By: Daniel Zagoren — Op-Ed Editor
With the global warming threat becoming more prominent in our daily lives, people around the world have been doing whatever they can to try and cut back on the amount of carbon dioxide emissions they put into the atmosphere. For some, this means putting solar panels on the roof of their house, using reusable containers to cut back on waste, and in recent years, buying an electric car.
In the past decade, hybrid and electric car sales have boomed exponentially while most buyers are under the impression that an electric vehicle will be far better for the environment. However, studies by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have shown producing an electric car generates more CO2 emissions compared to a car with a standard internal combustion engine (ICE). In MIT’s study, they found that about two metric tons of carbon are required to produce a vehicle, however other sources, such as the Swedish Environment Institute, say it takes up to 17.5 metric tons.
While the studies differ on how much carbon is required to produce an electric car, they all support the fact that electric cars need more carbon to be manufactured than gasoline cars, which causes a higher rate of pollution. The two major components of electric vehicles that differ from those with an ICE are the electric motor and the battery. Higher emissions in electric vehicle production are mainly due to the battery. In essence, buying an electric car with a smaller battery will be much more beneficial to the environment, as it can take nearly 400% less carbon to produce depending on its size.
Lithium is the most harmful element that is used in most power sources for cars and electronics. It produces more pollution than any other material used in batteries. Friends of the Earth, a U.S. based environmental organization, reported that 500,000 gallons of water is needed to produce only one ton of lithium. Even with the high environmental toll, auto manufacturers and electronics companies continue to use lithium in their batteries because it is cheap and effective.
Christina Valimaki, an analyst at the Netherlands based information company Elsevier, said, “one of the biggest environmental problems caused by our endless hunger for the latest and smartest devices is a growing mineral crisis, particularly those needed to make our batteries.”
Despite the higher emissions required to produce electric vehicles, on average an electric car with a small 30 KWh battery will be able to offset its carbon emissions compared to an ICE vehicle in less than two years. Similarly, a car with a 100 KWh battery will be able to offset itself in a little over five years.
Based on data from the U.S. Department of Energy, owning an electric vehicle in some states will offset their carbon footprint faster than others. For example, in states such as New York, where 59% of electricity is from natural gas or hydroelectric plants, it will only take an electric vehicle one year to offset itself.
In states like Wyoming, where 84% of electricity is received from coal, owning an electric car with a 100KWh battery is actually worse for the environment than a gasoline powered car due to the carbon produced from building the car and creating the electricity to keep it running. It will take over 17 years for an electric car with a large battery in Wyoming to be more environmentally friendly than a car with an ICE.
Automotive companies throughout the world have been trying to combat the need to fit bigger batteries onto their cars. Fisker Automotive, which is based in California, has started making concepts for a car that will be able to run entirely on solar electricity via solar panels built into the roof. In 2014, a Swiss based company named Nanoflowcell developed a car that can run on flow batteries, which are powered by salt water.
Throughout most states, the best cars for the environment are hybrids, which use a gasoline engine along with an electric motor. The motor is charged by replenishing the fuel cell through the transformation of kinetic energy during braking or by being plugged into an outlet, similar to an electric car but without using as much electricity since it has a much smaller battery.
Unlike typical ICEs, recycling and reusing batteries is a much more difficult and costly task than recycling or rebuilding an engine. Automakers try to reuse old batteries by taking the modules, which store electricity, and using them for other energy storing devices. If this doesn’t work, companies will resort to recycling worn-out batteries, which for now, is helping keep batteries out of landfills.
As the electric car industry continues to grow throughout the world, recycling and reusing batteries may turn out to be too costly for manufacturers. Although there is a very small number of electric vehicles on the road today, as technology advances that is bound to change. As a result, companies may end up putting more batteries in landfills if they aren’t able to reuse them all.
Jeff Wandell, Nissan’s Electric Vehicle communications manager, talks about how Nissan recycles their batteries and uses them for different methods. “The pack components consist of steel, copper, aluminum, and some plastic. The cells can be recycled via different methods to recover the cobalt, nickel, manganese, and lithium mixtures. The recovered materials are refined to necessary purities for reuse in general industry,” said Wandell.
Another reason that may be holding people back from purchasing an electric vehicle is the range, or in some cases, the lack-there-of. Electric cars have a range as low as 84 miles in the Fiat 500e, up to 402 miles in high end Teslas with large batteries.
As the range of these cars increases, so does the price. For a long range Tesla Model 3, it will cost nearly $50,000 after taxes for a car that can only go 353 miles before needing to charge for 10 hours. For a relatively short daily commute that is fine, but Tesla’s long range model will barely be able to make the trip from Boston to southern New Jersey without the need to recharge.
In the past few decades, laws such as the Clean Air Act of 1970 have forced manufacturers to produce more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly cars. The engines in cars on the road today are 99 percent more efficient than automobiles that were manufactured during the 1970s. On average, electric cars will be a much more ecological alternative to gasoline powered ones if you live in the correct areas and opt for the greener battery options.
The technology in electric cars has evolved immensely since they became widespread in the early 2010’s. As we continue to advance our technology, electric cars will become even more energy efficient and maybe one day, will be able to run without releasing any carbon into the atmosphere.
However as it stands, despite high price tags, low ranges, long charging times, and the continued use of toxic materials in batteries, purchasing an electric vehicle is still the best option for preserving our environment and lessening the release of carbon emissions. It is up to people to decide whether they want to deal with the inconveniences electric cars pose over gasoline cars in order to better protect the environment.