Are Electric Cars Actually Better for the Environment?

Electric Cars Better For The Environment
Photo: Martin Katler on Unsplash

Some people are saying that electric cars are just as bad for the environment as combustion engines.

Some people are saying electric cars are even worse. There are a ton of myths surrounding electric vehicles and just how eco-friendly they are, with some based in fact and some completely made up. It can be hard to find comprehensive answers to some of the ecofriendly questions, but that’s why we’re here. Today, we’re going to be tackling some of the common statements about electric cars’ true ‘cleanliness,’ providing the facts and unbiased information you deserve.

Welcome to Alternative Power Week! In honor of Earth Day, we’re going to spend the next several days diving into the nitty-gritty of the new, eco-friendly technology powering the vehicles of the future to keep you informed on all the latest changes in the automotive industry. If you have any questions or ideas for a future article, leave your ideas in the comments!

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Myth #1: Battery production is bad for the environment.

Reality: Yes and no.

Lithium-ion batteries are, at this moment, the preferred method of powering Battery Electric Vehicles, but creating a lithium-ion battery requires the mining of several resources, like lithium, nickel, manganese, and cobalt. Mining is an inherently dirty operation that not only produces carbon emissions but presents an environmental impact in the destruction of ecosystems and, potentially, the muddying of a delicate geopolitical situation in an area. Think of the conflicts the United States has had with oil-producing countries because of just that: oil. The elements needed to produce batteries are relatively abundant on Earth, but mining rights are held by a few exclusive operations and can be expensive—and overmining is always a problem.

This issue is called ‘passive emissions,’ or emissions not directly produced by the electric car but produced in the process of making the car. The process of building the battery cells of an EV are also responsible for tons of emissions—almost half of the emission created in the EV-making process, the Swedish Environmental Research Institute found. The larger the battery, the most emissions released.

That being said, the main study that contributed to this belief that battery production is extremely harmful has been debunked, which basically means that the statistics it provided were blown severely out of proportion. As it stands, there is definitely room for the development of a more eco-friendly battery build process, but many other studies have shown that BEVs more quickly ‘pay off’ their carbon debt than other cars, which means that they more rapidly cancel out the emissions created during production.

This “lifecycle analysis” style research is going to be the way forward, especially in terms of refining the battery production process in ways that will make it better for the environment.

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Myth #2: There’s no eco-friendly way to recycle batteries.

Reality: Eco-friendly recycling is totally possible.

We’re in something of an intermediate stage when it comes to batteries. We’re more focused on making them and building them to last for years than we are about recycling them. And recycle them you must, because simply throwing away batteries can create its own host of problems.

But with the prevalence of lithium-ion batteries in so many products today, from laptops to BEVs, scientists have come up with recycling solutions that can benefit everyone. Factories already exist to break down these materials, but it is admittedly still an unsafe and temperamental procedure. In the recent past, the recycling process involved a lot of burning of materials—which produces emissions—to free them of their place in the battery. But that’s changing now.

There’s a huge push for re-use projects for EV batteries. Other companies are pushing for clean recycling. Volkswagen and Nissan both have plans that not only do not involve the melting-down of materials but that also preserve so much more of the necessary battery material. We’re talking a 95 percent preservation rate versus a 60 percent preservation rate. Basically, we’re just now coming out of a period of time where we’ve refined recycling techniques in such a way that they don’t contribute to further emissions—but it’s still an evolving process

Recycling is crucial because, as we talked about above, lithium-ion batteries require the mining of natural resources that could grow scarce as EV demand rises. Recycling batteries means those materials can find a second life in another BEV. As the Union of Concerned Scientists notes, “battery recycling can create a more stable domestic source of materials for battery production, reduce the demand for raw materials, and minimize the risks of geopolitical disruptions of the supply chain.” It also notes that, if the United States starts recycling batteries, we can reuse up to 30 to 40 percent of the battery material in the production of future batteries.

