EV's true Achilles heel (it's not charging time)

Maybe the Prius was on to something...

4w ago
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'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.

Surprise - just like petrol, there's a finite amount of lithium on the Earth.

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...

404,412km.

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.

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Comments (51)

  • Great article. It's good to see that not everyone jumped on "EVs will save the world and everything that isn't an EV" bandwagon. It's also good to see thorough research.

      1 month ago
    • It isn’t a great article it’s fundamentally flawed. For the lithium he looks at the c02 for mining to actual use, and then compares it to the co2 emissions after production. Steel production creates 1.9 tonnes of co2 for every tonne of steel...

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        1 month ago
    • Clearly not too bored not to comment 😝 and 16km? That's like to the shops and back - amazing! The purpose of the article is looking at propulsion. If you start looking at steel, we need to look at engines vs motors, and then you might as well look...

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        1 month ago
  • My bad. Not even considering the. Environmental damage from mining all those rear earth metals. Petro in its current form also is bad but if engines are made to be more efficient with advanced tech in addition to synth fuels that would recycle CO2 in the atmosphere gas could be way cleaner if using syn fuels which porches correctly stated. The true solution imho lies in diversity however. All drivetrains need to be adopted and made as efficiently as possible giving the users choice. It is over reliance on fossil fuels that got us here so over reliance on lithium,etc will create more problems. I hope you understand

      1 month ago
  • it's interesting but where do your numbers come from?

    I'm in France and producing electricity doesn't seem as polluting as in Autralia.

    I don't want the world going electric

    I want V12 for everyone

      1 month ago
    • Charging stats are Australian, battery production seemed fairly international - I think most of your power in France is nuclear which is a lot cleaner than here in Aus 👍

        1 month ago
    • yes but you still don't give me the sources of your numbers for the production of batteries or petrol.

      imo EV should have small nuclear powerplants in cars. like we do for submarines :)

        1 month ago
  • In the EU & UK it's closer to about 70k kilometres but bear in mind that ICE cars have potential to run on renewable fuels so that could go up significantly. The main reason EVs are being looked at is the high energy efficiency which means they will also be cheap in the long term. The same logic applies to hydrogen cars of ICE or EV variety. However, nothing we have now can viably be used in the long term as they always produce emissions somewhere in their lifetimes so all considered the whole situation is quite paradoxial in itself.

      1 month ago
    • "ICE cars have potential to run on renewable fuels" by what calculation? Which renewable fuels?

      "The main reason EVs are being looked at is the high energy efficiency which means they will also be cheap in the long term" - sorry, that's...

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        1 month ago
    • To your first point I'm talking about the extremely well known developments in synthetics and biofuels.

      Secondly, ICE cars require electricity to source all components, especially for fuel. EVs use the electricity directly meaning...

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        1 month ago
  • In the 1980's, my family of 7 people, would fill 2 small garbages each week. To combat waste and promote recycling we now fill 3 to 4 big ones for each of the 5 children within that family of 7.

    In the 1990's developed nations tried to solve a plastic problem with recycling and now we have a plastic bottle problem after the tin foil hat brigade sold an idea that tap water and fluoride are dangerous while the main stream told us we need 8 glasses a day to be healthy. Coke and Nestle sold a lot of bottles of water.

    In 2008 western countries tried to solve a debt problem with more debt. Many companies are now buying back their own stock, using money created from nothing, and effectively taking the companies private.

    Today we are trying to solve a housing affordability problem with higher house prices. The banks are insolvent and must continue to print money to inflate the debt away without thinking of new debt being created.

    So why do we think electric cars are going to solve whatever problem they are trying to solve?

    Personally I suggest all these examples are a perceived problem to create new industries and markets for multinational corporations at the expense of the people and community.

    I would much rather see people repairing older vehicles to save the planet. This would allow men to take out frustration, while possibly lowering the domestic violence problems, by actually making something instead of betting away money on sports that are designed so they loose. They got that money after doing a job that did not need to be done, and is meaningless, so they could pay back the debt to the banks that need more debt but should have died years ago.

    We should not need a job to live. We should work to build local community. Local being the person next door. Local being the suburb in which you live. Local being the state or province you live in all the way up to the peoples of other races and cultures.

    Instead we feed companies and those that have to much already.

    The Human race is a strange species that I suspect all other species would love to see the back of. There is a reason why all animals run from humans. We are anything but reasonable.

      1 month ago
    • There's something in all that for sure - I'm definitely all for keeping used cars alive as long as possible. The issue with more modern cars is that the software basically puts an 8-10 year lifespan on the car, instead of something from 2005...

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        1 month ago
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