Electric Cars Are Bad, Right? — No!

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After US President Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate, the Daily Mail posted the following story: “Biden’s climate plan could limit you to eat just one burger a MONTH, cost $3.5K a year per person in taxes, force you to spend $55K on an electric car, and ‘crush’ American jobs.” While the thought of fewer burgers equated with job loss is an interesting rhetorical scare structure, the real kicker was the ominous foreshadowing about electric cars — that their sticker shock is considerable, way beyond the budget of the Average Joe. This new way of saying “electric cars are bad” was picked up by Fox News, regurgitated by commentators, lawmakers, and others, and sent ripples of fear throughout the car community. (Fox later apologized for its inaccurate messaging.)

We hear it all the time, right? Electric cars are bad. Period.

It’s time to figure out the truth behind the confusion surrounding electric cars. Are electric cars bad, or not?

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Electric Vehicles aren’t Really Necessary for Us to Fight Climate Change — Right?

Around the world, governments and automakers are promoting electric vehicles as a key technology to curb oil use and fight the existential climate crisis that surrounds us. The US Department of Energy has put to rest the myth that EVs are worse for the environment than vehicles that use diesel or gas engines. A consensus of experts agree, according to the New York Times, that plug-in vehicles are more climate-friendly than gas-powered, or internal combustion engines (ICEs). USA Today reminds us that getting gas to the fuel tank of a traditional car requires extracting petroleum from the Earth, refining it to gas, and transporting it to gas stations for consumers to purchase.

Then again, electric vehicles do have their own environmental impacts. As electric cars and trucks become a more common sight in neighborhoods, we need to be aware of the entire supply chain process that it takes to build any car.

  • It matters how the electricity is made — how much coal is being burned to charge up those plug-in vehicles? Electric grids still need to get much, much cleaner before electric vehicles are truly emissions free. The average grid in the US, which typically includes a mix of fossil fuel and renewable power plants, could be cleaner. However, they’re almost always much greener than conventional cars. (Also, note that coal is now well below 20% of US electricity.)
  • Reliance on rare-earth elements such as neodymium, lanthanum, terbium, and dysprosium, and other critical metals such as lithium and cobalt, can be problematic, though the quantity of rare-earth metals used differs per car. (Also, note that they are not called “rare-earth” metals because they are rare, and many are plentiful — a common misconception.) Cobalt has posed environmental and human rights issues, among others, but many automakers and battery companies have been phasing it out of their chemistries or sourcing it from places that don’t violate those values.

Overall, electric vehicles are much greener (in terms of CO2 emissions and other pollution) than fossil fueled vehicles basically everywhere you can buy one.

Electric Cars are More Expensive than Gas-Powered Cars — Right?

The fully electric models of specific cars are generally more expensive up front than their gas-powered equivalents. This is true. Basic electric models start at around $30,000, with luxury model prices climbing to $80,000 and racing models beyond $120,000. Car and Driver outlines that, usually, a car buyer will pay at least $10,000 more for an electric car than they would for the same type of car in a gas model.

However, upfront cost is only part of the equation. There are also operational, maintenance, and depreciation costs.

Self Financial has shared a cost comparison of electric vehicles and fossil fuel vehicles by state. The guide points out that many people often want to know how much an EV would cost when it is compared to gas alternatives. The guide considers several factors in the calculations, such as fuel, energy, mileage, insurance, EV incentives, taxes, registration fees, maintenance, and emissions tests.

Despite the higher sticker price, electric cars may actually save drivers money in the long run. A team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculated both the carbon dioxide emissions and full lifetime cost — including purchase price, maintenance, and fuel — for nearly every new car model on the market. They found electric cars were easily more climate friendly than gas-burning ones — and, over a lifetime, they were often cheaper, too.

We have published many “total cost of ownership analyses.” Check those out for more on this topic.

As technology continues to evolve, the price gap between EVs and ICE vehicles is likely to close. Plus, many of us can charge our cars at home while we sleep, unlike ICE vehicles, which require a trip to the gas station and being around smelly and earth-endangering liquids.

Electric Vehicles are Bad Because of their Batteries — Right?