Electric Cars Better For The Environment

Charging stations are usually easy to spot. Photo: Sophie Jonas on Unsplash

Myth #3: Electricity is a dirty source of power.

Reality: Yes, but only in some instances.

An electric car is only as clean as the energy that powers it, and in the United States, a fairly significant amount of electricity production is still done through what we’d call ‘dirty’ means, or in ways that produce carbon emissions. In the United States, about 60 percent of all electricity comes from natural gas or coal. Another 20 percent comes from nuclear power, which can also be pegged as harmful for the environment.

Unfortunately, less than 20 percent of our power comes from ‘clean’ sources like wind, water, or sun—and even some of those forms of power can be questioned. Building a massive dam to generate electricity, for example, can do inordinate amounts of harm to the biodiversity of the ecosystem. It may produce fewer carbon emissions, but it sees an impact in other ways.

The U.S. Department of Energy features a really handy tool that allows you to see where most of the power in your state comes from, which can help you make a more informed choice about whether or not you want to go electric. In Texas, for example, over half of all electricity is created by natural gas. In Utah, over 60 percent of all electricity comes from burning coal. In Idaho, it comes primarily from water-generated sources. New Hampshire creates most of its energy from nuclear power.

Of course, there are still a ton of benefits of driving a vehicle that doesn’t create its own tailpipe emissions. And the electrical grid is always changing in order to support more eco-friendly sources of power. So, electricity is still fraught with challenges, but it is changing.

Myth #4: EVs don’t have a significant impact on reducing carbon emissions.

Reality: EVs have a more eco-friendly life cycle than internal combustion engines.

The charging and driving of an electric car still doesn’t touch the emission impact had by an internal combustion engine vehicle. A different study by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that, right now, EVs produce far fewer carbon emissions than ICE vehicles when considering the three sections of life analyzed: manufacturing, operation, and end-of-life. Here’s how that looks broken down:

  • Manufacturing: EVs do have a larger level of emissions at the production level than ICEs, anywhere from 15 to 70 percent higher.
  • Operation: EVs make up for their initial manufacturing emissions within their first 18 months of life, at which point ICE vehicles will become less eco-friendly the longer they’re on the road. And yes, charging is still better for the environment than pumping gasoline, even if that electricity comes from coal power.
  • End-of-life: Both types of vehicle are about on par with each other in the disposal and recycling phase at the end of life: it all depends on how effectively the materials are used.

And this study even discounts the possibility that EV production and life will grow more optimized over time—which is bound to happen.

Related: What It Really Costs To Own An Electric Car

Myth #5: Production of EVs is just as bad for the environment as ICEs.

Reality: Yes and no.

We touched on the production of batteries in the first myth, but this time, we’ll look at the other components for the car. Because battery cells are so heavy, many manufacturers work on making the rest of the car as light as possible. Those lightweight materials like carbon fiber take a lot of energy to create and thus contribute more emissions than would the building of a standard car body.

That being said, the Eindhoven University of Technology concluded that, after analyzing other studies and performing research of its own, BEV production is still better for the environment—especially when considered from the life cycle perspective. So, it still makes sense to pursue the development of BEVs, despite the fact that there’s still room for improvement. There may be a higher level of emissions during production than ICEs, but those emissions cancel out over time.

The Final Verdict: There’s Room to Grow…

…But that doesn’t mean we should totally write off EVs just yet. The technology is still evolving and being refined, so while there may be places in the manufacturing and life cycle processes, those flaws currently see BEVs on par with or better for the environment than internal combustion engine vehicles in terms of emissions—and scientists are still working on developing the process. That means that, in ten years, BEV production is going to be so much better than it is now, which also means the cars will be better for the environment.

It’s an ever-evolving process, and we’re definitely going to see good things from BEVs in the near future.

I'm Elizabeth Blackstock, managing editor of AGGTC, blogger, journalist, novelist, editor, MA/MFA graduate student, wife, motorsport fanatic, and bearer... More about Elizabeth Blackstock