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Transportation transportation Battery

ELECTRIC CARS: TRULY GREEN OR A NEW KIND OF LIABILITY?

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by: Sharai Hoekema
electric cars  truly green or a new kind of liability

The electric car truly is the kind of stuff that science fiction dreams are made of. Driving around without the sound or smell of typical cars, and upon coming home, plugging in the car in the reload station. And once it is fully charged, off you go again, without ever having to bother with filling up the tank at smelly, crowded gas stations.

Most of us are longingly staring at the Teslas zooming past in the street, or throwing somewhat jealous glances at the reserved parking spots, exclusive for electric charging. Governments have made it clear that they are looking to subsidise these vehicles, to move towards an economy that is largely fuelled by electric cars, motorcycles, busses, planes… and phase out the polluting, gas guzzling products of the fossil fuel industry.

GREATER, BETTER, CLEANER?

While the retail price of electric cars still far outweigh that of ‘regular’ cars, there are increasingly more subsidies and grants available for those who are seriously considering ‘a car with a plug’. And yes, they will still be more expensive (ranging anywhere between € 20,000 and € 10,000), even though the savings will start to flow in almost instantly, as the average cost of electricity required for fuelling the car adds up to some hundred euros, perhaps, or maximum € 600-700 per year (depending on the exact car brand and type chosen and the kilometers driven in a year).

This puts it at roughly 30% to 50% of the cost for fuel. Additionally, the maintenance costs are likely to be lower as well - there are fewer moving parts and a system that is generally easier to understand and repair when needed. Not to mention the cheaper insurances and tax discounts offered for electric cars. 

CARBON EMISSIONS

One of the major selling points for the electric car is its zero emissions promise. Whereas regular gas-powered vehicles pump out carbon dioxide while driving, the claim used to be that electric cars do not have any (as they are not burning fossil fuels while driving). Yet this is not entirely true, as there have been instances in which the electric car actually produced higher amounts of CO2 per kilometer driven in its lifetime. 

What has to be added to this, though, is that this was a result of the size of the car and hinged on the word ‘lifetime’. For example, if you place a rather big Tesla car opposite a regular compact or economy-sized car, this will lead to a negative outcome for the Tesla. Whereas if you put it head-to-head with a similar sized car, it will always come out on top.

The crux in this is the cost of car production, battery manufacturing, and projected recycling opportunities. All or this adds to the lifetime CO2 emission, so logic dictates that a larger car, with more parts, will get a higher rating than a smaller ‘regular’ car. Or, as the US Department of Energy put it, considering all, “an electric car like the Tesla Model S has almost four times lower CO2 per mile than an equivalent gas-powered car.”

USE OF ‘DIRTY’ ENERGY

Some people will claim that it hardly matters anyway. With an electric car, you are merely shifting the pollution source: instead of using fuel and gas, you are employing electricity, that still largely depends on coal and natural gasses for its production as well. Hence, fossil fuels are used no matter what, and so pollution will be the same as well. Right? 

No, not exactly. While it cannot be denied that electricity production still largely hinges on fossil fuels, there is a clear shift towards renewable energy sources. Depending on the exact region, renewable energy sources already make up a significant part of the power needs. Tesla’s Elon Musk has pledged a switch to fully renewable energy sources for the production of their Tesla, using nothing but wind and solar energy to manufacture the cars. Especially in the wake of the Paris Agreement, energy is predicted to become increasingly more sustainable.

LITHIUM BATTERIES

A final, unavoidable note must be made regarding the lithium batteries that are commonly used in electric cars. This rare element is not only difficult to mine, but also potentially hazardous to those processing it. So, its creation is relatively hard on the environment: if only considering the huge amounts of water that are required for the mining (a staggering 1.9 million liters per tonne of lithium) and the adverse effects that the released chemicals have on the local environment and population alone. And yes, this battery will eliminate the need for similarly polluting elements, but the huge (ethical and environmental) pressure that its production puts on primarily third world countries is worrying.

SO, WHAT TO DRIVE?

There are undoubtedly aspects of the electric car that are far from desirable. And no, it is not the end-product that we have been able to witness in science-fiction pop culture hits, effortlessly floating on air. Yet the current electric car does take a significant bite out of the emission of its gas counterparts. For now it may be a question of being ‘the lesser evil’, but the great progress made in more sustainable production processes of the car and electricity alike, shows great promise. The electric car is driving down the right road!

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