Electric vehicles are great but they can – and will – be even better

by Christine Carlton

Ford, Porsche, Nissan, Chevrolet, Jaguar, Hyundai, Tesla, Kia, Mercedes, Audi, Mazda, Volvo, Mini Cooper, Polestar, Rivian, GMC, Volkswagen.

The common factor in that list of vehicle brands? Each currently offers at least one all-electric model, with three – Tesla, Rivian, and Polestar – only producing electric vehicles (EVs). That’s not an exhaustive list; I’m sure there are brands I missed. And there are others, such as Subaru, that may not have an EV available for purchase today but which have announced models for 2023 or 2024.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the Toyota Prius hybrid was seen as the mark of the most granola of tree huggers. And then a handful of full electric models began appearing and were the mark of a big bank account or a lot of debt, or both. Look how far we’ve come: chargers are available at more and more businesses, there are EVs starting in the mid-30s, and an EV pickup truck was selected by MotorTrend as the 2022 Truck of the Year.

There’s good reason to be excited about the massive increase in EV availability, especially when one is sitting in traffic watching exhaust spew from a jacked up dually. However, as great as EVs are, they aren’t as good as they can be.

Here are three areas where EVs could be better, and the reasons to be optimistic that they eventually will be.

The Mining

What’s the problem? The batteries that power EVs, and the chargers that power the batteries, are dependent upon a collection of mined minerals, such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, and copper. The methods used to extract these resources come at high cost to the environment, and many are linked to human rights abuses.

Traditional lithium mining and copper mining both require significant amounts of groundwater, and disposal of the resultant wastewater can contaminate aquifers. Cobalt mining has been linked to the release of carcinogenic and radioactive particulates, and, as Dr. David Santillo of Greenpeace Research Laboratories explains, “The mining of nickel-rich ores themselves, combined with their crushing and transportation by conveyor belt, truck or train, can generate high loadings of dust in the air, dust that itself contains high concentrations of potentially toxic metals, including nickel itself, copper, cobalt and chromium.”

And if all that isn’t bad enough, both cobalt and nickel mining have been linked to human rights atrocities. As Amnesty International stated, “… we are sliding towards a situation where we have replaced one type of environmental injustice with another. The grim irony is that these abuses are being perpetrated against the people least responsible for the climate catastrophe.”

On the bright side… The increased demand for these resources is driving new innovations in mining. For instance, Controlled Thermal Resources began work on its first lithium brine extraction mine and geothermal power production well in California’s Salton Sea in late fall 2021. The process involves pulling superhot lithium brine from underground pockets. Steam from the 600-degree Fahrenheit brine will power electricity-generating turbines, lithium will be extracted from the leftover residue, and the remaining water will be returned to the ground. The lithium extraction process is almost carbon-neutral and will generate clean energy that isn’t dependent on the time of day (like solar) or the weather (like wind).

We’re also seeing innovations in battery technology. Last summer, the Chinese company SVOLT announced that it was ready to mass produce cobalt-free lithium-ion batteries.

And the battery innovations aren’t just on the production-side. As reported in Scientific American this past week, “… new research published in Joule has hit upon what experts describe as a more elegant recycling method that refurbishes the cathode—the carefully crafted crystal that is the lithium-ion battery’s most expensive component and key to supplying the proper voltage. The researchers found that batteries they made with their new cathode-recycling technique perform just as well as those with a cathode made from scratch. In fact, batteries with the recycled cathode both last longer and charge faster.”

New battery production and recycling techniques may ultimately decrease demand for the minerals linked to the worst human rights abuses. However, decreased demand on its own will do little, if anything, to address the problem. To that end, the European Union (EU) is poised to adopt the EU Battery Regulation, which the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre described as “the first legally binding initiative to clean up battery supply chains, and would force businesses to do more to protect workers, communities and the environment.”

The Weight

What’s the problem? Today’s EVs are heavy. Because their bulky batteries are less energy-dense than fuel, EVs are far heavier than internal combustion vehicles. The Ford F-150 Lightning, for instance, weighs 35% more than the gas-powered version.

The additional weight has direct environmental impacts, such as faster tire and asphalt wear, which result in more roadside pollution.

Furthermore, the increased weight is also a serious safety concern when it comes to crashes with pedestrians and lighter vehicles. While the additional weight results in increased safety for EV drivers and passengers, occupants of lighter vehicles will be at  greater risk of death or serious injury when in a collision with a heavier EV vehicle.

On the bright side… Advancements in battery technology will most certainly result in lighter batteries, which will reduce EV weight. Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden have made significant strides towards a “mass-less” structural battery:  “For electric vehicles to be more efficient …total energy storage must be increased while maintaining or reducing weight… Here, the electrical energy storage is integrated in the structural material of the vehicle—via multifunctional materials coined as ‘structural battery composites or structural power composites.’ Electrical energy storage in structural load paths has been shown to offer large mass savings for cars, aircraft, consumer electronics, etc.”

Production-line innovations also have the potential to decrease the weight of EVs. Tesla’s Giga Press approach, which uses massive machines to cast vehicles in just a few parts, reduces the number of pieces used on the body of the vehicles, resulting in significant weight reduction. The strategy is being adopted by other manufacturers.

The Grid

What’s the problem? While EVs produce no emissions while driving, the source of the electricity used to charge them matters. As this article from The Guardian explains, “… a plug-in electric vehicle, such as the Nissan Leaf, always produces less carbon dioxide emissions than a hybrid electric- and gas-powered car – but only in selected regions that rely on less coal, like the western United States and Texas. Charging from the coal-dependent grid in the upper midwest of the US at night could generate more emissions than an average gasoline car. And, in some US regions, plugging in at different times of day could even double an electric car’s emissions impact.”

On the bright side… Although fossil fuels are still the primary source of energy in the US, the shift to renewables is happening. While it will likely be some time before US adoption of renewables is even close to Norway’s, significant strides have been made in recent years. In fact, a report released by the nonprofit Environment America Research and Policy Center found that renewable energy use nearly quadrupled between 2011 and 2020.

And EVs themselves may eventually lead to a cleaner grid. As reported in MIT News, a study published in the journal Applied Energy in 2020 showed that EV batteries “could still have a useful and profitable second life as backup storage for grid-scale solar photovoltaic installations, where they could perform for more than a decade in this less demanding role.” As reported by Canary Media, some California startups are looking to make that a reality.

EVs alone aren’t the solution to all our climate woes. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), “the United States must reduce VMT [vehicle miles traveled] by 20 percent before the end of the decade to limit warming to 1.5°C — and this remains true even under ambitious EV adoption scenarios.”* But, really, there is no one solution, and EVs most certainly have a role to play on the road to net-zero emissions.

Is there room for improvement? Absolutely.

Still, these are exciting times.

Christine Carlton is a contributing member of the Grassroots Network Climate Emergency Mobilization team. If you have a suggestion for a future blog topic or are interested in joining the team, please reach out to us at climateemergency[at]sfbaysc[dot]org.

*Note: Climate disruption is already occurring with the Earth about 1.1°C (1.9°F) warmer than it was in the late 19th century. To protect life on Earth as we have known it and begin to restore the climate, the Sierra Club’s 2020 climate policy supports a target of less than 350 ppm atmospheric CO2 and 1.0°C (1.8°F) warming in 2100.


Scroll to Top