Are Electric Cars Actually Good for the Environment?

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Picture yourself driving down the highway in 2003.  What would you see?  A big chunk of the vehicles on the road during that time were Escalades, Hummer H2s, Chevy Suburbans, and so on.  The SUV craze was huge in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  Fast forward to the present day.  I’m sure you will still see plenty of SUVs and trucks if you drive down that same stretch of highway, but one thing you will see today that you probably didn’t see much of in 2003 are electric cars and hybrids.  The Nissan Leaf, Toyota Prius, BMW Electric 1 Series, and Tesla Model S are a few of the cars on the market today that were a twinkle in our eyes 10 years ago.

It seems like all the bigwigs and celebrities are driving electric vehicles (E.V.) these days.  The Beibs got pulled over last year in his $100,000 Fisker Karma, which was a gift to him from his manager urging him to look environmentally friendly.  There are plenty of governments around the world that are supporting E.V. purchases by offering incentives.  Ontario and Quebec offer up to $8,500 to drive an electric car, and in the United Kingdom you can receive a plug-in car grant for £5,000.  Meanwhile in the United States, you can get up to $7,500 in tax credits for purchasing an E.V.  Most E.V. buyers are well off, and the average income of a Chevy Volt owner is $170,000.  Other benefits include private parking at certain establishments, and the use of high occupancy lanes on the highway.  You have to put all that good stuff aside though because an E.V. is still very expensive.

People get enamored over the fact that the car is electric. No more trips to the gas station! “I’m green! Look at me!” blah, blah, blah.  But are electric cars really green? 

What if we told you that if the U.K. widely embraced E.V.’s, carbon dioxide emissions would go down only 2 percent?

Certainly there’s no shortage of right-wingers shouting conspiracies and scientific studies about hybrids and electric cars, but what about the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE, the world’s largest technology professional association? What if they came out and said that electric vehicles were crap? No doubt that would be controversial.

Well, they did. Or, more accurately, IEEE’s Spectrum magazine did, in a June 30 piece called Unclean at Any Speed: Electric Cars Don’t Solve the Automobile’s Environmental Problems.”

Corporate Sponsorship for E.V. research is definitely influencing what type of studies are being conducted, and what projects gain media attention.  The research program over at Stanford University has received more that $113 million from ExxonMobile, G.E., Schlumberger, and Toyota.  It’s all about the money.

It is easy to determine the amount of energy required to charge a Chevy Volt, but the thing that is hard to determine are the fueling options.  Comparing a vehicle charged by a gas-fired power plant to a car charged by a nuclear plant is very hard to do.  Burning natural gas produces CO2.  Nuclear power creates waste products that are hard to store.  It is tough to win here.  Take this next example.  We have a car that is completely powered by solar energy.  Seems great, right?  Good for the environment, no charging at night, no more fill ups at BP.  Wrong.  All of the solar cells on that car contain heavy metals, which release sulfur hexafluoride when they are made. 

Sulfurwhat?  Sulfur hexafluoride is a greenhouse gas that has 23,000 times more global warming potential than CO2.

Most E.V. reviews only analyze the vehicles charging cycle, leaving out other phases of its life (construction, midlife, and eventually the scrap yard.)  The most impact a vehicle puts on the environment are its stages and not the actual driving of the vehicle.  Most notable is the building stage.  Batteries are a problem, and are often discarded improperly.  This is hard to measure on each E.V. and is usually left out of studies on environmental impact.  Ready for this?  The National Academies did an assessment on E.V.s and brought together factors that included construction, fuel extraction, refining, and emissions.  Result?  The environmental damage from E.V.’s is actually greater than a gas-powered car. 

Take the Nissan Leaf for example.  Its parts have a huge cost on the environment:

    The Spectrum article analyzes the Nissan Leaf's environmental footprint at the production level (Illustration: Bryan Christie Design/IEEE Spectrum)

    The Spectrum article analyzes the Nissan Leaf’s environmental footprint at the production level (Illustration: Bryan Christie Design/IEEE Spectrum)

  • Magnets in the main traction motor require rare Earth elements from China.  How do we get these?  By mining.  Mining equals a huge damage to the environment.
  • Aluminum is used for the hood and doors to help reduce the weight.  What a lot of people don’t know is that aluminum requires a lot more energy to make than steel.
  • Copper for electronics adds to the load that manufacturing puts on the environment.
  • The Leafs battery pack is the heaviest part of the car and requires a lot of energy intensive materials to be used elsewhere on the car to reduce weight.

E.V.’s are still a very new concept, and in the infancy stage.  We all know technology gets better as the years progress, so we are sure to see improvements with these new vehicles. 

Our takeaway from this? If you want to get around and be green your best bet is to walk or bike.  Other than that, who cares what you drive.