A Case Against Electric Cars
Ever since the release of Tesla’s model 3, the overall anticipation and praise around sole electric cars has been rising. Many European manufacturers have announced plans to completely shift their production in order to accommodate the market. Even China has said that all of their car manufacturing will be producing electric cars by 2019. Advertisers promote these cars as completely ‘green’ and eco-friendly, which leaves many of their customers happy and virtuous. However, this could not be further from the truth.
First, let’s take a look at the emissions an electric vehicle (EV) produces compared to its traditional counterpart. According to data from the US Department of Energy, it takes as much energy to produce a gallon of gasoline as a Tesla Model S consumes in 20 miles of driving.
More than a third of lifetime CO2 emissions from an electric car comes from the energy used to make the car itself. The production amounts to around 25,000 lbs of CO2 emissions as opposed to 16,000 lbs for a diesel-powered car. “Manufacturing a mid-sized EV with an 84-mile range results in about 15 percent more emissions than manufacturing an equivalent gasoline vehicle,” says the Union of Concerned Scientists in their 2015 report on electric cars. “For larger, longer-range EVs that travel more than 250 miles per charge, the manufacturing emissions can be as much as 68 percent higher.”
But that is not the end of an electric car’s carbon footprint. When we combine the production, electricity consumption, and eventual scrapping of the car, a Nissan Leaf will be responsible for 31 metric tons of CO2 over its 90,000 mile lifespan. The diesel equivalent of the Leaf is the Mercedes CDI A160, which over its lifespan, will be responsible for 34 metric tons of CO2 — only three tons more than the most popular electric car today.
Based on a 2015 forecast by Synapse Energy Economics, the average price per metric ton will be somewhere between $16 and $25 in the 2020-2030 timeframe. This means that if your electric car saves 3 tons of emissions on average, you will be reducing the overall carbon footprint by no more than $75. Now consider that governments like the US and UK are subsidizing every single purchase of an electric vehicle with up to $7,500 or £4,500 respectively. In 2016, a total of 10,496 electric vehicles was sold in the UK – meaning more than 40 million in government funds went to subsidies for these EVs.
Powered by coal
Even though EVs don’t produce any emissions themselves, they are reliant on electricity, which is usually acquired via coal power plants. “If you use coal-fired power plants to produce the electricity, then all-electrics don’t even look that much better than a traditional vehicle in terms of greenhouse gases,” told to Wired Magazine by Virginia McConnell, who is an economist at Resources for the Future.
But isn’t renewable power enough? The problem with using renewable resources to power vehicles is that they are not reliable enough yet. There are two major problems arise when it comes to generating electricity from solar and/or wind energy:
First is the dilution problem. Solar and wind power doesn’t produce enough concentrated energy, which means that a lot of additional materials are needed to produce just a unit of energy. For solar panels, these materials range from purified silicon, to phosphorus, to titanium oxide. For wind turbines, additional materials may include high-performance compounds and neodymium magnets. These rare earth metals are often used in the manufacture of Tesla vehicles. Not in the engine, but in the on-board electronics, headlights, sound systems, etc.
Second is the more severe issue with renewable energy, the intermittency problem. While you easily store oil in a barrel there isn’t a viable way to store solar/wind energy. Instead they are plugged directly into the electric grid. Yet, solar panels produce much less energy during winter. It is the season that brings the highest demand for electricity so the grid needs to shift back to a more reliable energy source. Europe’s leading country in renewable energy, Germany, uses coal to back the high demand during winter. The same case applies to wind power generators, due to wind being fairly erratic and not perpetual. Currently less than 13% of Germany’s energy is “clean” and the annual shift of energy sources drives utility bills up for its citizens. It is safe to say that your new electric car mostly runs on fossil fuels.
One of the newly released EVs is the BMW i3. The cheapest model is £33070, yet with the £4500 of government funding it is scarcely worth it, when compared with a diesel equivalent. A single charge of its lithium battery costs a little over £3, lasts 8 hours and delivers a maximum of 124 miles.
The biggest problems with cars such as i3 is their longevity. A battery is usually insured for 5 years, which largely covers repairs excluding replacements. Most batteries have estimated lives of about 100 000 miles. This means that if you drive every work day for the next 7 years you will spend 6022 pounds in fuel costs.
However, with that pace in 7 years on average you would have driven twice more than estimated 100 000 mile battery life. Signifying that the battery must be changed every three years at the rate of driving regularly. New batteries for the i3 are slightly over £6000, for 7 years worth of driving. The battery and charging costs will roughly amount to £20 000.
“Vampire loads” additionally help the ramping up the price of an electric vehicle. This refers to the amount of power a battery loses when unutilized. Tesla’s estimates that this loss is between 50 and 70 per cent when the car is idle.
it is impractical to judge electric cars
When considering the implications and constraints it is impractical to judge electric cars. Currently they are more inefficient, costly and environment unfriendly option but as every Tesla owner would claim, they are an investment into the future of electric cars. The more electric cars there are in the market, the more companies specialize in lithium battery recycling.
Moreover, the lifespan of lithium batteries is on the rise. Cars with a span of 200 000 miles last longer than 100 000 miles. The emissions for each mile the car does in its lifetime may drop down as much as 50%, as a result of getting more distance out of the initial manufacturing emissions. Yet, this is not the status quo. It’s fair to anticipate either for a dramatic fall in battery prices or a dramatic increase in electric car mileage, otherwise, as a consumer, fuel-efficient diesel car is the better option.
“Electric cars are toys,” says the Sun Microsystems co-founder and CEO, Vinod Khosla, for The Economic Times. “They’re for rich San Franciscans and rich Germans. They don’t make sense for normal people. They’re too expensive. What is important is cheap cars. If you add $10,000 worth of batteries to a car, it’s silly. But that what every electric car does, and environmentalists keep pushing it. One of the fundamental problems is environmentalists keep pushing solutions to the press, such as solar cells and electric cars that make no economic sense. They defy the laws of economic gravity. I keep saying we need to produce products at the “Chindia” price–the price at which people in India and China will buy it–without subsidies.”
If you really want to help the environment the best thing you can do is to reduce the amount you drive overall. Reconsider buying a new car if you already own one that works just fine. If you buy new cars too often that can offset any intended reduction of your carbon footprint.