Emerald-Colored Glasses: Just How Green Are EVs?
As the resident sourpuss, I make it my business to complain about every industrial hypocrisy that crosses my path and the automotive sector has kept me so busy that there’s hardly any time left to address my own failings. Though I do have to confess that I sometimes feel guilty about how frequently I’m compelled to gripe about electric vehicles. Provided that you’re willing to work with their charging limitations and less-than-impressive ranges, EVs have a lot to offer even in their current state. But the way they’ve been marketed has been so consistently disingenuous that I often end my days on the cusp of a frustration-induced aneurysm.
The winds appear to be changing, however.
After years of watching the industry bang its head against the wall, the media seems prepared to shift its position. Accelerated adoption of pure electrics doesn’t seem to be happening and too many EV startups have ended up being little more than an opportunity for investors to throw away money. Increasingly fewer people ask me about battery-powered cars in a way that suggests true enthusiasm. Excitement has given way to dubiousness as more people have begun to ponder if electrics are really all they’re cracked up to be.
The Wall Street Journal has released a couple of articles on the matter this year, with the most recent one dropping last week. Rather than running with the narrative that electrics are the obvious choice for a cleaner environment, the outlet has begun asking harder questions and even spilling some beans tech firms would prefer to remain canned. Among them was a query about how automakers are going to tamp down the price of EVs to be competitive when the materials going into them are in such high demand. Furthermore, what are the odds battery production will be done in an environmentally friendly way when the industry knows it has to make it as cost-effective as possible?
We’ve been wondering the same thing for years — and that’s just for starters. How does a national energy grid contend with an EV-dominant landscape? Can that energy be sourced reliably and in a manner that’s cleaner than what we have today? How do we ensure sufficient raw materials for battery production? Is building up an entirely new charging infrastructure for the planet more efficient than continuing with what we have? What if consumers don’t like electrics as much as internal combustion cars? What if EVs don’t reach parity with ICEs as soon as we think? What about the ethical complications of mining in third-world countries? What about the dangers of shifting over to a driving model that gives China (the world’s leading battery producer) a clear industrial advantage?
This is a corner the industry and government have painted themselves into by way of perpetually ignoring any shortcomings associated with the technology and encouraging surface-level environmentalism, rather than genuinely critical thinking into the issue. It’s reminiscent of how the European Union handled air pollution by assuming that prioritizing diesel-fueled vehicles would automatically win the day, only to have reality catch up a couple of decades later.
The all-electric technology popularized by Tesla involves a kind of front-loading of environmental risk. EVs emit less carbon than a conventional car, even when recharged with electricity made by burning coal, but their powerful batteries require a lot of resources to make.
This inconvenient truth is one reason car makers are getting more involved in the EV supply chain. Investments such as the new battery factories announced by General Motors this week are mainly about securing greater control over the supply, technology and costs of the most important EV component. But a fourth factor fast rising up the priority list is control over their environmental footprint.
Buying battery cells made with renewable electricity is one focus. Faced with very strong demand, European battery startup Northvolt, which is backed by Volkswagen and BMW among others, last week raised $2.75 billion to further expand its low-carbon production facility in northern Sweden, where hydroelectric power is plentiful.
Another hot topic is the mining of battery metals, notably lithium. The industry used to worry more about cobalt, which is sourced mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo amid charges of child labor, but in recent years the metal’s role in battery chemistry has shrunk. Lithium can’t so easily be minimized in lithium batteries. The stocks of U.S. producers Albemarle and Livent are trading close to record highs.
Automakers using EVs as a tactic to wrangle more control over their product is further emphasized by the number of companies that are now reimagining the concept of vehicle ownership as their lobbying groups take on the right-t0-repair movement (which believes companies don’t have the right to dictate what customers can do to their products after they’ve been purchased). But that’s another issue we probably should dive into separately. The point is that the automotive sector has reached a point where it’s throwing away the established way of doing business so it can exert more control over products.
And we could certainly have a frank and productive discussion on the matter if anyone in the business was willing to state that bluntly. But the issue of EVs has become so bogged down in the notion that they’ll be miraculously better for the environment, provided you don’t think about it too hard, that thoughtful considerations never really get off the ground.
This isn’t a problem exclusive to tech companies, either. There’s plenty to dislike about the oil industry and stupid decisions abound — my current favorite is that it’s somehow better to ship oil around the world using super-polluting tanker ships or loaded onto smoke-spewing trucks, than simply sourcing (and refining) as much as possible domestically and moving it around via pipelines. The argument is never that it’s too risky to place so much of our energy infrastructure in one vulnerable space, or that we have complicated political interest that might discourage homestyle refineries. We’re just issued the catchall excuse that it’s probably bad for the environment, with only the most thoughtful examples including some mention of spoiling protected lands.
That’s if we’re lucky. But why have EVs been getting less love in 2021 when we could have chugged along spewing the same narratives?
Well, we’re starting to see some of their shortcomings. More importantly, so has the industry that was promising they’d be all the rage in a couple more years. This coincides with everyone realizing that global supply chains aren’t necessarily something we can perpetually count upon thanks to the semiconductor shortage that’s absolutely ravaging carmakers. EVs might not actually be sustainable from a business perspective — at least, not yet.
“The data is pointing to the battery cost curve coming down much more slowly than hyped. There are a lot of bottlenecks and challenges that people are ignoring,” Mio Kato, an analyst who publishes on research platform Smartkarma, told WSJ.
Most studies suggest that BEVs are only better for the environment if you purchase one after driving your current vehicle till the wheels fall off, buying something modest, sourcing as much energy as humanly possible from renewable sources, and driving it for at least a decade. Meanwhile, EV companies only seem to be profitable when backed by plenty of excited investors and supported by government subsidies.
At present, it seems a losing proposition when viewed critically. But that’s not to suggest electrics won’t eventually surpass gasoline-driven automobiles after some more R&D. The real problem seems to be that everyone championing that cause seems to be glossing over that fact in an effort to get us to the finish line as soon as possible. But that’s just one opinion and I’m always curious about the consumer consensus.
How green do you see electric cars today and what do you forecast from now until they’re supposed to reach financial parity with internal combustion vehicles? Are we on the right track or has the whole EV experiment been completely bungled by the associated marketing attempts and governmental influence?
Consumer advocate tracking industry trends, regulation, and the bitter-sweet nature of modern automotive tech. Research focused and gut driven.
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