We’ve known for some time that gas powered vehicles are, at some point, going to meet an end. There’s too much data proving the fact that fossil fuels harm the environment. It's not a debate. Work must be done to determine what the permanent replacement for the modern car will be, and some car makers have already started making those steps. We’ve seen hybrid vehicles around for years, and a few companies, like Tesla, are investing in fully electric products for the road. No, this blog is not going to be another Elon Musk burn session, like you’ve heard so much on our podcast, but I am not stil lnot sold on the electric car idea. This isn’t because I’m against helping the planet, but there are still major unaddressed drawbacks to EV technology, even as the cars hit mass production numbers: The technology is not sensible, and it’s not actually as “clean” as people think. When looked at in a vacuum, a Tesla or other EV is much cleaner than your average car. But when we’re looking at helping the planet, we need to look at a much larger picture than just the exhaust pipe. We need to look at factors like how they’re made, and how the impact on the overall energy grid in your community to know the whole story. In a rare occurrence for us at the CEP team, I’m actually going to cite my sources at the end of this piece, so you can look these facts up yourself if you don’t believe me.
The first main reason why I’m not sold on EV’s is the practicality of the idea, or rather the impracticality. Yes, to a niche market, electric cars work perfectly. If you live in Hidden Hills or don’t do much driving outside of home to work and back, an EV could be all you need. But what if you want to hit the open road? Most families have more than one car, so I guess they could have one EV and one gas powered car or hybrid, but for someone like myself, who lives alone, 2 cars isn’t an option. To use a benchmark, the Tesla Model S has a range of 265 miles (Editor's Note: This is Tesla's advertised range. Real-world tests and owner reports have this number in the area of 175 miles). My 2015 Chevy Colorado Z71 can go almost 500 miles before I need to stop. And when I fill up the Colorado, it takes me about 5 minutes to brim the tank, tops. The BEST you can hope for with an EV is roughly 20 minutes for an 80% charge IF you can find a Level 3 supercharger. And where would you stop? Sure, it’s estimated that there are more than 16,000 charging stations in the U.S. That number actually surprised me to see. It’s quite impressive. But a vast majority are found in and around major metropolitan areas, especially focused in California. I get it, you have to start somewhere, but the charging network is just not feasible at this point in time. By the way, this is compared to over 100,000 gas stations in this country. Now, this isn’t any EV manufacturer’s fault, but the charging network just isn’t robust enough. I’m not telling you NOT to buy an EV, just take this into consideration when you’re making the decision of whether or not you’re going to help ol’ planet number 3.
Which brings me to my next point: the idea that you are doing your part to “save the planet” by purchasing and driving an electric vehicle. Time to blow up that notion…you’re not. Compared head-to-head, our baseline Tesla Model S is much cleaner to drive than my Colorado, I’ll give you that. But saving the planet involves more than just a car-to-car comparison. The idea that more electric cars means less fossil fuel isn’t necessarily true, depending on where you live. To easily debunk this statement, one needs to look at their region/state/community’s power grid. It depends on where you live because some grids use more clean energy than others, but in general, folks with EV’s aren’t saving, but shifting the pollution. No, the car doesn’t hold fossil fuels, but the power plants that generate electrical energy that fuels the cars do, a lot of the time. The pollution is merely shifted from the exhaust pipe to the smoke stack. The power plants that drive the energy grid are the guilty parties in this case. More EV charging stations means more electrical energy is needed, which causes the power plants to produce at a higher rate, sending more noxious gases skyward. Again, this isn’t any manufacturer’s fault. They have no control over this, and as communities make efforts to clean up their grids, the problem will gradually subside. But the state of our energy grids isn’t the only argument against the adoption of EV’s.
As it turns out, it takes much more energy to produce an electric car than it does a “standard” gas powered machine. This is due to the high energy requirements to produce lithium ion for the batteries and the environmentally destructive techniques used to mine for the rare elements that go into every EV and other high-tech battery. These elements are often found in very small quantities in developing countries. It involves moving a lot of earth and, unfortunately, creating a lot of waste. After pouring ammonium sulfate down the shafts to dissolve the soil, bags of muck are taken out and passed though acid baths. What’s left after that is baked in a kiln. What emerges from the kiln are the rare earth metals that are used in the electric vehicles. But here’s the thing: the rare earth metals are only 0.2% of what is mined. Not 2%, zero-point-two percent. The remaining 99.8% of the soil mined, now contaminated, is returned back to the environment from which it came. Oh, and if you’re wondering what powers the rock crushers and kilns at the mines, its large amounts of fossil fuels and human sweat. One more thing about the lithium ion that goes into the batteries of these cars: while not in use, these batteries still drain very slowly and have a life cycle that, when reached, renders the batteries nearly useless. So while the difference is miniscule, EVs do use more energy than advertised. Worse still, none of this begins to broach the even more difficult topic of the human cost of performing intense industrial mining operations in countries who will gladly ignore the high human and health costs in pursuit of corporate money.
I don’t write this to slam folks trying to do their part to make the world a better place. As much as my cohosts and I say that we are “out” on Tesla, we are actually “out” on Elon Musk. We can’t stand that bastard. But what his company has done is actually very forward-thinking. They’ve accomplished much more with the EV concept than anyone else to this point. And I’ll mention again that EV producers have nothing to do with any of the topics I mentioned above. They are merely operating the best they can in this environment, just like we are. The point I’m trying to make is that electric vehicles are probably not the answer we are looking for. Yes, we need to make a positive change and use cleaner energy to help our environment. Electric vehicles could be a decent start, but lack of infrastructure to support them and the high energy needed to produce them make them a stop-gap at best. Maybe the answer to clean transportation lies in hydrogen powered vehicles, maybe it’s solar. Or maybe we just need to change our mindset when it comes to the cars we currently drive. Think about it: how many people do you know have a 3 year lease on their car, and will trade it in long before the end of its usable life? Even the worst modern cars can easily run longer than that with the most basic maintenance. Most cars can go long over 100,000 miles before you should even think of trading them in for a newer model. But society’s need for the “newest” and “best” has led to us viewing cars and trucks, items that cost well into 5 figures, as disposable. If we were to keep our vehicles until the actual end of their usable lives, we could make a big dent in the overall pollution of the Earth. As of right now, there isn’t a singular clear answer at the moment. I’ll leave that debate to the people way smarter than me. All I know is, while they are positive step forward, I’m not convinced that electric vehicles are the long term solution that we need.
“How Green Is A Tesla, Really?” – Will Oremus – www.slate.com
“Tesla’s Electric Cars Aren’t As Green As You Might Think” – Lizzie Wade – www.wired.com