The drive to replace polluting petrol and diesel cars with a new breed of electric cars has gathered tremendous momentum in recent times. Electric cars are a variety of electric vehicles that are powered by electricity. They are propelled by one or more electric motors using energy stored in rechargeable batteries.
As the world gradually shifts from fossil fuel powered vehicles to electric vehicles, questions about their environmental issues and sustainability ought to be on the front burner. Questions such as how the lithium ion batteries being used to power the vehicles are produced and disposed when they wear out, and the emission levels of such cars.
While an electric car’s power source is not explicitly an on-board battery, (an electric car carrying solar panels to power it is a solar car; an electric car powered by a gasoline generator is a form of hybrid car; an electric car that derives its power from an on-board battery pack is a form of battery electric vehicle) most often, the term “electric car” is used to refer to battery electric vehicles (BEVs).
One significant benefit of electric cars over conventional internal combustion engine vehicles that use petrol and diesel is the substantial reduction of local air pollution with volatile organic compounds, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, ozone, lead, and various oxides of nitrogen, especially in cities. However, there is the issue of secondary pollution from emission of greenhouse gases from the battery production plants and also when fossil fuels are used to recharge the batteries. The clean air benefit may only be local because, depending on the source of the electricity used to recharge the batteries, air pollutant emissions may be shifted to the location of the generation plants, which is referred to as the long tailpipe of electric vehicles. The amount of carbon dioxide emitted depends on the emission intensity of the power sources used to charge the vehicle, the efficiency of the electric vehicle and the energy wasted in the charging process.
The Lithium batteries that power electric vehicles are difficult to dispose and harmful to the environment because they contain toxic metals such as nickel, lead and copper, as well as toxic and flammable electrolytes containing LiClO4, LiBF4, and LiPF6. Exposure to these materials during the battery production phase is strictly regulated by several regulatory laws, but the legislation on their disposal is inconsistent internationally. This presents serious hazard to humans and the environment, especially in areas that lack the infrastructure for solid waste collection and recycling.
There is also the threat of discharged electric car batteries which can deliver powerful shocks, or present a serious fire hazard, if mishandled. Recycling these batteries is quite expensive yet feasible. There is little incentive for manufacturers to recycle EV batteries when Lithium- their “main ingredient” – costs five times more to recycle than to produce. Electric vehicles manufacturers have attempted different ways to reduce costs. For instance, Toyota is shipping used American Prius batteries back to Japan, where it can recycle at lower cost while General Motors and Nissan have started selling used batteries to power companies for the storage of excess wind and solar energy. While these recycling methods have been successful in mitigating the damage caused by electric vehicle battery disposal, they are costly and still far from being standardized. The US department of Energy in 2011 funded a $9.5 million-dollar specialized EV battery recycling plants in Ohio, being managed today by Toxco. Efforts in the UK are still in their experimental stages. Nigeria is yet to get involved at all. According to a study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics, the production of electric vehicles currently poses the biggest environmental problem; it takes more than twice the amount of energy to produce an electric car as a conventional one, the main reason for that being the battery. The institute estimates that each kilowatt hour of battery capacity involves 125 kilograms (276 pounds) of CO2 emissions. For a 22-kilowatt-hour battery for a BMW i3, this translates into almost 3 tons of CO2.
Nonetheless, some electric car batteries do not produce CO2 emissions at all – that is only if their energy is obtained from sources such as solar, wind, nuclear, or hydropower. Even when the power is generated using fossil fuels, electric vehicles usually, compared to gasoline vehicles, show significant reductions in overall well-wheel global carbon emissions due to the highly carbon-intensive production in mining, pumping, refining, transportation and the efficiencies obtained with gasoline.
Electric cars generally have a lot of advantages over cars that run on gasoline or diesel, such as:
- A significant reduction in the emission of harmful tailpipe pollutants such as particulates (soot), volatile organic compounds, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, ozone, lead, and various oxides of nitrogen.
- The potential for a significant reduction in CO2 emissions.
- Electric cars are quiet and easy to operate.
- They are cheaper and easier to maintain.
Some disadvantages include:
- Heavy reliance on rare-earth elements such as neodymium, lanthanum, terbium, dysprosium, lithium and cobalt. Although, the presence of some rare metals and the amount thereof differs per car. Reliance on these rare-earth elements is a problem as these resources are finite and non-renewable.
- Increased particle matter emissions from brake pads and tyres. This is because most electric cars have heavy batteries, which means the car’s brake pads and tyres are subject to more wear.
Currently, governments from developed nations are encouraging this transition from fossil fuel powered vehicles to electric vehicles to help their countries reach national targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and to tackle air pollution in city centers. For instance, Germany has pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2020 compared to 1994 levels, and aims to have 1 million electric cars on the road by then.
The good news for countries moving towards cleaner environment and air is that electric cars are more environment-friendly than fossil fuel powered vehicles. The battery and other component technologies of electric cars are also improving, with less toxic alternatives being discovered and incorporated every new car season. While the environmental benefits of electric vehicles may not be as big as we all think right now, continued demand, more renewable energy and improvements in technology means the outlook for electric cars is getting better every year.