What is your take on Electrical Vehicles or EVs? Are you a fan of them? Do you own one or are you planning to own one someday in the near future? You are probably not just a fan of EVs just because they are cool but also and possibly more because they are known as a better option for our environment. While it surely does seem that way – there is a lot more to know about when it comes to the environmental impact of EVs. But, worry not! Let me guide you through some basic understanding of the environmental impacts of EVs so that you don’t get greenwashed by super cool advertisements.
The Rise of EVs
From a report by the World Economic Forum, we can see that 1 in 7 cars being sold is an EV or an Electric Vehicle. No wonder these battery-powered machines are getting more popular with each passing day as the global sales of EVs crossed 10 million units in 2022 from 6 million units in 2021. Everyone knows them as the green alternative to their combustion engine counterpart, but are they?
Let’s talk about the manufacturing process
These vehicles operate on large batteries, which require a lot of minerals to make. Batteries such as these consist of the anode, cathode, separator, electrolyte, and lithium ions, the five essential technological components. An average EV battery (NMC532) weighs about 8 kilograms (17 pounds) of lithium carbonate, 35 kilograms (77 kilograms) of nickel, 20 kilograms (44 kilograms) of manganese, and 14 kilograms (30 kilograms) of cobalt. Being minerals, they have to be mined somewhere, and this is where the first issue starts. Cobalt prevents the cathodes from catching fire so it is an essential part of the battery, and its demand is increasing as EVs become more popular.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo, more specifically, the Southern Congo, has roughly 3.4 million metric tons of cobalt, which is approximately half of the world’s known supply. Despite having such a large mining industry, it is suffering from many unethical issues. Lack of regulation, corruption, forced slavery, and child labor are among the most severe problems faced by the people working here.
Lithium mining is not free from this either. Having approximately more than half of the lithium of the world, the lithium triangle is proving to be very problematic for the local environment. The farmers of the surrounding areas of the lithium triangle in Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile are facing water shortages as lithium mining requires a large amount of water, which is destroying the local ecosystems as well as using up the local freshwater sources. It is also responsible for the increased salinity in the water of the local river and the agricultural land destabilization near the mines, as well as contaminating the air around the mines. On the other side of the world, Chinese lithium mining in Tibet has caused the Lichu River to become contaminated with hydrochloric acid and other pollutants, killing livestock and poisoning fish.
Alongside these ethical and environmental issues, the major issue in the manufacturing process is that an EV battery produces as little as 8 metric tons of CO2 and as much as 20 metric tons of CO2, which is a lot if compared to its combustion engine counterpart, which it is trying to replace, which only emits 5-7 metric tons of CO2 in its production.
So why are EVs considered a solution?
So, after all these issues, why is it considered a solution to the problems the current most popular engines have? A typical gasoline powered family car emits about 24 metric tons of CO2 in its lifetime, and on the other hand, an EV produces about 19 metric tons of CO2 in its lifetime. This difference is making EVs the most popular alternative to combustion engine cars. But as the lifecycle ends, a new problem arises; the disposal of used batteries. If not dumped properly, these batteries can leak and let out toxic fumes and substances, which can cause substantial damage to the environment and ultimately human health. The solution to this can be recycling, but it still remains a barrier because of the cost. Recycled metal can cost as much as five times the price of regular metal. So, most of the time, batteries end up in landfills rather than being reused.
Let’s talk about some solutions
that could further boost EV’s growth and make it the best alternative available at the moment. EV batteries are facing the main drawbacks, so to solve them, they can be made greener by investigating alternative materials with less of an impact on the environment. This involves developing more sustainable alternatives, maximizing the use of energy and resources, reducing waste production, and implementing environmentally friendly manufacturing techniques, as well as replacing or lowering the use of scarce and environmentally damaging materials in batteries. The sustainability credentials of EV batteries can be further improved by using renewable energy sources for battery production facilities. The safe and sustainable disposal or reuse of battery components can be ensured by creating effective recycling technologies and putting strong laws in place.
Another drawback is that current-generation EVs lack a green power source, which ultimately increases their carbon usage. To overcome this and achieve more environmentally friendly power generation, the proportion of renewable energy sources in the electrical system must increase. This involves investing in wind, solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal energy to replace fossil fuel-based power facilities. Greener energy sources can be produced by reducing carbon emissions from existing power plants by using cleaner technologies and carbon capture and storage (CCS) strategies. The environmental effect of electricity generation can be considerably reduced by switching from coal-fired power plants to cleaner options like natural gas and emission-reduction strategies. A consistent and dependable power supply for EV charging can be achieved by implementing energy storage technologies, such as large-scale batteries or pumped hydro storage, to balance intermittent renewable energy sources. The development of intelligent charging infrastructure that adjusts charging based on grid circumstances and the availability of renewable energy sources can maximize the use of cleaner power sources.
As with any new innovation, electric vehicles have their benefits as well as drawbacks. The main issues that are currently hindering the growth of EVs are a lack of greener batteries and a lack of a green power source to charge the batteries, as most of the electricity that is currently being used to charge the vehicles comes from plants that use fossil fuels to create electricity. As a whole, EVs can be the best possible alternative if these issues are addressed, if not, they will probably end up doing much more damage than combustion engine vehicles, as EVs are growing at a much faster pace. In a world where possibilities abound, only time will tell if this is the definitive solution to the present problems or just another intriguing idea taking everyone deeper into the face of newer ones. Do let us know your take on it!