Are electric cars really good for the environment?

BMW i3 facing forward at an angle

Hello EVision readers and welcome to our latest EV News blog post. This week’s EV news is focusing on the environment and whether electric vehicles really are as green as we think they are. It’s one of the peoples most asked questions and especially one that we hear a lot here at EVision.

Solar Energy

At EVision, we’re proud to say that all of our EVs on fleet are charged at our Head Office in Kent, at the Diggerland collection points in KentDevonDurham and Yorkshire, as well as at 10 UK based depots where our sister company, H.E. SERVICES (Plant Hire) Ltd operate, all of which use energy generated from solar panels.

Why is this good, I hear some of you ask…

Well the reasoning is simple, if we powered our environmentally friendly electric vehicles with fossil fuels, that would kind of negate our soul purpose.

Currently, the main forms of generating electricity comes from:

  • Fossil Fuels 
  • Nuclear Energy 
  • Wind Power  
  • Solar Power

Now let’s look at each of these:

Fossil fuels in the form of petroleum, coal and natural gas are environmentally damaging when burned, as they are literally affecting the entire ecosystem. Then add human error and natural disaster into the mix, such as oil spills for example and this can have a damaging and very long lasting effect on the environment and population of animals and humans. Does anyone remember the tragic event of 1989 when around 500,000 barrels of crude oil was spilled by the oil tanker Exxon Valdez in Alaska? This incident alone saw a recorded 100,000 human deaths, as well as huge numbers of birds and sea life left dead. The other huge factor to consider here is that fossil fuels are running out, so we must find alternative energy solutions and fast.

Nuclear energy has the lowest impact on the environment as it produces no harmful greenhouse gases. However, there are many other factors to look into when it comes to nuclear energy and nuclear power stations. First of all if not managed correctly, there can be nuclear disasters, just look at the case of Chernobyl. These impacts not only damage the immediate environment and cause huge numbers of deaths in the short term due to radiation poisoning, but they can also have detrimental effects for hundreds of years, with rising cancer rates, affecting not only the immediate area of where the disaster happened, but wider than that to other countries!

Solar panels themselves generate no greenhouse gases meaning, yes they are environmentally friendly. However, currently solar panels require fabrication and fabricating solar panels requires caustic chemicals such as sodium hydroxide and hydrofluoric acid. The process for making the solar panels requires the use of water and also electricity, and the electricity comes from where? You guessed it, fossil fuels! Therefore this combined means that actually making solar panels emits greenhouse gases and also creates waste. On the other hand, once installed there is no question that solar panels are much more environmentally friendly and sustainable than alternatives such as fossil fuels. Research conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, states that each household that switches from conventional electricity to solar energy may stop 77 tons of toxic greenhouse gases from being released. The industry however just need to work on the recycling of solar panels as there are concerns regarding the current disposal of them. Many are confident that as new technology becomes available and cheaper, that overall solar power in the form of solar panels will become more mainstream and an exceptionally eco-friendly choice.

Lithium-Ion Batteries

One of the biggest questions we get asked about at EVision and one of the most talked about subjects within EV News in general, is that of lithium-ion batteries. People have many mixed thoughts and feelings about the use of lithium-ion and whether it should indeed be used to power electric vehicles. There’s a big argument as to whether lithium-ion batteries are environmentally friendly.

Firstly, you may be asking yourself the following questions:

What is lithium?

What is a lithium-ion battery?

Why are lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles?

Firstly, lithium is essentially a metal and is an element found in virtually all rocks. You may be confused as to why we’re talking about lithium when it comes to sustainable energy and electric vehicles, due to the fact that most of you would be familiar with lithium from a medical sense. As lithium works with many other elements such as drugs, enzymes, hormones and vitamins, the medical world use lithium to treat many illnesses including but not limited to depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder, alcoholism and diabetes.

A lithium-ion battery is a rechargeable battery. This is why lithium-ion batteries are used in electric vehicles, because they have to be recharged in order to be re-used.

Back to the original question, ‘are lithium-ion batteries environmentally friendly?’, one must first look at the argument for lithium and the argument for what is currently being used worldwide, day in / day out and that is fossil fuels.

Say for example you extract some lithium from salt flats and you turn it into a material that you can use in a battery. Now that battery gets placed into an electric car and it’s used for around 10 to 15 years in the EV. Then that lithium is re-purposed and it will then be used in a building and it will power that building for another 10 to 15 years. After then, it is recycled and used to make more batteries. Therefore you are looking at a lifespan of 25 to 30 years.

Now let’s look at this from another angle. Currently, we are using fossil fuels to power our conventional petrol and diesel cars. The process for this is that you extract oil out of the ground, you then transport it around the world (which many people fail to factor in as this burns more fuel), you then refine it, you then again transport it to the gas filling stations, and then it is burned very quickly in a car. The gases that come out of that car are very toxic, poisonous and carcinogenic – then that’s it! You cannot use these fossil fuels again.

What do we know about lithium?

Let’s look at firstly where it comes from, lithium is extracted mainly from the ‘Lithium Triangle’, under the deserts of Boliva, Argentina and Chile.

Now we are aware that lithium-ion batteries are not 100% fail proof, they are not the ideal short term solution, however what we do know is that lithium is extremely beneficial in offsetting emissions that would otherwise come from internal combustion engines, i.e. your conventional petrol or diesel car.

Now unfortunately very little lithium-ion batteries are currently being recycled and at present around 11 million tons of lithium-ion batteries are being disposed of, therefore recycling of these needs to be looked into greatly by governments around the world. Why are we not recycling lithium-ion we hear you ask? Well currently it’s all down to our leadership in our respective countries, as well as costs – it’s just not that economic, as the recycling process is expensive as well as time consuming.

Therefore currently lithium-ion batteries are not a perfectly green technology as much progress is yet to be made with regards to the mining and recycling processes. However, what we do know is that the benefits when compared to alternatives such as fossil fuels, is in favour of lithium-ion as the battery technology has the potential to considerably reduce carbon emissions, as people begin to use electric vehicles.

So, lithium-ion batteries themselves once put into an electric vehicle do have positive environmental factors, they do not omit any dangerous gases into the atmosphere. However the process for making the lithium-ion batteries currently requires huge research and development in order to make vast improvements.

EVision’s conclusion

As a long term solution, if using lithium-ion batteries to power electric vehicles, using the energy generated via solar panels, this all is all positive and ticks those green boxes.

Comparing electric vehicles to conventional vehicles, lithium-ion batteries combined with solar powered energy far outweighs fossil fuels.

Our final verdict however is that more needs to be done when it comes to the manufacturing process for the making of solar panels and the making of lithium-ion batteries. In addition, more needs to be done to ensure sustainability and recycling of the solar panels and lithium-ion batteries is vastly improved.

Are these options more environmentally friendly than what is currently available, yes. However, more work still needs to be done.

If you are looking to test out our electric cars, see the full range available at EVision Electric Vehicle Hire. Contact us today!

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