VehiclesEnvironmentalAre Electric Vehicles Really Better for the Environment?

Are Electric Vehicles Really Better for the Environment?

Well, without tailpipe fumes then the obvious answer must clearly be, yes, but unfortunately, the whole debate around Electric Vehicle technology is just not that simple.

Scratch beneath the surface and you will find that there is more to a car’s eco-credentials, in fact, any manufactured item that waves the green banner, then just how they perform for the end user.

No doubt about it, fully electric cars have zero emissions on the road so that’s a good thing isn’t it, no toxic exhaust fumes? However, EVs are not so squeaky clean when they are manufactured.

The two big Eco dis-advantages of Electric Vehicles

The first of these and the one that detractors often point out is the CO2 emissions created from the production processes that make the lithium-ion batteries that EVs run on. Most of these batteries are produced using carbon heavy processes and many are made in China, one of the planet’s biggest polluters incidentally.

Second on the hit list of non-eco-friendly credentials is the source of the electricity that EVs run on. Sure, if you have the space to charge your own vehicle and can do this using solar panels on your home or a mini wind turbine then you can make the production of electricity for your vehicle pretty green. But most drivers don’t have access to electricity like this.

Comparing EVs and traditional vehicles

To make a proper and fair comparison between EVs and traditional petrol or diesel vehicles, it is necessary to look at the entire lifecycle of the vehicle in green terms. This includes how and where it is made, its carbon emissions during its life and then what happens to it at the end of its usable life in terms of waste or recycling.

Comparing EVs and standard vehicle production

Head-to-head, the manufacture of both types of car, standard fuel and EV, are pretty similar in terms of their impact on the environment. The majority of the car build is the same for both except obviously, the EV doesn’t have a conventional fuel engine. However, it does have a socking great battery, called a lithium-ion battery and it is the manufacture of this one single component that creates more than one third of an EVs lifecycle carbon emissions. However, this is balanced out later on when the car is on the road with a zero-emission profile.

Gradually as the manufacturing process for this new technology ramps up, the countries which produce essential elements for EVs will have begun to decarbonise their electricity grids and so there will be fewer emissions coming from the manufacturing process. And everyone will just get better and cleaner at making what is after all still a new car and concept.

How Eco-friendly are EV batteries?

EV batteries contain both nickel and cobalt which have to be mined from underground and the mining process is not at all environmentally friendly.

Next on the list of Xs is that these batteries are made in countries where the power supply is sustained by fossil fuels rather than greener alternatives, in fact countries like China who hold the record as one of the world’s worst polluting nations.

Approximately half the emissions that come from making a lithium-ion battery are generated from the electricity used in their manufacture and assembly so essentially, when the EV rolls off the production line, it has already created a vastly increased carbon footprint compared to its more traditional fossil fuel neighbour.

Owning and longer-term Eco Credentials

There is no doubt that put both an EV and a conventional fossil fuel driven car on the road and the EV will easily outstrip the more old-fashioned vehicle when it comes to clean, green credentials.

Within two years of driving an EV, the carbon emitted during manufacture will have been cancelled out by the zero tailpipe emissions but only if the car is powered by renewable electricity.

EVs don’t emit carbon dioxide into the environment from their exhaust gasses, this applies only to pure EVs and not to hybrid cars. No tailpipe fumes also mean no pollutants like SO2 or sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides or particulate matter also called PM which are all harmful to health but just get less press than good old CO2.

Another pollution benefit yet to be fully appreciated will be the lack of traffic noise, a huge boon to those who live near busy roads. Traffic noise is pollution of a different kind, not as high profile as air pollution but still a significant benefit nonetheless.

What happens to EV batteries at the end of their useful life?

Most of the standard car components are common to both vehicles such as bodywork, tyres and seating, the key difference at the point of scrap or disposal is what happens to the battery in an EV.

The average lifespan for a lithium-ion battery is around 15-20 years. Lithium-ion batteries are like smartphone batteries, just much bigger and more powerful. When the batteries reach the end of their useful life, there are two green options open for disposal:-

  • Reuse – a car battery that has seen service in an EV can be reused for energy storage in the home or workplace or the electricity network. Renewable energies like solar or wind power can all be collected and stored in EV batteries but with such a new technology, the infrastructure is not really established yet with so few EVs not yet ready to reach the end of their working lives. Nissan, always ahead of the curve, has already launched a scheme called XStorage which gives old car batteries from the Nissan Leaf a new role as energy storage systems for the home and workplace
  • Recycling – the process to recycle the raw materials contained within an EV car battery has yet to appear but there are certainly precious metals in that unit which could be useful. Volkswagen have started their own battery recycling programme, the first tentative steps towards an industry wide trend which takes essential raw materials from old batteries and recycles them back into manufacturing, even the very process that made the battery in the first place
trends in future of electric vehicles

Comparing EV electricity supplies to charge the vehicle

Using electricity generated from a non-renewable or green source is a favourite in the finger pointing war when the critiques of EVs come to town.

An EV is only as green as the electricity that powers it so tailpipe emissions aside, drivers need to be aware of how to harvest and use 100% renewable energy supplies when they charge up their car.

If you can park up and charge on your driveway then this can offer plenty of options using solar panels or a mini wind turbine. For everyone else, its about being aware of the source of the electricity you are using to recharge your EV and how it is produced.

What is smart charging?

A smart charger is a super slick device set up to only power up your EV when it is most environmentally friendly to do so, a great extra layer of technology to really push the boundaries when it comes to being green. This means it only charges your car when carbon emissions are likely to be at their lowest and this can bring down charging emissions by anything up to 22%.

Conclusions: are electric vehicles really better for the environment?

Yes, they are and with an emerging and developing technology, first the product needs to be green and then the process of making and disposing of it at the end of its life both also need to clean up their acts and become green as well.

If you were looking at it from a more polarised perspective, the carbon debt created by manufacture of EV batteries, is not a carbon debt in the UK, you just get the benefit of driving around a non-polluting vehicle. How you split up carbon generation and accountability is also a complex picture.

No-one can really convincingly argue that EVs are anything other than good news for the planet but as with all things, it is not always black and white. Detractors like to point the finger at lithium-ion battery production, sometimes in response to the emerging green superiority complex which can sometimes accompany those who drive EVs.

Emerging is the key word when it comes to this new green technology which is due to just get greener and greener as time progresses and the whole process from start to finish can be made as environmentally friendly as possible. Eventually, the energy powering EV production from manufacture through to recycling will become either low or zero carbon too, and the smell and roar of the internal combustion engine will just be consigned to old films and history books.

Written by

Mark Hodgson
Mark Hodgson
Mark Hodgson is one of our expert writers. Mark is our lead researcher and editor who writes our main guides and expert topic coverage. He’s passionate about helping entrepreneurs, startups and small businesses with practical advice delivered clearly. Mark’s worked for a number of business magazines and titles and has started two small businesses himself, so has first-hand experience in setting up, managing and growing a small business and shares his expertise with our readers.

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