Are Electric Cars Better for the Environment?

  • Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience serving in automotive editorial leadership roles with Autobytel, Edmunds, J.D. Power, and Tribune Publishing. A married father of four, Chris is based in the Los Angeles suburbs and believes fuel cell electric vehicles will power the future.

can be reached at christianwardlaw@gmail.com
  • Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience serving in automotive editorial leadership roles with Autobytel, Edmunds, J.D. Power, and Tribune Publishing. A married father of four, Chris is based in the Los Angeles suburbs and believes fuel cell electric vehicles will power the future.

can be reached at christianwardlaw@gmail.com
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Electric cars are better for the environment. It is true that the production of an electric vehicle (EVs) releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than does the production of a traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle. However, once an EV rolls out of a factory and onto the road, it doesn’t take long for it to close the gap with the ICE vehicle, surpass it, and contribute in an environmentally positive way.

You might have heard differently. While there are variables that impact how clean and green an EV is, such as the state in which you live and the size of the battery in the car, ultimately, over the course of its life, any hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or EV is better for the environment than a vehicle equipped with a gas or diesel ICE.

We’ll explore these subjects and more in detail below, starting with the emissions question.

Are Electric Car Production Emissions Higher?

Air pollution and electrical power lines
Electric car batteries make the production-related emissions of such vehicles higher. Over its lifetime, though, an EV is a much cleaner and greener way to drive. (Pixabay)

 

Yes, the construction of an EV puts more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than does the construction of a traditional vehicle with an ICE. This is due to battery construction, and according to Engineering Explained, the larger and more powerful the battery, the more CO2 the process generates.

However, once that EV is on the road, it quickly makes up for that added environmental expense. Again, the smaller the battery, the sooner it happens.

Also, the state in which you live, and how electricity is produced locally, impact the time it takes for an electrified vehicle to become the greenest and cleanest choice. In places where wind, solar, and hydropower make much of the electricity, it happens faster than in places where coal, natural gas, and petroleum are the primary sources for electricity.

No matter where you live, over the course of a vehicle’s useful life an electrified vehicle is always better for the environment.

Impact of Clean vs. Dirty Electricity Production

Wind turbines at sunset
Renewable sources of electricity, like wind, solar, and hydropower, make electric vehicles super-clean to drive. (Raw Film via Unsplash)

 

In 2018, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), fossil fuels generated 63.5% of all the electricity in America. Natural gas led at 35.1% (fracking, anyone?) followed by coal at 27.4%. Petroleum and other gases created the remaining fraction.

After fossil fuels, nuclear power was next, at 19.3%.

Renewable sources of electricity accounted for 17.1%, with hydropower leading the way (7%) followed by wind (6%), and solar (1.6%). Among all sources of electricity, during the past decade, these renewable sources have grown as a percentage. Others have remained the same or declined.

Nevertheless, in 2018, fossil fuels remained the primary source for the majority of electricity in America. Also, while the EIA’s short-term prediction is a continued decline of coal, natural gas replaces coal at a greater rate than renewable sources of energy do.

Given this information, you might be wondering what the point of buying an EV is.

Consider this:

  • Though researchers are trying to determine how to change this, current gas and oil refining processes do not employ renewable energy. There is no such thing as “clean” gas or “clean” oil.
  • Thanks to wind, solar, hydropower, and geothermal power, there is plenty of “clean” electricity, more of it in some states than others. And these sources of electricity are growing in terms of market share.
  • Thus, despite the fact that EVs remain primarily dependent on electricity made using fossil fuels, they’re more environmentally friendly than gasoline cars that burn fossil fuels.

Again, EVs for the win!

The Ethics of Mining for Battery Materials

Trucks and tractors in a mine
To create a battery, miners extract lithium, cobalt, nickel, and graphite from the Earth. This process carries environmental impact and potentially ethical consequences. (Dominik Vanyi via Unsplash)

 

Mining, especially in parts of the world with lax regulations, is environmentally messy while often favoring business while hurting local residents. And in order to create a modern electric car battery, there’s no getting around mining. Materials including lithium, cobalt, nickel, and graphite are necessary.

