The Battle Over Batteries
By Mitch Henney
Our 21st century world is one of such complexity and sophistication thanks to all of the wonderful technology that has been created. The oil used to drive our technological advancements is the very thing causing, what will likely be, the largest problem we will face. Thankfully, global efforts are underway to reduce our use of fossil fuels. Electric vehicles are one of these many solutions that show promise in helping the journey to avoiding catastrophic climate change. Considering the average personal gasoline car releases about 5 tons of CO2 each year, using vehicles that don’t require gasoline to run seems like a pretty good solution.
We must realize that these vehicles are not perfect and that a much more nuanced approach must be taken when analyzing and speaking about their costs and benefits. Opponents of electric vehicles use these imperfections to try and create a myth that the EV’s are more damaging to the environment than gasoline powered vehicles. That is why it is irresponsible for us to not look at the whole picture of these vehicles impact; so we can find where the truth actually lies.
Clearing the Air
We cannot let the powerful oil companies mislead the public(whats new?). The most common argument being used at the moment, against electric vehicles, is that the emissions generated from manufacturing them outweigh the emissions for producing gasoline vehicles. This argument is 100 percent true. According to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Manufacturing a mid-sized EV with an 84-mile range results in about 15 percent more emissions than manufacturing an equivalent gasoline vehicle”. The increase in emissions is even greater for the vehicles with larger batteries because more material must be mined to create the battery. The methods used to extract key rare earth metals used in all lithium batteries (EV’s use a lithium battery) are very energy demanding and polluting. However, we must look at the emissions during the entire life of both types of vehicles to determine which is the dirtiest. Based on research conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the lifetime emissions of both small and large battery EV’s are over 50 percent less when compared to their gasoline counterparts. Their research suggests that, on average, mid-sized EV’s make up for their initial emissions in just 4,900 miles of gasoline free driving.
Another factor in this subject, that we must pay attention to, is how the electricity fueling these vehicles is generated. Our country’s power grid is divided into 23 separate regions, each of them generates electricity in a variety of ways including coal, oil, nuclear, geothermal, hydro, solar, and wind. The average “fuel economy” EV’s get in the U.S. is 68 mpg. When we look at the Western and Eastern parts of the country it is often much higher, as high as 135mpg in the New York area, and it is the central parts of the country that generate the least fuel economy for their electric cars. Opponents of EV’s point to the regions of the country that produce electricity in the most CO2 emitting way as proof that these vehicles are no better than their gasoline counterparts. The National Bureau of Economic Research released a report suggesting that, because of the differing environmental impact per mile for EV’s across the 23 regions, we should scrap the government subsidy all together. They go on to suggest that a new tax would be the most effective solution, one that is based on per mile of driving and also dependent on environmental impact of the energy used to fuel vehicles, but that the current subsidy should be eliminated immediately. While there is some truth in this analysis, average fuel economy for EV’s in each of the 23 electrical grids are already greater than the fuel economy of the average new gas powered car. Unfortunately, sources like the Washington Examiner and other right-wing leaning media are using the lowest fuel economy regions as a weapon against the entire use of the EV’s. No surprises here.
What these critics are leaving out of their rhetoric is that the entire nation’s electrical grid is transforming into a much cleaner system. From 2012 to 2015, the Union of Concerned Scientists found the percentage of Americans living “in regions where powering an EV on the regional electricity grid produces lower global warming emissions than a 50 MPG gasoline car” increased from 45 to 66 percent. In light of the recent repeal of the Clean Power Plan by the Trump administration, it is unclear whether the cleanup of the power grid will continue. My money’s on that it will and that’s for a very good reason. Market trends are already favoring using energy alternatives to coal. Solar is on track to be cheaper, on average globally, than coal by 2025. Even after Trump foolishly took the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, many states and counties said they would still enact those plans in their regions because they realize that we can’t have business as usual any longer. So in the event Trump provides subsidies to the coal industry, I think we still have a pretty good chance of the grid producing less carbon.
Thinking of the Future
The most important thing to remember about EV’s is that they are an investment. Like any good investment, they cost more upfront but produce more value over their lifetime. Using a short-sighted analysis and manipulating the data to serve a false narrative is often how we get tricked into believing some myths. Thankfully, groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists exist and are collecting all the relevant data to find out if our sleek new technologies are doing the good they claim to be. EV’s are not without their issues, but they are continually getting cleaner and are already providing a cleaner solution to gasoline vehicles.