Questions have emerged about the life-cycle greenhouse gas implications of electric vehicles, especially related to early estimates of battery production emissions. Yes, electric vehicles are more emissions-intensive to make because of their batteries. Electricity used in the battery manufacturing process accounts for roughly half of emissions related to battery production, so increased use of renewable energy and more efficient power plants will lead to cleaner batteries.

Yet, overall, electric vehicles typically have much lower life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions than a typical car in Europe, even when assuming relatively high battery manufacturing emissions. An average electric vehicle in Europe produces 50% less life-cycle greenhouse gases over the first 150,000 kilometers of driving, although the relative benefit varies from 28% to 72%, depending on local electricity production. The positive effects electric cars have on the environment, researchers and advocates argue, outweigh any negative impacts from sourcing the minerals used in electric car batteries. Also, less raw material will be needed for batteries over time.

A promising approach to tackling used electric vehicle batteries is finding them a second life in storage and other applications. Recycling electric vehicle batteries is a market that is just heating up. An electric vehicle battery uses up just 30 kg of raw materials with recycling compared to the 17,000 liters of gas burned by the average car. That’s according to a study that shows Europe’s current crude oil dependency far outweighs its need for battery raw materials. And the study suggests that in 2035 over a fifth of the lithium and 65% of the cobalt needed to make a new battery could come from recycling. Europe will need to import less raw material because of recycling, and Europe will likely produce enough batteries to supply its own EV market as early as 2021.

The EV battery recycling market has real potential, as evidenced by the faith Tesla cofounder and longtime CTO JB Straubel has placed on it — he left Tesla to focus on an EV battery recycling startup he launched, Redwood Materials. Then again, there are other sources of recycling potential that have gone untapped as well. “The largest lithium mine could be in the junk drawers of America,” Straubel famously quipped.

Further, when batteries are removed from electric vehicles after their first life, they are likely to retain significant capacity, typically 75%–80% of their original capacity. They could, therefore, play an important role in supporting the electric grid, especially as intermittent renewables become more widespread. If done properly, though, used car batteries could continue to be used for a decade or more as backup storage for solar power.

Grid decarbonization will have a much larger impact on the use phase of electric vehicles, as the carbon intensity of electricity is directly proportional to the emissions per kilometer driven. For this reason, a cleaner grid, both where electric vehicles are produced and charged, will be the largest single driver of electric vehicle life-cycle emissions reduction in the future.

Electric Cars Have a Shorter Range than Gas-Powered Cars — Right?

Although auto companies are finding more and more ways to make electric cars go further, they still have a shorter range than traditional cars. The low range of yesterday’s electric vehicles was about 70 to 90 miles on a full charge — say, a 2013 or 2015 Nissan Leaf — but is now typically much higher and extends upward to 402 miles for the North American Tesla Model S Long Range Plus. That’s nearly a 20% increase in range when compared to a 2019 Model S 100D with the same battery pack design. The LEAF’s range has increased greatly over the years, as a good example of how things have changed.

Depending on the fuel efficiency of a car and the size of its gas tank, some can make it up to 400 miles on a tank of gas. Of course, that gas is destroying the planet. And how often do you use a full 400 miles in one drive? Maybe the family summer trip absorbs a lot of miles in one stretch. On average, though, people in the US drive 29.2 miles per day, making two trips with an average total duration of 46 minutes. (Note: These are pre-covid numbers — right now, we’re driving even less on average.) An electric car can typically be charged at home every 2–3 days or so (just taking a few seconds to plug in and unplug) to cover that driving, with plenty of battery to spare.

Also, when you go on a road trip, an EV can often leave with 100% charge and then charge at the destination overnight.

Like so many things in life, EV range is relative.

 Final Thoughts

Electric vehicles are becoming more and more popular. Electric cars are the future, and, each year, automakers add more EVs to their lineups. Everyone is working on electric vehicles, from well-established existing manufacturers to new names such as Byton, Lordstown, and Rivian. Car and Driver compiled a list of every electric vehicle, from concept to production, that isn’t available yet but will be soon. Check it out to see if you are now able to see yourself in one of these electric vehicles. The future is now.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

Carolyn Fortuna has 1309 posts and counting. See all posts by Carolyn Fortuna