Electric Cars not Really Green

I don’t have anything against electric cars.  If they look anything like these babies from Tesla Motors, I want one.  Now.  They are stylish, whisper quiet, very fast and leave no emissions.  But one thing they are not, however, is “green”.  Read on to find out why, when you look at the big picture, electric cars of today can produce higher emissions over their lifetimes than gas powered equivalents.

Turns out that electric vehicles (EV) produce just as much carbon in their overall cycle as internal combustion engines and the need to replace their batteries makes them even less green than their gas powered counterparts.  According to a study commissioned by the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership (LCVP), which is jointly funded by the British government and the car industry, an electric car owner would have to drive at least 80,000 miles before producing a net savings in CO2.  Many electric cars offer a range of less than 90 miles on a single charge making them unsuitable for long trips.  They may never see 80,000 in a lifetime of use. Even those driven 100,000 would save only about a ton of CO2 over their lifetimes.

The LCVP study found that a midsized electric car will produce 23.1 tons of CO2 over its lifetime whereas a similar sized gas powered vehicle will produce 24 tons. Emissions from manufacturing electric cars are at least 50 per cent higher because batteries are made from materials such as lithium, copper and refined silicon, which require much energy to be processed.  Currently manufactured EV operate on batteries that must be replaced after as soon as three years of use. Factor in the emissions created by producing the second battery and the total CO2 from making an EV rises to 12.6 tons.  Compare this to an average of 5.6 tons of CO2 to produce a conventional gas powered vehicle.  Disposal of an EV produces roughly double the emissions of a gas powered car due to the amount of energy consumed in recovering and recycling metals in the battery.  I should note at this point that the study did take into account carbon emitted to generate the grid electricity consumed.

The manufacturing, recycling and reclamation of battery materials cause the lion’s share of what makes EV non-environmentally friendly.  “Normal” cars, of course, use batteries, but usually only one per vehicle rather than an entire bank.  A big move to EV would necessitate an explosion in the manufacturing, recycling and disposal of batteries that neither the U.S. or the UK could handle.  Where are we going to put all of those dead batteries?  Not all of the components can be recycled and what is left is not exactly eco-friendly depending on the battery type.  Lithium ion cells are becoming more and more popular partly due to their comparative eco-friendliness, but they still pose risks (especially to groundwater) in the mining of raw materials and the manufacturing process.

Let’s keep looking at the raw materials needed to make batteries for a second.  Where does  lithium come from?  About 85% of the world’s know reserves can be found in China, Bolivia and Chile.  Lithium is not the only element needed for large scale battery production.  You also need large flake graphite.  China controls 80% of that market.  Our dependance on foreign resources for our energy needs would shift from the Middle East to China, not a particularly comforting thought.

In the countries fortunate enough to have the raw materials needed for battery production, they are not merely sitting on the ground ready to be picked up.  We still need to carry on extensive drilling and mining operations.  These are the same practices that environmentalists have been working to prohibit for years for coal, oil shale and natural gas exploration.

Chances are you’ve heard of “peak oil”.  It is defined as the point in  time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters a terminal decline.  There is also such a thing as “peak lithium” and it just might get to us before “peak oil”.  The Argonne National Laboratory estimates that we only have enough lithium available to manufacture car batteries through 2050.  This hardly qualifies EV as a viable alternative to gas powered vehicles for the long haul.

Ok smart guy,  you may be saying.  What are we supposed to use as a fuel if electric vehicles are not going to cut it?  Natural gas might be a better choice.  It burns clean and domestic sources are abundant.  The fuel is currently being used in some buses, governmental vehicles and personal vehicles like the Honda Civic GX.  It was just named “greenest vehicle” by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy for the eighth straight year.

About Guy McCardle

Guy McCardle is an American science writer and skeptic. He is a certified Infection Prevention Specialist and served proudly as a Captain in the Army Medical Corps during Operation Iraqi Freedom. A devoted father and husband, he offers his unique viewpoints regarding science and the public interest.
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15 Responses to Electric Cars not Really Green

  1. I was hinting at this in my previous post about what I call the drop-in fallacy – the aim of getting electric cars to do everything that fossil-fuelled cars currently do. We’ve been fortunate to have cars in their current form, and I don’t think they can simply be replaced by equivalent electric cars. There are too many compromises involved for too little gain, IMHO. I’m trying to step back and look at the bigger picture, imagining how the world might look if the availability of energy is drastically curtailed, and hope to post about that soon.

  2. Guy McCardle says:

    I started looking at electric vehicles once I read your post on “the drop in fallacy”. I think our personal transportation will end up being powered by the most efficient, lowest cost technology that our current level of scientific knowledge will allow. When cars broke free from the horse, the internal combustion engine was competing with steam power and electric power. The internal combustion engine “won” for the reasons noted above. Circumstances have simply changed forcing us to look at other alternatives.

