Earth Day 2021 Special: Are Electric Vehicles Really Green?

Electic charging

Are EVs eco-friendly? Maybe the answer is Yes! But plug-in cars still affect the environment somehow.

This article will help you understand the main issues and how they might be addressed.

Many governments and automakers are working on this great cause to pursue technology that will not harm the earth’s environment anymore and to do so, they are promoting electric vehicles.

The EVs will limit oil use and fight climate change.

  • General Motors aims to not sell oil-powered vehicles by 2035 and will pivot its production around battery-powered models.
  • Volvo is trying to move even faster towards green-vehicle technology and aims to introduce an EV lineup by the end of this decade.
  • Volkswagen expects 50% of its US sales to be electric vehicles by 2030.

Almost every automaker is sparing no effort to make the best electric vehicles. Still, as they go mainstream, they face a persistent question: Are these vehicles are as beneficial as advertised? In other words, are they really as green as advertised?

It matters how the electricity is made

Most of the electric cars sold today produce much less planet-warming emissions than most conventional gasoline-powered vehicles.

But the critical point is that:

  • How much fuel was burnt to produce enough electricity that charged these electric cars are running on the roads?

The grids to charge EVs still far away from getting fully clean and eco-friendly. They need to get much greener and cleaner to make the electric vehicles’ vision of truly emission-free a success.

To compare the climate impacts of different vehicles this interactive online tool from the researchers of the MIT can help, who tried to integrate all the relevant factors; the emissions involved in making the cars and in producing gasoline and diesel fuel, how much gas these conventional cars burn, and from where the electricity to charge electric vehicles comes.

Suppose the electric vehicles draw their power from the grids, which are powered by both fossil fuels and renewable energy sources. In that case, we can assume that these vehicles are still greener than conventional gasoline-powered vehicles. Even though EVs contain more intensive and less emissions-free processes because of the batteries, their motors are far more efficient than the traditional combustion engines that run on fuels.

To have an idea, let’s compare three vehicles on how much they produce carbon dioxide per mile:   

  • The new Toyota Camry, which runs on gasoline, produces 385 grams of carbon dioxide per mile
  • Ford’s new F-150 pickup truck, which is not so fuel-efficient, makes 636 grams of carbon dioxide during a one-mile ride.
  • However, the electric Chevrolet Bolt produces only 189 grams of carbon dioxide for every mile its driven.  

But if the Chevrolet Bolt gets power from a grid running on coal, like many grids in the Midwest, the electric vehicles actually be a bit worse than some modern hybrid cars like Toyota Prius, which runs on both gasoline and batteries to boost its mileage. (But Bolt would still beat the fully gasoline-runner Toyota Camry)

“Coal is a critical factor,” said Jeremy Michalek, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “If you’ve got electric cars in Pittsburgh that are being plugged in at night and leading nearby coal plants to burn more coal to charge them, then the environmental benefits would not be as good, and you can even get more air pollution.”

The good news is that many countries are trying to install new cleaner grids for EVs. In the US, hundreds of old coal power plants have been converted into new cleaner grids, which are now powered by wind and solar, apart from natural gas. Researchers have noticed that electric vehicles have gotten cleaner by upgrading the coal grids.

“The reason electric vehicles look like a winning climate solution is that if we can make our power grids zero-pollution, then vehicle emissions drop way, way down,” said Jessika Trancik, an associate professor of energy studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Even the best hybrid vehicles that burn gasoline will always have a baseline of emissions, and they can’t pass that point.” 

“Even the best hybrid vehicles that burn gasoline will always have a baseline of emissions, and they can’t pass that point.” 

Raw materials can be problematic

The production of lithium-ion batteries to run the electric vehicles needs raw materials – like Cobalt, Lithium, and other rare earth elements. These earth metals are directly linked to environmental, child labor, and human rights concerns, as they are not environmentally friendly, especially cobalt, which has been problematic.

Mining cobalt coal yields hazardous residues and wastes that can leach into the environment, and high exposure is noticed in the nearby communities, especially among the kids. Applying heat to the ores and extracting the metals, a process called smelting, can result in the emission of sulfur oxide and many other harmful gases.

The mining of cobalt has its problems. About 70% of the world’s cobalt supply comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a massive proportion in unregulated and uncontrolled mines where laborers, including children, dig these earth metals using only hand tools risking everything with their health and safety, human rights group warns.

The lithium that covers most of the world’s supply is either mined in Australia or from salt flats in the Andean regions of South America, using large amounts of groundwater to pump out the brines, drawing down the water available to native farmers and herders. The water needed to produce batteries is meant that manufacturing EVs is nearly 50% more water-intensive than conventional combustion engines. Minerals and ores of rare earth, concentrated in China, are mostly radioactive and can emit radioactive water and dust.

Talking about cobalt, the automakers and manufacturers are agreed and are committed to eliminate “artisanal” cobalt from their production and say they will make batteries with lesser or no use of cobalt in them. But the technology is still in the developing phase and the prevalence of these mines means these efforts and dedications aren’t realistic, said Mickaël Daudin of Pact, a nonprofit organization that works with mining communities in Africa.

Instead, Mr. Daudin said, manufacturers should consider working side by side with the mines to reduce the environmental and miners’ safety concerns. If companies took measures responsibly, the rise of the electric vehicle would be an excellent chance for the countries like Congo, Daudin said. But if it doesn’t happen, this will put the environment and many lives at risk.   

Recycling could be better

As earlier generations of electric vehicles start to reach the end of their lives, preventing a pileup of spent batteries looms as a challenge.

Lithium-ion batteries have replaced the commonly used lead-acid battery technology because the lithium batteries store more energy in the same space. But while 99% of old batteries are recycled in the United States, the estimated recycling rate for lithium batteries is still about 5%.

 Experts said that the old batteries contain valuable material that can be recycled. But the efficiency depends on which recycling method is used because the process can also harm the main cause, which is a cleaner and greener environment.

“At the moment the percentage of lithium batteries being recycled is too low, but with coming technology and innovation, that’s going to increase,” said Radenka Maric, a professor at the University of Connecticut.

Various automakers, including Nissan and BMW, have started to use the old batteries to power the grid storage. General Motors have mentioned that it has designed its batteries keeping the recycling process in mind. But there is a catch; reusing the lithium-ion batteries requires considerable testing and upgrades to make sure they perform well.

If this is done correctly, though, used vehicle batteries could continue to be used for ten to twelve years or more as backup storage for solar power, researchers at MIT found in a study last year.

“At the moment the percentage of lithium batteries being recycled is too low, but with coming technology and innovation, that’s going to increase,”

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