The curious case for electric cars

Hissan Ur Rehman/Dubai
Filed on February 8, 2021
Many of the realities concerning electric cars are not spoken about in the mainstream corporate media. — File photo

Are electric vehicles really the best transportation alternative to gas-powered engines?

Electric vehicles (EVs) are considered to be the future of transport due to their perceived efficiency and low carbon output when compared to petrol or diesel cars. Fans of EVs also find them to be easier and more pleasurable to operate.

But, let’s not jump for joy just yet; EVs have a lot of problems beneath the surface.

Are EVs really the best transportation alternative to gas-powered engines?

Many of the realities concerning electric cars are not spoken about in the mainstream corporate media.

As a result, many people tend to accept without question that electric cars are better for the environment by automatically assuming that they use less carbon. What’s missing from the equation is the fact that most of our electricity comes from burning fossil fuels.

Accordingly, the media doesn’t state that the increased mining activity required to extract the precious metals required for EV production is causing major damage to the environment. Additionally, the devastating effects of battery disposal are also missing from the discussion. EV batteries are made from a cocktail of chemicals that have extremely toxic effects on the soil and water.

There’s no doubt that EV batteries definitely have their environmental challenges, however it should also be stated that charging an EV takes a lot of time. Even when power sources and charger capacity are considered, it can take 30 minutes to nearly an hour to charge an EV while fueling a conventional fuel tank takes a few minutes. The time spent and infrastructure required continues to pose challenges - even before the source of electricity comes into question.

EVs are not as CO2 efficient as many people believe

Electricity does not magically appear in outlets. For the most part, EVs run on electricity produced by burning hazardous fossil fuels and fossil fuels still supply 84 per cent of the world’s energy. The sight of wind turbines and solar panels may bring feelings of hope and optimism, however renewables have many issues that include being prohibitively expensive.

It’s fair to say that EVs are much better for areas with high pedestrian traffic due to zero emissions. What’s missing from that debate, however, is that scientists and engineers are continuously upgrading fossil-fuel engines so they produce less emissions.

EVs are expensive to produce

The production of electric vehicles currently poses a large cost-related problem. According to a study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics, it takes more than twice the amount of energy to produce an electric car when compared to a conventional one due to battery production.

The institute estimates that each kilowatt hour of battery capacity produces 125 kilograms or 276 pounds of CO2 emissions. That translates into almost 3 tons of CO2 for a 22-kilowatt-hour battery suitable for a vehicle like the BMW i3.

So much for reduced carbon emissions.

Disposing EV batteries is a global hazard

EV batteries are created from materials continuously mined from the earth’s surface. This creates devastating environmental damage before the battery is even created. But the problem doesn’t end there because these batteries are difficult to recycle and are potentially poisonous when disposed of.

The lithium-ion batteries used for EVs are made from a number of different materials that include acid, lead, nickel, lithium, cadmium, alkaline, mercury and nickel-metal hydride. Essentially these batteries are very much like a scaled-up version of a smartphone battery with the exception that EV battery packs comprise thousands of individual lithium-ion cells working together.

The devastating environmental and social impacts of producing these batteries are evident from their production to the end of their estimated 15-20 year lifespan. Besides requiring specialized workers to dismantle them by hand, these batteries - from their casing to their contents - are highly toxic to the earth.

It would be fair to point out that not all is doom and gloom with respect to EV batteries. While it’s true that most of the world is ill-prepared to deal with their toxic effects, manufacturer Northvolt recently announced plans to set up a recycling hub in Norway this year. Additionally, a hub in the city of Fredrikstad will use “highly automated” processes to crush and sort lithium-ion batteries with an initial capacity to process over 8,000 tons of batteries per year.

While this news seems positive, the following question remains: is this solution viable for large countries like India and China? Analysts predict that over half of all passenger cars in China will be electric by 2025.

That’s a lot of batteries for a nation of over 1.5 billion people - and a serious potential problem.

Increased fossil fuel-efficiency is a viable solution

Currently, most of the global transportation market is powered by internal combustion engines (ICEs) and, as stated earlier, 95% of transport energy comes from liquid fuels made from petroleum. This is why it’s imperative that ICEs are improved in order to reduce the local and global environmental impact of fossil-fuel based transport.

Engine and conventional powertrain developments alone could reduce fuel consumption substantially for light-duty vehicles (LDVs). Implementing other technologies such as hybridisation could reduce fuel consumption when compared to the current average for LDVs. Nissan Motor Corporation is using some approaches to counter this issue worldwide like more efficient combustion, lower intake and exhaust resistance.

Often the solution to problems with existing technology is better technology.

A cleaner future requires a mix of solutions

It’s not a secret that EVs have excellent acceleration capability, zero ground emissions during operation, and are a pleasure to drive.

But it’s probably best to take a step back and view the big picture.

The reality is that most of the world’s energy — including the electricity required to power EVs — is produced by fossil fuels. The environmental effects of the mining required to produce EVs are devastating and battery disposal has serious potential toxic effects.

A clean transportation future requires a variety of solutions from all energy sectors. EVs are an excellent option, but they aren’t the entire solution.

Hissan Ur Rehman is a graduate of Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and MBA from UK in Management Consulting. Views expressed are his own and do not reflect the newspaper's policy.

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