Electric Vehicles and Sustainability
Electric Vehicles (EV) have become a catch-all solution for allegedly saving the planet from climate change. Buyers of Hybrid Electric (HEV) and Plug-In Hybrid vehicles (PHEV) are looking to fend off the ever-rising prices of gasoline with a fuel-efficient alternative. Those who are purchasing all-electric vehicles (BEV) are looking to step away from gasoline consumption all together. All of these consumers are also hoping to help stem the tide of climate change and reduce the degradation of the environment. But are we being sold a bill of goods?
The Difference Between Hybrid and All-Electric
Hybrid cars, trucks, and SUVs use an electric motor powered by a rechargeable battery pack as well as a gasoline-powered engine. The combustion engine kicks in to provide extra torque at higher speeds. A Plug-In Hybrid can be propelled by the electric motor alone to run around town and the gasoline engine takes away any “range anxiety” that early adapters might find with all-electric cars.
All-electric cars, as the name implies, do not have gasoline-powered engines, relying on lithium-ion battery packs alone as fuel. While all-electric vehicles may have lower maintenance costs due to the fact that there are fewer moving parts and fewer things to go wrong, high voltage systems may be more expensive to repair. Replacing the battery pack can cost thousands of dollars.
Hybrid and all-electric vehicles are also packed with complex components and the latest infotainment and driver assist technology. Repairs to battery packs, electric motors, inverters, and cooling systems are very costly.
The Problem with EV Batteries
The International Energy Agency (IEA) tells us that an electric vehicle requires six times the mineral inputs of a gasoline-powered vehicle. EV battery packs are made with materials that are expensive, and in some cases, toxic and flammable. Primary materials include lithium, nickel, cobalt, and copper. The mining of these rare materials, their manufacturing processes, and their eventual disposal all pose very real environmental challenges.
While 90 percent of average gasoline-powered vehicle batteries are recycled, only five percent of EV lithium-ion batteries are recycled. And while oil is exclusively mined from underground in specific areas, the components for lithium-ion batteries are obtained through open pit mining that damages wide areas of the natural environment. Let’s look at how these battery materials are collected.
Nickel is a major component of EV batteries, and it is found in the Rainforests of Indonesia. It resides just below the topsoil and is extracted using a method of horizontal surface mining. The negative results include removal of topsoil, extreme environmental degradation, and deforestation. We’re not really saving the planet with this process since the Rainforests are the lungs of our planet, removing Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere.
Lithium mining is also a major culprit. Over half of the world’s lithium is found in Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina, known as the “Lithium Triangle.” The Institute for Energy Research tells us that lithium is found in salt flats in arid areas and the material has to be mined from under these salt flats. Lithium extraction can take 18 months through an evaporation process that uses enormous amounts of water. Each ton of refined lithium uses up 500,000 gallons of water. The results deplete the water table and causes soil contamination.
Another major component of EV batteries is cobalt and 70 percent of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While cobalt mining has a similar negative impact on the environment as lithium mining, add to this a list of severe human rights violations for hazardous working conditions and child labor. You see, cobalt is a toxic metal. Prolonged exposure and inhalation of cobalt dust can lead to health issues to skin, eyes, and lungs.
Cobalt mining in the Congo involves workers of all ages. Of the 255,000 current workers, over 40,000 are children, some as young as six-years-old. According to Amnesty International, “Thousands of children mine cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Despite the potentially fatal health effects of prolonged exposure, adult and child miners work without even the most basic protective equipment.” The majority of these mines are owned by Chinese companies.
Copper is also used in EV batteries and most of it comes from open-pit strip mines in Chile. This sort of mining negatively impacts topsoil, vegetation, wildlife habitats, and groundwater.
The Impact of Lithium-Ion Batteries
According to HIS Markit, in the year 2000, nine percent of lithium produced was used for EV batteries. By 2020, this share rose to 66 percent. It will reach over 90 percent by 2030. An electric vehicle such as a Tesla Model S contains 63kg of lithium.
As mentioned earlier, lithium mining uses a lot of water. Mining companies in Chile’s Salar de Atacama, one of the driest places on Earth, use 65 percent of the region’s water. Plus, the process of lithium mining uses toxic chemicals which can contaminate streams, crops, and wildlife including the decline of endangered species such as flamingos.
Lithium mining also creates what researchers call “the colonial shadow of green electromobility.” Which is the impact that lithium mining has on the local environment and inhabitants in Latin America. The assertion indicates that lithium mining replicates the historical inequities between the Northern and Southern hemispheres in regard to impacting indigenous Andean territories.
What Can Be Done?
Efforts are underway by two companies to create “green lithium mining” which uses naturally occurring, renewable geothermal energy to power lithium extraction. Australian startup Vulcan and Cornish Lithium of the United Kingdom use geothermal waters to produce zero-carbon electricity as well as heat to power lithium extraction.
As the push for an all-EV future drives the production of batteries out of sight, the challenge is to make the component ingredients sustainable. We must also create ways to reuse and recycle old battery packs in ways that will not negatively impact the planet. But will we be too late to change the tide of climate change?
The Downside of EV Charging
The adoption of all-electric vehicles is happening all around the world, but experts say it is happening too slow to prevent the worst of climate change. The problem is not related to consumers buying EVs, but rather to the slow roll-out of infrastructure to support charging.
According to a recent study, the current rate of EV adoption will not have a noticeable impact on climate change. In order for the benefits to become visible, we’ll need to step up the number of charging stations that are available to consumers.
Eric Hannon, partner in McKinsey's Center for Future Mobility and co-author of Mobility's Net-Zero Transition: A Look at Opportunities and Risks tells us, “How we get there is not written in stone. Frankly, we're moving too slow. We aren't on a trajectory that gets us there yet.”
Hannon explains that in Europe, over 10,000 chargers per week would need to be added in order for the 2030 climate targets to be achieved. If carbon emissions don’t start declining by 2025, then according to his research, EVs’ impact on climate change won’t be enough to keep the temperature rise to under 1.5 degrees this century.
Currently, all-electric vehicles make up eight percent of new car sales in Europe, while the sale of Hybrids, Plug-in Hybrids, and Electric Vehicles in America has reached ten percent. Hannon has concluded that while a lot of people recognize the problem of climate change and are prepared to go electric, “If we wait 10 years or 15 years to start thinking about this and start acting in earnest, it’s too late.”