Explainer: Are electric vehicles really better for the environment?

Yes, they are. But it’s complicated.

A parking area with charging stations for electric vehicles at a public park is seen Thursday, April 1, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. As part of an infrastructure proposal by the Biden administration, $174 billion will be set aside to build 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations, electrify 20% of school buses and electrify the federal fleet, including U.S. Postal Service vehicles.(AP Photo/John Raoux) (John Raoux, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

The U.S. is investing big resources into electric vehicles, and Michigan will be leading the way in manufacturing -- but are they better for the climate?

This article first appeared in the “In This Climate” newsletter. Sign up for it here, or by using the form at the bottom of the article.

Welcome back to the In This Climate Newsletter! I’m Ken. I launched this newsletter to bring climate change to the neighborhood level. How is climate change impacting Michigan right now -- and how will it impact Michigan in the future? What can we do about it?

🔌 Electrified ⚡

Electric vehicles are coming -- and soon.

The Biden administration is pitching big investments in electric vehicle infrastructure, totaling $174 billion. Here’s a breakdown of what that would include:

  • $100B for consumer rebates buying EVs, expected to be about $7,500.
  • $15B to install 500,000 EV charging stations across the U.S. (We currently have about 100,000)
  • $20B for electric school buses; $25B for zero-emission transit vehicles; $14B in tax incentives.
  • $50B to help build more semiconductors domestically. $46B in clean energy manufacturing, job creation.

There is broad bipartisan support for investment in EV infrastructure, so it’s likely that something like this, in some form, will pass in Congress.

Detroit’s Big 3 automakers aren’t waiting around, of course. Most major automakers have already made big commitments to manufacturing electric vehicles, including Ford and General Motors.

Ford debuted its new fully-electric F-150, the first electric version of its most popular vehicles, and it’ll be available starting in 2022. GM has set a goal of going mostly electric by 2035. It will offer 30 all-electric models worldwide by the middle of the decade.

With all of this going on, it seems inevitable that we’ll all be driving electric vehicles at some point in the near future. But are electric vehicles actually better for the environment? Well, it’s complicated.

From its most basic level -- yes -- electric vehicles are better for the environment. This chart below plots dozens of vehicles against greenhouse gas emissions. The black dots are gasoline vehicles; The pink and red dots are hybrid vehicles; The yellow dots are battery electric vehicles. The dotted lines are where the U.S. wants vehicle carbon emissions to be by 2030 and 2040. (Data from MIT’s Carbon Counter tool)


But the vehicle itself is not the entire story.

It also depends on where you’re getting your charging power from. If you’re plugging your electric vehicle into a coal-heavy power grid, it can actually be worse -- especially if you’re driving a hybrid.

“Coal tends to be the critical factor,” said Jeremy Michalek, a professor of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University told the New York Times. “If you’ve got electric cars in Pittsburgh that are being plugged in at night and leading nearby coal plants to burn more coal to charge them, then the climate benefits won’t be as great, and you can even get more air pollution.”

In Michigan, the state has set a goal to decarbonize the grid by 2050, and has been moving towards more renewable and natural energy sources for several years. But as of 2019, coal still fueled the largest share of Michigan’s electricity generation -- about 32% of it.

So, basically, it’s hugely important for governments to clean up their power grids, so when electric vehicles are in mass use, they aren’t being charged by a coal-power plant. That wouldn’t help us much.

Another factor in answering this question is the source of the batteries. Cobalt, lithium and rare earth elements -- the stuff that powers most battery cells for electric vehicles -- have their own environmental issues. And production of these batteries can have big community health impacts. Here are some bullet points on this:

  • About 70% of the world’s cobalt supply is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where workers, which include children, dig up the metal in mines, a huge health and safety risk.
  • Lithium is mined in Australia, or from salt flats in South America. The battery operations use 50% more water than traditional combustion engines.

These materials carry dangerous health risks, especially rare earths, which have been linked to radiation.

Automakers are aware of these issues, and have pledged to get rid of the unregulated cobalt mining in their supply chains, or to just build batteries without the element. But some human rights groups are skeptical.

Bottom line

It’s going to take more than just building EVs and EV chargers for the EV revolution to make an impact on the future of our climate. Governments and automakers have to work together to make sure every piece of the manufacturing network is working towards a better climate future -- or it may not work at all.

Of course -- the biggest impact you can have is by not driving at all -- gasoline or EV. Eliminating travel, or riding a bike, using public transit, or walking, is the best way to cut carbon emissions.

Want more? The podcast “How to Save a Planet” did a great episode on this topic -- listen to it here.

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About the Author:

Ken Haddad is the digital content manager for WDIV / ClickOnDetroit.com. He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter.