Essay: Electric Cars Can Reduce Air PollutionPosted: June 24, 2024

 

Abstract

This research paper focuses on electric cars’ impact on air pollution. Electric cars largely owe their fame to Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors. Especially since Tesla’s debut, many have joined the bandwagon – scientists included – in praising the electric car for its environmental innovation. As such, electric cars are slowly becoming more than a niche, therefore gaining significant market share. However, the rapid growth of the electric car industry creates the need for a proper examination on whether electric cars actually reduce air pollution. This examination is significant from an environmental science perspective since conventional transportation significantly contributes to GHG emissions, and it is important to know whether electric cars will reduce or contribute to this statistic. Fortunately, proponents of electric cars should know that these proposed alternatives can reduce air pollution under the right conditions. These conditions mainly rely on the source of the electric grid (since an electric car’s source of fuel is its battery), and strong pollution policies that prevent states from ‘exporting their pollution’. This examines this issue from an American perspective since it is a large industry there, however, its general findings are applicable on a more global level.

Introduction

From an environmental science standpoint, reducing the negative impact of air pollution resulting from transportation is critical to promoting a sustainable biosphere since transportation accounts for 30% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions, 2019). It has been proposed to switch cars from fossil fuels to electric power, and this has already been brought to market by companies such as Tesla. This paper argues that if we assume that the electric grid is at least partially renewable and there exists a strong state policy for pollution, electric cars will significantly reduce air pollution if they replace gas-powered cars.

I aim to demonstrate this through the following: (i) drawing upon a comparison study between California and the Midwest to illustrate both how the source of an electric grid impacts GHG emissions of an electric car and the need for stronger policies preventing pollution exportation; (ii) using relevant literature to demonstrate that the relatively large battery maintenance for electric cars has little overall impact on air pollution compared to gas cars; and (iii) arguing that beyond the motivation to curb air pollution, we should address this issue since electric cars have a lower ‘social cost of carbon’ – meaning better quality of life for human beings.

The Source of Electric Power

As of 2014, the Department of Energy reported that nearly 70% of American energy originates from non-renewable sources – meaning that electric cars are not typically not energy efficient compared to gas powered cars in practice since their source of energy is ‘dirty energy’ rather than clean energy. For example, a 2014 electric Ford Focus will cost $1095 more in environmental damages compared to its gas equivalent (Holland et al, 2016). This section therefore draws on multiple studies to argue that electric cars reduce air pollution provided that the electric power source is from renewable sources, and that pollutants are restricted from being exported.

Holland et al use a comparison study between California and the Midwest to emphasize the proper conditions for an electric grid that sufficiently allows electric cars to reduce air pollution. In the case of California, their “relatively large damages from gasoline vehicles and a relatively clean electric grid” (Holland et al, 2016, pg. 3702) indicate that electric cars would be responsible for less air pollution compared to gas cars since the electric grid is made up of relatively ‘clean energy’ (Holland et al, 2016; Moriarty and Wang, 2017). Per contra, in the Midwest – notably North Dakota – there is no benefit to driving an electric car since the electric grid is derived from fossil fuels (Holland et al, 2016). As a result of the ‘clean car’ being powered by dirty energy, the positive impacts of electric cars are neutralized in North Dakota. Similar studies such as in Europe have concluded similar (Casals et al, 2016; Moriarty and Wang, 2017; Malmgren, 2016). The clear conclusion is that a clean electric grid is essential to maximize the benefits of electric cars.

To fully demonstrate the benefits of a clean electric grid, Ryan P and Cornell University highlight that an electric car on a 2016 electric grid that is composed of only 13.3% renewable energy still emitted 55% less carbon dioxide (CO2) than a fossil-fuel car (Ryan P and Cornell University, 2017). Further, a theoretical electric grid based off of 100% renewable energy would save up to 80% of CO2 emissions compared to the current average electric grid (Ryan P and Cornell University, 2017). Therefore, even a partially clean electric grid is more efficient than one fully derived from fossil fuels and yields significantly less air pollution.

However, the benefits of a partially clean electric grid are rendered moot if states do not develop stronger policies for the exportation of pollution since it is neutralizing the positive impacts of a cleaner grid with the introduction of increased ‘dirty’ energy. Currently, 91% of the air pollution from an electric car is exported to different states – meaning states use smokestacks to capture ‘dirty energy’ to ship to other states with equivalent or worse electric grids (Holland et al 2016) (Fig 1). This practice takes advantage of loopholes in state policy which allow states to sell their ‘dirty’ electricity to other states – making their own local pollution levels look low, when in reality, they are just spreading them on to other states (Holland et al 2016). It follows that these practices that follow from these weak policies undermines the benefits of a partially clean grid. It stands to reason that at the very minimum, a partially clean electric grid requires stronger state pollution policies to ensure that electric cars are viable to reduce air pollution.

