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My thesis is that electric cars are better for the environment and can be a very large factor in reducing greenhouse gasses but will only make a substantial difference if they will be better and cheaper than gas cars in the future. With today’s concern about the effects of global warming and the changes that could occur to the climate. Due to this fear, people are looking for solutions, one of the which is the electric car. To demonstrate this, the following considers where electricity is produced, pollution from production, usage and disposal, after-life possibilities of old batteries, adequacy of infrastructure for charging, and cost.
Firstly, it must be understood that an electric car is only as clean as the source of its power. This means that the difference in pollution produced is dependent on what region you are in, and the composition of what makes up electricity from the grid. Therefore, if you live in California, where the electricity is much cleaner than other regions in the United States, the car could be better for the environment.
For example, the greenhouse gas equivalence of a Tesla Model 3, a newer and currently the most efficient electric car, would be 147 MPG in California, which is much higher than the average car MPG. Despite the claims that electric cars are dirtier because they are running on power from coal power plants, it has been shown electric is still cleaner even when using coal power. Even in the regions of high coal usage the equivalent greenhouse gases would be 53 MPG with a Model 3.
The United States gets about 30% of its electricity from coal, and 32% from natural gas. Coal produced more CO2 than electricity from natural gas, plus when burning coal there is more than just CO2. When it is burned, it makes a lot of soot, which natural gas doesn’t, which is the reason natural gas is widely accepted to have used in homes. Those two power sources together make up only 62% of the total power generated in the United States, with the remaining 37% from renewables and nuclear, which both have very small greenhouse gas emissions. While not looking at anything else but the actual driving of the vehicles, electric cars are much cleaner than gas powered cars. This is a large selling point of plug-in vehicles because electricity is 100% clean of any pollutants after it has already been generated granting that they have “no tailpipe emissions”.
The three stages of carbon emissions from cars are from production, use, and end of life. However, a study out of Yale University found that end-of-life emissions for both electric cars and gasoline-powered cars are very low in comparison to usage and production, so I won’t talk about emissions from end of life.
The first stage of a car’s life cycle is production. A reason that some people say that electric cars aren’t cleaner than gas powered cars is that they can create a lot more emissions from the production process, which is correct. While looking at the different amounts of carbon emissions required to manufacture cars, there is a wide range of emissions, which makes sense because there are a wide variety of vehicles being built. Every study looked at agreed that producing an electric car it takes more carbon emissions compared to an internal combustion engine vehicle of equivalent size. The estimates for production emissions of electric cars ranged from 3-17 metric tons per car versus an average of 8 metric tons for gas cars, with the percent increase varies from 15% to around 70% more emissions from electric vehicle production. This is mostly attributable to the battery size, as a larger 300-mile range battery is much larger than compared to an 80-mile range battery. To show how much emissions are just from the battery I looked at two different capacities. The two capacities were a 30kWh (found in a Nissan leaf) and 100kWh (largest battery capacity for a Tesla). The 30kWh battery was estimated to have generated between 1-5 metric tons of CO2 and 100kWh was 6-17 metric tons of CO2. This is an area that the gas powered beat the electric car in terms of CO2 emissions.
The second and largest stage, in terms of emissions, is the emissions from driving the car. The United States Department of Energy summarizes all data from vehicle emissions levels by MPG for gas cars, kWh per mile for electric vehicles, and electricity sources as a national average and in each state. This shows that the average national average of CO2 emissions is equal to 5.2 metric tons for gasoline and 2 metric tons for electric. This data is based off driving an average of 12,000 miles a year or about 33 miles a day, which is well within the range of electric vehicles. If one were to drive more than 12,000 miles a year the difference in CO2 emissions would be greater. These are also based on the average MPG and the average kWh per mile, so driving a newer, more efficient electric car like the Model 3 the savings in CO2 emissions would be lower. The same goes for driving a gas car with a higher MPG than the average car. Lastly, depending on which state he car is powered from grid may be made up of different compositions of electricity sources, which would also affect the CO2 emissions of electric vehicles but not change the gas-powered cars average.
