Are Electric Vehicles Really Better for the Environment?

Electric vehicle manufacturers have been touting their cars as the vehicle of the future, in large part because they’re considered an environmentally friendly solution to car pollution. Congress has added credibility to this claim by offering thousands of dollars in tax incentives to electric vehicle owners. 

Electric vehicle owners claim they are saving the environment because they are not dependent on dirty fossil fuels, but that often isn’t the case. Rechargeable cars may seem like the green alternative, but a closer look shows that electric vehicles are not as easy on the environment as their manufacturers paint them to be. 

No Fossil Fuels? Think Again.

The ability to run on electricity, rather than gasoline, is one of the selling points of electric cars. But just because a car does not run on gasoline does not mean it is not being powered by fossil fuels. 

Roughly 64% of the American power grid is fueled by coal or natural gas. The electricity coming from the walls in most people’s homes is power generated by fossil fuels. Unless a charging station is run by solar, wind, or nuclear power, electric vehicles are just running on stored fossil fuels. Carbon emissions may come earlier in the process when compared to gasoline-powered vehicles, but most electric vehicles are still dependent on fossil fuels to drive. 

Dirty Batteries

The massive lithium-ion batteries used to power electric vehicles need rare earth minerals, including lithium, nickel, cobalt or graphite, to store power. These rare earth minerals are just that: rare. They must be dug up from huge mines that disrupt natural habitats and force workers into dangerous conditions throughout the world. 

Some rare earth minerals require an acid solution to be used in the refining process. On average, it takes 75 tons of acid waste to produce one ton of rare earth minerals. The process of making the batteries is very energy-intensive, as well, leading to more carbon emissions

The batteries in electric vehicles also damage the environment when they are no longer powering vehicles. Roughly 99 percent of the standard lead-acid batteries used to power gasoline-powered vehicles are recycled. Currently, there is no financially solvent solution to recycling lithium-ion batteries. Only 5 percent of lithium-ion batteries are recycled. The rest are incinerated or sent to a landfill.   

While the problem of using fossil fuels to recharge batteries could subside if future power grids operate on some form of renewable energy, the need for a high-capacity battery is one dirty feature that electric vehicles cannot escape.

Smog 2.0

The emissions from a standard gasoline-powered vehicle are regulated and measured to determine how much CO2, sulfur dioxide (SO2), oxides of nitrogen (NOX), and particulates are emitted as part of the Clean Air Act. A 2018 report from Politico found that electric vehicles actually emit more of these harmful substances than the average car. The report found that more electric vehicles could result in more air pollution, not less. 

The report noted that internal combustion engines have been innovating throughout the years to lead to cleaner, more efficient machines that emit just 1 percent of the pollutants that a vehicle in the 1960s would emit. At best, carbon emissions would be cut by half of a percent between 2018 and 2050 if the U.S. switched entirely to electric vehicles. This would make no difference in the fight against climate change. 

Infrastructure Woes

Even if the U.S. wanted to shift completely to electric vehicles, the infrastructure to do so does not exist. Not only would we need charging stations everywhere, but the electrical power grid may not have the capacity to handle the additional burden. 

A report from the Environmental and Energy Study Institute found that the U.S. power grid would have a 38% increase in demand if all vehicles were electric. This would be especially draining during peak hours. Any effort to switch to renewable energy would face an even bigger hurdle if the switch to electric vehicles occurred at the same time. 

Electric vehicle manufacturers have painted their products in a green light and it’s paid off. Their sales continue to climb as taxpayers subsidize the sale of each vehicle. But the planet isn’t getting the benefits it was promised.   

Consumers can choose to buy electric vehicles because they think they are cool or because of their insanely quick engines, but if they are looking to save the planet, the best option may be walking.