We’ve all heard the quote on quote, experts of the world, tell us that electric cars are the future and that internal combustion engines are dead, polluting our air, and on and on and on.
And don’t get me wrong, I’m personally a fan of electric cars. I enjoy riding in them, I enjoy driving them. Do I love the sound and feel of a standard internal combustion engine? Of course, I’m a car guy.
But, with that in mind, I think it’s time we take a real look at the claim that “electric cars are the inevitable future,” because quite frankly, there are a ton of massive hurdles to clear in order for an electric future to feasible and on top of that, there’s a lot of lies about how electric cars affect air quality as compared to standard cars.
So, get ready because this is going to be a long one. We’re going to look at everything wrong with electric cars and why there’s still room for internal combustion engines to remain on the road for many decades to come.
Again, I’d quickly like to highlight that I’m not biased for or against electric transportation. I enjoy normal cars and I enjoy electric cars. Both have their pros and cons. I’d also like to highlight that I have never owned an electric vehicle, but that’s simply because I enjoy very cheap cars as something that allows me to use more of my money towards business building, investing, and saving.
If there were good electric cars that were compared to the cheap used cars I typically buy, I would have no problem buying an electric car or truck. So again, I will try to keep this as unbiased as possible.
Emissions Output as per EPA Reports for 2020
So for the first point, I’d like to tackle, let’s take on arguably the biggest and hottest debate topic in the electric car space, which is emissions output. After all, one of the big draws to an all-electric future for transportation is reduced emissions output, especially considering that transportation is demonized as something that outputs massive amounts of greenhouse gases.
And to break this down, we’ll be looking at a few reports from the EPA on greenhouse gas emissions output in the year 2020. Keep in mind, that we’re writing this article in 2022, so the numbers are a bit different now, but still pretty close.
So, getting right into it, as per the EPA this chart shows transportation taking up 27% of GHG output in 2020, with electricity taking up 25% of the output. And by just looking at this chart, you can see why people and governments all over the world want to end the internal combustion engine because at face value it’s clearly the largest contributor to emissions output, but let’s dive into it a bit further.
Let’s take a hypothetical situation where all internal combustion engine cars are banned outright, even existing cars, that way we can wipe out that 27%. Bam, poof, gone, done, dead. All transportation emissions are gone and we’ve saved the earth, but people still need to get around so we’re going to replace all transportation with electric equivalents.
There’s just one problem: now the electricity output has to increase dramatically. In fact, as per the EPA on another chart, the use for the 25% electricity bit of emissions output is 31% commercial and residential, 30% industry, 11% agriculture, and 27% transportation which is electricity generated for electric transportation vehicles.
With that in mind, 27% of the 25% electric generation emissions output is dedicated to electric transportation, which means that 6.75% of all US GHG emissions output in 2020, which electricity generated for electric transportation. If we dig a bit deeper though, we can see that most of this electric generation for transportation includes all transportation, and it’s not broken down to see how much of that is actually used by EVs as compared to something like a light-rail.
Of course, 6.75% of total GHG emissions output is still less than the 27% that the transportation industry outputs. But, the thing is, that 27% isn’t just the cars you and I drive, it’s literally all transportation, meaning cars, trucks, semi-trucks, tractors, planes, boats, trains, and any other form of transportation.
If we break this down, you’ll find out “light-duty vehicles” which is classified as anything under 8500lbs, only accounts for 57% of transportation, which means 57% of the 27% are normal cars and trucks, which means that 15.39% of all GHG output in 2020 was from standard internal combustion engine light-duty vehicles.
But, if you were to break this down by vehicle sales, you’d see that under 3% of total vehicle sales in the US in 2020 were electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles, and that’s just one year of sales. If you were to break down vehicles on the road, electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles would likely be far under 1%, which means that 1% of the vehicles on the road were accounting for 6.75% of total GHG emissions output in 2020, while the other 99% accounted for 15.39%.
