Are Electric Cars Sustainable?

Electric cars have taken the world by storm. Tesla has become a household name and price tags that were formerly hundreds of thousands of dollars have drastically dropped—meaning that more people are able to access EVs (electric vehicles). Since they left the realm of sci-fi movies and fiction novels and became a reality, the world has had one question regarding our advanced automobiles—are electric cars sustainable?

One might be quick to shout from the rooftops about how eco-friendly EVs are. But there are some arguments challenging the sustainability of electric cars.

The batteries are made with materials mined from rare earth metals, electric cars are many times plugged into the grid (hello, coal power), and if the world were to enthusiastically embrace EVs, we’d have to overcome the steep price tags.

Yes; electric cars are, in fact, sustainable. Advancements are continuously being made with regard to the batteries, and improvements to the power grid mean that renewable energy is increasingly powering EVs. With government plans to completely phase out conventional cars, it looks like EV efficiency combined with infrastructure shifts will make for a greener transport future.

This might leave you with a million questions. You’ve probably heard the controversy about how electric cars are terrible for the environment, and you may have heard debates about the unsustainability of battery production. Perhaps you’re worried about the source of the electricity that powers these vehicles. Don’t fear, we’ll explore both sides of the story and address concerns about the impact of electric cars on the environment.

We’re not called EVGeeks for nothing—this guide will help you get to the bottom of the question: are electric cars sustainable?

Sustainability Basics: Emissions and Efficiency

All around the world, transportation is the main cause of air pollution. Globally, around nine million deaths each year are associated with air pollution. Health is one of the first benefits of EVs. Electricity generation in the transport sector reduces the risk of respiratory disease, stroke, and cardiovascular disease.

Let’s move beyond how electric cars benefit humans and take a look at what they do for the planet.

In the EU, 30% of fossil fuel emissions come from the transport sector. In terms of direct (tailpipe) emissions, electric vehicles produce none. If they’re running on pure electricity, actually operating the car produces zero greenhouse gas emissions. On that factor alone, it’s easy to see how electric cars are more eco-friendly than conventional petrol-powered vehicles.

Another tick in the sustainability box for EVs comes from their efficiency. Compared to traditional petrol vehicles, the rate at which the energy is converted into power for the car is much higher—about three times as high, in fact.

If we were to put efficiency into a term all drivers understand, MPG, we can look at the MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) of a fuel-powered car, 24.7 MPG versus an electric vehicle, 100 MPGe—more than four times as much!

So, why isn’t everyone driving electric cars?

Even as EVs have continued to become more popular, so too have the arguments against them. There are more than 5 million electric passenger vehicles on the road around the world. Governments, consumers, and auto manufacturers are excited about this shift, but there are some sceptics. While car manufacturers like Volkswagen, Nissan, BMW, Toyota, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, and General Motors (and others) have joined Tesla on the electric-powered bandwagon, some individuals and organizations aren’t so optimistic.

Electric Cars: Too Expensive to Make a Sustainable Difference?

One of the first grievances against electric cars is that they’re unaffordable, and therefore unable to make the necessary emissions reductions to the transport sector. Looking beyond the cost of the cars themselves, consumers are deterred from buying electric cars because of the cost of replacement batteries and steep insurance prices. Buying a used electric vehicle is practically unheard of and then there are the regular costs incurred to charge the vehicle. On average, the cost of charging an EV falls between $14 and $26 depending on where drivers are in the world.

Then we come to the price tags themselves. In the United States, EVs account for less than 1% of total cars. And who owns these cars? American households making more than $100,000 per year. While this may be so, and while countries like Norway, where per capita GDP is high, make up some of the most enthusiastic buyers of electric cars, EVs are becoming more accessible for everyone.

When the first Tesla Roadster hit the road in 2006, the base price was just under $110,000. While luxury car enthusiasts can still buy electric vehicles that cost an arm and a leg for the average person (the 2020 Porsche Taycan tops the list at around $185,000), as a whole, electric vehicles have gotten much more affordable.

In Europe alone, EV sales are up a whopping 121%! This could be due, in large part to models like the Peugeot e-208 and Renault ZOE becoming more popular among drivers. These EVs are much more compact than other popular EVs from recent years—and so are their price tags. Some analysts think we’re approaching a time where new electric vehicles will be cheaper than combustion-engine cars of similar size. Thanks in large part to cheaper batteries, we could see this happen as early as 2022.

Battery Production Emissions

What’s one of the main factors contributing to a high cost for electric vehicles? Expensive batteries. Not only are batteries getting smaller, but their price tags are too. Beyond cost, however, is another concern for the batteries found in electric cars—sustainability. 

Many car companies are shifting to electric power and looking to minimize the environmental impacts of their supply chains. One of the aspects that’s proven most challenging is the batteries powering their new vehicles. When a recent study was published by Christoph Buchal of the University of Cologne, the world was shocked by the study’s conclusion—that EVs produce more emissions than diesel cars.

