Navigant Research Blog

Criticism of EV Battery Environmental Impacts Misses the Point

— April 2, 2014

The environmental impact of electric vehicles (EVs) remains the subject of debate, with Tesla Motors becoming the latest scapegoat for allegedly contributing to acid rain in China.  Bloomberg News points out that EV batteries require the use of graphite, which is mostly mined and processed in China.  Graphite mining pollutes the air and water and harms agricultural crops.  The average electric car contains about 110 lbs of graphite, and Tesla’s proposed Gigafactory is expected to single-handedly double the demand for graphite in batteries.

While these are valid concerns, they ignore a few larger facts: the oil industry has far greater overall environmental impact; the production of electricity is much cleaner than refining and burning gasoline; and recycling and reuse techniques are revolutionizing the battery industry.  Tesla, meanwhile, has responded to the graphite concerns. The recent 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill reminds us of one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, in which 10.8 million gallons of crude oil was spilled into Prince William Sound, off the coast of Alaska.  Ironically, the congested Houston Ship Channel (one of the world’s busiest waterways) was partially closed over the Valdez anniversary because of a weekend oil spill of nearly 170,000 gallons of tar-like crude.

Compared to Gas

Overall, the equivalent lifecycle environmental impact of electricity is much less harmful than gasoline – assuming it isn’t entirely generated by coal.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a gallon of gasoline produces 8,887 grams (g) of carbon dioxide (CO2) when burned in a vehicle.  An equivalent 10 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity emits about 9,750g of CO2 when generated in a coal-fired power plant, 6,000g when generated in a natural gas plant, 900g from a hydroelectric plant, 550g from solar, and 150g each from wind and nuclear.  These figures include the entire lifecycle analysis, including mining, construction, transportation, and the burning of fuel.  Since 63% of the 2012 electricity mix in the United States was derived from non-coal energy sources, it has been estimated that EVs emit about half the amount of carbon pollution per mile as the average conventional vehicle.

At the same time, innovative recycling and reuse techniques are significantly increasing the sustainability of EV batteries.  In the United States and Europe, all automotive batteries are required by law to be recycled.  This has made the lead-acid battery industry one of the most sustainable industries in the world, with nearly 99% recycling rates of all the batteries’ components.  Additionally, the world’s first large-scale power storage system made from reused EV batteries was recently completed in Japan.

Second Lives for Batteries

While these approaches do not fully solve the problems associated with graphite mining, the environmental impact created by the manufacturing, transportation, and disposal of batteries is significantly lowered for each additional cycle a battery supplies.  If battery lifetimes can be doubled, the negative environmental impact is cut in half.  Navigant Research’s report, Second-Life Batteries: From PEVs to Stationary Applications, also points out that a global second-life battery market will create new businesses and jobs in addition to improving sustainability.  The global second-life battery business is expected to be worth near $100 million by 2020.

Even with the negative externalities associated with graphite production, EVs still offer an improved overall environmental picture than traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.  And Tesla, perhaps in response to pollution criticisms, has announced that it will source the raw materials for the proposed Gigafactory exclusively from North American supply chains. Producing graphite in North America is a much cleaner process than in China.


EPA’s New Emissions Standards Will Save Lives

— March 18, 2014

In an earlier blog, I argued that disagreements over the scientific merits of climate change too often overshadow the immediate public health and air pollution impacts of fossil fuel consumption.  The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) public statements on its new Tier 3 vehicle emissions standards have done an excellent job of focusing on the real public health benefits of the new regulations without engaging in the climate change debate.

As a result of tightening vehicle emissions standards and requiring refiners to reduce the amount of sulfur in gasoline by two-thirds, the EPA estimates that up to 2,000 premature deaths will be avoided each year, as well as thousands of hospital visits, not to mention countless missed days of work, school absences, and activity restrictions.  By 2030, the EPA concludes that the Tier 3 emissions standards will be saving Americans anywhere from $6.7 billion to $19 billion in health costs each year.  Costs to the consumer have been valued at less than a penny per gallon of gasoline and $72 per vehicle in automaker equipment costs.

The new regulations, which will take effect in 2017, have been largely supported by automakers.  The rules harmonize EPA and California standards, removing the need to develop and certify two types of vehicles.  The oil industry has been aggressively opposed to the standards, arguing that they add prohibitive costs.  However, analysis from the EPA and even some oil industry analysts shows that this concern is overstated.  The oil industry made the same claim over Tier 2 sulfur reduction requirements, which were achieved successfully and cost-effectively.

From Vehicles to Power Plants?

While regulating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from motor vehicles is an accepted use of authority from the EPA, the same cannot be said for stationary sources of pollution, such as factories, oil refineries, and power plants.  A crucial upcoming decision from the Supreme Court will determine whether the EPA has the jurisdictional authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate pollution from these stationary sources.  The court’s decision is expected to be handed down in June of this year.