But we’ve somehow demonized that aforementioned 15.39% for destroying the earth and polluting our air. The point I’m trying to make here is that emissions output for electric generation is really really bad. The main form of electricity generation here in the US comes from coal, and you can see that represented here.
Plain and simple, electric cars are responsible for an alarmingly large amount of GHG emissions output as compared to standard internal combustion engine cars, especially when you consider how few electric cars are on the road in the US compared to standard cars.
Even if the percentages were off by as much as over 99%, the emissions output for electricity used by electric transport is still extremely high and very worrisome.
We can look at another report from the EPA which breaks down CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion by end-use-sector, with combustion and electricity broken out from that, and on this chart, we see that in 2020 transportation industry emissions output for combustion was 1572.0, and was 4.7 for electricity.
That being said, it’s not the electric transportation’s fault, it’s how we’re generating that electrical energy. Current methods for generating large amounts of electricity are pretty old-school and clearly very dirty, which means that once energy production moves towards cleaner methods at scale, electric cars will have a positive impact on reducing GHG output, but until energy production gets cleaner, they’re not having a positive effect on emissions output at all.
To be fair though, the way to EPA has this data laid out isn’t great and if I’m being totally honest, the numbers don’t exactly add up, so I think it’s also worth looking elsewhere for a different set of data to paint some more light on this, and for that, we’ll look at a study from 2019.
And to quickly run through the highlights of this study, they found that:
- Vehicle electrification decreases surface ozone during summer and increases in winter.
- Electrification increases particulate matter during summer and decreases in winter.
- Ozone changes scale with number of vehicles transitioned.
- Electricity generation source has greater control over particulate matter.
That last point is by far the most important and reiterates the initial point that I was trying to make, that in the long term, EVs can and will likely have a positive impact on emissions output as we move toward cleaner electricity generation, but considering the 2020 report from the EPA notates that 60% of electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, we clearly have a lot of room for improvement here in the US.
And if we don’t move toward cleaner energy production in the coming years and decades, electric vehicles really won’t have the impact many “experts” have been predicting for many years. It really all comes down to how we’re generating our electricity on a big scale.
And I think its also worth noting that out of the dozen or so studies that I looked at, the majority of them are promoting electric vehicles as a cleaner solution on the long-term scale compared to internal combustion engine cars, but not necessarily on the short-term scale, and most of those studies are using data models which factor in the coming changes to electrical generation in the US.
Mining Rare Earth Materials
Okay, enough on that, let’s take a look at the next hot point of debate with electric cars and that’s the rare metals that must be mined in order to manufacture the batteries in the vehicles, including lithium, praseodymium, lanthanum, dysprosium, neodymium, and others, with lithium being the biggest point of contention.
And in case you didn’t know, batteries require A LOT of materials, which means a lot of mining and a lot of transportation of those materials. According to mining and energy specialist Mark Mills, a thousand-pound electric car battery requires the moving of 500,000 pounds of earth in the course of mining. And because of this, lithium mining has often been nicknamed white oil.
Part of the reason for lithium’s use in batteries is because it’s not very dense, which makes it very light for a metal, and therefore it has excellent energy storage for its weight. And where this gets even scarier is the political implications because there are only a few countries known to have large lithium deposits, with China being in the top five and on top of that, China controls well over half of the world’s lithium mining facilities.
In a perfect world, all the countries would get along just fine and this wouldn’t be an issue, but with one superpower controlling the majority of the mining and manufacturing of literally the most important part of a battery, you can see where this can become a problem, especially when Governments are forcing electric cars to market with regulations rather than letting the free market do its thing, but we’ll get to government regulations later in the article, right now let’s keep our focus on the mining.
And to make a long story short, yes, lithium mining is bad for the environment, but the thing is, so is oil drilling. When you consider the long-term implications and how devastating oil spills can be to an entire ecosystem, lithium mining isn’t quite as bad, but it’s still bad. Really, we’re just picking the supposed lesser of the two evils based on current data.