Why could this possibly be the case? Well, for the most part, it’s the batteries. The study’s report that two times more energy is required to manufacture an EV when compared to a conventional car is, for the most part, a result of the manufacturing of the battery.

The batteries found in many electric vehicles are the result of the mining of rare earth minerals. To mine and process the required manganese, cobalt, nickel, and lithium requires a lot of energy—and in some cases has resulted in conflict and human rights abuses.

Let’s just take a look at one of these minerals, lithium. The lithium batteries found in smartphones, laptops, tablets, and electric cars are associated with more environmental destruction than you may have ever realized. If one were to fly over the world’s largest supplier of lithium-ion batteries, they may be shocked by the scene—dead fish, cows, and yak carcasses floating by the mined Tibetan area.

How exactly does this relate to electric cars? Well, the battery of Tesla Model S contains around 12 kilograms of lithium. Not only do the drilling and mining of the lithium cause problems in their own right, but the process requires lots of water and energy, too. In North America and Australia, chemicals used in the process, like hydrochloric acid, have been known to leak into farmland and the water supply. Yikes.

Battery Sustainability Improvements

Unless you want to ditch your laptop or go back to that Nokia phone you had from 2004, you’re directly connected to the pollution and environmental impacts of lithium mining. Companies from countries all around the world are in a mad rush to acquire lithium mines in the hopes of meeting the growing demand for the items it is found in. While alternatives are being explored when it comes to powering electric vehicles, silicon and sulfur haven’t been rolled out as viable large-scale options just yet.

Are you ready for some good news?

Not only are the batteries in electric cars getting cheaper, but they’re also being continuously approved upon. An electric truck company, ironically named Nikola Motors, has been tweaking current lithium-ion batteries to make them lighter and able to withstand more charges, making much-needed improvements to their lifespan.

Making the batteries last longer has also been a focus for passenger EV manufacturers. Using improved binders means that batteries are able to last longer between charges and have longer lives. Less replacements, means less mining, means better for the environment.

If that’s not inspiring enough, imagine driving an electric car that has a battery made with corn.

Governments around the world are well aware that using lithium-ion batteries might not be the best way to get to the most sustainable transport future. In the US, developing an environmentally friendly battery has been an Energy Department goal since 1995. And they have just made some progress. New research has discovered that literally cooking up corn starch can allow manufacturers to replace some of the more dangerous materials found in EV batteries.

While the way EV batteries are being produced is changing, so too is the way they’re consumed and reused.  One of the biggest concerns after putting all of the resources into extracting the materials for the EV batteries is the waste streams they end up in.

Recycling and second-use battery projects have been powering up (pun intended) over the past couple of years. There’s a market already developing to reuse electric vehicle batteries, with demand possibly exceeding supply.

When batteries are no longer suitable for use in electric cars, they still have up to 80% of their charge left! With this much charge left, the battery packs can be reused to help support the grid by storing power. This is the case at several Japanese 7-Eleven stores that have started using old Toyota EV batteries to power the stores themselves.

When a second use is impossible, end-of-life recycling could also provide benefits. At the very least, the materials can be broken down, preventing the need for new extraction of minerals. Advancements in robotics means that robots are better able to disassemble and extract raw materials from old batteries. This minimizes risks for human workers and allows for more perfect extraction, meaning that materials are better suited for reuse in new batteries.

Concerns Over Energy Source

Not surprisingly, there are many oil industry giants trying to tar efforts to shift to electric-powered transport. In the US, the Koch oil empire and the American Petroleum Institute have been pretty vocal about speaking out against electric vehicles. ExxonMobil’s Chief Executive made a statement last year about the ineffectiveness of electric cars that are powered by burning coal.

Is he right? Kind of. In some ways, an electric car is only as green as what’s powering it.

Bituminous coal emits carbon dioxide at rates that are 75% more than natural gas. In countries like China, where estimates show coal power will still be 50% of what’s generated in 2028, this means that a shift towards electric vehicles will have less of a positive impact when it comes to sustainability.

Unless you’re in Norway, where almost all energy is sourced from renewables like hydropower, you’ve got to consider that the power at the charging station comes from somewhere. Here’s why this matters. In China, where coal would make up a pretty significant mix of electric power, EVs produce 188.5 grams of CO2 emissions per mile. In the UK, that number is only 76 grams, and in France, just 2.7 grams.

While this may be the case, compared to gasoline-powered vehicles, even coal-powered EVs in countries like China or the US are producing about 60 to 100 less grams of CO2 per mile—meaning that the environmental benefits outweigh any energy concerns.

Renewable Energy for Electric Cars

Excluding China—as their craving for coal has intensified recently, the world is largely shifting away from using coal-based energy. Not only is the world expected to experience a 50% growth in renewable energy capacity by 2024, but this trend is being witnessed with electric vehicles, too.

