EV's true Achilles heel (it's not charging time)
Maybe the Prius was on to something...
'697,612km to become green!'
That was the headline number that caught my attention during a bit of passive mid-commute reading into EV emissions this morning. 'Surely not' I thought, and as I dug a little deeper, I found this wasn't quite accurate. But as I've discovered, it's not as far off as we'd probably like it to be.
I won't do the whole 'as we gradually come to terms with our electric future' spiel, that's been flogged plenty already. We all know about the bans coming in and we're up to ears in PPF rants. The world is more than fixated on flooding the market with vehicles that run on canned lightning, and so I'm writing this with an electrified future already accepted.
There's a rarely talked about issue looming on the horizon for EV that really needs to be thought about ahead of time - lithium. While there's only a few grams of it in each battery cell, there's often several thousand cells in an EV's battery, and using advanced mathematics, we're able to see that GRAMS x LOTS = TONNES, and TONNES x TONNES = S***TONNES.
Surprise - just like petrol, there's a finite amount of lithium on the Earth.
According to a study by US magazine Forbes, the demand for lithium in EV manufacturing is expected to exceed supply as early as 2025 - 5 years before the electric-only laws have even been applied in the UK. Of course, we've also got the option of Nickel-Metal Hydride batteries (used in cars like the Prius), but these weigh significantly more, and take longer to charge, so they probably aren't the solution for the already somewhat-impractical electric car.
While this issue of supply and demand is a definite cause for concern, I want to look at a more stubborn issue revolving around the entire purpose of electric cars, and that is the emissions in production and charging. The International Council of Clean Transportation (ICCT) published a report stating that producing the average lithium-ion battery for an EV leads to carbon emissions of 110kg per kWh of capacity. Applying this to the 100kWh battery pack of a Long-Range Tesla Model S, we see 11 tonnes of C02 produced. As a reference, a new BMW 320d needs to be driven 92,436km to match this figure. And that's being fair - some sources state up to 494kg C02 per kWh are released in production, which would bring the figure to an unbelievable 415,126km. At those numbers, even a full-on M3 could cover 200,000km and still pollute less. And by that point, it would've been wrapped around a tree anyway.
So how about a hybrid? Using a big, heavy Volvo XC90 T8 Plug-in, you'd need to cover in excess of 220,000km to level out at the accepted 110kg figure. Now of course, this is a car that also uses battery cells like an EV, and that has the same environmental impact attached - but the difference is that it uses far fewer cells. With only a 12kWh battery, producing the Volvo creates roughly 8 times less C02 in battery production if we follow the figure above. And with 8 times less lithium used, you're able to produce 8 times more hybrids than EVs before supplies run out, roughly speaking. Obviously, this assumes there aren't any shortages of other materials along the way. Now, this calculation is missing an important factor, and that's the C02 produced in refining fossil fuels - I'll get to that soon. First, we'll tac on the emissions from charging EVs.
Here in Sydney, consuming 100kWh (the amount required to charge the Long Range Model S) produces an estimated 80kg of C02 from a combination of energy sources. Giving the Tesla its best chance and allowing it the official 663km range figure, this equates to 120.6g C02/km - about 1g more than our 320d, at 119g/km. Even if we ignored the monsterous battery C02, the Tesla could never catch up to it, and the Volvo is miles ahead. Now for fuel.
We're going to assume the figure of 640g C02 per litre of diesel refined (720g for petrol), which is more or less considered standard. Our 320d uses around 4.5L/100km diesel, adding the equivalent of 28.8g C02/km to its fuel consumption figure. This brings our total to 147.8g C02/km, for the production and combustion of the fuel. To find the break-even point, all we need to do is divide the Tesla's battery production output (11 million grams) by the difference in running output (27.2g/km), which gives us...
I guess I can't really see the justification for that. You would have to drive the Tesla to the moon, and do two laps of its circumference, to break even. In a more DRIVETRIBE-applicable context, you're looking at over 19,000 laps of the Nüburgring. And, if you decide to undertake this feat and your battery wears out before you finish (which it might), you'll need a new one. Which means all your progress lost, and another 11 million grams of C02 in the air that would sound a lot better coming out the back of a something with a crankshaft. And there's no point even doing the calculation with the Volvo - at 68g/km with petrol refinement and wall charging worked in, it's almost twice as green before you even consider its much smaller battery.
I honestly like most electric cars, as long as they're just cars. The Honda E, Taycan Cross-Turismo and Skoda Enyaq are all on my bucket list, and I recently drove a Model 3, which I thoroughly enjoyed. But for the time being, I think they're best considered either as alternative sports cars, or quiet city cruisers. They can do both of these things aptly - buying one as an environmental choice is where it doesn't add up. If you've got an off-grid solar charging setup going, that definitely helps, but it's still very hard to swallow that upfront chunk of carbon. And the fact that you can't muffler-delete an EV. The tunnels will never be the same.
We're deep in one-point-something-litre turbo territory. The days of big engine bays are numbered, so I think I'll be on the hybrid bandwagon for as long as I can. They pollute the least across the board, they've usually got the best range, they still have engines that make noise, if you've opted for a conventional hybrid instead of a plug-in model, you never need to stop to charge them, and if you run out of charge you can still drive indefinitely. If you eventually live in a city zone that bans local emissions, you'll probably have 50km or so of electric-only range to play with, and by the looks of things, we'll be able to build a lot more hybrids than full-on EVs at the current supply rate. Of course, battery production will gradually get cleaner, and recycling will help - these both make EVs a bit more viable, but we'll still have the lithium issue. And yes, you can buy EVs with smaller battery packs that take less time to settle up, which is what a larger number of people will do anyway, as they're cheaper. However, they're also slower, so you just have to be okay with the fact that a 320d might give you a run for your money at the lights occasionally. But I'll leave you to sort that out. I shall wait for you both at the next intersection in my muffler-deleted R36 Passat.
Actually, can we meet at 7/11 instead?
Fuel light just came on.