But keep in mind, that mining companies are notorious for lying about their practices and their studies showing that what they’re doing isn’t actually bad for the environment, meanwhile, they could be dumping toxic waste and destroying massive ecosystems behind closed doors.
As far as the worry that lithium is a “rare” metal, it actually isn’t rare in terms of how much of it is available on this planet, rather that it’s hard to extract and produce lithium because of how hard it is to handle. There are companies working on newer extraction methods that should make this process easier, but as of right now, the hard part isn’t finding the lithium necessarily, it’s extracting it.
And that’s only one of the mines that are needed. When you consider other metals, such as Cobalt, it looks even worse, as the Democratic Republic of Congo, also known as DRC, holds the majority of the world’s Cobalt, around 70% of the world’s supply. And there have been dozens, if not hundreds, of complaints and examples of extremely poor worker’s conditions and even child labor at many of these facilities, with workers being fed insufficient amounts of food, water, and being paid under $400USD per month, with many workers closer to $100 per month.
But, companies are aware of the labor exploitation and the damaging environmental effects of mining some of these ores, with many companies aiming to completely eliminate Cobalt from their batteries, but that still leaves lithium.
Mining of lithium won’t be as big a problem if and when battery recycling a bigger and more profitable industry, but until then, expect the world to continue or even increase lithium mining and potentially damaging entire habitats with the waste left behind from mining, but remember, oil drilling is also pretty bad for the environment so don’t think there’s a good option here.
Free Market Intervention
That all brings me to the point that really irritates me more than anything about the all the electric car debates, which is that the governments of the world are forcing automotive manufacturers to produce electric cars within a certain time frame by enforcing crazy strict emissions standards that will effectively make it impossible to use a standard gas or diesel internal combustion engine.
The enforcement of stricter emissions standards isn’t anything new. We’ve seen this for decades, and I’m sure any diesel enthusiast will be happy to let you know how these strict emissions standards ultimately force manufacturers to introduce emissions systems that ultimately give the end-user worse product that’s not only less reliable, but more expensive to maintain, and more expensive to purchase in the first place.
What’s even more irritating about the emissions standards here in the US is that they’re being set by the EPA, which like all government agencies, is crooked, corrupt, biased, and regularly does incredibly stupid things, such as accidentally dumping 3 million gallons of toxic waste into our rivers.
Regardless though, the point I’m trying to make is this: the free market doesn’t exist in the automotive landscape when manufacturers are forced to completely change their product lineup rather than letting the free market and ultimately the consumers decide to purchase what they want and what they can afford.
Where this becomes a big issue is with the simple fact that as of right now, manufacturing an electric car is more expensive than normal gas or diesel car. So what does that mean? It means that consumers who are looking for the best deal when purchasing a new car, and electric plain and simple isn’t even close to the best deal, that is until government subsidies come into place.
And of course, those subsidies and rebates that make electric cars more affordable ultimately come at the cost of the US taxpayer. So, we’re being forced to buy electric cars that aren’t affordable, but money stolen from us by force from the government is used to make the electric cars affordable, which basically means we’re all being forced to pay for an all-electric future, but we don’t get a say if that’s where we want our limited financial resources to go.
And while I admire Elon Musk for a variety of reasons, ultimately a lot of the success of Tesla came from government money making those electric vehicles affordable, which by extension means a lot of Elon’s wealth came from the pockets of US taxpayers, even those that quite literally didn’t even buy his products.
And that’s just one example of an individual and ultimately their company, seeing magnitudes of success greater than they would in a totally free market because of government intervention.
The US Power Grid
Another possible hurdle that I often see or hear when discussing electrification is the US power grid, and how it supposedly can’t handle the amount of power that will be required for an all-electric future or even a future with half the cars on the road being electric.
And there is no denying, that with an increase in electric vehicles will come a massive increase in electricity usage and ultimately upgrades to the US power grid.
