Streams of information steer consumers on their vehicle choices, ranging from helpful facts to the self-serving (and often fictitious) statistics presented by automakers. Drivers who prioritize low environmental impact in their vehicle choice, face some confusing options, fuel being an important one
In locations with electricity produced by low carbon or zero carbon methods, the facts suggest that a fully electric vehicle is the most environmentally friendly type of vehicle on the market. This blog briefly highlights some of the environmental considerations of purchasing a fully electric vehicle (EV) as applied to an average driver in Victoria.
The Source: Powering Electric Vehicles
Another low impact component of the EV is that plug-in electricity demand is reduced through the breaking system. Unlike gas/diesel engines, EV’s have regenerative breaking systems that recharge the battery when going downhill or breaking, utilizing energy wasted in conventional vehicles.
The Battery: Production, Life, & Recycling
EV batteries today are increasingly made of lithium-ion, making them more efficient and longer lasting than earlier forms of battery. These batteries, however, pose certain challenges.
Estimates suggest that the typical battery life for an EV is 12-15 years, with Nissan saying that after five years, reduced effectiveness for the batteries in a typical Leaf brings the range down from 80 miles/128 kms to 55 miles/88 kms. That range, however, is quite adequate for the driving needs of the majority of urban dwellers in Canada who drive an average of 50 kms a day. Thankfully, when the battery does fall below an acceptable range, EV owners aren’t stuck with a non-resell-able auto heading to scrap. Nissan now offers replacement batteries for about the same cost of putting a new engine and transmission into a gas car, around $5,500, making replacement or resale of EV’s a feasible option albeit a relatively expensive one.
But what happens to the old batteries? Only a few companies in North America currently recycle EV batteries. This is done by freezing the batteries to -160 degrees Celsius to defuse the lithium and then shearing, shredding and separating batteries into their different components, which can be resold. But the most sustainable scenario is one where batteries aren’t immediately sent from a 14 yr old EV to the recycling plant, or worse yet the trash, but instead are given a “second life” in some other function. Currently, groups within tech industry, academia, government, and the environmental sector are working toward developing second life options for EV batteries. These ideas include using the older batteries as back up generators for houses and neighbourhoods (a used Chevy Volt battery could provide about 3 hours of electricity for 3-5 typical American homes) or for municipalities, where batteries could store excess energy to be provided back to the grid at high demand periods.
On South Vancouver Island, we currently have several electric charging stations, with more promised to come on line over the next five years.
The average cost to drive 100 miles on electricity is only $3.45 compared to $13.52 for driving 100 miles on gasoline. With fewer parts than other types of vehicles, an EV requires less maintenance. However, battery replacement should not be overlooked.
Disclaimer: Hold Your Horses
While EVs are likely the most eco-friendly choice of automotive for the average Victoria driver, consumers must remember that building and operating of cars uses water, energy and other valuable resources and their disposal also heavily impacts the environment and public health.
As well, the bigger the vehicle the bigger the impact. Our best environmental option remains to choose vehicles that use less material and fuel. Better yet, we need healthier people who are less reliant on their cars and more likely to walk, bike and use public transit.
It’s important to consider the life-cycle impacts of what we purchase. A study by Climate Central stated “emissions from producing the battery and other electrical components create a 10,000 to 40,000-pound carbon debt for electric cars that can only be overcome after tens, or even hundreds of thousands of miles of driving and recharging from clean energy sources.” This large carbon debt is due to activities such as the lithium mining necessary for EV battery production. By contrast the amount for making a conventional gas powered car is 14,000 pounds, with their carbon debt increasing primarily through tail-pipe emissions.
A life cycle analysis by the Journal of Industrial Ecology suggests that if an electric car is driven for 144,000 kms and the owner stays away from coal-powered electricity, the car will produce about 24% less carbon-dioxide emission than its gas-powered cousin. That’s a worthwhile improvement but not the cure-all being promoted.
We need to choose cars that are much more fuel efficient, far-less polluting and are more proficient in their use and disposal of metals, plastics, and other valuable materials. The trend towards buying SUVs, even those with some sort of flex fuel exhibits a lack of responsibility by government, car manufacturers and purchasers.
The most important steps we can and must take now are those that get us out of our cars out into our neighbourhoods building healthier, more sustainable communities with public transportation that reduces the pollution and urban sprawl caused by cars.