As regulations of GHG emissions get increasingly stringent, cleaner burning alternative fuel vehicles and electric vehicles (EVs) will become more attractive.  According to Navigant Research’s report, Light Duty Natural Gas Vehicles, global annual light duty natural gas vehicle sales will grow from 2.3 million vehicles in 2014 to 3.8 million in 2023.  These increasingly demanding emissions standards will continue to make internal combustion engine vehicles less polluting, even as the overall environmental impact of EVs decreases as the electricity that powers them comes from cleaner sources.  If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the EPA’s jurisdictional authority over stationary sources of air pollution, natural gas usage in power plants could see a large uptick as well, and the coal industry may see the days of building new power plants in its rear view mirror as a result.


EVs: Too Quiet for Comfort?

— March 4, 2014

Originally thought to be one of the great benefits of electric cars, silent engines have become a major safety concern for governments around the world.  While the general population should be expected to look both ways before crossing the street, a legitimate risk is posed to blind people, not to mention children.  Electric vehicles (EVs) are mainly silent at speeds of less than 18 mph, when tire and wind noise is insignificant.  It is in this range that the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is seeking to impose mandatory minimum sound standards for hybrids and EVs.  The standards would require automakers to produce detectable noises on these vehicles when traveling under 18 mph.  NHTSA offers recommended sound options for EVs, which are mostly modified internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle sounds.  Although the proposals were made in early 2013, NHTSA has yet to formalize any mandatory noise-making regulations.

The Auto Alliance, which represents 12 automakers, has been openly critical of the proposed federal rules, arguing that the sound requirements should be cut off at 12.4 mph and that the costs of adding sound features have been vastly understated by the NHTSA.  The National Federation of the Blind has been highly supportive of the proposed regulations.

Sound Effects

Instead of waiting for binding legislation, some automakers have developed EV noises on their own as a safety feature.  Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, is adding artificial sounds to its EVs.  For the company’s e-Smart city car, a “sonorous purring” has been added.  More powerful vehicles, like the Mercedes SLS AMG Coupe Electric Drive, receive huskier tones to show their muscle.  The electric smart’s sound comes standard in the United States and Japan, and is an option in Europe.  European automaker Renault offers a choice of several car tones on the ZOE hatchback – pure, glam, and sport.

What was once thought to be a competitive advantage for EVs has transformed into a contentious issue.  Although little evidence exists that the silence of EVs is a contributing factor in accidents, automakers should take the recent actions of regulatory agencies seriously, as sound standards for EVs could be instituted in the not-so-distant future.  Furthermore, sounds options for EVs present a potential market opportunity.  As discussed in a previous Navigant Research blog, EV sounds could eventually become a multimillion-dollar market consisting of ringtone-style car sounds.


Climate Change Discourse Ignores Immediate Impacts

— February 4, 2014

In President Obama’s State of the Union address, he delivered a passionate statement on climate change: “The debate is settled.  Climate change is a fact.  And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.”

Political discussions on the scientific legitimacy of climate change tend to ignore the enormous short-term consequences of relying on fossil fuels for the majority of our energy consumption.  According to a recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), air pollution causes 200,000 premature deaths each year in the United States.  Vehicle emissions were found to be the biggest contributor to these early deaths (53,000), with power generation following closely behind (52,000).  Surprisingly, statistics like these are largely absent in the public discourse on climate change.  Controversies, such as Obama’s ordering the EPA to curb coal power plant emissions, and outdated arguments over the scientific merits of climate change obscure the immediate public health and air pollution impacts of fossil fuels.

Clearing the Air

Perhaps the second most surprising element of the MIT study, behind the sheer amount of pollution-related deaths that occur every year, is that road transportation caused more emissions-related premature deaths than electricity generation.   The fact that cars and trucks tend to travel within more populated areas, thus releasing tailpipe emissions in and around densely populated areas, is a potential explanation.  This is another reason why electric vehicles (EVs) offer so much promise.  With no local vehicle emissions, the increased use of EVs can improve local air quality in urban areas.   An EV emits roughly half the amount of carbon pollution per mile as the average new internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle, based on the United States’ 2012 electricity mix.  In states with higher percentages of renewable energy generation, such as California, EVs emit only one-quarter as much.  According to Navigant Research’s report Electric Vehicle Market Forecasts, the United States will remain the largest light duty plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) market in the world, with forecast sales of 467,000 vehicles in 2022 (compared to 129,098 for 2014).

This growth will help alleviate dangerous local emissions that contribute to the high level of premature deaths outlined in the MIT report.  Whether you question the science of climate change or not, 200,000 untimely deaths per year from air pollution should be enough to support action on emissions reductions and promote the adoption of clean energy and clean transportation technologies.


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