Tomorrow is Earth Day — a day where we reflect on our impact on the planet… a day where we try to step up our efforts to make it a cleaner place for us and future generations… a day when we look at how far we’ve come, but also how far we still have to go.
And in honor of Earth Day 2017, I want to take a little time to talk about the consequences of a “green” decision many are making: buying an electric vehicle, or EV.
You see, they’re becoming more and more popular every day, being touted as a way to reduce carbon emissions and save the planet. But there’s a lot of misunderstanding surrounding those claims.
Sure, when you buy an EV, you can charge your car and it runs on battery power. Those moments when you’re driving, you’re not belching out exhaust or adding to climate change. But what about everything that goes into your electric vehicle up to that point?
If you factor in everything it takes to get you out cruising the highways and byways, that green investment you made starts to look a little more red (opposite green on the color wheel), or brown (as in the color of dead plants).
So, let’s start at the beginning and look at all of the inputs that make your Tesla’s ecological footprint much larger than you realize.
From the Cradle to the Grave
There’s a lot that goes into your EV. You have to look at the whole process to really get a clear picture of the environmental impacts. If you’re thinking of buying one to save the planet, you should really pay attention.
There’s a show on TruTV called Adam Ruins Everything. The host debunks common misconceptions on each episode. It’s become very popular, but the show and host got a lot of flak after an episode they did about electric and hybrid vehicles. Apparently, a lot of the viewers didn’t like the conclusions they came to. While they may have made some sweeping generalizations and ignored a few things, most of the points they made were true.
Where Do They Get That Lithium?
So, you probably know the thing that makes EVs hum is the super-powerful battery that powers the electric motor. You probably also know the main component of the battery is the lithium-ion core that stores the energy. But do you know where lithium comes from? Have you ever thought about how we get it?
You see, lithium is an element. But it’s so highly reactive that it’s not really found in elemental form, and it’s most abundant in granite formations. That means it’s got to be mined out of the Earth’s crust and then separated from the rock around it. The process isn’t all that pretty. It results in gigantic craters being ripped into the landscape.
There’s a huge mine in Southwestern Australia called Greenbushes right next to a state forest. So, thanks to our need for lithium to power our green cars, this:
Now looks like this:
And as bad as that looks, it’s not the worst part of it by far.
That’s because in order to separate the lithium from the rock, it has to be dissolved in acid. Yeah, acid. In some places, where the regulations aren’t that tight, lithium producers just dump the wastewater right back into pools that leach back into the groundwater.
That looks a little something like this:
While the U.S. has some pretty strict regulations as to how the waste is handled, we don’t produce that much lithium here. It could be as much as 3,500 tons per year. But there’s only one mine, and the actual number isn’t reported.
The rest of the lithium we need comes from places like China, Argentina, and Chile. In many of those areas, restrictions on dumping haven’t quite caught up to our standards.
Starting to see some of the environmental impacts of electric vehicles yet? No? Well, there’s more.
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Making a Vehicle
Once the lithium is mined and separated, it goes to a factory where it gets processed and turned into a battery. And it’s not being shipped in electric trucks — it goes across oceans in diesel ships. Then it gets loaded onto trains and trucks that are powered by — you guessed it — diesel.
The same goes for everything else that’s used to build an electric vehicle. In fact, in an aerial photo of one of Tesla’s factories, you can see the big trucks and shipping containers pretty clearly. Just outside the frame, you’d see train tracks:
Oh yeah, and those EVs rolling off the line are being loaded onto big diesel-powered rigs to get shipped off to showrooms and driveways across the country.
Besides all the carbon emissions that go into building and shipping the cars, there are the factories in general. They’re huge! They’re surrounded by asphalt and concrete that keeps rainwater from being absorbed and filtered before it hits the rivers and oceans. And they’re not building these with electric machines.
Looking at Tesla’s Gigafactory in Nevada, you can see that it looks exactly like any construction site. Lots of trucks and machinery that run on, yet again, diesel.
