November 2020 Vol. 75 No. 11

Editor's Log

Justifying Evils of EVs

By Robert Carpenter, Editor-in-Chief

Electronic vehicles (EVs) are all the big rage. Millennials and Gen-Zers are all about making the world environmentally safe. Progressive politicians, environmentalists, scientists and a liberal citizenry worldwide tend to agree that footprints created by petro-carbon energy are the root of all evil and ultimately have led to climate change and the pending death of our planet.

Popular culture has now placed electric cars at the front line of the war to stem a pending climate catastrophe. Worldwide, governments have subsidized the electric car industry in hopes of accelerating its development. While the cost of purchasing an electric car is still high compared with conventional vehicle, it is a far cry from what the cost would be without subsidies. These subsidies have allowed billionaire Elon Musk’s Tesla brand to finally become profitable over the past year. In fact, Tesla’s market cap is now greater than Ford Motor Company and not that far behind General Motors.

We can all concur that preventing climate disaster is highly desirable and absolutely necessary for succeeding generations. We should all be respectful of the planet, understanding its limitations, avoiding abuse of the land and resources, recycling and working to reduce carbon, etc.

Unfortunately, “trendy” solutions have often overlooked costs with unintended consequences and impacts. Such a quandary is presented by the global rush to produce electric cars.

Let’s examine some of those consequences. Obviously, what makes the electric car possible is advancements in batteries – specifically lithium-ion, rechargeable batteries – which are created using rare earth minerals such as lithium, manganese, graphite and cobalt, found primarily in Africa, China, and to some degree, Latin America. Much of this type of mineral production originates in many countries that have been called out by international groups such as Amnesty International for being oppressive, corrupt and having despicable human rights records. For example, a large portion of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, principally by forced child labor. Dangers abound for anyone, young or old, in those mining operations.

To its credit, Tesla no longer sources cobalt directly from the Congo. Rather, it buys from Glencore, a large company headquartered in Switzerland, which of course still collects its supply of cobalt from African mines.

A recent article in Forbes explains that only about 1 percent of the world’s car fleet is currently electric. However, that rate is expected to expand exponentially in coming years. The Forbes article pointed out that just to replace the United Kingdom’s current fleet of cars it would require twice the annual global production of cobalt, three-quarters of the world’s production of lithium carbonate, more than half of the world’s production of copper and nearly the entire world’s production of neodymium. To fill the international appetite for electric vehicles, including the United States, the scale of mining for raw materials is mind boggling, especially when you consider where these minerals come from and how they are mined.

Further, about 50 percent of the lifetime carbon-dioxide emissions from an electric car come from the energy used to produce the car. Compare that to a conventional, gasoline vehicle that has a life-time carbon footprint from manufacturing of 17 percent.

And of course, there is that pesky problem of recharging electric cars. That power typically comes from either carbon-heavy coal power plants or carbon-lite natural gas power plants. Add those figures to manufacturing carbon footprints, and when an electric vehicle is driven 50,000 miles it will have succeeded in producing more carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere than a similar gasoline-powered car – and at a much higher purchase price.

What happens to all those precious metal batteries when they are no longer able to be recharged? Landfills are taboo due to the dangerous nature of the minerals and the possibility of batteries corroding to the point of explosion. However, secondary life options are being developed. In China, 7-11 stores are now being powered by used electric car batteries.

But sooner or later, the power will expire and recycling the precious – and still valuable – minerals contained in the batteries is a distinct possibility. That’s not happening to a large degree today, mainly because there is no uniformity in the way those batteries are built; everyone has their own version and that makes it extremely difficult to automate recycling. Even if battery production becomes uniform, the critical mass necessary to produce automated economic recycling is still 10 – 30 years away. In the meantime, in about five years, we will start to have an environmental problem with used electric car batteries. Will science come to the rescue in time? That remains to be seen.

Electric vehicles present an intriguing transportation future. But it all has to be balanced with practicality, reality of purpose and cultural empathy, and it can’t be rushed until these issues are resolved. The growth of the electric car industry can’t push forward and ignore the risk to human lives and child labor. •

Related Articles

From Archive


{{ error }}
{{ comment.comment.Name }} • {{ comment.timeAgo }}
{{ comment.comment.Text }}