Since their introduction to the market, the actual “green” impact of electric cars has been bandied back and forth by supporters and detractors alike. While proponents of EVs advocate the environmentally friendly nature of electric cars, many still point to the large carbon emissions generated during production and charging as nullifying any potential benefits. However, despite the negative effects, electric cars still come out on top overall. In fact, even with manufacturing emissions nearing 68% higher than those for conventional cars, EVs still produce 53% lower emissions than similar gasoline vehicles throughout their lifetime.
How does this happen? It comes down to a multitude of factors over each car’s lifespan – production, charging, usage, and post-life handling.
In the first stages of production, a mid-size, mid-range BEV (Battery Electric Vehicle) usually produces 15% greater emissions than the manufacturing of a similar gasoline powered vehicle. This is due to the nature of lithium mining and the refining process of the rare metals required for an EV battery.
However, as electric car sales have risen 30% in the past year and the cost of lithium batteries has dropped by 2/3rds, automakers have pushed to simplify and improve the process even further.
In fact, many in the auto industry have begun investing in alternative battery chemistries that require less energy-intensive material, as well as renewable energy sources to power their facilities. With these cleaner, more efficient production techniques, the emissions generated through EV manufacturing are expected to drop even more.
The second leading cause of CO2 production for EVs comes from the charging process. Though the cars themselves produce no emissions while “refueling,” the facilities they receive electricity from can produce quite a lot.
Those situated in California, New York, or the Pacific Northwest, where clean energy is more prevalent, are likely to see less of an impact in charging. Those in the Midwest where coal burning is still common, on the other hand, are likely to be contributing to greater CO2 emissions.
For example, 68% of the electricity generated in the U.S. comes from fossil fuels, and half to one-third of that amount comes directly from coal. In fact, in Kentucky and Wyoming, 90% of electricity is produced by coal.
Still, despite the negative impact of coal-powered plants, the environmental cost of EV charging remains lower than its gasoline powered counterparts when the refining, processing, and transporting of gas is factored into the equation. More notably, even in the dirtiest U.S. regional electricity grids, electric cars still produce global warming emissions equivalent to a 35 MPG gasoline powered vehicle – in cleaner areas like New York or California, they’re equivalent to an 85 MPG gasoline powered vehicle.
Moreover, as of 2015, 66% of Americans live in regions where powering an EV on the regional electricity grid produces lower global warming emissions than a 50 MPG gasoline powered vehicle. Couple this with states like Washington, Delaware, Massachusetts, Virginia, and others across the U.S. opting to honor the country’s initial commitment to the Paris Agreement and Clean Air Act, and the move to renewable, clean energy is growing.
All electric vehicles produce 0 CO2 emissions while driving. Taking this into account, the average, midsize range EV will offset its excess manufacturing emissions in about 4,900 miles, and a full size, long range EV will do the same in 19,000 miles.
Four: End Life
Though there is no set process or plan in regards to recycling lithium batteries once a vehicle has passed its prime, the growth in demand for EVs is inspiring many companies to find new and better ways to recycle lithium batteries.
One such method being smelting, wherein precious metals are extracted from a battery, allowing the rest of the hazardous material to be further treated and disposed of properly. Facilities are also working to repair or rehabilitate batteries for secondary uses, like charging solar panels on homes.
In the end, though the initial greenhouse imprint may be high, EVs are better for the environment long term. And as countries continue to turn to renewable energy and cleaner power sources, electric cars are likely to continue to come out ahead.