Are Electric Cars Really Better For The World?
When you create a solution to a problem, sometimes you create new problems. You cannot just ignore it, because it can quickly blow up. That seems to be the case with electric cars or EV (Electric Vehicles). There are about 16 Million+ electric cars on the road as of 2021, all around the world. It has not yet reached a critical mass adoption phase, as consumers are still buying traditional gas vehicles. Some countries, like the US, propose having half of all cars produced in 2030 to be electric.
There is a shift in the auto industry from ICE to EV, but in a gradual process that involves reduction of carbon emissions with tax incentives to automakers. The purpose of electric cars, is after all, to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from gasoline vehicles, decrease pollution that cause health hazards and to reduce the carbon footprint from fossil fuels with an all electric vehicle. Are we really reducing carbon emissions and the use of fossil fuels with electric cars?
There are challenges that need to be addressed regarding solving these problems. It is nice to know that zero emission electric cars are “saving the environment”, from a conservationist perspective. Yet, it creates newer problems which will be discussed.
Energy Requires Energy
Let’s begin with the very first issue, and it is not apparent at the moment. In order to charge electric cars, you need a consistent and stable energy source. The idea to be able to charge your car is just like with smartphones and laptop computers. Charging replaces gasoline for car owners, so it leads to reduction in travel costs. A typical commuting worker who drives to 30 miles to work is spending a lot of money on gas. An electric car helps to reduce those costs, since it runs on electricity from a battery pack.
The issue here is that when you have more and more electric cars on the road, you will need a charging system that can handle the load. If most cars by 2030 in the US or 2035 in the state of California will be electric, this will add more pressure on the power grid in terms of energy production. Instead of lowering the amount of energy being consumed, we are actually increasing it because of electric cars.
According to the US EPA:
Electric vehicles typically have a smaller carbon footprint than gasoline cars, even when accounting for the electricity used for charging.
The good thing here is if the source of the energy to power electric cars is coming from green energy renewable sources (e.g. solar, wind, etc.). That is possible but those are intermittent and not as energy dense or efficient as fossil fuels. To be able to charge millions of electric cars daily requires energy capacities beyond what renewables can offer at the moment. The only sources that will be able to provide power will be from the grid, which is mostly from natural gas or coal power plants. If that is the case, then it doesn’t solve the problem of reducing carbon emissions or dependency from fossil fuels.
Building Electric Cars Uses Large Carbon Footprint
The US EPA makes the case for electric cars, but what many don’t know is that in order to build electric cars, you need to expend energy. The sources for most of the energy used to make electric cars, come from the same sources for charging electric cars which are fossil fuel power plants (e.g. natural gas, coal, etc.).
If we are to look at the sources of energy in the US, only 12% is coming from renewables. That is not enough to produce the power at scale needed for building electric cars. That is why the main source of power for industries like manufacturing still come from fossil fuels. In the US, petroleum (38%) and natural gas (32%) are the main sources of energy consumed. In other countries, the dependence on fossil fuels is even higher. China, which is a producer of electric cars, uses mainly coal (58%) as their energy source (from EIA report 2019).
Making electric cars is a carbon intensive process (according to NYT report). According to the report:
“As the EV hype gains momentum, battery production and research is powering ahead and sales are growing. That means material emissions are going to rise to more than 60% by 2040 from 18% today, according to consultancy firm McKinsey & Co.”
People just assume electric cars are built and it solves the problem with burning fossil fuels. Yet, the manufacturing process requires fossil fuels. You have to look at the supply chain more closely to understand. It requires the use of fossil fuels to build the electric cars and their batteries, extract the minerals (e.g. lithium, cobalt, aluminum, etc.) used in electric car batteries, ship and transport the materials for manufacturing electric cars.
Battery Production May Not Be Sustainable
There are also plenty of toxic waste produced when building an electric car, coming mainly from their batteries. A problem today is how to dispose of these materials after they have been in use. Wrongly disposing these materials causes environmental harm to biological ecosystems and even human health.
Some of the minerals used to make electric car batteries are considered conflict minerals. This is because they are mined in places where there are existing political conflicts that affect a large group of people. It also helps fund wars in these places and increases the exploitation of the youth to work extracting the minerals with little to no pay.
There are efforts by some companies to resolve some of these problems. One way is to recycle the parts found in electric car batteries. Despite these efforts, the fact remains that electric car batteries are highly toxic and harmful to the environment. More steps need to be taken to assure that they can be sustainable. EV automaker Tesla has also planned changes to its battery design by using nickel instead of cobalt. Nickel is more abundant, has a higher energy density than cobalt and is not a conflict mineral.
Electric cars are not closer in solving the reduction of carbon emissions and consumption of fossil fuels, at the moment. Perhaps automakers can come up with more innovative ways, as is expected once regulators provide specifications to follow. This includes improvements in battery design that is an integral part of electric cars.
In the end it will be how to produce more energy at scale by consuming less fossil fuels. It just does not seem to be that way going into 2030. We might actually not decrease the level of fossil fuel consumption, according to some reports. The world is actually going to increase their consumption. We have renewable energy sources, but are just not at the level to support the demand needed.
There is actually a more energy dense source for power that can help with electric cars. This is through the use of nuclear energy. Nuclear as an alternative energy source to fossil fuels, that can provide more power than renewables. It is also cleaner, but there are considerations for safety and proper operation. Nuclear is not exactly a favorite among environmentalists and activists because of the negative news around it (e.g. Fukushima, 3 Mile Island). Things have changed in the last decades, and nuclear is actually much safer than before. Once we can get past the nuclear paranoia and stigma, perhaps it can be a viable solution to what is needed.