Several issues have come to light recently that call into question the environmental benefits of electric vehicles. It’s all got to do with how EVs are manufactured and recycled, as well as how the electricity they use gets generated. These are issues that will not be resolved easily.
A recent report commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency on the life-cycle analysis of lithium-ion batteries finds they can lead to “resource depletion, global warming, ecological toxicity and human health impacts.” Whew! It goes on to say that the nickel and cobalt cathodes used in li-ion batteries “may cause adverse respiratory, pulmonary and neurological effects in those exposed.” Doesn’t sound very green to me.
The EPA report, titled “Application of Life-Cycle Assessment to Nanoscale Technology: Lithium-ion Batteries for Electric Vehicles,” adds the cathode issue could be solved using nano technology, but the energy required to manufacture those cathodes currently is prohibitive.
Another EV study that came out this year, “Comparative Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Conventional and Electric Vehicles,” published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology by Yale University, says the carbon footprint of EVs could be “indistinguishable from those of a diesel vehicle” depending on how far they are driven and where they get electricity.
The key to these two studies is they look at the life-cycle energy use of EVs. That means they calculate all the energy needed to manufacture the vehicles, plus the amount and sources of energy used in operation and the energy needed to recycle them. Unlike some auto makers who advertise their EVs are zero-emissions vehicles (are you listening Nissan?), these studies show EVs are anything but emissions free.
For example, in France, which generates most of its electricity from nuclear power, an EV may generate only 15 g of carbon dioxide per kilometer. Very clean! But right across the border, the predominantly coal- and natural gas-powered grid in Germany means an EV will generate 100 to 120 g of CO2 per km. Ironically, the European Union wants gasoline and diesel cars to achieve 95 g CO2 per km by 2020. But EVs are exempt from this regulation because it classifies them as, you guessed it, “zero-emissions vehicles.”
The story actually gets worse in China, which generates 85% of its electricity from coal. Two separate studies, one from the University of Tennessee, the other from Yale and Xinghua Universities show China’s already miserable levels of urban air pollution will only get worse if Chinese consumers embrace electric cars. I guess we should be glad EVs are not selling well there, or anywhere.
Except that I’m not glad. I love driving EVs. And I especially love how they reduce noise pollution. The problem is the entire EV industry and infrastructure is being pushed by government mandates and subsidies, not by natural market demand.
That tells me the current market for electric-powered vehicles is not sustainable. And as the studies above show, they are not environmentally sustainable either. At least not yet.
John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit, and “Autoline Daily,” the online video newscast.