All electric vehicle drivers have heard it: “EVs aren’t as green as they claim to be.” EV drivers have been plagued with the skeptical comments from friends after purchasing their first EV. “That’s great, but I heard they aren’t really that good for the environment.” Ugh. The usual anti-EV argument assumes, “Electric cars have higher manufacturing emissions than gas cars, due to the creation of the high-powered batteries used to run the vehicles themselves. Additionally, EVs use electricity generated by power plants that use fossil fuels. Put together, these factors have a ‘long tailpipe’ and prove that EVs are just as bad for the environment.”
In honor of Earth Day, It’s time to debunk this theory once and for all.
Total Emissions Vary by Region
Some parts of this frustrating ‘long tailpipe’ myth are true. Much of the electricity that 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 internal combustion engine (ICE) cars even if coal supplies that power. The following chart 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 Midwest, which is particularly coal reliant, hybrid cars cause the least amount of emissions, but plug-in EVs still cause substantially fewer emissions than ICE vehicles. In other regions, EVs are much more sustainable and environmentally-friendly than the national average. In Los Angeles, carbon emission for all-electric cars are nearly half of the national average.
Coal Use Decreases with Time
According to a Reuters study, 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.
How Lithium Batteries Are 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 lightweight and can hold a charge longer, making it very attractive to electric car makers. Lithium is mostly found in briny underground ponds all over the world and does not require harmful strip mining. The liquid is pumped out and dried in the sun, then assembled into a battery at a factory. Transporting lithium between factories does requires the use of planes, trains or cars that still run on fossil fuels. But once the lithium battery is in the electric vehicle, the EV does not have a tailpipe or produce any direct emissions.
Are EV Batteries An Environmental Hazard?
So mining lithium, copper, and aluminum produces some emissions, but EV batteries 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. The research and development into recycling EV batteries is an exciting technological possibility that does not exist for ICE batteries.
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!