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Poof Goes the Electric Car Dream

Sputtering EV promises, in 13 scenes. And the true road to surviving the climate crisis.

Andrew Nikiforuk 8 Dec 2023The Tyee

Tyee contributing editor Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist whose books and articles focus on epidemics, the energy industry, nature and more.

The electric car will not whisk us towards an ever growing yet greener future.

If governments were truly serious about reducing emissions, I have argued, they would celebrate walking and subsidize bicycles instead of $70,000 vehicles for the rich.

They would improve public transportation and make our cities walkable again.

And, bottom line, they would help us imagine a livable economy that uses less energy of every source, not more.

But this puts me at loggerheads with those who view every problem as an opportunity to conquer some part of the human realm with a complex technical solution. Our political elites serve this determinism because they can’t countenance any tampering with the ponzi scheme of economic growth.

As a consequence civilization now pretends that extracting more and more metals to build heavier and larger vehicles whose electricity is largely powered by fossil fuels is somehow a measure of progress.

The evidence paints a different picture. CO2 emissions are rising and EV sales are stalling. It is becoming more obvious that the purveyors of battery-operated vehicles promised more than they could deliver. They did not account for unintended consequences and ignored serious environmental problems.

Furthermore, the evidence suggests that electric cars really aren’t about lowering emissions but furthering artificial intelligence and automation.

So here are 13 brief scenes documenting the unexpected performance of the ballyhooed electric vehicle. They illustrate, once again, that technologies not only create more complexity but usually generate more problems than they solve.

Scene 1: Dwarfed by the crisis

Battery operated vehicles now occupy about two per cent of the car market. Passenger cars represent about eight per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Even if civilization succeeds in replacing 1.4 billion passenger vehicles with battery operated ones, the impact will hardly put a dent in the scale of the problem.

Art Berman, a Houston-based energy analyst, wryly observes, “People should buy EVs if they like them but not because they will save the planet from climate change.”

Scene 2: The mining world

Battery operated vehicles are totally dependent on the mining of critical and rare minerals. One EV needs six times more minerals than a conventional vehicle and as a result weighs on average 340 kilograms more. Lithium helps the battery charge quickly. Cobalt enhances its performance. Nickel improves energy density. Rare earth minerals such as neodymium and dysprosium make permanent magnets to run the electric motor. An EV can also contain more than a mile of copper wiring.

In 2021 alone EVs and their batteries put an additional 84,600 tonnes of nickel on the road — a nearly 60 per cent increase since 2020.

A clean tail pipe doesn’t mean a clean car. The energy ecologist Vaclav Smil has documented that an EV with a lithium car battery weighing about 450 kilograms contains a wealth of minerals that “requires processing about 40 tons of ores, and given the low concentration of many elements in their ores it necessitates extracting and processing about 225 tons of raw materials.”

Scene 3: Ontario’s Ring of Fire

EVs’ “green” appetite for minerals explains why governments and industry are eager to exploit $67-billion worth of copper, cobalt, nickel and chromite lying under the James Bay lowlands in a place geologists call the Ring of Fire. The contentious goal, of course, is to provide materials for electric battery manufacturing which the Canadian government actively subsidizes. The proposed mega-mining project (there are 26,000 claims in the area) would disturb the region’s remarkable peatlands, one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. The region sequesters more carbon on a per-square-metre basis than the Amazon’s rain forest. The scale of the destruction would be on par with the tarsands.

Scene 4: Norway

Blessed with lots of hydro power, Norway has been a leader in promoting, subsidizing and buying electric cars. Given that 80 per cent of all new cars are battery operated in that Nordic country, one would expect a dramatic decline in fossil fuel consumption. But the shift hasn’t been steep, for a multitude of reasons. For starters EV vehicles number only 500,000 vehicles in the nation’s fleet of three million passenger cars. But the real reason comes down to trucks. While fuel demand for passenger cars has plateaued, fuel use by buses and trucks, which perform most of the transportation work, has steadily increased. Electrifying trucks is not an easy task given the weight of the batteries.

The Norwegian energy analysis firm Rystad recently offered this explanation: “If efforts to lower emissions and reduce the carbon intensity of road transportation are to succeed, the focus should not be solely on passenger cars, but must also address heavy-duty vehicles that run on traditional fossil fuels.” In other words, using electric cars to kill oil demand will take a long time.

Norway’s experience also reflects broader global emission trends. Despite all the hype about the promise of battery-operated vehicles, global motor emissions fell by just four per cent between 2010 and 2022.

Scene 5: Lanes full of obese vehicles

Many people logically expected green vehicles to be smaller and lighter. But that’s not happening. Cars, whether conventional or electric, have been getting bigger and heavier since the 1980s. The average light duty vehicle now weighs 1.5 tonnes and occupies 4.2 square metres. Electric vehicles have mimicked this trend thanks to their heavy batteries and consumer preference for bigger vehicles with more horsepower. Electric models, whether made by Ford, Volvo or Toyota, are roughly 33 per cent heavier than their gas-powered versions.

Even the mini is maxing out. In 1993, the Mini Cooper weighed 635 kg. Today the electric version weighs more than twice that. A Ford F-150 truck that used to be 1,913 kg now bulks out at 2,729 kg in its electric version.

In fact, of 400 electric car models on the global market, half of them are SUVs. This gives a lie to the notion that makers of EV SUVs are interested in furthering a green revolution. Instead, as the International Energy Agency recently admitted, “SUVs require larger batteries to power them, so a growing electric SUV market would impose additional pressure on battery supply chains and further increase demand for the critical minerals needed to make the batteries.”