It Doesn’t Stop at the Factory
So, now the lithium has been mined and the parts and finished product have been shipped. It’s got to get better, right? Wrong.
This is where the show I referenced earlier made a little divergence from the facts. They said once you get the EV, you’re charging it by burning coal. That’s not entirely true. There are several different energy sources used throughout the U.S. Coal is just one of them.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), there’s actually only about a 30% chance you’re charging your car by burning coal. There’s a 33% chance it’s by burning natural gas. That’s a cleaner alternative to coal, but still not green, and definitely not renewable. In fact, there’s less than a 15% chance your EV is being powered by renewable energy. It’s actually more likely to be charging on nuclear power than real green electricity.
So, when you’re charging that EV, there’s only around a 35% chance you’re not creating extra carbon emissions. There’s a 65% chance you are. It all depends on where you live (some states use more coal than others, and some use more natural gas). Depending on what fuel is being burned, you could be pumping out a good deal of carbon. In fact, if it’s coal, you may as well be driving a diesel- or gas-powered car.
If you’ve never seen a coal-fired power plant, it’s a pretty nasty sight:
Natural gas is better, but still sends carbon billowing out into the environment:
It’s looking a lot less green by now, huh? Well, what about after you’re done driving your EV and ready to get a new one?
Recyclable, Yes — Recycled, Not So Much
Most of the components that go into the EVs we’re seeing debuted around the world are extremely light and pretty cheap. So, there’s not that much reason to recycle them. It’s more cost-effective to just make new parts. That goes for the batteries, too.
The first rounds of lithium batteries used much more expensive materials, and there were recycling programs for them. But those programs are complex and expensive, so it only makes sense to operate them if the materials salvaged can be sold for more than the cost to get them.
As battery makers strive to make their products more affordable, they switch to cheaper parts. The lithium is still pretty expensive, but so is the process of retrieving it. And since the other parts of the battery aren’t that valuable, the overall cost of recycling trumps the potential revenues from selling the recovered materials. So, as of now, there really isn’t much inspiring companies to set up recycling programs for the new generation of lithium batteries.
A handful of people have said that the fiberglass and aluminum parts from the old vehicles could be used in the construction of new ones, but really? People will pay new-car prices for what’s technically a refurbished vehicle? I’m not convinced.
So, until there are more EVs on the road than ICEs (internal combustion engines), there’s a pretty good possibility that these cars will be headed for the trash heap and not a junkyard or recycling plant to be salvaged and reused.
The Real Problem
Bottom Line: The biggest problem we’re facing with the environment isn’t the cars we drive. It’s our affinity for new things. We buy a new car when the one we’re driving is perfectly fine. We buy a five-bedroom house when there are only two of us. We throw things out and replace them when they break instead of fixing them. And we live in huge cities that by design aren’t environmentally friendly.
So, if you really want to help the planet, think twice before you buy a new EV. Think twice before you buy anything new. Drive that car you’ve got until the wheels fall off. Use your possessions until they’re irreparable. Because every time you buy something new, you’re adding to the problem.
I’m not telling you to sell your house and get a tiny home. I mean, the one you’ve got is already built. That new tiny home means more damage to the planet when you construct it. But when you’re ready to simplify, think about it. Find someone who needs all of those bedrooms. And find a tiny home that’s been well loved by someone else. Fix it up and make it your own.
And when your car finally kicks the bucket, look into EVs. Depending on where you live, they are friendlier to the planet than a traditional vehicle. And who knows? By the time you’re really in need of a new car, maybe we’ll have more renewable options for our electricity.
Oh, and here’s a link to that show I mentioned earlier, in case you wanted to check it out. It’s about more than just EVs, and it’s honestly pretty interesting and funny. If you just want to check out the EV part, it starts at about 5:40.
To investing with integrity (and having all the facts),
Follow me on Twitter @AllBeingsEqual