Your green car isn’t
There seems to be a certain amount of elitism in some sectors of the population that goes with the ownership of a “green” car. That isn’t the color; it relates to a car that is considered to be more environmentally friendly than a gasoline or diesel-powered vehicle. Leading the list are electric cars.
Despite some spectacular failures in the market, like the Chevrolet Volt, electric cars or EVs are becoming more popular. The electric car market is very slim, being less than one-half of 1 percent of total sales in the U.S. They fare better in supposedly enlightened foreign countries like Europe.
A large percentage of sales comes from government agencies. California, of course, leads the way with about 40 percent of total EV sales being for government agencies. The same goes for Europe with a large percentage of total sales being for government use.
Government subsidies are huge for electric cars. You get tax credits and breaks for buying one. Manufacturers also get large hidden subsidies for producing them. It is said that Tesla would be bankrupt without direct government subsidies. This appears to be true but is deeply hidden in the company prospectus, although I have to admit most of the Tesla designs are eye-catching.
But are these cars really green? In a word, no. To build one of these cars, you need steel and copper, which must be mined. That requires hydrocarbon fuels to extract and refine. Plastic is also needed, which also requires hydrocarbon material and has some seriously harmful byproducts in its manufacturing process. There is also rubber for the tires, door seals, etc. The same processing applies here.
But that is true of all cars. So, let us look at the main difference between gasoline cars and the EVs. The main difference, obviously, is the manner of propulsion. Gas and diesel cars use tried and true fuel to move them. Modern car engines will last 200,000 miles or more. Electric cars must rely on batteries for their power needs. Batteries are heavy. There is an obvious tradeoff of weight for travel distance.
These batteries are made primarily from lithium plus some cobalt, manganese, or nickel. All of these components must be mined and none are easily or readily available. There are only two deposits in the U.S. producing lithium. It is scarce. Like most minerals, lithium requires chemicals to process it in a usable form. Lithium extraction can and often does cause soil and air contamination. Research on the Nevada lithium operation in Silver Peak has found impacts on fish as far as 150 miles away.
That covers the source of the battery material. According to Politico, using electric vehicles will actually increase air pollution. Not directly from the car, but from the manufacturing process for lithium-ion batteries that requires huge energy inputs. In fact, producing an EV car requires about 20 percent more energy from start to finish than a conventional car of similar size. That considers all aspects of production including batteries. That doesn’t even consider the environmental impacts of electricity production. As a side note, when PG&E shut down its power grid in parts of California due to high winds, the lines to charge electric cars from gas generator sources were reminiscent of President Carter’s gasoline shortage of the 1979 energy crisis.
The next problem is what to do with the vehicle when its useful life is finished. Materials in conventional cars can be about 5 percent recycled, including engine and drive train components. Not true with EVs. Depending on the charge/discharge cycle battery life appears to be 80,000 to 120,000 miles. Replacing the batteries is reported to have a cost comparable to replacing a gas engine. That does not include disposal of the batteries. Based on information I found, lithium-ion batteries are not readily recyclable. They must instead be disposed of. Doing so in a safe manner is problematic at best.
So the EV of today is first, heavily subsidized from manufacturing through purchase. Useful life is about half that of a gas-powered car. Disposing of the batteries presents its own environmental risk. Several studies as reported by Politico show EVs to actually cause higher air emissions when all factors including electricity production.
So if you want an EV, go for it. Just don’t tell me how much you are doing for the environment. Oh, I won’t be riding with you on your trip from Fallon to Salt Lake City. I don’t yet trust EVs over long distances.