Can the US power grid in its exact form handle a massive increase in load? Maybe, but probably not, but that’s fine because it’s not like that’s an unknown. World governments recognize this and there are plans in place for grid upgrades in order to support the coming load increase on the grid.
Estimates from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimate that by 2050, the electrification of transport will require doubling the US electric generation capacity. If those targets fail to be met, consumers will be faced with incredibly expensive electricity bills, as the demand will begin to outweigh the supply.
That being said, an increase in demand for electricity won’t “break the grid,” just like when air conditioning become widespread in homes across America, the grid didn’t just “break,” instead, demand increased and as such, supply was increased to match that demand and keep energy prices low.
So no, the grid won’t break or explode when electrification happens, we’ll simply increase energy production to match the increased energy usage. If we were to fail to do that, energy prices would go up and in a hypothetical extreme where energy usage when up a few hundred percent at the current energy production levels, we could see rolling blackouts or something similar, but that won’t happen since energy production will simply scale up with the increased demand.
That brings us to the next challenge with handling the power of electric cars, which is the battery in the car itself and what we do with it when the vehicle is at the end of its life, either through age or a crash that renders it useless.
Part of the reason that lithium batteries have the potential to be better for the environment is the fact that lithium can effectively be recycled infinitely, which would ultimately reduce the mining for new lithium once the transition from internal combustion engine cars to electric cars is part way through.
But, the thing is, this is sort of new industry and because of that, there aren’t all that many companies recycling batteries right now. Part of the challenge here is that you can’t just recycle a battery like you recycle other metals.
Current recycling methods also rely on shredding the batteries into very small pieces, known as black mass, which is then processed into metals such as cobalt and nickel.
A switch to a practice known as direct recycling, which would preserve components such as the cathode and anode, could drastically reduce energy waste and manufacturing costs.
And because it’s a new industry, there isn’t much demand or supply, and what I mean by this is that right now battery recycling isn’t particularly profitable, which again means more government subsidies at the cost of the US taxpayer. Luckily, there is a lot of money being pumped into research and development to come up with more profitable and cleaner methods of recycling batteries.
The bright side of the future having improved battery recyclability is reducing the US’ dependency on other countries to mine the minerals required for batteries, which means more production here in the states, more jobs, and reduced dependency on other countries who we already have a weird and relatively tense relationship with.
Companies like Toyota, Ford, Tesla, Panasonic, and many others, are joining forces to speed up the development of new recycling methods. The sooner this happens, the better, as battery recycling is a major step to actually making electric vehicles have a significant net positive, as the current mining for these minerals puts a major dent in the claim that electric vehicles are environmentally friendly.
With cleaner energy production that can properly scale with the demand from the transition from internal combustion engine cars to electric cars, reduced dependency on coal for energy-reduced dependency on mining for new materials by developing new recycling methods, electric vehicles can and will have a net positive impact on the world.
But at its current state, energy production is still mainly coming from fossil fuels, the mining required for the batteries is destroying habitats and ecosystems, the price is too high and the government forcing electric cars to market, electric vehicles are in a weird gray area on the short term, as there are a lot of negatives before there are a lot of positives.
Of course, there are dozens of other hurdles that make an all-electric future a challenge. Things such as range, battery safety, vehicle cost, charging time, battery recycling, mining efficiency, and many other challenges will all be solved with time and innovations, but the deeper problems currently persist, and ultimately the truth is that electric transportation in its current form is not nearly as good for the environment as we’ve been lead to believe.
Electricity generation in the US needs to be cleaned up massively, and until that happens, the all-electric future we’ve been told will save the planet, might not save it all. Changing to cleaner energy sources such as wind and solar also creates its own set of issues, as those forms of energy are intermittent and we’ll need battery storage to store that energy for off-times, which then also forces the need for more batteries and more mining and so on.
As long as the governments of the world continue to force automotive manufacturers to shift to electric vehicles, the all-electric future will happen by force rather than the free market, but regardless, it will happen.