Last year I was running an event someone was speaking about electric cars. Following the event I got a very critical email from someone detailing why electric vehicles (EV’s) are not good and we should not encourage them. They are not alone, the anti-EV movement is strong, but do they have a point?
The first point of contention is batteries. You need to mine lithium, cobalt or nickel (or a combination) to make batteries and everyone makes theirs slightly different. There is a cost to this in terms of emissions and wider issues like land grabs, child labour, water pollution etc. This is known. Most EV companies are working on this and, like them or loathe them, Tesla are regarded as one of the best in this area. Both in technology and working practises. The point is fair, batteries are hard to make at present and do put the manufacturing cost of an EV (Both £ and carbon emissions) above that of a conventional car.
However, the majority of vehicle emissions are not in manufacturing, they are in using it. If you take the entire life of a vehicle into account then EV outstrips conventional by a very long way. It’s not close. Numbers vary, as EV’s run on electricity and electricity is produced in different ways in different countries so everyone has their own payback period. I live in Scotland where our grid is one of the cleanest in the world so it would be faster than somewhere like Germany who use coal still. An EV in Scotland would probably be more efficient than a petrol car after about six months, even accounting for the higher production cost as the running is so much lower. Obviously the longer you keep the car, the more efficient it becomes. It’s not perfect but it is improving and all new technology is fairly intensive and inefficient to start out.
You can see the pictures from Carbon Brief who explain this. You can never reduce petrol emissions, however electric emissions are going down and will likely continue so even a marginal EV today will be worthwhile long term as the electricity grid gets cleaner. In 2019 the lifecycle emission of an EV were 3x lower than a conventional car.
The Carbon Brief Graph also shows that the best performing conventional car (Toyota Prius) doesn’t win out over even the worst performing EV. This is a great study and really looks into all aspects. Commonly you find people say battery production is high but ignore the fossil fuel and rare earth mining that also happens in conventional cars. This looks at the overall fuel cycle which includes production.
One thing that people don’t look at enough is the end of life. Many claim that batteries die and then are thrown away to pollute and leach into the world. Some likely are. More and more are being reused though. A battery than can move a 2 tonne car around 300 miles is a powerful thing. Even when it becomes less efficient it is still useable and companies are now taking them out of “old” cars and putting them in homes with renewables. Sometimes we make too much renewable energy and can’t store it, an old EV battery is an ideal storage unit in a home and can save a lot of energy. Even if the battery was ludicrously poor, say 10% that is 30 miles worth of charge for a car. Think how many times you can boil the kettle or run the toaster on that if you had only saved some renewable energy? EV’s are already used for this, the National Grid likes people to plug cars in overnight so they can dump excess energy into cars to balance the grid as we still have thousands of wind turbines running at night making energy that needs to go somewhere.
Some people like to go for the tyres and say EV’s are worse and wear down faster causing microplastic pollution. This is untrue. EV’s have faster acceleration and wheelspin will erode tyres (think how often a F1 car changes tyres). Your tyres don’t know they are on an EV, it’s the same tyres and the same weight of car. If you accelerated hard on a petrol car the result is the same, it just takes a bit of caution as people learn more about EV driving.
EV’s have some problems with production, but not significantly more than petrol cars. Certainly not more than they would have had when they were newly made either. Do remember that petrol cars use rare earth metals and mineable resources too.
Of course EV’s alone are not enough and we have to reduce emissions but surely we know that now? But if you can’t walk, cycle or use public transport, an EV is a good option. Importantly, it will be your only option as most car manufacturers have committed to going 100% electric. Hydrogen is another route but is not really viable in road cars, lorries and trains it does work.
In the US and Europe, EV’s are definitely more efficient and will only become more so as time passes.
Source: Carbon Brief