[Rushtalk] The truth about electric cars

Carl Spitzer {C Juno} cwsiv at juno.com
Tue Mar 29 12:37:21 MDT 2022

The truth about electric cars

They are far more environmentally damaging than normal cars. 

Andrew Orlowski 

3rd March 2022
The truth about electric cars
Topics Politics Science & Tech 
A cargo ship called the Felicity Ace, carrying 4,000 luxury cars
collectively worth around $438million, caught fire last month.
Thankfully, the crew members were not harmed and managed to quickly
abandon ship. The fire, however, burned for a week. This was because the
lithium-ion batteries inside the electric vehicles (EVs) in the
consignment kept the fire alive. The fire only died once the supply of
combustible material on board was exhausted. 

Something similar happened in July last year. In Victoria, Australia, a
13-tonne Tesla ‘Megapack’ facility – which uses a vast array of
lithium-ion batteries to store energy generated by intermittent
renewables – caught fire. This fire eventually burned itself out after
three days. In that time, it created numerous ecological hazards,
including toxic smoke, which engulfed local residents. But firefighters
could do little more than monitor the environmental damage – they had to
wait for the fire to put itself out. 

‘The most significant danger of a lithium-ion battery is that [fires]
are almost impossible to put out once they are ignited’, notes engineer
Robin Mitchell. ‘No matter how many safety systems are put in place’, he
says, ‘a fire started by a lithium-ion battery is far too challenging to
manage’. Such technology, Mitchell concludes, ‘may only be suitable for
small-scale systems such as smartphones and EVs’. Even so, the fire
risks posed by EV batteries are not insignificant.

Most of us carry a lithium-ion battery in our smartphone without
thinking about it, and these are relatively safe. The danger of using
larger lithium-ion batteries in larger configurations has been
recognised by authorities since their commercial introduction in 1991.
For instance, US airlines do not permit laptops with integrated
batteries larger than 100 watt hours on board. The likelihood of the
battery catching fire is relatively low. But in the event of a fire, to
extinguish it, you can’t use water. The fire risks are even greater for
an EV, which is a bit like a tightly packed sandwich of hundreds of
laptop batteries. 

So, what are our environmental campaigners doing to draw our attention
to this great new hazard? You may have noticed a curious absence of
Change.org petitions, hashtags or alarming reports from the likes of BBC

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This is even more surprising when you consider the ecological damage and
exploitation that goes into producing the batteries. Lithium extraction
is filthy and it uses huge amounts of groundwater. In Chile, mining
activities in the Salar de Atacama region consume 65 per cent of the
area’s water. Toxic chemicals from the mining process have been known to
leak into water supplies. Researchers in Nevada found that fish as far
as 150 miles downstream were being impacted by mining operations. 

Lithium-ion batteries also need a lot of cobalt – typically around 14kg
per car battery. Extracting this is dirty and dangerous. In the
Democratic Republic of Congo, the world’s largest supplier, children as
young as seven wash and sort ores as ‘artisanal miners’, according to an
Amnesty report from 2016. 

This, then, is an environmental story that has failed to make the usual
species leap from academic researcher to NGO media campaigner to TV news
producer. This is odd, given that the precautionary principle has been a
staple of environmentalist campaigning for five decades now. For
instance, shale-gas exploration cannot proceed, green activists argue,
because fracking risks causing ‘earthquakes’, even though these tend to
be largely imperceptible. Yet when it comes to EVs and lithium-ion
batteries, the precautionary principle seems to have been laid to rest
for a while.

The dangers of lithium-ion batteries are evident in the number of
high-profile product recalls. Dell recalled four million batteries in
2006. HP recalled more than 100,000 laptops in 2019 because of
battery-fire risks. After causing fires on flights, Samsung’s Note 7
smartphone was recalled – twice – and then sidelined completely. 