As EV adoption rates scale around the planet, and before widespread EV battery recycling begins re-using these materials, demand for mining is high. Corners get cut. Rules get ignored. Ethics are violated. And people get hurt.

Take, for example, lithium production. In South America, companies pull brine from beneath salt flat and extract lithium from it by pouring the brine into pools and letting them evaporate in the sun. The process is slow and requires plenty of water in dry, desert areas of the continent.

Meanwhile, Australia mines rock containing lithium, and ships it to China where cheap labor extracts the material. This process is faster, but to get the lithium from Australia to China for processing exacts an additional environmental impact. And China isn’t exactly known for its environmentally friendly industrial complex.

Nevertheless, when you think about oil drilling disasters like the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, and oil pipeline spills like Keystone in South Dakota, is lithium production actually worse for the planet? One could argue it is not.

Battery production also requires cobalt, nickel, and graphite, all of which must be mined from the earth. In places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, at unregulated artisanal mines, children are mining cobalt by hand to satisfy global demands for the metal.

Fortunately, many companies are trying to find ethically sustainable sources of battery materials. For example, Ford, Volkswagen, and battery maker LG Chem have joined an industry network dedicated to the responsible sourcing of battery materials through the implementation of blockchain technology.

Still, in the short-term, accountability for lithium-ion battery materials sourcing is as murky as a salt-brine pond in Argentina.

What Happens to Electric Car Batteries When They Die?

Volkswagen Battery Recycling
Volkswagen has an ambitious plan to re-use and recycle the batteries from its upcoming line of electric cars. (Volkswagen)

 

Ultimately, battery recycling will curb the demand for lithium, cobalt, nickel, and graphite. Companies can reuse these valuable materials, virtually guaranteeing that most EV battery packs will go through an extensive recycling process.

Countries around the world are already regulating re-use and recycling to keep huge electric car batteries out of landfills. For example, both China and the European Union have rules on the books – but not the U.S. Yet.

When a battery is no longer suitable for an EV, it can still hold and dispense a charge for up to another decade. Bloomberg reports that companies like General Motors, Volkswagen, BYD, and others are finding new uses for retired EV batteries. Today they power everything from charging stations in California and data centers in Michigan to street lights in Japan and backup power sources for elevators in France.

Then, after the batteries have lived their second life, recycling retrieves the valuable contents. Volkswagen is planning for this recycling future with the goal of recycling up to 97% of an electric car’s battery.

Electric Cars Do Not Need Oil Changes

Man performs oil change on a car
Electric cars don’t require oil, so there’s no chance of burning it, spilling it, or tossing it into the trash instead of taking it to a recycling center. (Fancycrave via Pexels)

 

You know the drill (pun intended). With a gasoline or diesel ICE engine, you need to either get an oil change or perform this task yourself. And if it doesn’t get done right, the engine could suffer significant damage.

With an electric car, oil changes are a thing of the past. An EV doesn’t consume oil, doesn’t burn oil, doesn’t leak oil, and doesn’t need an oil change. And you never need to worry about recycling the old oil.

On multiple fronts, electric cars are clearly better for the environment.

Sometimes the payoff is immediate, such as elimination of oil use and oil changes. Other times the payoff takes some time, like when you buy a Tesla Model X P100D and you live in Charleston, West Virginia. And the world certainly needs to weigh the pros and cons of mining for metals against drilling for oil.

Over time, however, the global shift away from the ICE to electric cars is going to prove environmentally beneficial, especially as more renewable sources of electricity come online and EV battery recycling starts producing real results in terms of raw materials.


About the Author

  • Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience serving in automotive editorial leadership roles with Autobytel, Edmunds, J.D. Power, and Tribune Publishing. A married father of four, Chris is based in the Los Angeles suburbs and believes fuel cell electric vehicles will power the future.

can be reached at christianwardlaw@gmail.com
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