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Clark's Remarks

Inconvenient truths about not-so-green electric cars

Our sustainability writer has been trying to do the right thing with the vehicle he drives, but recent research confirms that traction power batteries are still a problem.

Several years ago, our firm had an energy audit and green building certification project for a major (Fortune 50) client. At the end of a project status meeting, which had concluded with a discussion of reserving parking spaces for low-emission vehicles, the owner’s representative for the project followed me out to the parking lot to continue that conversation. As I got into my full-size SUV and started the engine, he (correctly) pointed out to me – as I’m sitting there with the engine idling – that I wasn’t doing a very good job of "walking the talk".

The next time I showed up at his facility, I was driving a Prius and quite pleased with myself!
Then came an article in IEEE’s Spectrum magazine that cited a number of scientific studies calling into question whether electric or hybrid-electric cars actually did reduce greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions. One of the major concerns was with the batteries powering the traction system. They require materials, like lithium and nickel, that are both energy-intensive to process and difficult and expensive to dispose of. So I fell on my sword and, in October 2013, I wrote a blog post on embodied energy that touched on those issues. 

Now, a recent study by Berylls Strategy Advisors, a major international automotive consultancy based in Germany, concludes that an electric car’s traction power battery can account for up to 40 percent of the material cost of that car. The report goes on to say that this will probably drive auto manufacturers to build their own batteries, rather than depend on external OEM suppliers. According to Berylls, China currently produces one-third of the electric vehicle traction batteries used worldwide, with Japan’s global share at 25 percent and the U.S. supplying approximately 16 percent of the demand. They predict that, by 2020, China’s share will have increased to 67 percent and the U.S.’s share to more than 20 percent.

Unfortunately for the environment, many or most of the battery factories outside of the U.S. are powered entirely by fossil fuels, especially coal. So production of a 1,000+ lb. battery, such as that used in an SUV, could yield GHG emissions up to 74 percent higher than that produced in the manufacture of a conventional vehicle. Using Berylls’ data, one can conclude that driving a non-fuel-efficient car for more than 30,000 miles would produce the same GHG emissions as an electric vehicle with a 30 kWh battery manufactured in China. So, for now at least, producing an electric car results in more GHG emissions than does manufacturing a conventional vehicle, which may have only 20 percent of its lifetime GHG emissions released during manufacture.
I still drive a hybrid, but diesels would be more appealing (I live in South Florida, so cold weather fuel issues are not a consideration) if they weren’t noisier and didn’t emit NOx.

So I guess I’m still looking for that truly clean, green car…

A regular contributor to HPAC Engineering and a member of its editorial advisory board, the author is a principal at Sustainable Performance Solutions LLC, a south Florida-based engineering firm focusing on energy and sustainability.

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