Electric Dreams or Nightmares

As much as anyone else, I am enthusiastic about the vision of our car-driving country moving to fleets of electric vehicles. It’s part of a future based on renewables and non-polluting energy; a future where use of fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal will vanish.

And the move to electric vehicles is already underway.

In addition to Tesla, other traditional car makers are heavily investing in electric vehicles. Volvo has already said it will be producing only electric vehicles by 2030, while the same will be true for General Motors by 2035.

But is an all-electric vehicle future possible?

Consider the following.

As of mid 2019, there were only 21,324 charging stations across the country. At the same time there are at least 111,000 gas stations. A large investment in vehicle charging stations across the country will be required.

Who will pay for that?  Electric vehicle makers?  How much more would early adopters of electric vehicles be willing to pay per vehicle for the charging station expansion across the country (including rural areas)?

One other thing: there are no standards in terms of charging connectors among the car makers.  Imagine driving Highway 50 in Nevada (one of the loneliest roads in the country) and being nearly out of charge in your Volvo only to discover the next charging station only works with Tesla.

Electric vehicles rely on batteries made of lithium, cobalt, and other rare metals.  An electric vehicle requires (per the International Energy Agency [IEA]) about six times the mineral inputs of a conventional gas-powered vehicle.

Think about this: 80 percent of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. China provides 70 percent of the world’s rare earth elements. Lithium comes primarily (80%) from Australia and Chile. Except for Australia, relying on all these other sources could bring the same geopolitical entanglements and problems that a reliance on Mideast oil has produced.

One other note about China. It also does much of the mineral processing for other countries; it’s responsible for refining 65 percent of the world’s cobalt and 60 percent of the world’s lithium.

Remind me again:  how does one have an adversary that supplies nearly all your cobalt, lithium, and toilet paper, and all your iPhones?

New mines are extraordinarily expensive – who would want to invest millions of dollars in a violent region with unstable governments? And mines create ground and water contamination from the acids and other substances used to extract the ore – as well as requiring significant amounts of water in the mining operations. Those environmental costs are then compounded in the ore processing facilities required to extract the minerals. Proposals for new mines and ore processing facilities can be expected to be resisted in most areas where the environmental hazards and risks could require generations to clean up.

And those issues are only focused on the build-up and build-out phase of an electric-vehicle future.

Think about the other end of the vehicle life: recycling the vehicles and their lithium batteries.

I just read an article in National Geographic that discusses the battery recycling issues.

Economics and environmental considerations in the face of the expected requirements are significant.

The IEA estimates the world has the capacity to annually recycle 180,000 metric tons of electric vehicle batteries. However, the batteries of all electric vehicles put on the road in 2019 will eventually generate 500,000 tons of battery waste; and there are increasing numbers of new electric vehicles each year.

Who pays for the costs (both economic and environmental) for the recycling facilities that will be required?

Unfortunately, until we reestablish the ability to govern in this country and reach consensus on the investment priorities, I think our dreams for electric vehicles will remain limited. Even then, the ultimate costs (economic, environmental, and political) might outweigh the benefits of transition to an all-electric future (and we won’t know that until there is a honest and rigorous analysis of all these issues).

You can read the National Geographic article here.

Author: Tom

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