Going Electric – Understanding the use and production of Electric Vehicles

John Muir, naturalist and noted environmental advocate said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”, and so it is with electric vehicles and especially with the production of their very hefty batteries. 

Just how “Green” are Electric Vehicles (EV), that is: Are they good for the environment? Do they combat “climate change” by using renewable energy? To answer those questions, one needs to know: (1) What is the actual energy source for EV batteries? (2) What are the energy expenditures and natural resource costs in producing the very heavy electric batteries used in Electric Vehicles? (3) What would the potential environmental, economic and social effects related to replacing all combustion engine cars, trucks, construction vehicles with electric vehicles be, if done within the time frames being proposed? (4) And finally, where and how is electric vehicle operation especially good for the environment?

The short answers to each of the first three questions are given below and the fourth on electric vehicle environmental benefits deserves and has its own section:

  1. An electric vehicle is only as “green” as the fuel source used to generate the electricity that charges its battery. The majority (84%) of the electricity in the electricity grids used to charge electric vehicle batteries in the US is produced from fossil fuels and nuclear energy, (64% -natural gas and coal fired power plants and 20%-nuclear plants).  Similarly, in the World the majority of electricity (84%) is produced from coal (34%), natural gas (23%), hydroelectricity (17%) and nuclear energy (10%). In a few countries, (e.g. Albania, Norway, Paraguay, the DRC), the electricity grid is powered by all or mostly hydroelectricity so in those locales electric vehicle operation is truly “green”.
  2. According to the World Economic Forum producing an electric vehicle contributes, on average, twice as much to “global warming potential”1 and uses double the amount of energy than does producing an internal combustion engine (ICE) car, mainly because of the electrical vehicle  battery. A 1000-pound EV battery contains 25 pounds of lithium, 60 pounds of nickel, 44 pounds of manganese, 30 pounds of cobalt, and 200 pounds of copper. (Note: A Tesla Model S battery weighs 1200 lbs., A GMC Hummer battery weighs 9000 lbs.) To get these metals for just one battery requires processing 25,000 pounds of brine for the lithium, 30,000 pounds of ore for the cobalt, 5,000 pounds of ore for the nickel, and 25,000 pounds of ore for copper. In all 250 tons (500,000 lbs.) of rock and soil are excavated and processed for one battery. Even to supply the current limited production of electric vehicle batteries, obtaining the toxic cobalt and lithium is problematic, not only from a resource availability standpoint (The Democratic Republic of the Congo holds 70% of the Cobalt reserves), but also from health, safety and social perspectives.

1 Global Warming Potential is based on model studies that subjectively attribute global warming to CO2 emissions. However, the available empirical evidence (NASA temp. record and CO2 emissions records), for the period 1880 to the present shows that global temperatures do not corelate with CO2.

3. There are now (2022) about 1.5 billion vehicles in the world and roughly just 10 million are electric vehicles (less than 1%). Annual new car production is projected to grow from about 84 million in 2022 to 127 million by 2035 with still only a small percentage projected to be electric battery vehicles (2-4%). To meet the stated/planned objective of zero CO2 emissions by 2050 would mean (1) mass disposal of the stock of still functional gas fueled vehicles, (2) a huge expansion of the production of electric vehicle batteries, and (3) development of non-fossil fuel electric generating capacity to reliably charge the electric batteries. Each of those activities would in turn have enormous adverse social, economic and environmental (e.g. solid waste) consequences. And, paradoxically as noted, this replacement would not directly reduce emissions as the replaced vehicles would have to be charged by the electricity grid. So only if the grid is 100% fueled by renewables would the zero CO2 emissions goal be met and accomplishing that creates another set of environmental and practical dilemmas. 

