Electric vehicles promised a future without road pollution. Now environmentalists say they may not be as ‘green’ as we think they are – and must get better.
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Deep underground, in the hot springs of Cornwall, the hunt is on for “white petrol” – otherwise known as lithium. It is one of the metals that is vital to produce the lithium-ion batteries needed to power electric vehicles.
Tin miners recorded its presence there more than 100 years ago. And the reason why geologists are interested in these miners’ accounts is the remarkable renaissance of a technology that was, until recently, one of the great technological what-ifs, like the airship and the steam-powered car.
Just 10 years ago it would have seemed inconceivable that Jaguar Land Rover would declare that it would make only electric or hybrid cars from 2020, as it announced last month, or that the Government would decide to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2040, as it did in July.
Analysts predict that, by 2030, four out of five vehicles bought will be electric or hybrid. However, some researchers are worried that they may not be the clean, green environmentally friendly dream most people believe.
It’s not just the tailpipe
“What bugs me is how in the States we have allowed electric vehicles to be called zero-emission vehicles,” says Joshua Graff Zivin, professor of economics and public policy at the University of California, San Diego. “I am pro- electric vehicles [he has his name down for a Tesla Model 3], but it’s just flat-out deception to call them ‘zero-emission’.
“Zero tailpipe emission vehicles they may be, but the pollution has just shifted to where the power is generated. The person driving the electric vehicle could be in Chelsea, while the person breathing the pollution is in Newcastle.”
“The general trend is fewer emissions from the tailpipe and more from the manufacturing of the car,” agrees Professor Anders Hammer Stromman, director of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s ecology programme. “The manufacture of electric vehicles has a greater impact on the environment than that of traditional cars because – for example – the production of batteries and electric motors requires more toxic minerals [nickel, copper and aluminium].”
“The CO2 emissions from the production of petrol cars are well understood because it is a very mature industry,” says Robert Baylis, managing director of the London-based industry consultants Roskill Information Services. “The shift to a new technology means that in lots of areas there hasn’t been much research regarding CO2 production.”
Perhaps, as some experts believe, we need to stop thinking of electric vehicles as a one-to-one substitute for petrol or diesel cars.
“The combination of electric vehicles, ride-sharing as a business model and autonomous [driverless] vehicles will mean that we need fewer vehicles in the future,” says Tony Seba, lecturer in entrepreneurship, disruption and clean energy at Stanford University and a co-founder of ReThinkX, an independent think-tank.
The first electric cars took to the road in the 1880s. Twenty years later, improvements to the internal combustion engine and the mass production of petrol cars killed their chances as mass-market products.
The failure of the General Motors EV1 experimental electric car project of the mid-1990s seemed to many outside the industry to signal the end of the prospect of mass-produced electric cars.
Then, in 2008, Elon Musk assumed leadership of Tesla Motors. In July this year, he launched the mass-market Model 3, designed to sell the electric car to the masses.
The widespread adoption of the electric vehicle was a dream that would never die because of its “have-your-cake-and-eat-it” technology: all the freedom associated with the car with none of the direct pollution.
Key to this vision is the simplicity of electric vehicles. Under the bonnet, they are simpler and cleaner than a vehicle with an internal combustion engine. Rather than igniting petrol to drive a cylinder up and down, electric engines use electricity stored in a battery to power an electric motor to turn the wheels. Electric vehicles can do without fuel tanks, fuel pumps, cylinder blocks, carburettors and exhaust pipes. They do not even need to have gears.
So, no more exhaust emissions. But just how clean and “green” is the electricity used to power them? In a 2014 paper, Zivin put his head above the parapet to argue that a plug-in electric vehicle such as the Nissan Leaf produces fewer CO2 emissions than a hybrid electric-and-petrol-powered car only where its power is not derived from coal. With coal, it could even double a hybrid’s emissions impact.
“Electric cars can only be as clean as the power that generates them,” he argues. “Electric vehicles in France aren’t bad because they run on nuclear power. In China and Poland, they are bad because they generate a lot of power from coal.”
In the UK, 22 per cent of power is generated by coal and about a third is generated by natural gas, which according to Zivin should make electric vehicles a “net winner”.
But the environmental impact does not end there. There are two essential “ingredients” in the lithium-ion batteries that electric cars (and other products such as mobile phones) currently depend on: lithium and cobalt. And the supply of these key metals is set to challenge the green credentials of the electric car. Manufacturers such as Volkswagen are already scrambling to secure their supply of these key metals for the next 20 years, while producers struggle to increase supply – and in such situations, the environment usually loses.
Most of the world’s supplies of lithium come from the high-altitude lakes and salt flats where Chile, Argentina and Bolivia meet. The fragile environment of the “lithium triangle” is now at risk from the production of lithium, in a global market expected to be worth $75bn (£57bn) by 2025.
Lithium production involves drawing brine from deep underground. “The water table in these areas of South America has dropped by several centimetres,” says Robert Baylis, “and this a big concern because the surrounding areas are very biodiverse.”
Cobalt has its own issues. “Two-thirds of the mined production of cobalt is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has an issue with child labour, and environmental standards aren’t as good,” he adds. “It is then shipped to China, where it is processed, often beyond the sight of environmentalists.”
In 2012, Anders Stromman was one of the authors of the report on Comparative Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Conventional and Electric Vehicles. They attempted to look at the impact of electric vehicles from the mining of minerals to the breaker’s yard. Their conclusion was that, from the small particles of rubber from the tyres and brakes of electric vehicles through to the breakers yard, electric vehicles performed worse than, or on a par with, modern combustion engines, despite almost no emissions when on the road.
However, electric vehicles did make sense the longer they stayed on the road and if the electricity they were dependent on came from renewable sources.
“When we published our report in 2012, we intended to point out where to make improvements in the technology so it could become part of the solution to climate change,” says Strømman. “However, many people interpreted it to be arguing against electrical vehicles.
A new generation
“The focus of the first generation of EVs was on getting a product that works. The focus of the second generation should be energy efficiency and the manufacturing of a greener product.” None of the car manufacturers contacted for the piece was able to comment.
New sources of lithium, new materials to replace cobalt, and new battery technologies and engine-manufacturing techniques could all help reduce the impact of electric vehicles. Coal power plants will grow old and should give way to solar and wind.
“In the end, I don’t see we have many alternatives to the electric vehicle,” says Strømman. “We have to make it work.”
The miners of Cornwall may hope he is right.