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Debunking electric car myths - again
Posted on December 17, 2019 by Charles Morris
The croakers and clickbaiters just keep trotting out the same old “EVs will never work” bugaboos again and again. Fortunately, the scientists and engineers keep producing new studies and new products that prove them wrong.
Above: Tesla Model S at Supercharger (Flickr: Jakob Harter)
The most disturbing disinformation is not aimed at Luddites or flat-earthers, but at educated, environmentally aware people who might be logical candidates for EV ownership. The anti-EV warriors want to convince prospective purchasers that EVs are “not as green as they claim,” and many of their arguments are constructed around a grain of truth. A typical rhetorical strategy is to describe a valid concern, and then indulge in speculation that depicts it not as a manageable problem, but as a total deal-killer. The narrative often relies on static thinking - the writer identifies a real or potential drawback of current EVs, but assumes that technology will never advance, so that the problem will never be solved.
A good example of this sort of sophistry is the argument that CO2 emissions from battery production negate the positive environmental impact of EVs. In 2017, a study by the IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute seemed to support this claim. However, as Teslarati reports, IVL has completed a new study, with far different results. The 2017 study estimated that the production of EV batteries resulted in emissions of 150 to 200 kg of CO2 per kWh of battery capacity. However, the updated study, which you can read in its entirety or summarized in a press release, found that the amount of carbon emissions from battery production has been reduced to between 61 and 106 kg of CO2 per kWh.
“That emissions are lower now is mainly due to the fact that battery factories have been scaled up and are running at full capacity, which makes them more efficient per unit produced,” writes IVL researcher Erik Emilsson. “We have also taken into account the possibility of using electricity that is virtually fossil-free in several of the production stages.”
As battery production ramps up, and the energy used increasingly comes from renewable sources, emissions should continue to decrease. As the IVL notes, this dynamic also applies to other stages of the EV life cycle. For example, more and more public charging networks are sourcing their electrons from solar and wind generation. Elon Musk said in October 2019 that the company was steadily equipping its Superchargers with battery storage and solar panels. “Also adding Tesla Solar to our Supercharger stations as fast as possible,” Musk tweeted. “Goal is 24/7 clean power with no blackouts.”
Another, somewhat more esoteric gremlin is the idea that producing Li-ion batteries requires unsustainable amounts of water. Such arguments lack a sense of proportion, as Dr. Maximilian Fichtner, a Director at the Helmholtz Institute for Electrochemical Energy Storage in Germany, explained in a recent article in the German news magazine Der Tagesspiegel (via Teslarati).
Lithium production, like many industrial processes, does indeed consume water. According to Dr. Fichtner’s calculations, the production of a 64 kWh battery pack requires about 3,840 liters of water. Gee, that sounds like a lot - but it’s about the same amount that would be used to produce 250 grams of beef, 30 cups of coffee, or half a pair of blue jeans. Unlike so many stories in the mainstream press, the headline of this one strikes a pro-EV tone, implying that “11 avocados are more environmentally damaging than one EV battery.”
Above: Tesla charging (Flickr: Jakob Harter)
And of course, those 11 avocados will quickly be turned into guacamole, scooped up and eaten, whereas a 64 kWh Tesla battery should serve for 10 years or so on the road, after which it may have a second life in a stationary storage application, and finally be recycled.
That brings us to one of the favorite horror stories of the “yes, climate change is real, but” crowd - the argument that recycling Li-ion batteries is difficult, expensive or even flat-out impossible. To those who follow the EV and/or recycling industries, such claims are laughable. Recycling International reports that some 97,000 tons of lithium-ion batteries were recycled in 2018, and over 1 GWh worth are currently serving in second-life applications.
Some in the mainstream media continue to claim that only a fraction of Li-ion batteries are being recycled, relying on an outdated 2010 report by Friends of the Earth (at least they’re recycling something). The latest data tells quite a different story. “We know from our data (based on input from 50+ leading battery recyclers worldwide) that almost 100,000 tons of waste batteries were recycled last year,” Hans Eric Melin, Director of London-based consultancy Circular Energy Storage, told Recycling International. “That’s about 50% of the volume that reached end-of-life.”
Of course, the goal is to build a closed-loop recycling regimen, with recycling rates close to 100%, and such a system is under construction as we speak. While naysayers insist that “nobody has thought about the issue of recycling,” over here in the real world, a long list of companies and research institutes have been diligently working on a variety of recycling initiatives for years.
According to a 2017 study by the Battery Council International, the lead-acid batteries used in legacy vehicles have a recycling rate of 99.3 percent, making them the most-recycled consumer product in the US - and this has been the case for many years. Considering that many of the materials found in Li-ion batteries are far more valuable than lead, to say nothing of the advances in technology and environmental awareness since the heyday of lead-acid, it’s only logical to expect similarly high recycling rates for Li-ion batteries (or whatever technology eventually replaces them) once EVs become a mainstream product.