While Elon Musk and Tesla scoff at putting renewable energy on their cars, Hyundai and Toyota haven’t been deterred. They’ve been adding solar panel roofs since 2015—and have recently been getting good results. Toyota’s new solar panels are much more efficient than most solar panels and may help drivers enjoy 20-29 extra miles (32-46 kilometres) of solar energy each day.

Here’s a video showing Toyota’s solar panel roofing:

When they aren’t contributing to extra mileage, some solar panels can be used to power features like air-conditioning and lights. Solar panels on the cars themselves probably won’t contribute to huge sustainability incentives, but they’re certainly a start.

If we move beyond the Utopian idea of powering our cars simply by driving them in the sun, we can still see similar benefits from the greening of our power grids.

The electricity supply in many areas of the world is made up of a variety of sources.

In countries like the UK, more than 40% of electricity is produced using renewables (wind, solar, and biomass) Germany is reporting about the same figure. In the US, that number hovers around 17.5% but is growing. Countries like Australia are reporting weeks where more than half of the power is being supplied by renewables—and are adjusting future goals and plans to reflect this capacity.

All of this is important because it means that as we shift towards a more electrified transport system, we can do so with the assurance that what powers our vehicles is becoming increasingly greener. Where coal makes up a significant portion of the electricity mix in countries like China, India, and the US, chances are, that won’t be the case for too much longer.

Just like the advances made in terms of renewable energy for the electricity sector, there have also been programs and services designed to help electric vehicle owners source their power from green energy. Some cities around the world have developed charging networks where customers pay a monthly fee for unlimited access to renewable energy charging stations.

Other utility companies and automakers are managing charging stations in such a way to meet customer needs while also being in tune with renewable energy production. Customers receive a charging discount by agreeing to only charge during the day when solar production is at its peak.

We’re already witnessing solar panels being installed directly on cars. The world is experiencing a shift towards greener renewable energy and EV drivers are continuously being introduced to charging networks and options that are more environmentally friendly. We’re even seeing people install their own EV solar charging stations at home. It looks like the concern about the energy sources powering electric cars is soon to be irrelevant. 

The Shift to Electric Requires Some Infrastructure Changes

One of the biggest backers of electric cars? Federal and local governments. By 2040, Britain and France plan on banning the sale of diesel and petrol cars. India’s planning on all-electric vehicles by 2030. Conventional cars won’t be sold in Norway after 2025. Taiwan, China, Germany, and the Netherlands all have similar plans to shift to emission-free cars over the next couple of decades. Global cities like Brussels, Paris, Mexico City, Madrid, and Copenhagen will all follow suit. In cases where federal governments have avoided specific plans, some US states and Canadian provinces are taking it into their own hands to reduce vehicle emissions, too.

It’s not only cars that are being electrified. Komatsu Ltd. just announced they’re using electricity to power a small excavator. Some companies are installing electric batteries in their ferries. Electric buses and trains are making their way into public transportation systems. Changes are happening above us, too. Electric battery technology is making its way into the sky and electric planes are being added to some aviation fleets.

With this massive shift towards an all-electric vehicle landscape, it begs the question—will our current infrastructure keep up with these changes?

Some analysts suggest that we’ll reach a transportation tipping point in the next couple of decades, where electric vehicles will continue to make up more and more cars on the road. By 2022, it’s estimated that EVs will become genuinely competitive with conventional cars. Electric cars are becoming cheaper and charging stations are popping up around the globe.

However, for the world to welcome this influx of electric cars in the next decade or two, we’ll require some infrastructure changes to make it truly sustainable.

While it’s a good start that local and federal governments are stating plans to reduce dependence on petrol-powered cars, they’ll also need to take measures to ensure that this switch to electric doesn’t shock the system (again, pun intended)

We’ll need to expand upon efforts to understand when charging is most sustainable, especially when it’s coming from renewable sources. We’ll need to provide incentives for people wanting to install solar panels in their own homes. We’ll need to consider using electric cars that are part of autonomous ride-sharing services. To make transportation truly sustainable, we’ll have to rethink some aspects of driving and riding.

But if anything can be said about necessary changes and our ability to innovate and deal with challenges, it’s that we’re more than capable of contributing to a transportation future where electric cars play a huge role—and do so sustainably. 

So, Are Electric Cars Sustainable?

Well, there you have it. It’s easy to see why the sustainability of electric cars is such a convoluted topic. When we consider the battery requirements and how the electricity grid can change the sustainability of driving an EV, it’s not as easy to be sure about the eco-friendly nature of electric cars. However, once we explore each of these concerns and address the price barriers that prevent large-scale adoption, the picture changes.

Not only are electric cars a more sustainable transport option now, but they will be even more so in the future. With advances made to battery sustainability and cost, and a shift to renewable energy, we can anticipate that roads of the future will increasingly be lined with EVs. And the transportation sector will be more sustainable as a result.

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