The high costs and low benefits of electric vehicles

The high costs and low benefits of electric vehicles


By Duggan Flanakin


The rush to decarbonize every nation in the world in one or maybe two decades reflects the “I want it all NOW!” philosophy imbued through modern education systems. Current and recent former students – and their teachers – demand a perfect world (since they can envision one) and exhibit zero patience (hence the nationwide riots in the U.S.).


Hopefully the mad stampede to destroy the West’s ability to use fossil fuels at all will be sidelined by harsh realities of economics, logistics, and resource availability (including a hoped for reticence to rely on child slave labor to satisfy their blood lust). Yet the United Kingdom, formerly a bastion of sanity, has mandated, as part of its drive toward an all-electric society, the installation of electric vehicle charging stations in every home by 2030 and that all new cars and vans be hydrogen or electric vehicles (and not hybrids).


Let’s start with the use of child labor in the intensive effort just to obtain raw materials for electric vehicle (EV) batteries.


As international energy economist Tilak Doshi reports, the most important component in the EV, the lithium-ion rechargeable battery, relies on critical mineral commodities such as cobalt, graphite, lithium, and manganese. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, two-thirds of the global output of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a quarter of which from dangerous small-scale (artisanal) mines that employ child labor.


Moreover, a recent Global Warming Policy Foundation report by Michael Kelly found that replacing just the United Kingdom’s fleet of petrol-powered vehicles with electric vehicles (as has been mandated) will require nearly twice the annual global production of cobalt, three-quarters of the world production of lithium carbonate, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, and more than half the world production of copper.


Replacing every internal combustion engine in the U.S. would take likely five or six times as much of these costly ores. Add in the rest of Europe (including Russia) and the Americas – and even ignoring Africa, China, India, and the rest of Asia, you begin to realize that the world cannot find, much less permit and extract, enough of these minerals to build a worldwide EV fleet by 2040 (let alone sooner).


It takes almost that much time these days just to get a permit to start up a new mining operation – if you can get past the environmentalist and NIMBY objections. And, as Kelly concludes, the environmental and social impacts of vastly expanded mining for these materials — some of which are highly toxic when mined, transported, and processed – in countries afflicted by corruption and poor human rights records can only be imagined.


Okay, so maybe you are fine with accelerated permitting (no environmental impact statements or public comment periods) to dig up or even import ore from Mars or the Moon. Whether children or AI robots do the work, in either case by slaves.


The next hurdle is overcoming the shock of learning that you are not doing that much for the environment by imposing electric vehicles on entire populations.


Doshi reports that about half the lifetime CO2 emissions from an electric vehicle come from the energy used to produce the car – largely the mining and processing of raw materials needed for the battery. Only about 17 percent of lifetime CO2 emissions from gasoline-powered vehicles are attributed to their manufacture. Moreover, manufacturing an EV expends about 30,000 pounds of CO2, while manufacturing a gasoline vehicle expends only about 14,000 pounds of CO2.


Doshi explains that the on-road CO2 emissions of EVs depends on the power generation fuel used to recharge its battery. If from a coal powerplant, it amounts to about 15 ounces of CO2 for every mile driven – 3 ounces MORE than from a similar gasoline-powered car. If an EV is only driven about 50,000 miles over its lifetime, it will put more CO2 into the atmosphere than a comparable gasoline vehicle. Yet over 90,000 miles with the battery charged by cleaner natural-gas power plants, the EV will generate just 24 percent less CO2 than its gasoline-powered twin.


A 2012 peer-reviewed Yale University study had found that electric vehicles offer only a 10 to 24 percent decrease in “global warming potential,” yet they also exhibit the potential for significant increases in human toxicity, freshwater eco-toxicity, freshwater eutrophication, and metal depletion impacts. The study concluded that, with a vehicle lifetime of 100,000 kilometers (about 62,000 miles), the global warming potential of EVs is no more than 14 percent with respect to gasoline vehicles and indistinguishable in impacts compared to diesel vehicles.


And we bet you thought “zero emissions vehicle” ACTUALLY meant zero emissions. But in the UK, at least, there is an added problem. The wise owls of London are just as eager to phase out natural gas to operate home appliances (including heating systems).


Yet, retired engineer Mike Travers argues that decarbonizing the UK economy will likely require homeowners (and landlords) to install electric heat pumps, EV charging points, and electric stoves and showers. This extra demand will require installation of larger breaker boxes, along with new circuit breakers and distribution boards – plus rewiring between the breaker box and the distribution network.


In urban areas, where most electric cabling is underground, trenches will have to be dug between the home and the feeder circuits in the street. All of this will vastly increase electricity costs. The same goes for Californians, whose governor just signed a law mandating 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.


But wait! There’s MORE!


Travers notes that many EV advocates envision “vehicle to grid” charging, in which vehicle owners feed electricity back into the grid from their vehicle’s battery when demand is high. Duh! One problem: The EV battery is direct current, while the grid requires alternating current. To feed the grid, the homeowner would have to spend a grand on a DC-AC converter, and why would anyone do that – or drain his own vehicle’s battery during unstable times?

Duggan Flanakin is the Director of Policy Research at the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow. A former Senior Fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Mr. Flanakin authored definitive works on the creation of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and on environmental education in Texas. A brief history of his multifaceted career appears in his book, “Infinite Galaxies: Poems from the Dugout.”