Before Democrats like presumptive President-elect Joseph R. Biden trade up to electric vehicles as part of a U.S. green-energy future, they might want to kick the tires on what that would mean for the environment.
Warnings are on the rise that going all-in on Tesla and Bolt in the name of achieving net-zero carbon emissions would result in another host of environmental problems with no guarantee of significant climate benefits.
“While activists and politicians endlessly tout electric vehicles as a ‘zero emissions’ solution to climate change and air pollution, replacing gasoline with electricity as the energy source for personal transportation does not eliminate emissions of air pollutants and carbon dioxide so much as displace them,” said Ben Lieberman, senior fellow at the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute.
His study, released Tuesday and titled “Would Electric Vehicles Be Good for the Environment?,” warns of “serious environmental impacts” from shifting to electric vehicles, or EVs, including the increased mining and energy output needed to produce their batteries, as well as disposal challenges.
“Substantially moving millions of Americans from gas-powered cars and trucks into EVs would make these environmental downsides much more significant than they are now given that EVs are still a niche market,” Mr. Lieberman said.
Fans of an all-EV future imagine clearer air and cleaner skies from cars with no direct emissions, meaning tailpipe pollution. Both California and New Jersey have announced this year aggressive targets for sales of electric vehicles that would ultimately result in the elimination of gas guzzlers.
“Going to a plug-in car is a cleaner — and greener — choice no matter where you live in the United States,” said the Electric Drive Transportation Association. “No tailpipe, no exhaust system, no emissions. Even emissions produced to charge plugs-in are far lower.”
Under his administration, Mr. Biden has vowed that the federal fleet of nearly 650,000 vehicles would run on electricity. What’s more, he plans to add 500,000 charging stations, a sevenfold increase from the Energy Department’s count in May 2019 of 68,800 fast-charging units, one-third of them in California.
Driving those EV goals is Mr. Biden’s climate and energy plan, which pledges to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, all but requiring the elimination of cars, buses, trucks and other vehicles run on the internal-combustion engine.
In his study, however, Mr. Lieberman argued that a more complete environmental picture includes the vast amounts of the lithium, cobalt, copper and graphite mining and processing that would be needed to keep up with the demand for EV batteries, which weigh 1,000 pounds each.
Australia is a major producer of lithium, but most of the global reserves are located in South America, primarily Chile. The Democratic Republic of Congo is the biggest source of cobalt, and China dominates the market for lithium, cobalt, graphite and rare-earth minerals.
“As with much Chinese-directed industrial activity, most of this mining and processing is subject to minimal environmental protections and is largely powered by coal,” the Competitive Enterprise Institute study said.
The report cited forecasts from the financial firm UBS that found replacing global sales of internal-combustion engine vehicles with EVs would require “a projected 2,898 percent increase in lithium, a 1,928 percent increase in cobalt, a 524 percent increase in graphite, a 105 percent increase in nickel, and a 655 percent increase in rare earths.”
While the U.S. environmental movements tend to be reflexively anti-mining, that hasn’t slowed the momentum behind electric-powered cars.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in September that all passenger vehicles sold in the state by 2035 must be zero-emissions, saying that more than half of the state’s carbon pollution is from transportation.
“This is the most impactful step our state can take to fight climate change,” said Mr. Newsom, adding, “Our cars shouldn’t make wildfires worse — and create more days filled with smoky air. Cars shouldn’t melt glaciers or raise sea levels threatening our cherished beaches and coastlines.”
‘An environmental trade-off’
About half of the nation’s nearly 2 million EVs are in California, but they still represent a small fraction of the more than 200 million cars and trucks on roads. While annual sales of electric cars has climbed, they represent a small fraction of 17 million new vehicles sold in recent years.
“[I]n 2019, the country’s EV market ballooned to nearly 330,000 sales in a single year,” the energy blog Enel X said in a June post. “However, before EV fans and zero-emission advocates take a victory lap, consider that those 330k sales in 2019 still represented less than 2 percent of the new-car market. The other 98 percent of buyers purchased gas or diesel vehicles.”
Replacing them with EVs would require a surge in electricity demand that wind and solar farms may be unable to shoulder. In 2019, renewable energy accounted for 17.6% of the U.S. power grid, with wind contributing 7.1% and solar just 1.7%, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
If wind and solar are unable to keep up with increased electricity demand, riding to the rescue would be fossil fuels, namely power plants fueled by coal and natural gas.
At a May 2018 House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on EVs, Rep. John Shimkus, Illinois Republican, foresaw a rosy future for the coal industry in a world where Teslas dominate the highways.
“When we think of larger EV fleets, one of the first questions that comes to mind is where all the extra electricity is going to come from to power them,” said Mr. Shimkus. “I believe coal-fired generation will have an important role in providing affordable electricity and making an EV future work.”
That probably wasn’t the scenario envisioned by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, New York Democrat, and other proponents of the Green New Deal, but the alternative — electrical generation by 100% wind and solar — also has its drawbacks.
Mr. Lieberman pointed to the vast tracts of land that would be required to power the U.S. electricity grid on wind and solar. For example, he said, a wind-powered grid would require 31,000 square miles of land, or an area roughly the size of South Carolina.
In addition, an all-renewables grid would mean a doubling of the 200,000 U.S. miles of high-voltage transmission lines.
“For these reasons, a scaling up of EV use leads to an environmental trade-off — either accept additional emissions from coal- and natural gas-fired generation, or accept the impacts of greatly expanded renewables and storage,” the study said.
Continental Economics President Jonathan A. Lesser has challenged the anticipated climate benefit, estimating that the overall reduction from an all-electric fleet would be “less than 1% of total forecast energy-related U.S. CO2 emissions through 2050,” based on efficiency improvements to gas-powered vehicles and the “forecast mix of electric generation.”
“That reduction will have no measurable impact on world climate — and thus the economic value of CO2 emissions reductions associated with ZEVs [zero-emission vehicles] is effectively zero,” said Mr. Lesser, a Manhattan Institute adjunct fellow, in a 2018 report, “Short Circuit: The High Cost of Electric Vehicle Subsidies.”
Despite those variables, the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy concluded last year that EVs produced reduced “life cycle emissions,” or those associated with every step from processing to distribution to disposal.
“All vehicles produce substantial life cycle emissions, and calculating them is complex,” said the office. “However, EVs typically produce fewer life cycle emissions than conventional vehicles because most emissions are lower for electricity generation than burning gasoline or diesel.”
Mr. Lieberman’s final message for lawmakers: Take a good, hard look before putting the pedal to the metal.
“Policy makers should consider these and other environmental costs before they take any steps towards locking the nation into a future of electric vehicles as a major means of transportation,” he said.
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