A lineup of electric cars plugged into charging stations.
A clean tail pipe doesn’t mean a clean car. The energy ecologist Vaclav Smil finds an EV with a lithium car battery weighing about 450 kg ‘requires processing about 40 tons of ores, and… necessitates extracting and processing about 225 tons of raw materials.’ Photo via Shutterstock.

One recent European study noted the inconvenient and the obvious. “Electric SUVs do not necessarily contribute to emissions mitigation.”

Energy expert Smil poses a sensible question. Why are we building two-tonne vehicles, conventional or electric, to carry a 50- or 70-kilogram person? He calls the SUV a “crime against humanity.”

Scene 6: Norway again

The Norwegian shipping company, Havila Kystruten, recently banned EVs, hybrid and hydrogen vehicles from their ferries due to fire concerns. The firm commissioned a risk analysis and concluded that if an EV caught fire on a ship, it would be almost impossible to extinguish. Havila Kystruten’s competitors still allow EV vehicles.

Electric cars have a rare habit of catching on fire. Although the risk of fires for fossil fuel cars remains four or five times higher than blazes in electric cars, a battery fire poses a toxic hazard and requires more time, fire fighters and resources to battle. In fact, extinguishing an electric car fire is almost impossible. As a result, fire departments advise letting the vehicle burn.

Scene 7: Crash sites

The growing weight problem of EVs has implications for safety, longevity of tires and even the integrity of parking garages.

The life and death bottom line is that when a heavier vehicle crashes into a lighter one, the people in the lighter one usually bear the brunt of the forces unleashed. And as we’ve said, EVs tend to be heavier than similar sized cars sharing the road. “Unfortunately, given the way these vehicles are currently designed, this increased protection comes at the expense of people in other vehicles.”

It is noteworthy, as well, that more pedestrians died on U.S. roads last year than in any year since 1981. Larger and heavier vehicles including EVs played a role in those deaths.

Scene 8: Realm of micro-pollutants

Heavier electric vehicles also increase wear and tear on tires. As tires degrade they emit a mixture of microplastics and volatile compounds that contaminate the soil, water and even the ocean (tire particles account for nearly 10 per cent of oceanic microplastic pollution). Tire pollution is so toxic that it can kill fish.

Because of their heavier weight and rapid acceleration ability, electric vehicles make 20 per cent more tire pollution than conventional cars.

A British firm, Emissions Analytics, recently found that Tesla’s fully electric Model Y generated 26 per cent more tire pollution than a similar Korean hybrid vehicle because it weighs so much more. The firm concluded that moving from a petrol vehicle to an electric one “is not such an improvement, due to the increase in tire particles.”

Scene 9: Your pocketbook

Last year, the average new car in the U.S. sold for $49,507 while the average new EV cost $61,448.

Some critics argue that owning an electric car has become a form of virtue signalling for the rich, who think their EV purchase earns them the right to fly mindlessly about the planet on the power of jet fuel.

With the rising cost of electricity in many jurisdictions such as England and Germany, the fuel saving differential between combustion vehicles and EVs has been shrinking. EV owners aren’t saving what they used to.

Scene 10: California

Researchers looked at how EV owners used electricity between 2014 and 2017. They found that while the owners used less than expected, they charged their vehicles at night when CO2 emissions from electrical production are highest because the sun is not shining.

Scene 11: China

China is home to half the world’s EVs. Unfortunately, most of them run on electricity generated by coal. Should we call them coal cars? Meanwhile, China has embarked on a spree to build more coal-fired power. As Bloomberg recently reported, expanding coal-fired power is China’s “only real option in the short term to meet rising electricity demand, including from new energy vehicles.”

One reason for China’s redoubled coal commitment was made clear during a recent heat wave. The dams dried up and hydropower became scarce in Sichuan province, one of the few regions in China to run on such energy. Decreased energy supply combined with increased demand for air conditioning left electric car drivers with no power.

Scene 12: Sending in the tow trucks

EVs had 79 per cent more reliability problems than conventional vehicles, Consumer Reports found after analyzing data from 300,000 vehicle owners. "EVs are still in their relative infancy as mainstream vehicles, so it’s really not surprising that manufacturers, by and large, are still working out the kinks,” explained Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at CR. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles performed the worst. Owners reported critical problems with the EV drive system motors, EV charging systems, EV batteries and “infotainment systems.”

Hybrids, which have been around for 25 years, had much fewer problems. Electric trucks rated lowest in terms of reliability.

Scene 13: Robots and rentals

Tony Seba, a Stanford futurist, has repeatedly argued that artificial intelligence in the form of autonomous electric vehicles will turn transportation into an efficient on-demand service. People won’t own cars in the disruptive future but will spend $100 a month for a transportation subscription service. As a result, one electric car could replace 10 petrol cars.

This top-down vision of the future ignores a number of issues including human behaviour. To date, research on autonomous vehicles shows that they work like a chauffeur service. When people can enjoy a vehicle without the demands of operating it, they travel more, walk less, bike less and don’t use public transit.

A more effective solution

These scenes all suggest that the promised gains of electric vehicles have been much over-hyped. It is unlikely civilization can demonstrably slow down the growing climate disorder by ditching a fossil-fuel intensive machine with a mineral intensive one that largely operates on a global electrical system still largely dependent on fossil fuels.

The political celebration of electric vehicles ignores a much more effective solution. That path involves lowering energy demand across the board and celebrating modesty.

It champions low-tech (how about smaller, lighter and slower vehicles?) as opposed to hi-tech solutions in a resource constrained world. Ultimately, it means living a leaner life in walkable communities.

In his book The Age of Low Tech, engineer Philippe Bihouix argues that smaller and convivial tools are the answer. “There is no product or service more ecological, sustainable and recyclable as the one we do not use.”  [Tyee]

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