All electric vehicle drivers have heard it: EVs aren’t as green as they claim to be. EV drivers have been plagued with the judgmental looks and comments from friends after purchasing their first EV. “That’s great, but I heard they aren’t really that good for the environment.” Ugh.
Here’s the usual argument: Electric cars have higher manufacturing emissions than normal cars, which tends to come from the creation of the high-powered batteries used to run the vehicles themselves. Additionally, EVs use electricity that has its own carbon footprint from fossil fuels. Put together, these factors (sometimes called the ‘long tailpipe’ theory) results in the ‘dirty little secret’ of electric vehicles: that they have no climate benefits whatsoever.
In honor of Earth Day, It’s time to debunk this theory once and for all.
Coal: The Most Dangerous Fossil Fuel
Some parts of this frustrating ‘long tailpipe’ myth are true. Much of the electricity EVs need to run comes from plants that run on coal. Coal is the source for nearly half of the nation’s electricity, a problematic fact of life. However, studies have shown that EVs emit less CO2 than combustion cars even if coal supplies that power. The chart below from the Department of Energy shows that all-electric vehicles like the Nissan LEAF and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles like the Chevy Volt, emit less carbon dioxide emissions than conventional gas-powered vehicles:
In the mid-west states, which are particularly coal reliant, hybrid cars cause the least amount of emissions, but plug-in EVs still cause substantially fewer emissions than combustion engines. In areas of the United States where EV sales are high, for example Los Angeles and other cities in California, EVs are much more sustainable and environmentally friendly than the national average. In L.A., carbon emission for all-electric cars are nearly half of the national average:
A study by Reuters also states that as EVs become more popular, coal use in the U.S. will decrease. “Over the next 25 years, the projected coal share of overall electricity generation falls to 39 percent, well below the 49-percent share seen as recently as 2007, because of slow growth in electricity demand, continued competition from natural gas and renewable plants, and the need to comply with new environmental regulations,” it said.
To recap, yes, much of the electricity used by EVs is from coal. However, electric vehicles still emit less CO2 emissions than combustion engines, and therefore, are helping the environment.
Battery Production: How it’s Made
Electric Vehicles use high powered batteries to run their engines. These can be difficult and costly to make, requiring the mining of natural resources to be created. This obviously requires the use of fossil fuels, and is where EVs get their bad environmental rep: an electric vehicles manufacturing footprint is sometimes higher than combustion cars. But, how much higher? How are these batteries made?
Lithium-ion is the latest in EV battery technology. It is light weight and can hold a charge a lot longer, making it very attractive to electric car makers. Lithium is mostly found in briny underground ponds all over the world. Mining of lithium does not require strip mining or blowing off mountain tops like other resource mining. The liquid is pumped out and dried in the sun, which accounts for a very small part of the EVs overall environmental impact. After the lithium is dried, it is assembled into a battery at a factory and inserted into an electric vehicle. This also requires little fossil fuels. The part that creates an issue is the transportation itself: transporting that lithium to the factory requires the use of planes, trains or cars that run on fossil fuels creating a higher foot print. Not to mention, the use of copper and aluminum in the batteries, which also ads to that footprint. However, once these batteries are placed into the vehicles, there are now ZERO EMISSIONS coming from the car! With no tailpipe, that EV is not contributing a large CO2 footprint to the environment. Even if an EV starts with a higher footprint than a combustion engine, years of driving and not producing emissions is better for the environment long term.
Batteries also last for a long time. Even after years of service, a battery can hold as much as 80 percent of its charge, making an EV a great long term vehicle. These batteries can also be reused as power storage for the grid. Even after their lives are over, lithium-ion batteries can be taken apart and reused. Tesla consistently recycles batteries, using the cooling fluid, wires and electronics. They even melt down the excess parts and separate them to be recycled, a unique environmental advantage of EVs.
So are EV batteries an environmental hazard? Long-term, no. The benefits of driving an EV greatly outweigh the initial battery footprint.
So there you have it folks. With all things, nothing is black and white, including electric vehicles. But, when broken down, EVs are consistently better for our environment. The National Defense Council and the Electric Power Research Institute even conducted a study that ended with these results: “In every scenario, plug-in hybrid electric cars reduced greenhouse gas emissions significantly.” We hear you, and we consider this myth, debunked!