The Challenge of Sustainability: Electric Vehicles

At Yerdle, we have the understanding that stuff doesn’t just “go away” that’s what Yerdle is great for, passing on something that you don’t need to someone who does. This viewpoint makes us incredibly interested and invested in sustainability across a wide variety of topics. For the next few weeks, we’ll be digging into unique sustainability challenges facing a variety of industries. To kick off our series, we wanted to look at one of the industries at the forefront of sustainability right now - Electric vehicles.

While electric cars are more environmentally friendly than their fossil fuel counterparts, there are still some hurdles that are faced when talking about their sustainability. One such issue is that an electric car is only as clean as the plant that produces the electricity in its battery. 

One of the largest selling points about plug-in electric vehicles is that they are zero-emission, which is true while they are driving (they aren't burning any gas or diesel, after all), but emissions may still being created at the power-plant to charge the batteries. Depending on where the car is getting its energy from, this could make a huge difference on the environmental footprint of the car. In areas where the majority of electricity is generated using coal and other fossil fuels, an electric vehicle creates over 300 grams of CO2 per mile. While that’s still lower than the average gas powered vehicle which emits about 411 grams per mile, it’s a far cry from having zero carbon footprint. That said, when the charge for the battery comes from a cleaner energy source the emissions are greatly reduced. In California, one of the cleanest energy states, an electric vehicle will only produce about 100 grams per mile. Simply put, the only way to truly have a zero-emission car is to rethink our sources of energy.

The car’s carbon footprint is only half of the story though. Electric vehicles are essentially batteries with wheels and that brings a whole new problem to the table. Batteries, whether they are in your phone, laptop, or car require the use of rare earth metals. These materials are rare and incredibly difficult to mine due to the need for toxic chemicals and heavy machinery to extract them from the earth. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the manufacturing process of electric vehicles actually has a larger carbon footprint than the traditional car, though that is offset by the fact that they produce lower emissions over a lifetime compared to a gasoline car. Even so, the supply chain for batteries needs to be something that is taken into account when identifying sustainable transportation solutions.

One of the ways of solving the issue of limited resources for batteries is recycling the components and materials from spent batteries. Over time, power cells lose their capability to hold a charge and eventually are no longer suitable for use in an EV. This process takes time, roughly ten years, but once the batteries reach that state, we can’t just throw them away. Recycling of lithium ion batteries is necessary to keep the process sustainable, but the current method of reclaiming raw materials can be cost prohibitive. The more interest and demand is generated for these components should lower cost and there’s interesting research going into how to improve this process- including using fungus!

As you can see, electric vehicles struggle with sustainability, just like many other industries. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon this technology! On the contrary, with further investment we can expect processes to improve, as long as we hold those making the vehicles to high standards.