Electric vehicles make sense in cities, not so much elsewhere

John Muir, naturalist and prominent conservationist, said: “When we try to pick something out on its own, we find it tied to everything else in the universe.”

Larry Von Thun

The same applies to electric vehicles, their operation and, above all, the production of their batteries.

How “green” are electric vehicles? Are they good for the environment? Are they fighting “climate change”?

To answer, you need to know:

  1. What is the real energy source of electric vehicle batteries?
  2. How much energy is used to produce electric vehicles?
  3. Where is their operation particularly good for the environment?
  4. What potential environmental, economic and social effects would result if all combustion engine cars, trucks and construction vehicles were replaced by electric vehicles within the proposed timeframe?
  5. What are the energy expenditures and natural resource costs to produce electric batteries?

Numbers 4 and 5 are topics for another time. For now, I’ll focus on 1, 2, and 3.

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An electric vehicle is as “green” as the fuel source used to generate the electricity needed to charge its battery. In the United States, 86% of electricity production – and therefore used to recharge batteries – is produced from fossil fuels (61%), nuclear energy (19%) and hydroelectricity (6% ), the balance coming from a mix of renewable sources other than hydroelectricity.

The global energy mix is ​​roughly the same, with nuclear and hydro swapping places.

So the claim, made by President Biden and others, that if we just drove electric cars, we wouldn’t need oil and natural gas, is simply not the case. Only in a few countries, such as Albania, Norway, Paraguay and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the electricity grid is entirely or mainly supplied by hydroelectricity, would the operation of electric vehicles be truly green”.

According to the World Economic Forum, the production of an electric vehicle contributes on average twice as much to the “global warming potential” and consumes twice as much energy as that used to produce an internal combustion engine car. The reason is the battery.

A 1,000 pound electric vehicle battery contains 25 pounds of lithium, 60 pounds of nickel, 44 pounds of manganese, 30 pounds of cobalt, and 200 pounds of copper. A Tesla Model S battery weighs 1,200 pounds. The battery in a GMC Electric Hummer weighs nearly 3,000 pounds.

To obtain these metals for a 1,000 pound battery requires 25,000 pounds of brine for lithium, 30,000 pounds of ore for cobalt, 5,000 pounds for nickel, and 25,000 pounds for copper. These are mined from a total of 500,000 pounds of rock and earth that must be excavated and processed for a battery.

Cobalt and lithium mining comes with supply and health issues. One country alone, the DRC, holds 70% of the world’s cobalt reserves, and one of the DRC’s big customers is China. Breathing dust from either element can be harmful.

So what are the benefits of electric vehicles?

The main benefit is environmental. Their use avoids the emission of air pollutants from fossil fuel gasoline engines — a benefit that is most evident in urban areas. Their use in cities can greatly improve air quality by reducing air pollution from internal combustion engines.

This is the use case for electric vehicles that should be emphasized to better protect the environment. On a per-car basis, producing the smaller batteries needed for short-distance city driving also creates a much lower environmental impact. Smaller electric batteries can be recharged in homes and workplaces, using less expensive charging stations and without the need for improved power grids.

Federal infrastructure bill passed in late 2021 proposes using $7.5 billion for rural charging stations and “strategically deploying (electric vehicle) charging stations to build a national grid along the highway network of our country” instead of concentrating their deployment in metropolitan areas, where they do the most good.

The new law also plans to spend $65 billion on charging stations along highways across the country. This plan is flawed for several reasons.

First, Level 3 charging stations, needed to charge electric vehicles traveling on highways, cost 50 to 100 times more than Level 2 stations at home and in the workplace.

Second, there will be less demand for electric vehicles in rural areas and less justification for switching to electricity to reduce air pollution in rural areas.

Third, electric vehicle batteries for long-range highways and rural operations would be much larger and much more expensive.

And finally, the number of electric vehicles will still be limited for several years, especially in areas where their use is less advantageous for potential buyers.

For these reasons, the focus on expanding access to electric vehicles for rural and road travel to “compensate” for underserved areas is prohibitively expensive and inconsistent with the real need and benefits of electric vehicles.

Focusing on the development, production and use of electric vehicles for use in urban environments makes perfect sense and would help avoid the potential social, economic and political problems one would face when trying to replace all existing vehicles. by electric vehicles.


Larry Von Thun lives in Lakewood.


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