 

While addressing the current failings of the infrastructure surrounding electric cars would greatly improve their efficiency, it is also vital to address a topic that critics of electric cars highlight, batteries.

Battery Maintenance

The typical battery within an electrical car is a lithium-ion (LI) battery. LI batteries are favoured since they have “high energy density, high power density, long service life” (Hao et al, 2017, pg. 1) and other environmental benefits compared to older lead-acid and Ni-MH batteries (Hao et al, 2017). This section will argue that despite the highly criticized, relatively large environmental footprint of the production and use of batteries, the efficiency advantages held by an electric car make their negative impact on air pollution significantly lower than their gas-powered cousins.[1]

In the typical Chinese LI factory, there are three types of batteries being produced: LFP, NCM, and LMO[2]. Regardless of the type, the battery is composed of various different precious metals and non-eco-friendly substances such as plastic, copper, BMS[3], and anode active materials (Hao et al, 2017; Notter et al, 2017). Furthermore, regardless that the latter material produces the most GHG emissions during the production process (48% in LFP, 60.7% in NCM and 51.1% in LMO)[4], (Hao et al, 2017) the significant extraction process of the various chemicals and its production into the battery make the average environmental costs for an electric car battery are approximately 22x greater than a gas car’s internal combustion engine (Hao et al, 2017; Ryan P and Cornell University, 2017; Jameson, 2017).

Figure . The darkness within the picture is to illustrate that the production process for batteries are ‘the dark side’ of electric cars.

However, despite the environmental footprint of battery production, electric batteries only contribute to 5% of the life-cycle of the electric car (Hao et al, 2017; Moriarty and Wang, 2017; Notter et al, 2010) . Further, assuming that the electric car is formed under the right ‘electric policies’ as previously discussed, the low impact on the overall life cycle means that the primary environmental footprint of the battery is the length of its operative life since it impacts how many replacement batteries have to be produced (Notter et al, 2010). The greater advantages of the electric car in regard to ‘fuel’ efficiency over gas cars is highlighted below.

The significant efficiency of electric cars over gas cars can be explained through two unique advantages in efficiency for gas cars: (i) unlike traditional cars, electric cars have intelligent software that controls electric fuel output; and (ii) the upwards of 68,000 chargers in America allow the batteries to be charged more frequently without using charge cycles.[5] These advantages explain why the average 2016 Tesla Roadster battery still retains approximately 83% capacity after 160,000 kilometers (Ryan P and Cornell University, 2017) compared to its gas equivalent that typically burns out at around 321,000 kilometers (approximately 11 years) (Consumer Reports, 2018). Even the average electric car retains at least approximately 60% of the battery capacity (Electric vehicle battery life & warranties, 2019) , thus demonstrating how technological advantages allow the battery to sustain itself longer than a gas powered car, which proves advantageous for reducing air pollution.

It is important to note that even though gas cars are slated to last for eleven years, the difference in warranties further indicate that electric car batteries are more efficient than the above discussion indicates. Electric cars tend to come with 8-10-year warranties with either a 160,000-kilometre limit or unlimited kilometres (GORZELANY, 2019). Per contra, a gas car typically comes with 3-4-year warranties so long as it has driven typically no more than 68,500 kilometres[6] (Koses, 2019). The likely reason for this stark difference is that the significantly more parts in a gas car translates into more frequent replacement, whereas the electric car can typically last 8-10 years without much interruption due to strong technological integrations within the battery significantly reducing the amount of parts needed (Price, 2017) (Fig 3). It therefore follows that electric cars reduce air pollution compared to gas powered cars. This picture below illustrates the benefits of electric car batteries.

Figure : This picture is meant to illustrate that all the components in the gas car mean that the parts have to be replaced more often, thus the electric battery proves to be more efficient since it needs less work.

However, if electric car critics are still sceptic following this comprehensive discussion, consider Ryan P and Cornell University’s conclusions that even with two battery replacements, the technological advantages held by the electric car ensure that they still produce 60% less GHG emissions compared to its gas counterpart during use[7] (Ryan P and Cornell University, 2017). Furthermore, it can be argued that if there are good policies surrounding an electric grid, electric cars reduce air pollution compared to gas powered cars.

Finally, I will discuss the greater environmental context of the importance of electric cars – meaning their benefits for human life.

