Electric cars are being touted as the next big thing in the automobile industry, while also spearheading the fight against climate change. Did you know General Motors plans to stop putting new gasoline-powered cars and light trucks on the market by 2035? It will supposedly focus on only battery-powered models. Volvo is a step ahead and plans to introduce an all-electric lineup by 2030. But are electric cars really better for the environment? Let us find out!
The process of making electricity is important
To put it in a nutshell, most electric cars generate considerably less harmful emissions than vehicles fueled with gasoline. But it matters on how much coal is being burned to charge up those plug-in vehicles. Moreover, electric grids have to be made “cleaner” before electric cars become zero emission cars.
If you work on the assumption that electric cars get their power from the average grid in the United States, which includes a blend of fossil fuel and renewable power plants, they are certainly much greener than conventional cars. Even though electric cars are more emissions-intensive to make because of their batteries, their electric motors are more efficient than traditional internal combustion engines that burn fossil fuels.
The main difference between conventional, thermal cars and electric cars is the process of transforming potential energy into kinetic energy. For the former, the energy is stored in chemical form and released via a chemical reaction inside the engine. Electric cars have chemically stored energy, but they release it electrochemically without any kind of combustion, as they utilize lithium-ion batteries. It means no fuel is being burned, and no air pollution via carbon dioxide happens while driving.
If the source of energy used to power these cars doesn’t come from solar panels, wind turbines or even nuclear or hydroelectric, then their carbon dioxide emissions are much higher. For example, if electricity used to charge cars comes from the burning of fossil fuels, it won’t matter if the vehicles aren’t polluting while being driven. The pollution has already been released in some distant power plants.
However, most countries are striving to clean up electric grids. In the United States, utilities have retired several coal plants over the last ten years, and transitioned to a mix of lower-emissions natural gas, wind and solar power. This way, electric cars have become much cleaner, and things are bound to improve further in the future.
The issue of raw materials can’t be ignored
Lithium-ion cells that power most electric cars depend upon raw materials such as cobalt, lithium, and rare earth elements. Unfortunately, these have been associated with several environmental concerns, especially cobalt. Hazardous tailings and slags are produced when cobalt is mined, and this can leach into the environment. Research has discovered high levels of exposure in nearby communities to cobalt and other metals. Extracting metal from ores is done by smelting, which can release sulfur dioxide and other elements that lead to dreadful air pollution.
A significant part of the world’s cobalt supply is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In many unregulated, artisanal mines, workers (including children) dig up the metal utilizing just hand tools. These methods pose great risk to their health and safety. Lithium on the other hand, is mined in Australia, or from salt flats in the Andean regions of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. They use lots of groundwater to pump out brines, thus drawing down the water available to Indigenous farmers and herders. Water needed for manufacturing batteries means that making electric cars requires 50% more water than traditional internal combustion engines. Rare earth metals often contain radioactive substances that emit toxic water and dust.
Automakers are working towards eliminating artisanal cobalt from their supply chains, and have committed to developing batteries that require less cobalt, or perhaps none of it. However, this technology is at a nascent stage, and the prevalence of these mines is a serious issue. Manufacturers should partner with such mines to decrease environmental footprint and ensure that working conditions are safe for miners.
What happens when earlier electric cars approach the end of their shelf life?
It is imperative to prevent a humongous pile of spent batteries! Almost all lead-acid batteries are recycled in the United States, but when it comes to lithium-ion batteries, only 5% of them are recycled! Experts point out that spent batteries contain valuable metals and other materials that can be recovered and reused. Battery recycling could also use up large amounts of water or emit air pollutants, depending upon the process used.
Another way to combat the issue of used electric cars batteries is to repurpose them in storage and other applications. Various automakers, including Nissan and BMW, have piloted the use of old electric cars batteries for grid storage. General Motors says it has designed battery packs with second-life use in kind. But this practice needs extensive testing and upgrades too or they won’t perform reliably. However, if implemented correctly, used batteries can be used for at least ten years, as backup storage for solar power.
To sum up, electric cars are definitely more environment-friendly as compared to their conventional counterparts. However, they have their own impact on the environment, depending upon how they are charged up and manufactured. Only if grids become zero-carbon, can vehicle emissions go down even further, thus paving the way for a clean and green environment in the years to come.
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