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Electric Cars not Really Green

by Guy McCardle

June 17, 2011

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Donate 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.

by Guy McCardle

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