Social Cost of Carbon

Beyond having an environmental responsibility to reduce air pollution, electric cars should be properly implemented mainstream since electric cars have a lower social cost of carbon. The social cost of carbon attaches a monetary value on reducing GHG emissions, notably CO2 (Malmgren, 2016). Experts at Stanford further note that GHG “emissions are so harmful to society, even costly means of reducing emissions would be worthwhile” (Than, 2015) for human society. I will now briefly discuss three important areas of human life that would benefit from electric cars – therefore improving overall sustainability.

First, electric cars largely eliminate the health damaging impacts associated with internal combustion engines found in gas cars since electric cars do not emit fine particle pollution (Malmgren, 2016). Fine particle pollution “refers to the particles of dust, soot, and smoke consisting of hundreds of chemicals” (Kaiser, 2005, pg 1858) that are smaller than a human hair. For example, this pollution caused by gas cars is annually responsible for 320 deaths and 870 hospitalizations in New York City largely associated with various cardiovascular diseases (Kheirbek et al, 2016) (see Fig 4). In determining the social costs, two studies with two different methodologies met at a middle ground and therefore determined that the US health care savings from fine particle pollution would be $1686 per electric car (Malmgren, 2016).

Figure : Utah State Health explains how the pollution from gas powered cars hurt human health.

Second, national security savings would be significant since a clean electric grid requires little to none of the fossil fuels that the American government spends significant resources procuring from the Middle East which further serves as 27% of the total petroleum used in the United States (Malmgren, 2016). To begin, in 2010, the US spent $1.17 per gallon to just ensure the safe delivery of oil secured from the Persian Gulf (Malmgren, 2016). Since there were 210 million drivers in 2010, and the average US citizen uses 500 gallons annually (Dilallo, 2018), this means that over 28 million was just spent on safe delivery, consequently government savings on ‘national security’ would be astronomical if electric cars were used[8]. Even in the US’s current ongoing acquisition and protection of oil from Saudi Arabia, a conservative estimate of the annual cost is still an astronomical $50 billion[9] (Malmgren, 2016) This means if the US government properly implemented electric cars, they would save at least $3268 for every car switched from fossil fuel to electric (Malmgren, 2016). Electric cars therefore save significant amounts in national security since moving away from oil would reduce America’s need to spend money protecting and buying it in the Middle East.

Third, and finally, electric cars bring significant economic gains compared to gas powered cars. While proper electric car adoption will lead to job losses in the oil industry, gas stations, and related jobs, it will introduce various new jobs in industries such as car body manufacturing, R&D, and battery manufacturing. In addition, since the social cost of an electric car is 60% less than a gas-powered car, every left-over dollar from the electric car has the potential to re-enter the economy (Malmgren, 2016). This proves to be significantly economically advantageous compared to gas powered cars since currently, over 80% of the cost per gallon of a gas car leaves the economy (Malmgren, 2016). Regardless of which state, more electric cars mean more money saved. For instance, in California,” each dollar saved from gas spending and used to purchase other household goods and services generates 16 jobs in the state” (Malmgren, 2016, pg 5). Based on multiple reports that analyzed multiple states, experts have concluded that one can expect a national average of $968 in economic development per electric car (Malmgren, 2016).

It gathers from this analysis that switching to electric cars will bring significant socio-economic benefits to society – therefore more sustainable.

Conclusion

The purpose of this paper was to demonstrate that under the right conditions of an efficient electric grid and strong pollution policies, electric cars reduce air pollution compared to gas powered cars. First, I explained how the source of the electric grid impacts GHG emissions from an electric car, and how strong pollution policies are needed to prevent excess pollution. Second, I demonstrated that despite the hysteria surrounding the environmental footprint of the battery, electric cars still yield less air pollution since they are more efficient than their gas-powered counterparts. Finally, I highlighted that beyond the environment, there are significant socio-economic gains for the government and the consumer from using electric cars. The conclusion of this paper is that electric cars are more sustainable from an environmental, social, and economic standpoint, therefore they should be considered as the essential replacement to gas-powered cars.