It should be reasonably clear, from the short explanations above, that the operation of Electric Vehicles does not significantly add or detract to global CO2 emissions.  But the “embedded energy costs”, and thus the associated emissions, from production of an electric vehicle and their batteries exceed those of producing a gas engine vehicle. Therefore, the statements2, claims, and assertions coming from the current administration and other “experts” that “climate change” is being addressed by going to electric vehicles and by the charging stations and electric grid network being funded by the Infrastructure Bill are either disingenuous, promotional hyperbole or are made from a lack of understanding of the actual, true environmental benefits, merits and costs of electrical vehicles (and especially the practicality of a complete transition to electric vehicles). 

2 Per the White House issued statement, “The bill invests $7.5 billion to build out the first-ever national network of EV chargers in the United States and is a critical element in the Biden-Harris Administration’s plan to accelerate the adoption of EVs to address the climate crisis…..”

Electrical Vehicle Benefits

If not a reduction in global CO2 emissions, what are the benefits of electric vehicles? The primary and very important benefit of electric vehicle use is environmental. Their use avoids the air pollutants (NO, N2O, NO2, SO2, particulates, etc.) from the burning of fossil fuels in gasoline engines. Their deployment and operation in densely populated areas can greatly help the air quality by reducing air pollution from Internal Combustion Engines. That is the key aspect of electric vehicles that should be capitalized on because that is where electric vehicles can do the most good.  Smaller batteries with less environmental impact from their production are required for the lesser range, local driving within cities and metropolitan areas. Further the electric batteries can be charged in homes or at work places using less costly charging stations and without the need for enhanced electrical grids. 

Rather than focusing on the metropolitan areas for deployment of electrical vehicles, where the most good can be done by any government assistance, the recently passed Infrastructure Bill proposes to use the $7.5 billion fund for charging stations in rural areas and to “strategically deploy EV charging stations to build out a national network along our nation’s highway system.” And to spend $65 billion on upgrading the electrical grid to ensure that these charging stations along our nation’s highways are functional.  This plan is flawed. (1) The Level 3 more rapid charging stations, which would be required to charge EV’s traveling highways, cost 50 to 100 times more than the Level 2 stations in use in homes and work places. (2) Electric vehicles are not as practical in rural areas and are more costly to buy and operate and thus less likely to be purchased by rural residents. The rural demand for electric vehicles will be less, and the need/rationale to go electric reduce air pollution is less. Thus, the need for charging stations in rural areas is lesser. (3) The batteries needed to operate the longer ranges associated with highway / rural travel would be much larger and much more expensive. And (4) As noted above the number of electric vehicles will still be relatively limited for a number of years especially in the areas where their use is less advantageous to the potential buyers.  Thus, while the Infrastructure Bill focus on expansion of electric vehicle access for rural and highway travel is proposed to broaden the scope of electric vehicle travel and make up for underserved areas, it is inconsistent with the actual need and benefit associated with electrical vehicles.          

Focusing on the development, production and use of electric vehicles and their batteries for use in metropolitan area settings makes a lot of sense and would help avoid the potential social, economic and political problems that would be confronted in trying to replace all existing vehicles with electric engines.

Social, Political and Environmental Aspects associated with transitioning to Electric Vehicles

The production of electric vehicles and their batteries is just in its formative stage. From 2010 to 2019 approximately 5 million electric vehicles were produced and currently 2-3 million new electric vehicles are being produced each year, making up about 3% of new car sales worldwide. While that proportion is projected to increase rapidly (to 10% by 2025 and 28% by 2030) it is relatively astonishing and disconcerting to observe the environmental and social problems, even at the current low level of 3% of all new cars, that are associated with the mining for the metals used in electric vehicle batteries.  The “metals in batteries … are scarce, expensive, or problematic because their mining carries harsh environmental and social costs”.3  Here are two situations that elucidate this assessment and expose a couple of the environmental and social concerns associated with obtaining the raw materials required for the making the currently used lithium-ion electric vehicle battery.

