Electric cars make sense in cities, not anywhere else

John Muir, a naturalist and well-known environmentalist, said: “When we try to pick something out by itself, we find that it is connected to everything else in the universe.”

Larry Von Thune

So it is with electric cars – their operation and, especially, the production of batteries.

How “green” are electric cars? Are they good for the environment? Are they fighting “climate change”?

To answer, you need to know:

  1. What is the actual energy source for electric vehicle batteries?
  2. How much energy is used to produce electric cars?
  3. Where is their operation particularly beneficial for the environment?
  4. What are the potential environmental, economic and social consequences of replacing all internal combustion engine cars, trucks and construction equipment with electric vehicles by the proposed deadline?
  5. What are the energy costs and natural resources involved in producing electric batteries?

Numbers 4 and 5 are topics for another time. For now, I’ll focus on 1, 2, and 3.

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An electric car is only as “green” as the fuel source used to generate electricity to charge the battery. In the United States, 86% of the electricity used to charge batteries comes from fossil fuels (61%), nuclear (19%), and hydroelectric (6%), with the remainder from a mix of renewable sources other than hydro.

The global energy balance is about the same: nuclear and hydropower have switched places.

So the claim by President Biden and others that if we just drove electric cars, we wouldn’t need oil and natural gas, that’s not true at all. Only in a few countries, such as Albania, Norway, Paraguay and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the electricity grid is entirely or mainly powered by hydroelectric power, will the operation of electric vehicles be truly “green”.

According to the World Economic Forum, producing an electric car contributes on average twice as much to “global warming potential” and uses twice as much energy as is used to produce a car with an internal combustion engine. The reason is the battery.

A 1,000-pound electric car battery contains 25 pounds of lithium, 60 pounds of nickel, 44 pounds of manganese, 30 pounds of cobalt, and 200 pounds of copper. The Tesla Model S battery weighs 1,200 pounds. The battery in GMC’s electric Hummer weighs nearly 3,000 pounds.

To obtain these metals for one 1,000-pound battery requires 25,000 pounds of brine for lithium, 30,000 pounds of ore for cobalt, 5,000 pounds for nickel, and 25,000 pounds for copper. They are mined from the 500,000 pounds of rock and soil that must be excavated and processed for a single battery.

Cobalt and lithium mining comes with health and prospecting issues. Just one country—the DRC—holds 70% of the world’s cobalt reserves, and one of the DRC’s major customers is China. Inhaling dust from any element can be harmful.

So what are the benefits of electric cars?

The main advantage is ecology. Their use avoids gas engine emissions of fossil fuel-derived pollutants—an advantage most evident in cities. Their use in cities can significantly improve air quality by reducing air pollution from internal combustion engines.

This is a use case of electric vehicles that needs to be given special attention in order to best help the environment. Depending on the vehicle, producing the smaller batteries required for shorter range city driving also creates a much smaller impact on the environment. Smaller electric batteries can be charged in homes and workplaces using less expensive charging stations, and without the need for extended electrical networks.

A federal infrastructure bill passed in late 2021 proposes using $7.5 billion for rural charging stations and “strategically deploying (electric vehicle) charging stations to create a national network along our nation’s highway system” instead of concentrating them deployment in metropolitan areas where they do the most good.

The new law also plans to spend $65 billion on charging stations along the nation’s highways. This plan is flawed for several reasons.

First, the Level 3 charging stations needed to charge EVs on the highway are 50 to 100 times more expensive than the Level 2 stations for home and work.

Second, there will be less demand for electric vehicles in rural areas, and the rationale for switching to electric vehicles to reduce air pollution in rural areas is less.

Third, batteries for electric vehicles for roads and rural areas will be much larger and more expensive.

And finally, the number of electric cars will be limited for a few more years, especially in areas where their use is less profitable for potential buyers.

For these reasons, an emphasis on expanding EV access for rural and highway travel to “compensate” for underserved areas is too expensive and inconsistent with the real need and benefits of EVs.

Focusing on the development, production and use of electric vehicles for use in urban environments makes a lot of sense and will help avoid the potential social, economic and political problems that could be encountered in trying to replace all existing vehicles with electric vehicles.

Larry Von Thune lives in Lakewood.

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