Electric cars save the world!

… or how another poor, gullible soul falls victim to a brilliant marketing campaign.

Electric cars are very good to give you peace of mind, that is until you look a little bit further than the MPG figure on the shiny and glossy brochure advertising a vehicle to save the planet.

PRODUCTION

But let’s start at the beginning, what is the big difference between a conventional gas powered car and a hybrid or electric car? The one thing that sticks out immediately is the electric powered engine of course – in order to power it you need electricity and you’ll need it stored – batteries, exactly – that is basically your fuel tank, besides the fuel tank you already have if you’re owning a hybrid of course.
Most common batteries in hybrid or electric cars nowadays are (1) nickel metal hybride, or (2) lithium ion, they are at least more environmental friendly than lead-based batteries. But where does the raw material come from?

    Nickel (1)

Mostly comes from Russia, which has around 40% of the worlds nickel deposit and Canada which mines about 30% of the worlds needs. The rest is found all around the world, from Indonesia, to Australia and Cuba.
If we focus on Russia, serving one-fifth of the demand, we learn that the ore is mined by MMC Norilsk Nickel and furthermore we can dig into the environmental problems of mining for Nickel (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MMC_Norilsk_Nickel#Environmental_problems) . So if you look further than your tail pipe you learn that the mining activities for the battery found in your precious hybrid or electric car contributes to acid rain and smog. Norilsk has even been named ‘City of Horror’ since it is one of the most polluted places on earth due to ground water pollution and emission of sulfur dioxide.
After it is mined it’s likely to travel to Norway for the battery manufacturing and from there it goes to Japan (possibly also the US or eastern Europe – depending on manufacturing lines and locations of manufacturer) to be built into a car.
If you understand how a Nickel based battery works you’ll realize that there is a number of disadvantages like poor efficiency, high self-discharge, very finicky charge cycles, and poor performance in cold weather.

    Lithium(2)

Terrestrial occurrence of lithium is comparatively rare, some of the big sources are found in China, Argentina, Bolivia, Australia and most recently Afghanistan.

Lithium-Ion batteries have some disadvantages similar to Nickel batteries such as diminishing cell capacity (-20% per year), to power larger devices you need multiple small batteries instead of a single big one. An overheated or overcharged battery may even result in combustion but this risk is decreased by fail safe circuits. Yes, you’re just as safe as in a regular car – of the same size and safety standards mind you.

Even though I’ve not covered mining here, the next steps are similar to the Nickel battery before ending up in a car.

Having covered the battery production we can move on. Generally the manufacturing process of an electric or hybrid car requires more energy than for a regular car, increasing the emission of a factory in the process. This is mainly because of the material used for production.
We can go as far as saying the production of a Prius is less environmental friendly than that of an Hummer H2. (This is a bit of a shocker, however Toyota made the statement that the production of their Prius does require more energy indeed – compared to a standard model.)

Once the car is in your parking lot the next dilemma starts to unravel – “Where does my electricity come from?” – If you’re in the USA you can assume that a good portion of what you charge your car with is won through coal power plants. Roughly 45% of the US’ electricity is produced in such plants. If you’re in Switzerland for example you’ll have 35-40% of electricity coming from nuclear power plants, in winter that number can go up to a staggering 80% even.
We know their risk of these facilities is present and real, plus there is the still unresolved issue regarding the disposal of depleted rods. I’m not trying to convince you that these energy sources are bad care2.com – we need electricity, whether we like it or not. I’m merely showing you that your ‘holier-than-thou’ and ‘I safe the world’ attitude is riddled with hypocrisy.

COMPETITION

This is not an easy topic, because currently electric cars can’t compete with the mileage of gas powered cars – they’re good for local use and short ways but not for longer travels. Your range is greatly decreased unless you have a hybrid with a regular engine to ‘go the extra mile’ – also, recharge times are way higher than just refueling a gas tank. Furthermore the prices are likely to increase or stay at the quite high level on which they are now. Buying an electric car sure isn’t cheap and if you hand in the money you gained through hard work you want something good in return.

But there are more issues than just range anxiety, one of them is – let’s call it ‘climate anxiety’ – a massive amount of energy is needed to heat a car and defrost its windows in cold climates. This comes naturally with regular engines due to the heat produced during combustion of fuel – you’re basically using waste heat to keep your car warm.
For short trips electric cars could be pre-heated or cooled while plugged in, but it’s less convenient for Xpress money point longer trips.

WHAT NOW

Finally it can be said that buying a hybrid/electric car today has no impact on the environment – it is completely useless. If you want to live in a sustainable way you have 2 choices – walk, or take the bike. This will only change once we have renewable energy only, meaning solar, wind and water power plants. Only at that point your choice will have an impact, before it’s more you being victim of a clever marketing strategy and ‘make believe’.
If you want to feel good about yourself and yourself only, while not thinking further than your tail pipe you can go right ahead and buy that electric car, but please do not – and I urge you – talk about how you’re helping the planet with your choice and how all people buying regular cars are bad because they don’t care for the environment. Buy it and be quiet. Thank you.

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