Electric vehicles: the good, the bad, the context

EVs are a vital tool in the transportation toolbox – with false talking points and a battery problem to overcome

Gavin MacRae

1980 Marathon C-300 Electric Car by Marathon Electric Car Ltd. of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Alden Jewell (cropped from original)

There are some strange ideas out there about electric vehicles. A percentage of would-be owners are nervous about driving an EV in a lightning storm, taking an EV through a car wash, or even worried that charging an electric vehicle will electrocute them.

But the granddaddy of EV myths is that after accounting for the embodied emissions from battery production, EVs actually produce more greenhouse gases over their lifespans than internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEs). Like a lot of myths, it started with some truth, back when battery production was less efficient and electricity grids were on average dirtier.

“There was a time when you could make a serious argument against electric vehicles because of the battery manufacturing,” says Daniel Posen, assistant professor of civil & mineral engineering at the University of Toronto. “That time has passed.”

But the myth lives on, periodically resuscitated by dubious analyses, and despite expert refutations.

In a paper published in Joule this June, Dutch researcher Auke Hoekstra details the “common flaws in assumptions and methodology” he says are needed to number-crunch in favour of ICE vehicles: overestimating emissions from battery manufacture, underestimating battery lifespan, excluding emissions from fuel production, and assuming that over the lifetime of the EV, the electricity grid will not green. By Hoekstra’s calculations, such assumptions can more than double on-paper lifecycle emissions of EVs.

Exaggerations also stem from comparing small, fuel-efficient ICE cars to larger, performance EVs, and assuming batteries are made with 100% virgin materials, says Neil MacEachern, sustainable transportation program manager at the Fraser Basin Council. “It’s an apples to oranges comparison, or worse,” he says.

In a 2018 study by researchers from Simon Fraser University and the Fraser Basin Council, MacEachern says results showed that even on Alberta’s coal-heavy grid, “you still end up with a 50% lifecycle reduction for a comparable battery electric vehicle compared to a similar combustion engine vehicle.”

Lifecycle emissions aside, EVs beat ICEs on air quality, hands down. A study co-authored by Posen, still under peer review, found that replacing all the cars in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area with EVs would have “enormous health benefits” even if none of the charging electricity was generated by renewables. “With an all natural gas [power grid], we’ve still found huge health benefits overall, even including areas near some of the gas plants,” says Posen. “Because of the benefits of stopping the tailpipe emissions from cars that are at street level, right near people.”

Dead battery

But batteries aren’t made of fairy dust, and a second gripe with electric vehicles holds more truth. Cobalt, lithium and other metals used in lithium-ion EV batteries (as well as in cell phones, laptops and other devices) represent an impending waste management dilemma, while mining the materials is associated with human rights and health impacts, and heavy metal contamination of water and agricultural soils.

At the same time, failure to maintain a steady supply of the metals could bottleneck EV adoption and energy storage technologies. And demand for the metals is set to boom.

Accelerating battery manufacture for EVs and energy storage is expected to outstrip the supply of lithium by 2022, and cobalt and nickel by 2030, according to a commissioned report by the University of Technology Sydney, Australia. Known reserves of all three metals are projected to be exhausted by 2050.

To avoid a parallel escalation in environmental damage and human exploitation, the report calls for battery manufacturers to reduce demand through efficiency increases, substitute materials where possible, and make sustainable sourcing a priority.

But the single largest way to reduce demand for battery materials is by recycling them. Currently, industry is “very aware of the looming volumes,” the report says, and working to advance recycling infrastructure that is right now inadequate.

“Of course, the question of whether something can be recycled is distinct from the question of whether something will be recycled,” says Jeremy Michalek, professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, by email. “Recycling practice will depend on the cost of collecting, sorting, and processing used batteries as well as the value of the materials the process produces.”

For cobalt, which is not required for all EV battery technologies, the same factors that make it scarce could see it phased out, says MacEachern. “Given the rarity of cobalt, the fact that it is throttled by a limited number of suppliers, and the instability in a lot of the places it comes from, it’s not necessarily something you want to have in your supply chain,” he says. “And so a number of producers, Tesla being the largest, have stated they intend to take cobalt entirely out of their batteries, and they’ve been consistently reducing the amount of cobalt for those reasons, as well as making dedications to ethical sourcing.”

Used EV batteries can also be repurposed for other applications at the end of their in-car life, most notably as stationary energy storage. “It’s something our current regulatory structure in Canada doesn’t allow for,” says MacEachern. “But in other countries they are using batteries that may only have like, 60% of their state of health, which is maybe not great for people who are doing road trips, but they work very well as backups for solar panels, and so we’re seeing more and more of that occurring on a global scale.”

However, Michalek cautions that in future, plans to repurpose EV batteries will be competing against new, low-cost stationary battery designs.

All told, without iron-clad commitments to sustainable and ethical supply chains, and an efficient global recycling regime, spiraling lithium-ion battery production could exact a toll in environmental damage and human misery. Yet as the University of Technology Sydney report notes, EV manufacturers are consumer-facing brands, and rising EV adoption could offer the opportunity to clean up not only the supply chain for EV batteries specifically, but for the metals more broadly.

In weighing the issue, it must also be noted that the materials used in lithium-ion batteries are key to eliminating the environmental, health, and social costs of fossil fuel extraction and burning.

Mode shift

Other emissions-reducing measures for transportation are essential, too, such as increased public transit, protected bike lanes, and increasing the walkability and density of cities.

In British Columbia, these “mode shifts” – from driving to other means of transportation – are being overshadowed by auto-centric policies, says Victoria-based transportation planning consultant Eric Doherty.

“The dominant media narrative is that the electric vehicle is the thing to do about greenhouse gas pollution from transportation,” Doherty says. “There’s been a little lip service toward better transit, but it’s been a pretty dismal public dialogue.”

That focus has led to highway expansions in the midst of a climate crisis, which does nothing to decrease the number of cars on the road, or the average distances travelled, Doherty says. “On Vancouver Island, for example, right now they’re spending huge amounts of money to build a four lane section of Sooke Road, Highway 14, instead of improving public transit to suit.”

In contrast, Doherty points to Paris, France, as an example of bold transportation policy. The French capital has steadily restricted car access to the city centre, while building hundreds of kilometres of dedicated bike lanes. Because of the changes, bicycle use has jumped 54% in one year, according to a survey by the mayor’s office.

In BC, Doherty says such systemic changes are prevented by entrenched car-loving culture, Big Oil’s political clout, and developers who lobby to build sprawling, car-dependent housing developments.

“We need to get into a new paradigm,” Doherty says. “Before, the idea was ‘we’ll maybe make a bus lane where it’s not going to get in the way of cars.’ We need to shift that to say every every bit of lane space that you can shift to transit or bicycles or walking has a big benefit.”

MacEachern agrees that mode shifts have benefits above and beyond swapping ICE cars for Electric Vehicles, but says the advantage of EVs is that they offer fast emissions reductions, now.

“In the long term, a movement away from the single occupancy vehicle model – public transportation, bicycles, people’s feet – all these things provide a lot of other social benefits that single passenger vehicles don’t,” he says.  “But those are a longer battle to fight. We need to make investments in those, but I think in the here and now, given the way our society is structured, moving to electric, personal vehicles is an incredibly important step in that direction.”

Posen says: “Most  would agree electric vehicles are part of the solution, and many would agree that they are a large part of the solution. And almost everyone would agree that they are not the only thing we need to do. They won’t be enough alone.”

This article appears in our February-March 2020 issue.







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