There have been a lot of debate on whether EV’s are really more environmentally friendly than cars with internal combustion engines. Some say the battery production alone will make an EV less environmentally friendly, whereas others claim that in spite of the impact from manufacturing the battery packs EV’s will still be better for the environment over their lifetime. From everything that I have read and learned about EV’s, I am confident that EV’s are already beneficial to the environment even though it’s still very early days of road vehicle electrification, and I am going to touch on why in this article.
First of all there are multiple reports stating that the impact from making the battery packs is insignificant compared to burning gasoline. The Swedish Environmental Research Institute, IVL, found that ”based on a series of assumptions” it would take 8.2 years of driving to offset the environmental impact from producing a 100 kWh battery pack as found in some models of the Tesla Model S and X. (URL: https://www.ivl.se/english/startpage/top-menu/pressroom/press-releases/press-releases---arkiv/2017-06-21-new-report-highlights-climate-footprint-of-electric-car-battery-production.html).
Popular mechanics found that in order to get to the figure of 8.2 years, the assumptions must have been that the internal combustion vehicle is very fuel efficient and isn’t driven much, and that the gasoline ”magically appears in your tank”. Their calculations of a similar vehicle including the environmental impact of producing and transporting the gasoline (something often forgotten in these comparisons) will put the zeroing out of the carbon footprint at around 2.4 years. (URL: https://www.popularmechanics.com/cars/hybrid-electric/news/a27039/tesla-battery-emissions-study-fake-news/)
Another concern is the longevity of the battery packs. Batteries loose capacity over time as they age and go though charge cycles. So far studies gathering data from Tesla vehicles have found that the battery degradation is often less than 10% after 300000 km/186000 mi (URL: https://electrek.co/2018/04/14/tesla-battery-degradation-data/). Of course, we still don’t know how the batteries will perform after 10-15 years of use.
It would seem that electric vehicles are already better for the environment during their lifecycle, and there are still things that I haven't seen be considered. Things like how clean the production of electricity is will affect the environmental impact of electric vehicles, but even countries that have a heavy mix of coal burning production can still be cleaner according to electrec.co (URL: https://electrek.co/2017/11/01/electric-cars-dirty-electricicty-coal-emission-cleaner-study/). And this doesn’t even take into consideration that electricity is getting cleaner all the time with solar, wind, wave power and other sources.
Let’s also remember that while internal combustion engines need a lot of service, with oil changes and oil filter replacements, spark plugs, fuel filters, air filters and the like, an electric vehicle doesn’t have these things, and they don't have nearly as many moving parts that wear out. All parts needed for service need to be produced, transported and then disposed of after their lifetime has passed. This is a significant amount of motor oil and filters that need to be recycled, and this also has an environmental impact.
Another important fact is that even in the worst scenario, the electricity is still likely produced outside of densely populated areas, while internal combustion vehicles dump their exhaust wherever they happen to be driven. The lack of direct exhaust is of huge benefit to the air quality of cities and the health of humans and other living things. Something else often overlooked is the particles from brake dust. Internal combustion vehicles, especially those with conventional automatic gearboxes, generate a lot of break dust. EV’s can break efficiently with their electric motors, which means that the mechanical breaks are rarely needed in daily driving and thus very little brake dust is produced. This is also a big benefit to air quality and health.
EV’s also regenerate energy while braking so when going downhill energy will be put back into the battery pack, and the mechanical brakes will not be needed as much. The energy regenerated will of course be less than the energy used to get up that same hill, but it’s still beneficial to be able to take advantage of that energy rather than turning it into heat via mechanical breaking. It will also help against overheating the brakes which is a concern in long durations of downhill driving. In fact, Bjørn Nyland, the Tesla driver famous from youtube, descended down an 18% grade without touching the brake pedal and regenerated just over 1 kW of energy in the process, which is impressive. (URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZxfRMmKUcao)
I think that if we take absolutely everything into consideration when we compare the impact of electric vs internal combustion, we will find that electric is much cleaner at most, if not all places in the world. And we are only in the early days of the electric revolution yet. Technology will improve and new discoveries will be made. The potential of electric vehicles is far greater over time than for internal combustion engines. Electric motors have an efficiency of 85-97% while internal combustion engines are at 20-40% even after decades of innovation and research. Basically, most of the fuel burned will turn to heat rather than energy useful to powering a vehicle.
The future for electric transportation is bright, and I very much look forward to breathe clean air in our cities, not to mention how much quieter they will become without the millions of explosions taking place in the engines of vehicles burning fuel as they go around.