There’s been an ongoing conversation about the true sustainability of electric vehicles (EVs). It’s true that EVs are cleaner on the road than traditional gasoline vehicles, but as with anything, there are tradeoffs.
Many skeptics point to the environmental impact of manufacturing and disposing of battery packs as a reason why EVs aren’t environmentally friendly. But, is this truly the case?
Here’s the short answer:
Electric vehicles are powered by lithium-ion batteries. Mining lithium and manufacturing these batteries is water-intensive and contributes to air, soil, and water pollution. But when you look at the bigger picture, EVs are “greener” overall than gasoline cars when comparing their entire life cycles (including battery production & disposal). So electric car batteries actually reduce our overall environmental impact.
Think about it this way: even though the production and disposal of batteries is harmful, they help power electric vehicles, an alternative to gasoline-powered cars which benefits the environment overall.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that EV batteries have no environmental impact at all. In this article, we’ll go over the environmental impact of manufacturing, using, and disposing of electric cars and their batteries.
Note: This article is about the lithium-ion battery pack that powers the electric motors in electric vehicles, not the 12-volt battery that is found in both gasoline and electric cars.
The Electric Car Life Cycle
Before we get started, it’s important to understand the life cycle of an average electric vehicle.
Every vehicle, whether it’s gasoline-powered or electric, needs exterior body panels, a chassis, and an interior. However, when it comes down to the construction of an electric vehicle, there are major differences in the way the car’s powertrain is built.
As you know, an EV draws power from its battery pack. These batteries are made of relatively rare metals and minerals which are often sourced using environmentally-invasive mining techniques. And during the time an electric car is on the road, these batteries require electricity that may or may not be sustainably sourced.
Then, there’s the added environmental cost of disposing (or recycling) battery packs in EVs.
Battery Pack Lifespan
Most EVs, including Teslas, Nissan Leafs, and Chevy Bolts, come standard with an 8 year battery warranty (about 100k miles) that guarantees an adequate charge/range capacity.
However, EV battery packs usually last much longer than just the warranty date. If properly maintained, they should last the full lifespan of an EV (about 17 years or 200k miles) without having its range overly restricted, according to an estimate by Consumer Reports.
However, if improperly maintained then you may have to replace the battery pack or scrap your car prematurely, which could mean more harm to the environment.
While they might be cleaner to run during their almost two decades of road time, the production and disposal of electric vehicles demand a closer look.
Life Cycle Analysis Comparison: Electric Vs. Gasoline Vehicles
According to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, the production of a full-sized long-range electric vehicle (similar to a Tesla Model S) adds about 6 tons of CO2 equivalent emissions, 68% higher than the production of a comparable gasoline car.
Most of these increased emissions come from battery manufacturing and resource extraction for the battery.
However, even with increased manufacturing emissions, the average EV is still better for the environment than a comparable gas car when you consider their lifetime CO2 eqiuvalent emissions in the United States (this includes the disposal/recycling phases).
It’s important to note that a new gasoline car is greener than a new electric car out-of-the-lot. However, the longer you drive an EV, the more environmentally friendly it gets, because the increased manufacturing emissions are quickly offset by reduced emissions from driving on electricity instead of gasoline.
Overall, it takes about 19,000 miles (16 months) of driving to offset the increased emissions from the production of an EV equivalent to the Tesla Model S. For smaller EVs like the Nissan Leaf, this time is even less (~4,900 miles).
More Details About the Report:
The report took into consideration every single aspect of an EV’s life cycle, from the extraction of raw resources for manufacturing to the final disposal and recycling of the car.
The researchers assumed that both the full-sized electric vehicle and the comparable gas vehicle would have an approximate life expectancy of about 179,000 miles.
The full study is available here on the UCSUSA.org blog.
Mining For Lithium, Cobalt, and Nickel
Today’s industry-standard electric batteries are made mainly using lithium, a relatively rare metal. Cobalt and Nickel are the two other key ingredients in lithium-ion batteries.
Similar to the petroleum used to create perennial fuels like diesel and gasoline, these metals must be mined and extracted from the Earth.
Some of the largest lithium deposits on the planet reside in Mexico, South America and East Asia. In these poor parts of the globe, environmentally damaging mining operations can go unchecked in the name of fueling desperate economies.
To create a lithium battery, you need lithium carbonate. This concentrated material comes as the result of refining a raw “soup” of lithium-containing salts in evaporation pools.
Pools of mineral-rich brine (water with high concentrations of salt) are left to evaporate until the solid salts can be filtered out. The process is water-intensive, using up to 500,000 gallons of water per ton of lithium carbonate produced.
Making matters worse, the process of refining lithium also uses toxic chemicals like hydrochloric acid, which can leach into local ecosystems and habitats.
Researchers in Nevada found that pollution from mining chemicals had effects on fish as far as 150 miles downstream from a lithium mining operation.