As the production of electric cars emits more CO2 and driving it emits less CO2 you may be wondering if they offset or what the difference is. To calculate the time it takes for the average electric vehicle to begin being cleaner than the gas car, start with setting the gas car production emissions plus the annual emissions multiplied by time equal to electric car production emissions plus the annual emissions times time. Using this we can find that for the 30kWh car using 7 metric tons and 6 metric tons (20% less emissions from production) for gas car for production it will take only about one third of a year to start being “greener” than a gas car. Similarly, with the 100kWh car using 17 metric tons (the highest estimate) and 10 metric tons for gas production (70% less emissions from production) it would take a little over two years to also be greener. These calculations assume average emissions from usage. To show that electric isn’t always the better choice for producing pollutions look at the same equation but while in West Virginia, where 93% of electric is from coal, we find it would take over 7 years to start being greener. The average life span of a gas car is around 8 years and assuming the same life span for electric, there isn’t enough data for life time of electric, so this would show that even in states with really dirty power, electrics are not worse for the environment; they just aren’t much better. In places like these, the best choice based on greenhouse gas emissions would be a hybrid car.
Another benefit of an electric car over its gasoline competitor is that once purchased a gasoline powered car will only gradually get more inefficient as it ages and its MPG will continue to drop. The most important attribute about the greenness of the car is the grid continues to get more and more green as the electric production shifts toward renewables and away from coal. With an electric car the battery capacity is decreased slowly as it ages, but you still have the same efficiency rates of kWh per mile. Also, while speaking about the efficiency of gas and electric, the actual electric motor that powers the car have a 90-95% efficiency conversion from electricity to kinetic energy, which is amazing when considering that internal combustion engines running on gas have an efficiency of only around 20-30%. This is because of the fundamental way that the different motors work. An electric motor is just a current being passed through a lot of wires inside of a magnetic field, imparting a force on the wires causing it to spin. On the other hand, a gasoline engine has multiple cylinders that the gas has to be pumped into, compressed, ignited, then exhausted. All of this happens almost instantly, and a lot of the energy is lost in the transfer of energy into mostly heat, which makes sense as it is really just a lot of mini explosions.
Another factor that plays into this is when gas cars are being driven most of the energy used to put the car in motion is lost when braking, as all the kinetic energy is converted to thermal energy. During braking, most electric cars have the ability to take the kinetic energy and convert and transfer most of it back into the battery. This is possible because the same motor is used to both expend and capture power, but you can’t get back energy from gasoline once it has been used. This adds to the argument that the electric car is greener because of the more efficient use of energy in the system.
Another issue of electric greenness is the topic of lithium mining. This is something that is often brought up when deeming electric cars not environmentally friendly in comparison to gasoline cars. There are several issues to consider, first, lithium makes up only about 5-7% of an electric car’s battery, a lot less than is often thought because of the name of the lithium-ion battery. In reality, there are elements like cobalt and nickel about 5-20% and 5-10% respectfully. One of the interesting ways to attack lithium mining is that lithium is extracted in extraordinarily desolate places like the Atacama Desert in Chile, which is one of the worlds leading producers of lithium. Lithium is extracted from a brine beneath the desert salt flats then brought to the surface where water is evaporated off and what is left is a liquid goo of lithium and other components that can further be refined to just lithium. This is a very water intensive process which is an environmental consequence of mining for lithium, but from an ecological standpoint this happens in an area already devoid of any life forms.
Drilling for oil, which will be refined into gasoline to fuel cars, on the other hand, often happens in more biodiverse and ecologically fragile ecosystems such as ocean floors, but in areas like Saudi Arabia where the environmental impacts aren’t severe. Mining for lithium is in no way environmentally good for the planet, it’s just inaccurate to say that mining for lithium is much worse than drilling for oil, which is taking large amount of carbon out of the ground and putting it into the atmosphere. It also consumes electricity to refine gasoline that could otherwise just go straight to an electric car. The average refinery efficiency from well to gas tank is about 82% efficient and a gallon of gasoline contains 132,000 Btu. The 18% energy lost is about 23,700 Btu, which is equivalent to 7.3 kwh of electric. This is flawed because only about 15% of the energy it takes to refine a gallon of gas is from electricity, so it takes 1.1 kWh of electricity to refine a gallon of gasoline, which by itself could power an average electric car about 3 miles. Overall, the mining of lithium may be bad for the land around it, but doesn’t create that much greenhouse gases compared to the drilling of oil, which is literally taking carbon out of the ground to be burned and put into the atmosphere and can be worse for the fragile ecosystems it can take place in.
In the overall scope of the environment and greenhouse gases, both electric and gas cars create pollution and lower the air quality. However, when looking at pollution in a more localized area we see some interesting things. In big cities there are large populations and lots of cars idle and driving in the streets, and the tailpipe pollution is discharging in the city streets itself where thousands of local people will breath in. Unlike electric cars where little to none of the pollution is deposited in the city itself. Paired with the fact that electric cars don’t need to have an engine idle while they are stopped in traffic, electric cars don’t decrease the air quality of cities.