    I look forward to reading more of your work.

  3. Craig Good says:

    A good friend of mine has a Tesla. I’ve had a ride. Yes, you do want one.

    I was thinking about this story the other day. Of course all the problems of Lithium mining and toxic waste still apply. I wonder, though, if they were counting carbon from coal (to produce the batteries) as part of that carbon footprint. Because if you got the energy for that from, say, nuclear power the carbon would drop to about zero. Ditto for fueling the car.

    Getting energy into moving vehicles is a tricky problem if hydrocarbons aren’t involved.

  4. Guy McCardle says:

    Not sure if coal was used as a source of energy in making the batteries or not. Personally, I’m all for making use of nuclear power as a way to help reduce the emission of hydrocarbons.

  5. Ramshambo says:

    Just a suggestion, but can you guys source your material at the end of your articles? :)

  6. Guy McCardle says:

    Thanks for the suggestion and thanks for reading the blog. I’ll run it by the boss.

  7. hazza says:

    I have always wondered about the total sums of electric and hybrid cars. You only ever see the hype that they emit less carbon when running. Now I know, thanks.

  8. semiote says:

    I’d be interested in hearing how hybrid vehicles compare to both EVs and traditional petroleum-based vehicles…

  9. EV Guy from Finland says:

    Okay, you’ve concluded that BEV and gas cars are even, when calculating CO2 emissions. Fine. But something is still missing. Something essential. I bet this study you referred to only calculated the tail pipe emissions of a gasoline car and manufacturing the vehicle. It would have been nice to have a link so we could take a look into it.

    It’s quite funny that nobody seems to know exactly how much CO2 is emitted in the process of refining the oil into gasoline and getting it into the pumps. There are only estimates, as oil industry do not want to tell us (wonder why?). And these estimates are not pretty. Just in the process of refining a gallon of gasoline, a lot of energy is consumed and most of it produced by coal. Nissan has said this figure was 7.5kWh and some people say it could be as high as 12kWh per gallon (or even more). But even with the 7.5kWh you could drive some 30 miles with a Leaf for the same amount of energy. Just take a look how much energy the US oil industry uses and you can see these figures are not far from the “inconvenient truth”. Also the logistics needed to get the oil into the pumps consumes lot of energy. Some estimates conclude that it takes equal amount of gasoline just to transport it, effectively doubling the actual emissions of a gasoline car (which contributes to 80-90% of the lifetime emissions of a gasoline car).

    And true, natural gas is a good source of energy for cars, but it won’t address one of the biggest problems with gasoline cars, which is the air pollution, killing thousands of people all over the world, all the time. And a lot of energy is wasted in the process. It would be a lot more energy efficient to burn the gas in power plants, containing the emissions at the same time much, much more efficiently – and then using this energy in EV’s or PHEV’s. I’d love to see a natural gas PHEV with about 50 mile range. It could have the 1/3rd battery size of a BEV, but still enough for more than 80% of the people to drive all electric. Would eliminate the range anxiety and no foreign oil would have to be bought.

    All the assumptions you’ve made about electric cars are based on the current situation and the first generation of electric cars emerging. What about 10-20 years from now? As the car and battery manufacturers start to use clean energy (the change has already begun), the manufacturing process causes little or no emissions. And this would tip the scale very fast for the benefit of EV’s and PHEV’s. There would be no competition.

    There are also some battery types even better suited for the EV’s than Lithium. Maybe not all with the same range as lithium, but with longer lifetime and handles better in the cold weather. For example the EV-95 NiMH battery developed for the EV-1, also used in the Toyota RAV4 EV vehicles. They would be cheaper to manufacture than lithium batteries and nickel is much more abundant than lithium in the world. Too bad we need to wait until 2015 until the patent bought by Chevron is released. The current available NiMH batteries just can’t mach the EV-95 batteries.

    But even now, BEV’s are the ONLY vehicle type that CAN be almost zero emission vehicles during their lifetime.

    Converting a used up gasoline car into a BEV is even more environment friendly. No additional emissions from the manufacturing of the frame. Only the batteries, electric motor and controlling electronics are added. This is the way I’ve personally chosen. This way I can prolong a life of the vehicle (about doubling it), and at the same time cut all the emissions of my vehicle. Sure, my car consumes more (green) kilowatt-hours than Leaf for the same distance, but costs less than half of it’s price, is bigger, faster and has better range (a converted VW Passat with 24kWh batteries).

  10. EV Guy from Finland says:

    Sorry, I was thinking in km’s again.
    “I’d love to see a natural gas PHEV with about 50 mile range” – 30 mile range I was supposed to say, as it’s 50km in our units. So essentially it could be like Chevy Volt / Opel Ampera, but instead of gasoline generator, it could have a range extender motor running with natural gas. Now that could please a lot of people.

