President Biden and many environmentalists are pushing for the Electric Vehicle (EV) to hopefully save the planet. Initially, an electric vehicle sounds like it will be a good replacement for fossil fuel vehicles. But are they really?
Let’s look at the production of an EV. During the production process, an EV releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than does the production of a traditional fossil fuel engine vehicle because the production is more energy-demanding than conventional cars. In fact, the production of an EV is 1.5 times more energy-demanding.
The main component of an EV is the battery. Lithium-ion batteries are now the standard for modern battery electric vehicles. These batteries use raw materials from the earth, which are called “rare earth” elements, including lithium, nickel and cobalt, among others, which only exist under the surface of the earth. These need to be extracted through mining, then refined for use in the batteries. Note that these elements are called “rare earth” for a reason. They are known as “rare” because they are rarely found in a pure form. They need to be mined, which uses energy. More than 85% of the world’s supply of rare-earth metals comes from China, which can easily hold our manufacturing hostage. Our relationship with China is tenuous at best.
Rare earths are found with radioactive elements like thorium and uranium. Toxic chemicals are needed to separate them. It’s a very dirty business. The lithium extraction process uses approximately 500,000 gallons of water per metric ton of lithium. To extract lithium, miners drill a hole in salt flats and pump salty, mineral-rich brine to the surface. After several months the water evaporates, leaving a mixture of manganese, potassium, borax and lithium salts which are then filtered and placed into another evaporation pool. After between 12 and 18 months of this process, the mixture is filtered so that lithium carbonate can be extracted, leaving behind a lake of carcinogenic waste. After the elements are extracted, they are delivered to the production factories, where the energy-intensive process of inserting them into batteries takes place.
This entire battery production process is very energy-intensive because of the water, heat and sterile conditions involved. A large proportion of EV batteries come from China, Japan and South Korea, where electricity generation relies heavily on coal, which adds to the CO2 emissions. According to the most recent report from the IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute, the production of lithium-ion batteries on average releases somewhere between 131-234 pounds of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour battery capacity produced. Does this sound like protecting the environment?
Just how safe is a lithium battery? Electric vehicles have caught fire in collisions or after a hit to the underside of the car, where the battery is located. Even a small amount of damage to the battery can hamper its cooling ability, triggering it to overheat and ignite. Lithium reacts with water — including the moisture in ambient air. Lithium is flammable, and can spontaneously ignite. In June 2018, in West Hollywood, Calif., a Tesla Model S spontaneously caught fire as it was being driven.
Lithium-ion batteries can produce thermal runaway and cell rupture if overheated or overcharged. In some cases, the battery can catch fire. This April, a Tesla caught fire in Woodlands, Texas, after an accident; and the fire department took four hours to put it out, using 30,000 gallons of water.
If you think that the Colonial pipeline closure was a disaster, wait until there is a hurricane, tornado or major power failure and you need to charge your EV. The Northeast blackout in 1965 left 30 million people without electricity. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 affected six states from Florida to New York. The Derecho Blackout in 2012 affected 11 states over 10 days. There were many more major blackouts. If your gasoline car runs out of gas, someone can bring gas to you, but if you are unable to plug in your EV to charge it, no one can bring you an extension cord.
An EV battery is expected to last 10 years, but if you need to replace one, the cost to replace an EV battery will be between $1,000 and $6,000 — determined by the make and model of the vehicle.
Filling up a gas tank for a fossil fuel car might take up to three minutes at a gas station, while recharging the battery of an electric car can sometimes take up to 20 hours to fully charge, depending on the vehicle. Using Level 3 fast-charging stations can diminish batteries’ lifespan. These stations charge the battery up to 80% in 30 minutes. They can also overheat the battery. Carfax warns that this can affect the battery’s long-term performance and longevity. Cadex Electronics claims these batteries can only handle intense charging about 500 times before they experience serious depletion.
There is very little recycling of lithium due to the high recycling costs and low raw material prices. According to Friends of the Earth Europe, only five percent of lithium is being collected in the EU market, while the rest was either incinerated or dumped in landfills, which is harmful to the environment. It is estimated that there will be 11 million tons of spent lithium-ion batteries by 2025 without recycling systems to handle them. It currently costs 75 cents per pound to recycle a battery. Recycling lithium costs five times more than extracting virgin material. Because of this, only 5% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled in Europe.
Will the electric vehicle reduce CO2 and save the environment? I believe that if we think that the electric vehicle will save the planet, we are driving down the wrong road.