References

Casals, L. C., Martinez-Laserna, E., García, B. A., & Nieto, N. (2016). Sustainability analysis of the electric vehicle use in Europe for CO2 emissions reduction. Journal of Cleaner Production127, 425–437. doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.03.120

DiLallo, M. (2017, January 14). Here’s How Much Gasoline the Average American Consumes Annually. Retrieved from https://www.fool.com/investing/2017/01/14/heres-how-much-gasoline-the-average-american-consu.aspx

Electric vehicle battery life & warranties. (2019, February 1). Retrieved from https://www.energysage.com/electric-vehicles/buyers-guide/battery-life-for-top-evs/

GORZELANY, J. (2019, January 15). Evaluating Electric Vehicle Warranties. Retrieved from https://www.myev.com/research/buyers-sellers-advice/evaluating-electric-vehicle-warranties

Hao, H., Mu, Z., Jiang, S., Liu, Z., & Zhao, F. (2017). GHG Emissions from the Production of Lithium-Ion Batteries for Electric Vehicles in China. Sustainability9(4), 1–12. doi: 10.3390/su9040504

Hendrickson, T. P., Kavvada, O., Shah, N., Sathre, R., & Scown, C. D. (2015). Life-cycle implications and supply chain logistics of electric vehicle battery recycling in California. Environmental Research Letters10(1), 1–10. doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/10/1/014011

Holland, S. P., Mansur, E. T., Muller, N. Z., & Yates, A. J. (2016). Are There Environmental Benefits from Driving Electric Vehicles? The Importance of Local Factors. American Economic Review106(12), 3700–3729. doi: 10.1257/aer.20150897

The Health Impacts of Fine Particle Pollution. (n.d.). (Picture) Retrieved from https://www.health.utah.gov/utahair/pollutants/PM/

Jameson, A. (2017). Lithium Ion battery extraction pollution. (Picture) Retrieved from https://www.thenational.ae/business/technology/darker-side-of-electric-cars-in-spotlight-1.676999

Kaiser, J. (2005). EPIDEMIOLOGY: Mounting Evidence Indicts Fine-Particle Pollution. Science307(5717), 1858–1861. doi: 10.1126/science.307.5717.1858a

Kheirbek, I., Haney, J., Douglas, S., Ito, K., & Matte, T. (2016). The contribution of motor vehicle emissions to ambient fine particulate matter public health impacts in New York City: a health burden assessment. Environmental Health15(1). doi: 10.1186/s12940-016-0172-6

Koses, B. (2019, November 26). Which Automaker Has the Best Warranty? Retrieved from https://cars.usnews.com/cars-trucks/which-automaker-has-the-best-warranty

Make Your Car Last 200,000 Miles. (2018, November 6). Retrieved from https://www.consumerreports.org/car-repair-maintenance/make-your-car-last-200-000-miles/

Malmgren, I. (2016). Quantifying the Societal Benefits of Electric Vehicles. World Electric Vehicle Journal8(4), 996–1007. doi: 10.3390/wevj8040996

Moriarty, P., & Wang, S. J. (2017). Can Electric Vehicles Deliver Energy and Carbon Reductions? Energy Procedia105, 2983–2988. doi: 10.1016/j.egypro.2017.03.713

Notter, D. A., Gauch, M., Widmer, R., Wäger Patrick, Stamp, A., Zah, R., & Althaus Hans-Jörg. (2010). Contribution of Li-Ion Batteries to the Environmental Impact of Electric Vehicles. Environmental Science & Technology44(17), 6550–6556. doi: 10.1021/es903729a

P., R., & University, C. (2017, May). The Environmental Benefits of Electric Vehicles as a Function of Renewable Energy. Retrieved from https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/33826493

Plumer, B. (2015). 1970 Smokestacks Exporting Pollution. (Picture) Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2015/2/8/7999417/US-factory-pollution-offshoring

Price, T. (2017). EVs: 100x More Parts. (Picture). Retrieved from https://medium.com/@tomprice_22461/the-last-auto-mechanic-841adec75498

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  1. Normally, the recycling of the battery would be considered; however, since electric cars are very new, there is very little info about this. As such, methods of recycling and disposal are very much theoretical and in further development (Hendrickson et al, 2015). However, multiple papers do indicate that the battery it-self has a 5% impact on the life cycle of electric cars, and if we combine that knowledge about what we have discussed about the electric grid, it is fair to assume that the recycling has very little impact from an overall standpoint.
  2. These acronyms refer to the chemical elements that compose the batteries.
  3. Borane dimethylsulfide
  4. It is important to note that while their American counterparts do have lower GHG emissions, the majority of LI batteries for the market are manufactured in China.
  5. The more charge cycles, the shorter the battery life span.
  6. Averaged between two extremes – 36000 miles and 50,000 miles – converted to km.
  7. According to at least the current literature, the gap does get smaller per the increasing efficiency of the gas car. In addition, the gas car is really more efficient if the electric grid is non renewable– which of course – for the purposes of this paper does not apply.
  8. Taken by doing (210 million * 500 gallons) * 27%
  9. This does not include various economic factors such as the market demand, and the market disruption from oil supply