One of those working on the issue is Tesla’s former CTO JB Straubel. As Teslarati reports, Straubel appears to be involved with a new recycling startup. At Tesla’s 2018 shareholders meeting, he discussed Tesla’s recycling efforts: “Tesla will absolutely recycle, and we do recycle, all of our spent cells, modules and battery packs. So the discussion about is this waste ending up in landfills is not correct. We would not do that - these are valuable materials. In addition, it’s just the right thing to do. We have current partner companies on every major continent where we have cars operating that we work with to do this today. And in addition, we’re developing internally more processes, and we’re doing R&D on how we can improve this recycling process to get more of the active materials back. Ultimately what we want is a closed loop at the Gigafactories that reuses the same recycled materials.”
Above: JB Straubel speaking at the International Transport Forum’s Summit on “Green and Inclusive Transport” in 2016 (Flickr: International Transport Forum)
Sometimes, even an article that has nothing negative to say about EVs can be made to sound like an anti-EV warning by punching up the headline (conflict = clicks). A recent article in Euractiv appeared under this headline: Hazards ahead: Electric cars face battery recycling hurdles in Europe. Wow, sounds like battery recycling may be harder than we thought, right? Actually, the article asserts nothing of the kind - it discusses the fact that, because battery supply chains stretch across national borders, EU regulations need to be updated to allow recycled materials to be transported around Europe with a minimum of paperwork.
Another example of headline-based scare-mongering is a recent piece in The New Republic, entitled Climate Change’s Great Lithium Problem. Anti-EV posters eagerly shared links to the article, citing it as evidence that electromobility is doomed by a looming shortage of lithium. Again, the article itself makes no such claim. Its main topic is lithium mining in Bolivia, and the questionable role of Western corporations, which have been following their usual policy of maximizing profits while ignoring the environmental and economic concerns of the locals. Certainly, this is an injustice that needs to be brought to light, but it’s hardly a justification for abandoning vehicle electrification and continuing to extract fossil fuels.
And that segues neatly into a discussion of one of the silliest of the pseudoscientific “concerns” about EVs - the idea that lithium will become “the new oil.” To be fair, the nonsense of this narrative may not be apparent to the average consumer, but those with a basic understanding of batteries understand that lithium is not a fuel - unlike oil, it is not consumed or burned in order to release energy. Once a quantity of lithium is incorporated into a battery, that’s where it stays, just like the aluminum, steel and other raw materials that make up a vehicle.
Furthermore, lithium is one of the most abundant elements in the Earth’s crust, it’s not particularly expensive to extract, and it is readily recyclable. It’s true that demand for the light metal is on the rise, and that most of the current supply comes from a limited number of locations. But again, this is a manageable problem - Tesla and other forward-looking firms are actively working to secure future supplies of the white stuff. The EU is actively working to develop a European battery industry, and (as reported by the Financial Times) has identified potential lithium mining sites in 10 EU countries that could supply as much of 30% of the world's lithium needs by 2030.
The kicker is that so-called lithium-ion batteries don’t actually use much lithium. In a 2016 speech that eloquently debunked the “new oil” scenario, Elon Musk estimated that a lithium-ion cell contains about 2% lithium. Other sources agree. The next time somebody prates to you about a shortage of lithium, direct them to this graphic (see below) from The Electrochemical Society, part of a detailed article about battery recycling. According to the authors, lithium makes up about 1% of a typical EV battery system.
Generic composition of EV battery system
Above: Ecological Recycling of Lithium-Ion Batteries from Electric Vehicles with Focus on Mechanical Processes (Source: The Electrochemical Society)
We’re far more likely to face shortages of copper and/or nickel than a scarcity of lithium (and, as players in the metals and minerals sectors invariably point out, the “shortages” that some companies warn about are “opportunities” for others).
The most controversial component of EV batteries is cobalt, most of which comes from the Congo, where child labor is common. That’s why Tesla, BMW and other EV-makers are making moves to obtain cobalt from more salubrious places, and to reduce or eliminate its use. According to Dr. Maximilian Fichtner, whose article in Der Tagesspiegel is cited above, the batteries used in Volkswagen’s upcoming ID.3 hatchback contain about 12-14% cobalt. The Tesla Model 3 contains only about 2.9% cobalt as of 2018. Dr. Fichtner predicts that cobalt-free batteries could reach the market by 2025.
And none too soon! According to The Electrochemical Society, worldwide cobalt resources are likely to be insufficient in a mere 60 years!
As for lithium, Dr. Fichtner points out that the light white metal is already used in large quantities in many industrial and chemical processes, and in smaller amounts in computers and mobile devices. “I’m always surprised that the public never talks about lithium in laptops or mobile phones - but suddenly it’s a problem with the e-car.”
The good doctor’s comment could apply to most of the objections to electric vehicles - fossil fuels and popular consumer goods may have similar or far worse environmental footprints, but those aren’t considered a problem. Everything we do affects the world around us, and unless the human race someday abandons its near-universal religion of materialism, all we can hope for is to reduce the damage to a sustainable level. The vast majority of scientific research (to say nothing of personal experience and common sense) indicates that electromobility, coupled with renewable energy, will be vastly less environmentally damaging than today’s fossil fuel-based transport and energy systems.
Written by: Charles Morris