The dirty little secrets of the electric car

“Green” cars have some dirty secrets as producing and charging electric cars means heavy carbon-dioxide emissions and also the need for rare earths, etc.

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Electric cars are permanently being promoted as the best thing since sliced bread – not that I regard sliced bread, especially of the factory-made variety such a great thing – for an environmentally benign future.

The ads by the various companies, and even green organizations, assure us of “zero emissions”, and US President Obama has promised a million on the road by 2015.

With sales for 2012 coming in at about 50,000, that million-car figure is a pipe dream, especially as car buyers and -drivers remain rather wary of the cars' limited range, higher price and the logistics of battery-charging.

It is, however, amazing that already before the turn of the 19th to the 20th century there were electric vehicles, in those days heavy horse carts that were converted, using a heavy lead-acid battery that could go much further at sixty than today's modern electric vehicles can. But, apparently, we cannot make anything like that today.

Those who own an an electric car tend to believe that there is a consolation to the costs in that it is truly green. But is that really true? Not really.

For proponents of electric cars such as the actor and activist Leonardo DiCaprio, the main argument is that their electric cars – whether it is a $100,000 Fisker Karma of the kind that Mr. DiCapriois driving or a $28,000 Nissan Leaf – do not contribute to global warming.

And, while it is true that electric cars do not emit carbon-dioxide on the road the energy used for their manufacture and continual battery charges certainly does and that far more than most people realize.

A 2012 comprehensive life-cycle analysis in Journal of Industrial Ecology shows that almost half the lifetime carbon-dioxide emissions from an electric car come from the energy used to produce the car, especially the battery.

The mining of lithium, for instance, is a less than green activity. By contrast, the manufacture of a gas-powered car accounts for 17% of its lifetime carbon-dioxide emissions. When an electric car rolls off the production line, it has already been responsible for 30,000 pounds of carbon-dioxide emission. The amount for making a conventional car: 14,000 pounds.

While electric-car owners may cruise around feeling virtuous, they still recharge using electricity overwhelmingly produced with fossil fuels. Thus, the life-cycle analysis shows that for every mile driven, the average electric car indirectly emits about six ounces of carbon-dioxide. This is still a lot better than a similar-size conventional car, which emits about 12 ounces per mile. But we have to remember that the production of the electric car has already resulted in sizable emissions – the equivalent of 80,000 miles of travel in the vehicle.

To make matters worse still, the batteries in electric cars fade with time, just as they do in a cellphone, or with any other rechargeable battery.

Nissan estimates that after five years, the less effective batteries in a typical Leaf bring the range down to 55 miles and the MIT Technology Review cautioned in 2012: “Don't Drive Your Nissan Leaf Too Much”.

If you drive an electric car a lot, which you really must to get ahead environmentally, then the life-cycle of the battery is even shorter and considering the Nissan Leaf has only a 73-mile ranger per charge the battery will wear down a lot faster than average.

Drivers who have attempted long road trips, as in one BBC test drive, have reported that recharging takes so long that the average speed is close to six miles per hour – a bit faster than your average jogger.

It is said that if a typical electric car is driven 50,000 miles over its lifetime, the huge initial emissions from its manufacture means the car will actually have put more carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere than a similar-size gasoline-powered car driven the same number of miles.

Similarly, if the energy used to recharge the electric car comes mostly from coal-fired power plants, it will be responsible for the emission of almost 15 ounces of carbon-dioxide for every one of the 50,000 miles it is driven, which makes this three ounces more than a similar gas-powered car.

Even if the electric car is driven for 90,000 miles and the owner stays away from coal-powered electricity, the car will cause just 24% less carbon-dioxide emission than its gas-powered cousin. This is a far cry from "zero emissions." Over its entire lifetime, the electric car will be responsible for 8.7 tons of carbon dioxide less than the average conventional car.

On top of that, if the car is being driven that much, the battery will have to be replaced at least once if not more often and, considering that some batteries fail faster than others, this means that, aside from the cost of a new battery which, if the cost ratio is anywhere like that of the batteries for a laptop, for instance, or cellphone, will work out to about half the cost of a new car. Not very green at all, methinks.

If we consider all the aspects we must come to the conclusion that the electric car is first of all not as green as claimed; rather the opposite, and that we really have to consider other options to our (personal) transportation.

When one considers that, with the time that recharging takes on a (long) road trip, the speed is only an average of six, repeat six, miles per hour a bicycle is a better option and horse and buggy also would beat that hands down.

With the cost of production, due to costs of fuel and other non-renewable resources required, the electric car is not going to get cheaper but rather the opposite electric vehicles are not the future and neither are other options that are promoted, such as hydrogen fuel cell.

The only option is to consider how we travel, why we travel and then take affordable, affordable for us and the Planet, options, such as the trusted iron steed and shank's pony. The time of the car, whether gasoline, diesel, electric or hydrogen fuel cell, is over. Period! Simple as that and you better believe it. It will take a little time still but over it is.

© 2013