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How green are electric vehicles

March 07, 2020 — BarryK

I was reminded of this question last year, in May 2019, just before the Australian Federal elections. The leader (Bill Shorten) of the Labour Party (a slightly left-wing party), which all polls showed as sure to win the election, gave a final speech, which was a long list of promises, one of which was a massive push to electrify vehicles in Australia.

There were so many promises made, that were going to be very expensive, which really made me recoil. I am kind of mild right-wing/conservative, but I have voted for the labour party many years past. However, on this occasion, the speech reminded me of the Whitlam era, when it was spend, spend, spend. There is a story, I don't know if it is true, where the treasurer asked Whitlam how are we going to afford all of this (free university education, plus heaps more) and Whitlam replied "We will just print more money". Yeah, result was inflation went through the roof.

What happened in 2019 was the polls got it completely wrong, and the Liberal party (conservative, slightly right-wing party) won by a huge margin.

I usually avoid political commentary, so the above is enough, onto the topic of this post, electric vehicles...

The point that I want to get onto is that so many "greenie" agitators and politicians keep saying that we need to deploy electric vehicles in Australia on a massive scale. We even have people demonstrating in the streets in support of this. In this blog post, I want to question this, are they justified?

On the topic of comparing how "dirty" EVs are compared with ICEs (internal combustion engines), this video is revealing:, in terms of "dirtiness", or damage to the environment, the break-even point is 116,000km in Germany. That ADAC report quoted in the video, has been criticised as being based on 5-year-old data, when Germany had more coal-fired power generation.

One of the big questions is how long the battery in an EV will last. The Nissan Leaf is probably a bad example -- I did some research on it and found that it does not have sufficient cooling for Australian climate, so the battery gets hot, which greatly reduces it's lifespan.

However, EVs with premium battery designs seem to be much better. Apparently, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz guarantee the battery to have 80% capacity after 160,000km.

The Hyundai Kona is guaranteeing "a 5 year unlimited mileage warranty, a high voltage battery warranty for 8 years or 200,000 kms."

So, the Kona EV will pull ahead of an ICE car after 116,000km. It will still be more expensive to run though, due to the high purchase cost and depreciation.

Ah yes, depreciation. There are cheap second-hand EVs on the market, 5+ years old. This is the point where the owner realised how expensive a replacement battery will be, and decided to sell instead.

After your EV has done 200,000km (let's be generous and believe Hyundai), the battery will have degenerated to such a point where you will need to buy a new one. Which takes your EV back to the starting point.

That is from the environmental point of view -- actually before the starting point, as you have dumped a battery that may become landfill -- recycling is still a work-in-progress in most countries.

There is also the financial point of view -- the cost of the new battery. The $33,000 mentioned in the above video is a peculiarity of that model of the Nissan Leaf. I did a bit of a search, and for a modern EV it will be $8,000 - $10,000 in Australia. But, you need to be wary of cost figures for EVs, as some governments are subsidizing them, both to purchase, and, I think, replacement battery in some countries. I did a search for Australia, and the ACT and Victoria have some subsidies.

Regarding purchase price, the cheapest EV in Australia is the Hyundai Ionic Electric Elite, at $45,000.

In summary: Environmentally, the EV will pull ahead of the ICE from 116,000 to 200,000km, then you are back at before square one. Financially, well, you lose big time with the EV.

A small ICE will set you back about $16,000 here in Australia, and if you are careful with it, expect a life of the engine of about 250,000 - 300,00km. After which, you can recondition it for say around $4,000, or buy a new engine.

In summary, the ICE vehicle loses out environmentally from 116,000 to 200,000km (or less than 116,000km if electricity generation is greener -- as low as 50,000km if generated from renewables). But far cheaper -- not just based on purchase price, but also looking at total-cost-of-ownership -- for example this report -- and that report does not consider battery replacement cost.

Allright, so over half of it's lifetime, the EV is ahead environmentally. Financially, bad news. And, it should be noted not a practical proposition for long distances in rural Australia.

So, is there any other real advantage of an EV? Yes, it moves the pollution out of the cities, to wherever lithium batteries are being manufactured, and to the rural locations of coal-fired power stations.

I could keep rambling on, with more online links. In fact, the first version of this blog post was longer. I had links to many sites with conflicting information. It does seem that those on a particular bandwagon, be it greeny or the opposite, put a spin on the facts, mostly by ignoring some facts, and twisting others.

It seems to me that the problems we should be tackling first, is not moving to electric vehicles, but making electricity generation and lithium battery manufacturing greener. Two things. Electricity generation in Australia is still very dirty, and we even export coal to the rest of the world.

We should also be looking at the supply chain for battery raw materials, such as the child slave labour in Africa to mine cobalt.

We should have facilities to recycle batteries. Apparently, degraded EV batteries can be used in home storage, which will delay the inevitable for a few more years. Unfortunately, Australia has not even managed to process nuclear waste -- it sits in drums in warehouses, gradually accumulating. 

I apologise if you find any inaccuracy in this post. I am not an expert in this field, have just done some reading here and there, and attempted to produce an unbiased summary, without the spin found elsewhere. 

Tags: ethos