On first consideration, it seems that the adopted use of EVs is a no-brainer in terms of their environmental impact and benefits.
With its increased popularity, however, it is time to seriously ask some important questions regarding the environmental cost of EVs – especially their batteries and energy supply sources – in relation to their proposed environmental benefits. To do so, we’re going to look at several articles related to EVs in an effort to answer the tough questions regarding the overall benefits and harms of EVs.
The Benefits of EVs
In an article from the U.S. Department of Energy we find that:
The U.S. used nearly nine billion barrels of petroleum last year, two-thirds of which went towards transportation. Our reliance on petroleum makes us vulnerable to price spikes and supply disruptions. EVs help reduce this threat because almost all U.S. electricity is produced from domestic sources, including coal, nuclear, natural gas, and renewable sources
If we could reduce the amount of dependency on fossil fuels – both domestically and from imports – we could dramatically reduce our carbon footprint thereby increasing the overall health benefits not only to ourselves, but to other species as well. And in terms of exhaust emissions, EVs produce zero pollution. We can even further reduce our carbon footprint by recharging EVs from a renewable energy source such as wind or solar power.
As well, in an article from Ergon Energy (Part of Energy Queensland), we are reminded that overall, EVs are cheaper to operate and maintain than Internal Combustion Vehicles (ICVs). Since people most often “vote with their pocket books” (i.e. their wallets), this option has great appeal to those on a tight budget. For anyone wishing to experience the cost-saving measures of EVs, you can check for yourself on the Fuel Cost Savings Calculator.
Another important benefit of EVs is that they are now being made from recycled materials such as: “…recycled water bottles, plastic bags, old car parts, and even second-hand home appliances.” As well, EVs can improve driver safety due to their lower centre of gravity thus decreasing the risk of roll-over accidents. And, let’s face it: without a gas tank, the likelihood of risk for fires or explosions in collisions with EVs is reduced to zero.
The Tough Questions: Environmental Issues Regarding Electric Vehicles
Front End vs. Back End
By far, the most important question to ask regarding EV development is whether or not the production of EV batteries is more damaging than the benefits gained from limiting the emissions of Internal Combustion Vehicles (ICV’s). In other words, how harmful is it to the environment to develop EV batteries vs. their long-term environmental benefit? We might refer to this as a front end (battery production) vs. a back end (environmental benefit) situation.
In a recent article from Forbes magazine, James Elsmore states that the [front end] cost of extracting rare earth metals to construct EV batteries does leave a significant carbon footprint – especially in countries like China, who have not yet fully adopted American or European manufacturing techniques. This extraction process of metals for batteries “…remains on par or slightly higher than the manufacturing process of petrol or diesel-based engines.” However, it was also found that: “…as EVs become more common and manufacturing becomes more widespread, battery recycling will be more efficient and reduce the need to extract new materials, therefore lessening the reliance on mining and production of new batteries.”
The next very important question to ask is: From what power supply source will EV charging stations derive their energy? The options seem to be limited. We have fossil fuels such as oil and gas, hydroelectric, wind, solar, and nuclear.
Image courtesy of Halton Hills Hydro Inc.
Since wind and solar make up a very small percentage of energy production, we are left to consider hydroelectric and nuclear power.
Currently, nuclear power makes up the majority of energy production in Ontario. Although this is constantly shifting, it is very telling of how we now receive our electricity – which, despite misconceptions, is actually very, very, green. This is encouraging because it means that on the back end of EV use, the reduction of carbon emissions is significant.
Once we consider the back end benefits of EVs, we find that overall, the environmental good produced by such vehicles far outweighs the front end harm both in extracting materials for battery production as well as drawing electrical power from more environmentally-sustainable supply sources.
Electric vehicles as they currently stand are far less polluting than their combustion engine counterparts. As technology becomes more mainstream, it is likely to become even more efficient and sustainable. Economies of scale will benefit EV manufacturing by providing better infrastructure, more efficient manufacturing techniques, recycling options and reducing the need for the mining of new materials.
We can safely conclude then, that overall, EVs are a more sustainable form of transportation and will continue to help reduce carbon emissions for a more sustainable environment well into the future.
For more on green initiatives check out The Electric Blog.