The chemicals and mining processes used inevitably lead to water, soil, and air pollution, with major implications for the surrounding landscapes and ecosystems.
Moreover, the rise of lithium has created interest from foreign governments in the areas these deposits are found. Some have even speculated that the U.S. military presence in Mexico could increase as a result of lithium deposits due to interest in procuring the mineral ore to create more electric cars.
Cobalt and Nickel
Unlike lithium, which is usually harvested from brine (salt-water) pools, cobalt and nickel are usually mined underground.
Depending on the mining method used, these mines can physically disturb or even completely destroy local habitats. Chemical byproducts of mining often pollute surrounding soil, rivers, and drinking water.
According to the Washington Post, most of the world’s cobalt deposits are found in the Congo region. About 60% of the world cobalt supply comes from there.
Miners in poor countries like the Congo also experience unsafe working conditions. Tunnel collapses are common and there is a high level of birth defects related to the exposure to toxic mining activities.
The power you put into your EV is only as clean as the grid from which it’s drawn. If you’re in California where renewable sources of power like wind and solar contribute significantly to the network, your EV will be cleaner than it would be somewhere else where coal power is the primary source of energy.
However, based on the average United States electricity mix, EVs are cleaner than comparable gasoline vehicles in general in the US.
As the number of EVs on the road increases, more charging stations will be needed and the power grid will be more significantly impacted. There simply aren’t enough power lines in place right now to support this. In fact, major development will be necessary just to aid the jump from 1 to 10 or 20% market penetration.
Disposing of Electric Vehicles
Lithium-ion batteries contain corrosive chemicals and dissolved metals.
If these batteries aren’t disposed of properly, then they can eventually leach chemicals into surrounding soil. These pollutants may even make it eventually into rivers and lakes, endangering not just the animals that live there, but also potentially endangering our own water supplies.
What’s more, if a lithium-ion battery is damaged or punctured, the chemicals inside the battery could react and create enough heat to eventually cause a chemical fire (you may have seen videos of phone batteries exploding or catching on fire—it’s the same concept here).
But, EV batteries can be recycled right? Wouldn’t that solve the problem?
While EV battery packs are recyclable, currently, less than 5% of lithium-ion batteries are actually recycled. Lithium batteries in EVs are a relatively difficult item to recycle.
For starters, these battery packs are HUGE (~2000 pounds) and different battery manufacturers use different methods of battery assembly. Thus, many e-waste recyclers don’t have the technology to properly recycle these batteries, and most of the recycling work would have to be done painstakingly by hand (The Verge).
There is hope, though.
Most batteries still remain useful after their lifespan in an EV (they’ll just hold less charge than when they were new). So, used EV batteries can still be reused to store power, for example, as a solar battery.
Tesla has also committed to expanding its operations to allow more batteries to be recycled. Its suggested plan involves looping a vast network of partners in to create processing centers that will repurpose the raw materials in the bulky car batteries. It sounds promising, but it’s also just one on a long list of promises Tesla has yet to realize.
Summary of Main Takeaways & Key Statistics
- Electric car batteries are lithium-ion batteries made mainly of lithium-containing compounds like lithium carbonate. They may also contain materials like cobalt and other chemical additives or dissolved metals.
- Manufacturing an electric vehicle similar to a Tesla Model S creates 6 tons of CO2 equivalent emissions, 68% more than the production of a comparable gasoline car. Most of these emissions come from producing the battery.
- It takes 500,000 gallons of water to refine one ton of lithium carbonate (Li2CO3)
- The chemicals and processes used in mining lithium create air, water, and soil pollution
- Less than 5% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled. If thrown in landfills, EV batteries can leach chemicals into the ground and into water, or even cause toxic chemical fires
- However, even when taking into account the extra environmental damage from electric car batteries, the average electric car in the United States produces about half the total emissions of a comparable gasoline car.
Electric vehicles were introduced as the great green hope, but they come with their own set of environmental effects.
But, even though EVs aren’t completely green for the environment, they are usually greener overall than the next best alternative, which are traditional gasoline cars.
The next step in refining this industry so more of the world can move toward replacing emission-spewing gas cars is making the processes that surround EVs cleaner and greener.
For example, improvements in battery technology and energy density, and the increased adoption of renewable energy sources will all serve to make EVs even cleaner than they are right now.
That’s a mission Tesla has set out to accomplish, and with good motivation. Pretty soon, they won’t be the only kids on the block in the EV community. As mainstream automakers ramp up EV production, the deciding factor for consumers could well be just how green your car truly is.
Dylan Bartlett, aka, “The Regular Guide,” writes about a range of topics on his blog. Check out his site, Just a Regular Guide, for more, or follow Dylan on Twitter @theregularguide for frequent updates.
Hugh is the founder of Get Green Now. Learn more about us on our “About” page.