Rethinking Electric Cars

While battery-electric (BEV) vehicles may help reduce atmospheric greenhouse (GHG) gases, their production damages the environment in other ways, including water pollution.  Furthermore, BEV production is so energy-intensive that, on a lifecycle basis, they produce almost as much carbon emissions as traditional internal combustion (ICE) vehicles.

The lithium-ion battery in an Audi e-Tron weighs 1,500 pounds, making this “green” vehicle heavier than a Dodge Ram pickup truck.  The same goes for Tesla.  Upscale electric cars are monstrously heavy, with minimum 1,000-pound battery packs.  It’s easy to see how this extra weight must entail extra mining, milling, and manufacturing.

More plebeian vehicles, like the Chevy Bolt, still carry 400 pounds of battery.  Depending on the battery type, this might include 10-15 pounds of lithium, similar amounts of cobalt and manganese, and maybe 100 pounds of aluminum.  These elements all come from nasty, toxic, open-pit mines in places like Mongolia, Chile, and the Congo.

“In Chile’s Atacama salt flats, mining consumes, contaminates and diverts scarce water resources away from local communities”

Sixty percent of the world’s cobalt comes from “artisanal” mines in the Congo.  That’s a fancy way of saying that African children dig for it in the mud.  If you don’t believe me, believe the photos from Amnesty and the UN.  The Katanga region has been named one of the world’s ten most polluted areas.  As one Twitter wag put it, “electric cars transfer pollution to poor communities and sanctimony to rich ones.”

Lithium is produced either by mining or from brine evaporation.  The latter process is cheap and effective, but uses roughly 500,000 gallons of water per ton of lithium.  This has been a problem for local farmers in Chile.  Apart from direct water consumption, both processes have the potential to leak toxic chemicals into the water supply.

Lithium production has been growing rapidly to meet the demand for electric vehicles, and now stands at 100,000 tons per year.  Demand forecasts to 2030 range from 2 to 3 million tons – that is, 20 to 30 times current production capacity.

The mine at Thacker Pass in Nevada sheds some light on the economics.  Lithium recently hit a record $71,000 per ton.  Producing one ton of lithium entails strip mining 500 tons of earth, and Thacker Pass has the potential to produce 60,000 tons of lithium per year.

You may think that we have no choice but to despoil the planet in search of battery metals, because climate change is the greater threat.  Consider, though, how much diesel fuel is burned by all of these mining operations.  On a lifecycle basis, electric vehicles barely improve upon the GHG emissions of a traditional ICE vehicle.

“We estimate the GWP from EV production to be 87 to 95 grams carbon dioxide equivalent per kilometer (g CO2-eq/km), which is roughly twice the 43 g CO2-eq/km associated with ICEV production”

An electric vehicle begins its service life with roughly double the carbon footprint of an ICE vehicle.  Thereafter, it will produce less GHG depending on the local power source.  As of this writing, 60% of electricity in the U.S. is generated from fossil fuels.

Lifecycle emissions for the BEV break even with the ICE vehicle around 80,000 miles of use.  Here is a recent research note placing the breakeven point at 124,000 miles, and here is an ambitious study which calculates the total global warming potential (GWP) along with other forms of ecological damage.

Below is the chart from the study.  You can see that the various electric vehicles improve slightly on ICE vehicles for GWP, but look at those other metrics!

In case you don’t have the legend in front of you, those four metrics where the electric vehicles far exceed ICE vehicles are:

  • Human toxicity
  • Freshwater eco-toxicity
  • Freshwater eutrophication
  • Mineral resource depletion

It’s the water pollution that bothers me.  Water scarcity is one of the principal threats from global warming, already a clear and present danger, and yet here we are polluting tons of it to make batteries.

The great hope here is recycling.  To the extent that minerals can be reclaimed from batteries at the end of their service life, this could reduce demand for new mining.  Unfortunately, current capabilities for recycling are not great.  They have low yields, and they’re energy-intensive.

So, it’s that catch-22 again, where we burn a load of fossil fuel to recycle our “green” batteries.  If car makers really had faith in recycling, they would not be pressing the government to relax environmental protections around lithium, cobalt, and nickel mining.

The tragedy is that ICE vehicles were making good progress toward the fabled circular economy.  When I worked for BMW, there was a goal to make cars 95% recyclable.  Our engineers designed everything to be removed, refurbished, and recycled into new cars.  If someone ever figures out “net zero” recycling, I’m sure it will be BMW, but meanwhile we are facing a growing pile of battery waste.

I have kept this post short by focusing only on the ecological dangers of battery-electric vehicles, and overlooking other challenges, like grid capacity.  Nor have I discussed alternatives, of which there are many.  There are social solutions, like mass transit and remote work, as well as engineering solutions.

“Electrification is a technology chosen by politicians, not by industry.”

In this interview, Carlos Tavares alludes to EV hybrids.  Other solutions, like fuel cells and hydrogen combustion, have received a fraction of the attention and investment given to electric vehicles.  As Tavares says, this is a result of politicians’ need to be seen taking action, even if that action is ill-advised.

With mandates in one hand, and billions of incentive money in the other, politicians are stampeding the industry toward their chosen technology.  This is not the right way to stimulate innovation.  Regulators should specify a carbon-emissions target, taking the full lifecycle into account, and then allow industry R&D to find the best solution.