Okay, so maybe “dark side” is a little extreme, but there are some often overlooked concerns with electric powered vehicles and the associated industries. In general, EVs and hybrid vehicles are marketed as environmentally friendly and ecologically responsible choices. Electric vehicle companies emphasize zero emissions, sustainable materials, and the low carbon footprints of their vehicles. In the early years of the EV, one of the biggest selling points was the reduction or elimination of fuel costs, which led to the eMPG rating for communicating to consumers just how efficient these vehicles are. These factors are the natural advantage points when comparing EVs with similar gasoline-powered vehicles. However, when viewing electric vehicles from a full product lifecycle perspective, there are a few points that bring into question the true environmental impact of producing and consuming these vehicles.
One point of concern is the sourcing and production of battery packs. Electric vehicles and hybrid electric vehicles utilize almost exclusively lithium-ion battery packs. While noted for their dense power capacity, efficiency, and consistent charging and discharging profile, the production of these batteries is hazardous and can be damaging to the environment. Lithium is a naturally occurring element that is highly reactive. The prevailing method for obtaining lithium is through hard mining. Even in areas where lithium is deemed plentiful, it is distributed sparsely through the rocks and requires the mining of thousands of metric tons to produce lithium in any considerable amounts. This heavy mining has already had an impact on the people of Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia, where the vast majority of lithium is produced. While lithium mining is necessary for countless other lithium-ion powered devices and can’t be attributed solely to electric cars, the production of lithium batteries is not very positive for the environment and goes against the standards of many potential EV buyers. When considering this segment of the overall product production, the carbon footprint of electric vehicles becomes a little larger.
Another concern, related to lithium-ion battery packs also, is the high toxicity. Lithium-ion battery packs are filled with a highly reactive combination of lithium and electrolytic material. This material is safe to handle as long as it remains stored inside a battery casing. However, if lithium-ion battery packs are ruptured or otherwise damaged, the contents are quite hazardous. The lithium-ion battery packs are not currently recyclable and do not break down into other elements naturally. This presents a massive waste management issue as these battery packs approach the end of life. While lithium batteries can survive a vigorous charge schedule, their lifespan is limited and the majority of these battery packs will end up in a landfill at some point in the near future. Not only is this condition unsustainable, it also presents a hazardous waste emergency. These materials will eventually escape the battery packs and could leach into the surrounding soil, contaminating water supplies and potentially poisoning crops and wildlife.
A third concern, which is probably most concerning to many potential buyers, is the safety of lithium battery packs. Despite vigorous testing across multiple automakers and other electronics suppliers, cases continue to be reported of spontaneous and intense fires caused by lithium battery packs. In smartphones, some devices produced in recent years have been reported as exploding or burning the user with a very forceful chemical reaction. In electric vehicles, multiple automakers have had vehicles involved in fires, often stemming from collisions, but sometimes completely spontaneous. Investigations in these cases always seem to end with mixed results, but it is safe to say that there is some level of concern remaining in this area.
Even with these issues, electric vehicles remain a positive alternative in the auto industry. Even though they may not be completely zero impact to the environment, they do reduce our overall dependency on fossil fuels and our worldwide emission of greenhouse gasses. They also provide an economical alternative for many families and businesses that use vehicles heavily, but in small community circles. These considerable benefits may just outweigh the negative aspects of the EV revolution.