids.
The federal Infrastructure Bill passed in late 2021 proposes to use $7.5 billion for rural charging stations and to “strategically deploy (electric vehicle) charging stations to build out a national network along our nation’s highway system” instead of focusing their deployment in metropolitan areas, where they do the most good.
The new law also plans to spend $65 billion on charging stations along the nation’s highways. This plan is flawed, for several reasons.
First, Level-3 charging stations, required to charge electric vehicles traveling the highways, cost 50 to 100 times the amount of home stations.
Second, electric-vehicle demand in rural areas will be less, and the rationale for going electric to reduce air pollution in rural areas is less.
Third, electric-vehicle batteries for long-range highway and rural operation would be much larger and much more expensive.
And finally, the number of electric vehicles will still be limited for a number of years, especially in the areas where their use is less advantageous to the potential buyers.
For these reasons, the focus on expansion of electric-vehicle access for rural and highway travel to “make up” for underserved areas, is excessively costly and inconsistent with the actual need and benefit of electric vehicles.
Focusing on the development, production and use of electric vehicles for use in city settings makes a lot of sense and would help avoid the potential social, economic and political problems that would be confronted in trying to replace all existing vehicles with electric.
Larry Von Thun lives in Lakewood.
NOTE: The original version of this column erroneously included Level 2 charging stations in the cost comparison with Level 3 stations. The reference to Level 2 stations was removed July 28 at 7:07 p.m.