Clearly, as there are no tailpipe emissions, electric cars are better for the environment than other options. However, that does not mean they are completely carbon neutral, as manufacturers might like you to believe.
Electric cars indirectly cause emissions from the following:
Making electric cars uses a lot of energy. Scientific studies have shown that manufacturing an electric vehicle generates more carbon emissions than building a traditional car. They need to be light, which means manufacturing high-performing metals. Factories use vast amounts of energy and often produce huge levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
The Union of Concerned Scientists has calculated that:
Manufacturing a mid-sized EV with an 84-mile range results in about 15 percent more emissions than manufacturing an equivalent gasoline vehicle. For larger, longer-range EVs that travel more than 250 miles per charge, the manufacturing emissions can be as much as 68 percent higher.
Electric cars are only as green as the energy you charge them with. As a majority of the UK’s electricity comes from non-renewable sources, your car will have indirectly generated carbon emissions before you even get in it and drive.
Until very recently, the UK has generated a majority of its energy from coal-powered plants. Burning coal has several downsides for the environment. It releases large amounts of carbon dioxide and other harmful gases into the atmosphere; this pollution affects human health as well as contributing to global warming.
This will no longer apply in 2025, when the UK’s coal power plants have all been shut down. However the Government are keen to replace them with fracking or nuclear – neither of which are green alternatives. This means, like it or not, there will be an environmental impact from you using an electric car. While electricity itself is a clean fuel, it is more often than not generated in plants run with fossil fuels.
A potential way around this problem in the future is battery storage. Whilst at the moment, electricity is largely used at the time it is generated, new technology means it can be stored efficiently for the first time. In theory, a household could charge an electric car from a battery fed with electricity generated at home, with solar PV. However, this could be expensive and it may not be possible for households to generate the amount of electricity needed to power their cars.
Electric cars have huge chemical batteries and research is still ongoing for a low-energy, environmentally friendly way to recycle them.
At the moment, recycling lithium-ion car batteries is long-winded and inefficient. In some cases, a battery is shredded and separated into its components, where some materials such as metal may be able to be reused. Or, if it may still hold some charge, it is frozen in liquid nitrogen and smashed into bits. It is estimated that only 20% of the materials can be reused after these processes.
Although an electric car battery is considered redundant once it only retains 70-80% of its original capacity, many of them function after removal from vehicles and can therefore be converted for use with solar PV systems. This is probably the way forward in terms of the greenest solution, but it is a long way off being adopted on a notable scale.
While electric vehicles do have some impact on the environment, they are still a great option for reducing your carbon footprint, compared to standard petrol or diesel engines.