Electric cars not so green after all?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column for The Week in which I questioned the notion of electric cars being a green option.  My arguments got swift rebuttals from backers of electric cars, but a new study produced in partnership between the British government and the car industry shows just how correct I was.  Not only do electric vehicles produce just as much carbon in their overall cycle as internal-combustion engines, the need to replace the batteries actually makes the less green than current technology (via Jeff Dunetz):

ELECTRIC cars could produce higher emissions over their lifetimes than petrol equivalents because of the energy consumed in making their batteries, a study has found.

An electric car owner would have to drive at least 129,000km before producing a net saving in CO2. Many electric cars will not travel that far in their lifetime because they typically have a range of less than 145km on a single charge and are unsuitable for long trips. Even those driven 160,000km would save only about a tonne of CO2 over their lifetimes. …

The study was commissioned by the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, which is jointly funded by the British government and the car industry. It found that a mid-size electric car would produce 23.1 tonnes of CO2 over its lifetime, compared with 24 tonnes for a similar petrol car. Emissions from manufacturing electric cars are at least 50 per cent higher because batteries are made from materials such as lithium, copper and refined silicon, which require much energy to be processed.

Many electric cars are expected to need a replacement battery after a few years. Once the emissions from producing the second battery are added in, the total CO2 from producing an electric car rises to 12.6 tonnes, compared with 5.6 tonnes for a petrol car. Disposal also produces double the emissions because of the energy consumed in recovering and recycling metals in the battery. The study also took into account carbon emitted to generate the grid electricity consumed.

Battery manufacturing is an energy-intensive process, as is recycling and reclamation.  Normal cars use batteries, of course, but only one per car rather than a bank of batteries.  Moving to all-electric vehicles would mean an explosion of manufacturing, recycling, and disposal, none of which the US or the UK are prepared to handle.

As I also noted two weeks ago, that’s not the only “green” concern in the battery cycle:

Where do we plan to put all of the dead batteries that will necessarily have to be discarded? Some (but not all) components can be recycled, and those elements which must be disposed are not terribly eco-friendly, depending on the kind of batteries made. Lithium ion seems to be the direction most car manufacturers are heading, which poses fewer disposal risks to the environment — but still poses risks in mining and manufacturing, especially to groundwater.

Lithium also poses another blow to the argument for the electric car — its domestic availability. Eighty-five percent of the known reserves are inBolivia, Chile, and China, and lithium is not the only element needed for large-scale production of car battery systems. Large flake graphite is also needed, and China controls 80 percent of the market, along with other “rare earth” elements. Far from ending our dependence on foreign resources, we will merely exchange our dependence from the Middle East to China, which is not exactly an encouraging thought for our future.

Even if we did have these elements in abundance, we would need to mine and drill for them. Those are precisely the activities that environmentalists and short-sighted government policies have been blocking for decades in coal, oil, shale, and natural gas. Besides, “peak lithium” may arrive long before “peak oil,” as the Argonne National Laboratory estimates that we only have enough lithium available to manufacture car batteries through 2050 — less than 40 years from now. A lithium “crunch” could occur by 2017 — which also hardly lends confidence to the reliability of the electric car as a long-term solution.

We would have to do extensive mining somewhere to get the materials necessary to manufacture the batteries, most likely overseas, which makes us more dependent on foreign energy, not less so.  Instead of putting us even further at the mercy of foreign countries for our transportation and energy needs, why not just convert to natural gas?  The technology for natural-gas vehicles has been around for decades, and it burns cleanly while giving drivers a normal range for their cars.  Natural gas is an abundant resource in the US, which would require less work to extract than the metals needed for a massive expansion of battery manufacturing, and would make the US much more self-reliant for energy.  It also requires much less effort to transform into consumer-ready energy than either lithium (which still requires electrical charging and recharging) or gasoline, which requires heavy refining, with its own environmental issues.

If we want the most “green” solution for mass-produced energy in personal transportation, the answer is natural gas, not electric vehicles.  That wouldn’t need overwhelming federal subsidies for decades to give the illusion of competitiveness, either.