Join the Silent Revolution
A silent revolution is happening on the streets of Europe. The sales of electric vehicles (EVs) in many major European countries hit double digit percentage points in July 2020 (Norway 68%, Sweden 29.5%, Finland 16% , Holland 16% , Germany 11.4%). However, EV sales in the USA remain much lower as a percentage of the total market despite the fact that the world’s leading EV manufacturer, Tesla, is one of the great American success stories. For the purpose of this article, I shall not try to analyze why this is the reality of the EV market in the US. I will merely tackle some of the biggest doubts people have about the environmental benefits of EVs, especially with regards to their batteries.
Air pollution kills tens of thousands of Americans every year, with the transportation sector being one of the biggest factors in causing this pollution. Fully electric vehicles are the perfect solution to this problem since they have no tail-pipe emissions. But a refrain that I often hear from EV doubters goes something like - “don’t you use fossil fuel based electricity to charge your electric car.” This would be a valid concern except for the fact that the electrical grid is getting cleaner/greener every year in the US and so are the EVs. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Even when the electricity comes from the dirtiest coal-dominated grid, electric vehicles (EVs) still produce less global warming pollution than their conventional counterparts, and with fewer tailpipe emissions (or none at all)”. I would encourage you to play with this tool to see how the grid in your area would stack up (no pun intended) if you drove an EV.
Okay, so the EVs reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But what about the batteries? What about their environmental impact? Instead of recapitulating information from multiple excellent articles, I will merely summarize that information in a list.
a) For the more technically oriented, here’s a primer to the chemistry of Li-ion cells.
b) Just like a new laptop does not quit working when its 1 year warranty expires, EV batteries do not need to be replaced after their warranties expire. As the data is starting to come in, it is becoming clear that most EV batteries will outlast the 200,000 miles that we expect modern cars to last.
c) After their first life in EVs, most EV batteries will find a second life as storage batteries. Here are some examples and good reads:
d) EV batteries are recyclable with immense economic potential.
Deep dive by Bloomberg Energy
Umicore - European Recycling Giant
Tesla recycles its batteries because “it would be a waste of money not to.”
The US Department of Energy is investing more into R&D for battery recycling.
Redwood Materials, founded by Tesla co-founder J.B. Straubel, continues to attract more investment.
Canadian Firm Li-Cycle will build a $175 million Lithium-Ion battery recycling hub in NY.
e) Mining for minerals used in batteries is becoming more sustainable and ethical, with better industry practices and new breakthroughs happening both in mining and battery chemistries.
Climate-Smart Mining: Minerals for Climate Action
New patent for lithium mining technology in Germany
Solid-state lithium batteries
Volvo and blockchain
Tesla and cobalt free batteries
In conclusion, I’d like to state that it is wonderful that people are expressing concerns about the environmental impacts of EVs. Unfortunately, it is something that we didn’t really do when we created a world run by our gasoline/diesel vehicles. EVs already offer immense benefits over fossil fuel run vehicles. EV batteries are not a static technology- as they continue to evolve we will keep striving to make them better and more environmentally sound.