  1. About two-thirds of all the cobalt used for production of electric vehicle batteries currently comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). About 20%-35% of the cobalt supplied by the DRC comes from “artisanal” mining by families (fathers, mothers and children) who extract the toxic cobalt near surface, without protective equipment. Steps are being discussed to improve the situation for the 100,000 to 200,000 people whose livelihoods are derived from this “informal” gathering of cobalt but there is considerable visual documentation (e.g. in articles and u-tube videos) that shows the primitive “cobalt mining” and unhealthy conditions that constitute this “artisanal” mining of cobalt for electric vehicle batteries by the people in the DRC is ongoing. These families are literally scratching out a living (reported avg. daily earnings of about $2-3) in support of electric vehicle battery production.
  2. In the parched Atacama Desert of Chile about 34% of the lithium currently being used worldwide for electric vehicle batteries is produced. Enormous quantities of water are required to produce useable lithium. The water is used to form a subsurface lithium / water brine that is then pumped to the surface where the water evaporates. As noted above, the 25 lbs. of lithium required for a 1000-pound electric vehicle battery requires 25,000 lbs. of water to process it. Water is of course a precious commodity in this desert environment and its use to process the lithium (using nearly 65% of the water in the Salar de Atacama region) makes freshwater less accessible to the surrounding eighteen indigenous Atacameno communities.4 

What is particularly striking about these accounts is that the projections for increased needs for the electric vehicle battery production are huge (the IEA forecasts a 42 times increased need for lithium by 2040 over the 2020 output) and a similar increase in cobalt would be required. Reflecting on the problematic/strained status of environmental and social conditions in producing the “relatively minimal” 2020 supplies of the minerals required for electric vehicle battery production gives one great pause.

3 Electric cars and batteries: how will the world produce enough? Nature.com August 17,2021

4 “The rush to ‘go electric’ comes with a hidden cost: destructive lithium mining” by Thea Riofrancos in, The Guardian,  June 14, 2021

Summary

Electric vehicle operation, especially in densely populated areas, provides a huge environmental benefit to improvement of and maintenance of good air quality. The focus of expanding electric vehicle acquisition and use (as well as any government subsidy or assistance) should be directed towards electrical vehicle use in large metropolitan areas. Electric vehicle operation in cities is advantageous because of the shorter driving distances involved which in turn means smaller batteries are required and charging is more convenient.  Because electric vehicle batteries operate off the local / existing electrical grid by which they are charged, electric vehicles do not per se affect “climate change” via reducing global/regional carbon dioxide emissions. This is because the electrical grid is powered by whatever the local electrical power generating fuel is and at present that fuel is predominately fossil fuels. 

The extraction and processing of lithium and cobalt required for the current lithium-ion batteries, currently being produced for electric vehicles, is socially and environmentally problematic and is somewhat taxing the available resources even for the relatively small number of electric cars being produced currently (about 3% of new cars). Expansion of electric vehicle battery production to the levels currently being projected would seem to be much greater than is realistic. Further the social, economic and environmental aspects associated with the disposition / replacement of the tremendous numbers of gas engine vehicles is mind boggling. There are currently 1 billion 400 million gas engine vehicles operating world-wide, and on average over 100 million more per year will be produced from now till 2035. If according to current goals emissions are to be reduced by 50% by 2040 and 100% by 2050, replacement of the entire planets gas engine fleet by 2050 is not even close to being practical or equitable.

Finally, the typical discussion and projection of the transitioning to electric vehicles in the name of “emissions reduction” does not recognize that in the US, currently, 28% of greenhouse gas emissions are from transportation and 27% from electricity (industry, commercial/residential and agriculture contribute the rest). If the transportation sector converts from gas to all electric battery operation, then ostensibly the electricity sector would have to increase its capacity (and associated fuel usage) enough to supply the energy now used by transportation, so in rough terms the electricity sector would then contribute 50+% of the greenhouse gas emissions. The electric vehicles themselves do not cut global CO2 emissions.    

Larry Von Thun, Civil Engineer, Lakewood, Colorado

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