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The costs and risks only increase with larger products. Fires
originating in the battery in Chevrolet Bolt vehicles are estimated to
have cost General Motors around $2 billion. Audi had to recall its
E-Tron SUV for the same reason. Parked Teslas keep bursting into flames
– and the company has been castigated for not recalling the vehicles.

Instead of exposing this great environmental danger, the BBC can be
found promoting the batteries. ‘There’s no doubt that batteries are
central to a low-carbon future’, a recent film in its ‘Ideas’ series
explained. ‘Lithium-ion batteries can store clean energy for when the
sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, sending it out on grey
days with the strength and reliability that rivals fossil fuels.’

Even more curious is that the green priesthood has blessed
lithium-powered EVs as an ‘environmentally friendly’ successor to
vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine (ICE). The argument
is that since EVs do not use an ICE, which is powered by an oil
derivative (petrol or diesel), driving them results in lower CO2

Yet last week, Britain’s most popular car YouTuber, Tim Burton (more
widely known as Shmee), announced that he was replacing his electric
Porsche with a petrol-powered Ferrari V12 – because it’s greener and
cleaner. His reason may surprise many who believe that EVs are either
‘low’ or ‘zero’ CO2-emission vehicles. 

Burton cited a study that Volvo released during the COP26 climate
summit. This study, led by Andrea Egeskog of the Sustainability Center
at Volvo, received remarkably little attention at the time. Volvo is
unusual in being able to make direct comparisons between two versions of
the same car model, the XC40 SUV. One is electric, the other has an ICE.
Volvo calculated the CO2 emissions over the full lifecycle of the two
products: from mining the minerals, like lithium and cobalt, to the end
of their lives, including disposal. 

Out of the factory gate, the electric car begins its life on the wrong
side of the tracks – having generated far more CO2 than the
petrol-guzzling version. That’s because of lithium and the other
rare-earth minerals required to manufacture the ‘planet-saving’ EV. The
emissions from the materials and the production of the ICE version of
Volvo’s XC40 are roughly 40 per cent lower than for the EV. 

Of course, the ICE model continues to consume fossil fuels for as long
as it’s in use. But for the electric version to ‘break even’, so to
speak, it has to do a lot of miles on the clock. Its eco-friendliness
also depends enormously on how the electricity used to charge the
batteries is generated. Volvo advises that, based on a typical global
energy mix, if you drive under 93,000 miles you will cause greater
emissions by choosing an electric vehicle over the petrol version. In
the EU, which uses a higher proportion of renewables, the break-even
point is still 52,000 miles. Hence Burton’s decision to return his EV. A
high-performance Ferrari or Porsche car will never achieve such mileage.
Nor will a normal car like mine. If I replace my 19-year-old car
tomorrow, and take the ‘green option’ instead of the petrol option, I
will be poorer, because the EV equivalent is so much more expensive, and
it will only finally start to achieve CO2-emissions savings over the
petrol rival some time in the late 2040s. But it won’t ever reach that
point, as the battery will be depleted long before then. 

Despite all this, the major car manufacturers have ploughed billions
into the development of EVs. EVs have also been heavily subsidised by
governments as a means to achieve their climate goals. ‘What if those
billions of dollars had been put into the internal combustion engine,
how much better would they have got?’, Burton muses.

Many of the EVs sold today are ‘urban runabouts’ – that is, vehicles
that will never reach the CO2 ‘break even’ point, and will therefore
emit more CO2 than a petrol equivalent. Since the practical value of an
EV today in reducing CO2 emissions is zero, its value is merely to
signal moral superiority, showing others that you care and they don’t.
It is a status good. It makes the owner feel better. 

The curious moral of the story is that, even by their own standards,
environmentalists aren’t terribly good at practising what they preach.
If, as climate change campaigners insist, our cars are ‘killing the
planet’, then it’s the virtuous among us who are killing the planet
faster. That such hypocrisy from the green elites has gone unchallenged
for so long is remarkable. It surely can’t last.

Andrew Orlowski is founder of the research network Think of X and a
columnist at the Telegraph.


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