So where does the pollution occur? With electric cars the pollution occurs at the power plants from which receives their power. The cleaner the power sources, the less pollution. While electric generation still produces fewer overall emissions than refining gas does, there are usually fewer people located by the power plants, meaning fewer people are exposes to the poorer air quality. Along with electric cars making more sense in cities for both air pollution and better efficiency in stop and start traffic, people in cities typically drive less distance, so the limited range of an electric vehicle compared to its gas-powered adversary is much less meaningful. This is leading to electric powered cars being the future of transportation in cities.
What happens with batteries after a car is no longer used? The best-case scenario is for an old battery to be reused. Dealerships which receive old batteries will check to see if any of the battery modules are still functioning satisfactorily. Reusing the battery is the least energy intensive and most economical solution, especially when repurposed for storage because the weight and size of the battery does not matter nearly as much as it would as use in a car. These batteries can be implemented as a home energy storage in the case of a power outage or can be charged overnight and used during the day because electricity is cheaper to purchase at night than during the day. Another question that is often brought up is whether or not they can be recycled. The metal, usually aluminum or steel, used in internal combustion engines is easily recyclable and profitable. When Nissan was asked if their electric car, the Leaf’s batteries could be fully recycled, they responded “Generally, yes. The pack components consist of steel, copper, aluminum, and some plastic. The cells can be recycled via different methods to recover the cobalt, nickel, manganese, and lithium mixtures. The recovered materials are refined to necessary purities for re-use in general industry and potentially also for manufacturing new battery cells.” This shows that car batteries are recyclable.
A problem with recycling car batteries is that currently it is more expensive to recycle old batteries than it is to mine for new materials. Lithium is presently the most expensive part of a battery to recycle while cobalt and nickel are much more profitable to recycle because they make up 3-15% more of a battery than lithium, which is why only about 5% of lithium ion batteries is recycled. The reason for such expensive recycling rates is that it is happening at such a low scale, as most of the electric cars ever bought are still on the road and very few have been retired. This small-scale and high cost recycling will likely change when more electric vehicles get on the road and as the technology becomes older and more research is done on recycling. The same was once true with the lead acid batteries in gas cars but they have become profitable to recycle. In summary we know now that lithium-ion batteries can be reused and recycled. We realize right now that it is not profitable to recycle them but that will likely change in the near future as the recycling industry matures and it becomes more economically beneficial. This will lead to less mining of materials and lowering the greenhouse gasses generated by producing new batteries.
Another issue is whether or not there is adequate infrastructure in place for charging electric cars. Proponents of electric cars are concerned that the charging infrastructure will not be adequate. Many proponents of electric vehicles believe that the electric distribution network may not exist when are where it is needed. This was also a problem for the early car owners as there were no gas stations because there wasn’t need for them. During the infancy of automobiles car owners had to buy gasoline from local grocery stores, leading to other businesses seeing another way to make money and they began selling gasoline too. Until the need for gas was high enough that gas stations were good investments the infrastructure was really scarce. It should be an easier task to create an electric car charging infrastructure than it was for gas. This is because we already have a well established grid in place, even though it can’t support the influx of new electric cars. What gas cars don’t have is the ability to refuel at home, at work, or when parked while the owner is doing something else. One of the only ways this infrastructure will meet demands and not be a reason for not buying electric is to have the private sector to intervene. This will speed up the construction of a nation-wide charging network and if it is profitable it makes sense that they would. In the same way the growth of gas stations, as stated above not only a way to make money, by having a charger in front of a restaurant or at a hotel to charge overnight can attract electric car owners to their bussiness. Tesla has already had 1,375 supercharging stations with 11,414 superchargers established.
Besides having a well established infrastructure another advantage that a gas car over electric cars is the time needed when on long trips. A gas powered car can refuel at a gas station in about 10 minutes and then travel another 300 miles, more or less depending on car. The same cannot be said about electric. Even when charging with a supercharger, it takes about 23 minutes to charge for the first 150 miles of capacity, but as the battery charges the speed of charge slows down, so over the next 23 minutes at the charger you range would only increase 66 miles more. So, for long trips the car will spend more time just for stopping, which could be paired with eating and bathroom breaks to minimize lost time. Another possible solution is if an electric car owner also has a gasoline powered car specifically for long trips. Realistically though, long trips happen rarely for the average person. Everything other than long trips are actually more convenient for electric cars as most people will charge their vehicle at home and they would not have to go out.
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