Are Electric Vehicles The Solution to Curbing Automobile Emissions?
Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) have been proposed as at least a partial solution to climate change. However, those who advocate for BEVs often discuss the pros of these types of vehicles while rarely making mention of their cons. In this article, I examine both the pros and cons of BEVs and also suggest what I think is a far better solution: Plug-in Hybrid (PHEVs) and Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEVs), which dramatically reduce CO2 emissions without suffering as many downsides as BEVs.
To begin, producing batteries for any type of electric vehicle is an enormously dirty business, with high environmental degradation. A single BEV battery weighs about 1,000 pounds, and requires mining about 90,000 pounds of ore, such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite, and copper. In order to glean this ore, anywhere from 200,000 to 1,500,000 pounds of Earth must be dug up or moved — roughly 500,000 pounds per battery. According to Mark Mills, co-director of the Institute on Manufacturing Science and Innovation at Northwestern University, when averaged over the life of a BEV battery, each mile driven consumes five pounds of Earth, whereas a comparable gasoline engine only consumes 0.2 pounds of liquid per mile. So it must be noted that material extraction for BEV batteries is responsible for significantly more environmental disturbance relative to petroleum extraction.
Lithium, for example, is a major component of BEV batteries, and is produced in a complex process of mining under salt flats. The evaporation process, which can take up to 18 months, can use up to 500,000 pounds of water for a single ton of refined lithium. Half of the world’s supply of lithium is mined in parts of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, called the “Lithium Triangle,” in one of the driest parts of the world.1 Mining consumes sixty-five percent of the water in this area, which has serious negative impact on local farmers. Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in South America, has been hit especially hard.2
My sense is that as we rush towards becoming carbon neutral in an attempt to ward off the future effects of climate change, little thought is being given to whether we’re simply shifting the environmental problem elsewhere rather than actually solving it. To be fair, there is the “well-to-wheel” emissions argument that must be considered, which posits that when you factor in total emissions over the manufacturing and use of a BEV, the BEV wins out since it doesn’t produce CO2 emissions over its lifetime.3 What is known generally is when we take well-to-wheel emissions into account, BEVs will emit one-half as much CO2 annually compared to a conventional gasoline engine. That is a substantial savings in emissions, but is it the whole story?
Last year, the Wall Street Journal provided an instructive interactive infographic comparing vehicle emissions between BEVs and HEVs over a period from 2019 to 2050, where the goal of the U.S., in concert with the Paris Agreement to prevent global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius, would be to limit its CO2 emissions to 39 gigatons. The result: If the U.S. went fully BEV by 2035, roughly 35.4 gigatons would be emitted, compared to roughly 42 gigatons of CO2 emissions if the U.S. went fully hybrid. While the result of full BEV scenario would theoretically bring global temperatures below the threshold (presuming the U.S. and other countries who are part of the accord all do their part), it would put tremendous strain on the electrical grid and mineral extraction production. The question is if there is some middle ground to achieve the 39 gigaton target.
As with any new, complex technology that seeks to disrupt the status quo, it’s not just enough to be groundbreaking — it must solve a problem at a sufficient scale to make an effective difference. Based on the current technology, BEVs are unlikely to come close to accomplishing this goal. At best, BEVs are a niche market well-served by companies such as Tesla, who have built out an effective private infrastructure to support a relatively limited fleet of BEVs. Scaling this to the 300 million cars driven in America, let alone to the over one billion cars in other countries, is unrealistic.
The current infrastructure to charge BEVs is woefully behind even the relatively few BEVs on the road today. If BEV owners can’t charge at home, they are at the mercy of an available charger. And then, presuming they can find an available charger, chargers are often either not in operation or don’t deliver a charge anywhere near the rated kilowatt hours. So a thirty-minute charge becomes an hour or longer. I experience this often, and it always seems to be when I didn’t plan on a long drive a night or two before. Also, most BEVs have very limited range (on the order of 200-300 miles on a full charge) — but for the health of the battery, the range is reduced 40% to keep the car within 20% to 80% state of charge. BEV manufactures warn that batteries should not be driven down to 0% or charged up to 100% on a regular basis because it’s highly degrading to the battery.
Long drives are a serious problem for BEV owners — with the exception of Tesla, which provides an outstanding charging network with smart onboard software to optimize stops. No other network comes close to that of Tesla, so other BEV owners find themselves greatly inconvenienced. There is always the distinct possibility of not being able to find a charger before the car runs out of charge, which is not only inconvenient, but can be highly detrimental to BEV batteries.
The problem with BEVs is not, as some argue, that it’s only a new technology whose kinks need to be worked out. Rather, the problem is with the model itself based on current technology. BEV ranges will certainly increase in the future, but that still won’t solve long charge times and the massive infrastructure changes required to support BEVs at scale. The business model of virtually all gas stations requires a continual parade of customers who make short stops for low-profit-margin gasoline and purchase higher profit items while they wait. This business model won’t work if only servicing BEVs due to long charging times resulting in lower volume. Even if there were a shift to larger shopping centers or charging “supercenters,” it is difficult to see how this business model would practically scale.
So what is the solution? I believe the practical middle ground rests with Plug-in Hybrids (PHEVs) and Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEVs), whose CO2 emissions rival that of BEVs. While BEVs are here to stay, HEVs and PHEVs provide a scalable solution for the future that doesn’t incur the “range anxiety” many drivers experience with BEVs. With an HEV, there is no concern with charging. Additionally, hybrid technology delivers excellent fuel economy, lower emissions (since the electric motor can power the car when idling or at low speeds), the same range as gasoline vehicles, and a far lower price than BEVs. As hybrid technology continues to improve, we should see even greater gains than the theoretical scenario discussed above regarding total CO2 emissions over the next 30 years.
As with an HEV, a PHEV car uses an electric motor and an internal combustion engine either in tandem or independently. PHEVs can travel moderate distances (15-60 miles depending on model) on the electric motor alone and can also charge the battery through regenerative braking (same as an HEV) or by the internal combustion engine itself. Since they can fully run on the internal combustion engine, the car owner avoids situations where if they forgot or were unable to charge their vehicle, they will be inconvenienced. This is not optimal for a PHEV, so owners should do their best to keep the battery charged, particularly since electricity is a cheaper fuel. With optimal use, PHEVs can use 30-60% less gasoline and on average produce half the emissions of conventional gasoline vehicles.
All of the cars mentioned here use the same lithium-ion batteries – and therefore contribute in some manner to environmental degradation. However, HEV and PHEV batteries are far smaller than BEV batteries, which vary from 17 kWh to 118 kWh, with an average of 66 kWh. PHEV batteries range anywhere from 8-34 kWh, with an average battery size of 13 kWh. HEV batteries are the smallest of all. They don’t have a particular kWh rating, as their purpose is only to get the car rolling and then turn it over to the gasoline engine (at best, an HEV battery could only power the electric motor for a drive of 2-3 miles). The point here is that for every BEV battery, five or more batteries could be produced for PHEVs and HEVs.
In closing, had I known more about PHEVs prior to my purchase of a BEV, I most likely would have gone that route – an option I will certainly pursue in the future. Unfortunately, PHEVs are not as readily available as BEVs. Thus, my argument is this: Unless BEV technology and infrastructure achieves a breakthrough that makes them a more feasible option for most use cases (not just those who can charge at home overnight and who have short commutes), our priority should shift to PHEVs and HEVs, which are much less disruptive. At some point, even those with short commutes will want to get out on the road for longer trips – and with current infrastructure, with the possible exception of Tesla owners, it will likely be an unpleasant experience.