Are EVs as Clean as They Seem?
Climate change threats are increasing as melting ice, rising sea levels and increasing frequency of extreme weather events take hold.
Since the 1970s, scientists have set 2 C as the threshold for global warming. They’ve indicated that exceeding that temperature would lead to catastrophic climate change-induced disasters.
According to the International Energy Agency (IES), transportation accounts for 37% of global emissions and relies more heavily on fossil fuels than any other sector. However, vehicles are essential for people to get around, making it dire for the automotive industry to develop a fuel-efficient alternative.
The first electric car was a motorized carriage in the 1830s that ran for a limited time on batteries. Electric vehicle (EV) production has made headway since then, with 122,016 sales in the United States in March 2016, accounting for a 2.9% market share.
However, skeptics have long scrutinized EVs’ energy efficiency, raising the question of whether they are really as clean and green as they sound.
Fuel-Efficiency: Thermal vs. Electric Cars
Conventional thermal vehicles release their stored energy through a combustion reaction in the engine. Meanwhile, EVs release energy electrochemically with the use of lithium-ion batteries. No fuel burned equates to zero air pollution.
However, while it may seem like EVs are the best option for eliminating greenhouse gases, they still generate carbon emissions in other ways. For example, unless you’re using renewable energy, such as a solar panel EV charging station at your house, the electricity needed to recharge your car will come from burning fossil fuels.
That means that with nearly 61% of U.S. electricity generation derived from fossil fuels in 2021, you’ll likely release more carbon dioxide emissions despite driving an EV.
Cause for Concern: Manufacturing EVs
EV production is similar to thermal cars — raw materials are extracted, processed, transferred and engineered to assemble the vehicle. However, manufacturing EVs generates more carbon emissions than their conventional counterparts.
Large lithium-ion batteries store energy that allows EVs to operate at net-zero — but the bigger the battery, the more materials are needed at a much higher environmental cost. That’s because the items used in lithium-ion batteries must be mined and extracted from deep within the Earth’s surface.
About 15 tons of carbon dioxide are emitted into the air for every ton of mined lithium. Additionally, mining for rare “cathode” elements like lithium, cobalt, nickel and graphite necessitates a large amount of water from areas where this resource is scarce. For example, the Democratic Republic of Congo mines over 65% of the world’s cobalt supply.
Another way manufacturing EV batteries emits carbon dioxide includes synthesizing the cathode materials between 800 and 1,000 C — a temperature that requires burning fossil fuels.
Greenhouse gas emissions throughout EV production depend on the materials, location sourced and the energy type used to manufacture them. Approximately 77% of lithium-ion batteries are produced in China, where coal is the primary energy source, emitting nearly twice as many greenhouse gases as natural gas.
A Case for Recycling and Reusing Lithium-Ion Batteries
According to an International Council of Clean Transportation (ICCT) report, 99% of lead-acid batteries from thermal cars are recycled in the U.S. The ICCT also states that EV batteries retain 75%-80% of battery capacity after their first life.
However, Europe only recovered 5% of lithium batteries in 2011 — the rest were thrown away or incinerated. Lithium batteries contain highly toxic, reactive and flammable materials, so it’s challenging to determine how to best manage their life cycle or disposal.
Regardless, more EVs have hit the market, which means it’s essential to figure out ways to preserve materials and recycle or give lithium-ion batteries a second life.
For example, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) suggests reusing lithium-ion batteries to support the electric grid and store wind and solar energy-produced electricity. Due to their high post-automative service life capacity, they can potentially operate for another 10 years if managed correctly, offsetting the environmental impacts it takes to produce the batteries.
EV Sustainability With Room to Improve
Are EVs as clean as they seem? Likely not. Technically, the EV manufacturing process and current life cycle outcomes contribute vast amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Despite this, they are generally more eco-friendly than fossil fuel-powered vehicles, with greener solutions underway to continue developing their energy efficiency.
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