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The Environmental Impact of Battery Operated Vehicles

Unlike vehicles powered by gasoline or diesel-fueled Internal Combustion Engines (ICEs), when Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVS) are driving they are emissions free, but if the power source for recharging their battery is fossil fuel based—coal-fired power plants are a mainstay of many power grids—this does generate particulates and CO2.

Costly and Slow

Re-charging also comes at a cost and is slower than re-fuelling at the gas pump.  BEV battery lifetime is a function of battery type and usage, the discharge/recharge cycle being inherently degrading, and battery replacement still represents a significant cost.  Which is all to say that as BEV technology develops and environmentalism continues to set our priorities, comparing the BEV with the conventional ICE vehicle remains a perennial topic.

Electric vehicle

Swedish comparison report

Recently, one such comparison published here was focused on the climate impact of manufacturing lithium-ion batteries—a commonly used type of BEV battery.  The study by IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute commissioned by the Swedish Transport Administration and the Swedish Energy Agency claimed that every kilowatt hour of storage capacity in a lithium-ion battery generated emissions of 150 to 200 kilos of carbon dioxide.  In other words that “several tons of carbon dioxide has been emitted, even before the batteries leave the factory.”

The Swedish report noted that “emissions grow almost linearly with the size of the battery” and that the emissions from producing the Tesla Model S battery equalled the CO2 emissions generated by “eight years of gasoline driving.”  Two days later Ezra Dyer for Popular Mechanics may have debunked this claim—pointing out that the 8.2 years is “based on a series of assumptions” which “must have been that the internal-combustion vehicle in question gets great mileage and isn’t driven very much.” Meanwhile a 334-link chain of other comments was growing.

It might be interesting for you

If you have an engineering or analytical bent you will enjoy reading these comments.  With an ‘apples to apples’ comparison advancing that “the battery’s carbon footprint is zeroed out in less than three years” the debate turns to recharging costs both in dollars and CO2 emissions, the effect of BEV battery life on the calculation, and that Tesla, in fact, is using natural gas to generate electricity and planning for 100% renewable power generation.

The durability of ICE vehicles, the emissions from manufacturing gasoline-powered ICE cars, the issues around BEV battery replacement and disposal, the continuing evolution of gasoline powered ICEs and, indeed, the whole concept of fuel efficiency, and comparisons of cross-country travel are all raised in the above commentary.

One more aspect

Government subsidization is also a focus: in the price of BEVs, and in the build-out of charging infrastructure.  Taxation issues are addressed including, if BEV market share were to increase significantly, replacing lost fuel taxes at the pump with mobility pricing.  The comments address the cyber security risks posed by BEVs, compare flammability risks, and the traffic safety impact—whether or not quieter BEVS will surprise and injure more pedestrians.  The inherent inefficiencies of gigafactories are raised.  And of course we are reminded how to otherwise lower our carbon footprint. —All in all a fascinating, wide-ranging overview of the many issues involved in this complex comparison. 

Road Rules by Cedric Hughes and Leslie McGuffin

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