The All-Electric Car is just a Piece of the Environmental Puzzle
Buying one won’t necessarily save the planet
Time for a new car. You want a sleek, fast, luxurious, environmentally friendly vehicle that has room for your friends. You’re a good person, so you want an emission-less vehicle to combat the ever-growing problem of global warming. An electric vehicle means you will never have to endure the bothersome process of smogging your car. You’re saving the world from global warming, right? Not quite.
Buying a brand new Nissan Leaf, practical Toyota Prius, or shiny Tesla Model S doesn’t necessarily mean you are saving the environment — or even improving air quality. The real burden of maintaining clean air falls in the hands of your local energy supplier. An electric car is only as clean as the power plant that provides its electricity. With coal as a predominant fuel for power plants in West Virginia, Illinois, Wyoming, Ohio, and North Dakota, electric vehicle owners are doing more damage to the earth than drivers who own cars powered with traditional gasoline. In a study done by the National Academy of Sciences, electric vehicles powered from coal plants cause 3.6 times more global soot and smog deaths per year than gasoline due to air pollution caused by generating the electricity.
39% of electricity generated in the United States is from coal-fired power plants, according to the Department of Energy.
In the United States, if the power supply comes from natural gas, the all-electric car produces half as many air pollution health problems as gas-powered cars do. And if the power comes from wind, water or wave energy, it produces about one-quarter of the air pollution deaths.
On average, electric vehicles are more harmful to the environment during initial production than gasoline cars. Many people aren’t aware of what goes into manufacturing their zero-emission electric vehicles. In fact, one of the worst things consumers can do for air quality is purchase an all-electric vehicle and drive it in a power grid supplied by coal.
The rare earth metals used in the vehicle’s batteries require moving large amounts of earth to mine just a small amount of metal. At the Jiangxi rare metal mine in China, workers fill 8 foot holes with ammonium sulfate to dissolve clay, haul the muck out of the holes and put it through multiple acid baths, finally cooking it in a kiln to get rid of impurities. The rare earth metals left behind are key components in the batteries of electric vehicles. Unfortunately, only .2% of what is removed from the earth is harvested for rare earth metals. The other 99.8%, now contaminated with toxic chemicals, is discarded back into the earth.
Recycling the batteries comes with its own challenges.
It is simply not economically sustainable to recycle the batteries because of the high cost associated with reclaiming such a small amount of rare earth metals. Each Tesla battery pack weighs around 1200 lbs. With very few recycling facilities able to accommodate such a large size, the batteries are shipped overseas where they are dismantled for their rare metals. This requires extreme amounts of energy and carbon output to reclaim a very small amount of material. Shipping the large packs back and forth is wasteful. It would be much more cost efficient for manufacturers if existing recycling facilities were retrofitted to accept the large batteries.
How is Tesla making zero-emissions sexy to the public?
Tesla has an interesting marketing campaign that sets it apart from other car manufacturers. They make their cars very exclusive — you have to put a $5000 deposit down just to test drive one! The unique nature of the car, with impressive features marketed as clean, green technology. Elon Musk is a cofounder of PayPal, CEO of Tesla Motors, CEO/CTO of SpaceX, and Chairman of SolarCity. He is a wildly successful icon for sustainable innovation with improvements in solar infrastructure and transportation. With a net worth of $14 billion, it seems like there is nothing Musk cannot develop for the public. His success is the foundation for his credibility.
Tesla Service centers around the country paint their shop floors bright white in a bold attempt to showcase the lack of dangerous fluids like motor oil and coolant in the car. White is very pleasing to the eye and gives the public a sense of cleanliness. Sleek, futuristic designs with no tailpipe emissions is one of the major selling points of Tesla cars. Another reason that these vehicles are so popular in the U.S. is because much of the resources come from outside the country. The consumer only sees the clean service centers, orderly assembly plants, and the growth of sustainable infrastructure to support these vehicles. Dirty manufacturing processes like mining are done overseas out of the view of the American public. Quantifying the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere during these processes is extremely difficult. Other plants must mine through layers of bedrock that require the use of large industrial machines that pump out large amounts of carbon dioxide.
The public must focus on improving existing energy infrastructure.
It is not all negative, though. There are many long-benefits of electric cars and it is important to understand where the electricity is coming from that powers them. There is hope for the future of electric vehicles as the United States continues to push for greener sources of power. Coal power is slowly being replaced by natural gas, solar, and wind energy. The decarbonization of the energy sector is inevitable and with it, electric vehicles will become cleaner. The sooner the infrastructure improves, the sooner electric vehicles will become more environmentally and economically friendly.