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Lithium Batteries Part 2 – Drawing Lines

One of the main arguments I have been hearing against shifting to electric vehicles is that they are, deep down, dirtier than their internal combustion engine (ICE) counterparts when you consider the whole life cycle of an electric vehicle. This is a totally valid argument but it needs to be looked at completely to be useful.

First, the lifetime of both electric and ICE vehicles needs to be decided upon. A somewhat arbitrary line in the sand of how far back to go when considering how environmentally friendly a vehicle is. Do you go back all the way to the electricity required by the engineers making calculations? To the various different types of mines and the emissions involved in transporting the raw materials? Or do you start at the factory making the parts for the vehicle? The list of possible lines in the sand go on forever, but this idea is the basis of doing a life-cycle analysis and can be used to manipulate the result to fit a desired outcome.

The best way to go about it would be to pick a short-term, middle-term, and long-term life-cycle estimate for each vehicle type. In the case of electric versus ICE vehicles, the transport and production impacts are worse for some electric vehicles as the components are often made overseas and transported to a manufacturer on another continent. This could easily be true for an ICE vehicle as well but is less common. Choosing a suite of vehicles of each class would also help to show a more representative result.

Perhaps the most important consideration for comparing ICE to electric vehicles is the source of the electricity. If the electrical source is a coal or natural gas plant, the electric vehicle is unlikely to ever become carbon neutral. The energy source is often overlooked but should be among the top considerations for a person aiming to lessen their environmental footprint by going electric. Before choosing an electric vehicle, get to know your local power grid. Perhaps installing solar panels on your home or choosing public transit more often than driving could have more of a positive impact. Updating the electric grid with renewable energy sources and making the switch to cleaner vehicles both need to happen to make the transition to a cleaner future.

Finally, the lifetime of the batteries in an electric vehicle are a problem. Recycling is possible and is quite effective at recovering the resources, but it is an energy intensive process which should be added into the life-cycle. If the batteries do not last long enough to make up for the production and recycling of the batteries, this may not yet be the way to go. However, our battery technology continues to improve and should not be a deterrent for going electric provided the power source is clean and recycling is available.

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