  11. hmmskeptic says:

    Natural gas production is an environmentally disgusting mix of poisonous gas, explosive vapors, detestable practices and big energy. I know this because I work in the field. Billions of gallons of toxic fluids pumped in the earth, then returned to toxic evaporation pits. Used “garbage” water pumped into injection wells deep in the ground and considered sequestered. Heavy metal contamination of ground water. H2S gas pumped into the air in small communities across America. Natural gas is NOT green, it is not a better alternative to oil, it is simply the next big thing. Its not all about automobile emissions people, you have to consider how much energy and emissions it takes to create any other form of energy. I promise you that your emissions estimates are complete garbage if you take into account the CO2 created on a average frac job. How much CO is generated by 1 twin turbo 550hp Caterpillar motor? Take that multiply it by an average of 20 trucks on an average size frac pad, realize that those 20 trucks will run 24 hours a day 7 days per week for roughly a month before they move to the next location. If you are interested google things like H2S gas, hydraulic fracturing, production water, frac tank, well stimulation, flowback water, perforation and well logging. I see the dead birds, rodents, and insects daily. I know what H2S smells like. I know how it feels to come home after a shift with my eyes aching, lungs burning, skin tingling from the unavoidable chemical exposure. Do not for one moment believe anyone who tells you that Natural Gas is environmentally responsible.

  12. hmmskeptic says:

    Sorry, didn’t mean to offend anyone, I just get so frustrated when people start worrying about their automobile exhaust. I understant that a lot of little makes a lot, but big energy is trying to make you feel like its your fault. They could make huge impacts on the true carbon footprint of any energy resource, if we would require it of them, but we don’t because they have us all worrying about our itty-bitty little ole carbon footprint while we stand in the shadow of their global bootprint. How many billions in profit are we going to allow them to make before we insist on TRUE environmental controls, and cap their ability to pass those expenses on to the consumer? LET BIG ENERGY TAKE IT OUT OF THEIR PROFITS. It can be done, but it won’t be done until we make them do it. “They” being the energy companies “We” being you and me and those we have elected to represents US not the energy interests.

  13. hmmskeptic says:

    There is no such thing as a zero emissions vehicle. Remember that cow flatulence contributes to global warming. That being said even your horse and carriage has a footprint. Maybe instead of fretting about carbon footprint we need to consider humanities overall footprint, start thinking seriously about global population control. Not to advocate genocide or other forms of violence, but to limit births, very touchy subject I know, but there are 7 billion people on a planet designed to support less than half that number. This is possible in large part because of energy production, things are now possible that 200 years ago were unthinkable. Huge workforces are no longer necessary, what used to take hundreds of men a decade to accomplish 10 men can do in a month. I am not advocating selectively sterilizing any particular group, but instead broadly rendering a percentage of the entire global population unable to reproduce. Do it by a lottery if necessary, but do something, now before its too late. I am not willing to euthanize the elderly, deny life saving healthcare, stop vaccinating (although I am 100% against the practice) or any other means of shortening lifespan I think it is morally reprehensible to even consider such an idea. I realize there may be those who would say that it is unfair to take the joy out of a young persons life that it is to have a child of their own. I say that unless we do something soon we will have parents watching their children die before their eyes. I realize this is somewhat off topic, but is it really?
    This have your cake and eat it too mentality that we (especially Americans) have is going to wipe us off the planet. I want to have a car that runs on air, a job I love, a beautiful wife and many children, and I want everything I want for everyone else as well! Sorry it just can’t work that way, at least not yet. If we learn to be responsible in our reproduction, then we can have our cake and eat it too. As an aside maybe limiting peoples ability to have children or at least the number of children will create a new precious commodity, the life of a child.

  14. ChrisR says:

    Keep in mind the perhaps biggest advantage off all, the one that ONLY the fully electric cars have: ZERO local emissions! If you have ever been in a large city you know what local emissions are. An electric car does not contribute to this at all, and the exhaust (if applicable) can be cleaned at one single point. The EV also has the advantage that it can be run on clean energy (It seems nuclear power counts as clean, although it has other drawbacks) or renewable energy. ICE vehicles don’t even have that option.

  15. Peter Fenwick says:

    I found this blog while searching for information on the relative efficiencies of electric cars vs conventionally powered ones. I wonder if Guy’s views have changed over the last couple of years? My issue with much of this is that it assumes that battery technology is not moving, when in reality it is and fast. People buying into electric now provide an economic basis for companies to continue development and so improve the technology. The key advantage with electric cars as far as I can see is that as time goes by we will develop less polluting forms of electricity generation, which will mean that electric cars become less polluting. Electric cars also remove polution from city centres and move it to industrial sites which improves local pollution issues. It is also far easier to deal with emissions from a single source such as a power plant that thousands of car exhausts. Should carbon capture prove viable this would be far easier to fit to a power station stack than everyone’s exhaust. Peak Lithium? Well perhaps the technology will move on in the future? Who knows.

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