Electric Evasions

lithium battery slurry For any product that gets produced, green-ness involves four questions:

1. Material Intake: How much and what types of material does making the product extract from the environment?

2. Material Output: How does the product end up putting materials back into the environment, in the form of manufacturing, product operation, and garbage/recycling wastes?

3. Energy Use: How much total energy does manufacture, use, and recycling of the product require?

4. Alternatives: How does the product in question perform in the above three areas versus available alternative means of performing the same type of work facilitated by the product in question?

You may have already noticed that capitalists never publicly admit the existence and complexity of all four of these questions.  That is for the obvious reason that capitalism is virtually impossible if these questions are taken seriously.  Making big money almost always requires ignoring one or more of these questions, and the capitalist system as a whole is as heedless of ecological limits as just about any dystopian fantasy one could concoct.

Doubt this?  Then I would invite you to consider the emerging overclass proposition that cars with electric motors are green.

In order for this to be true, the manufacture, use, and eventual trashing of electric cars would have to:

1. Sharply reduce both the overall amount of materials and the level of non-renewable materials presently going into the making and use of personal transportation machinery;

2. Sharply reduce both the overall amount of materials and the level of toxic materials coming out of the making and use of personal transportation machinery;

3. Sharply reduce the overall amount of energy required to make, use, and eventually trash personal transportation machinery; and

4. Score better in all the above areas than alternative forms of personal transportation machinery would, if given the chance.

Electric cars, of course, could never satisfy that fourth criterion.  The laws of physics are very strict, and they dictate that each household or person using a 3,500-pound, 95% idled item to accomplish what could otherwise be accomplished with 1-pound walking shoes, 25-pound bicycles, and the use of shared, constantly operating public transit infrastructures is simply criminally harebrained.

Yet, despite this point, I think it is also very important to consider just how woefully electric cars will, if they ever achieve planned levels of distribution, perform in relation to all three of the prior questions.

Take, for instance, the claim that electric car batteries are somehow green things.

tesla batteryFor starters, the $36,000 battery in the $115,000 (counting the charging equipment) Tesla Roadster contains 6,831 separate lithium-ion battery cells and weighs 992 pounds, or as much as 39 modern, medium-quality, 25-pound bicycles.

Lithium is a non-renewable resource, and is extremely likely to be desperately needed in the future for non-transportation energy storage purposes, in a post-fossil-fuel age of greatly diminished and much more intermittent electricity generation and use.

But, meanwhile, what about the recycling of this 992-pound object at the end of its expected 7-year useful life?  Battery recycling is a process touted by Tesla’s propaganda arm as being wondrously efficient and “non-toxic.”

Let’s take a gander, shall we?

The US Department of Energy has granted $9.5 million to a company in California that plans to build America’s first recycling facility for lithium-ion vehicle batteries.

Anaheim-based Toxco says it will use the funds to expand an existing facility in Lancaster, OH, that already recycles the lead-acid and nickel-metal hydride batteries used in today’s hybrid-electric vehicles.

There is currently little economic need to recycle lithium-ion batteries. Most batteries contain only small amounts of lithium carbonate as a percentage of weight and the material is relatively inexpensive compared to most other metals.

But experts say that having a recycling infrastructure in place will ease concerns that the adoption of vehicles that use lithium-ion batteries could lead to a shortage of lithium carbonate and a dependence on countries such as China, Russia, and Bolivia, which control the bulk of global lithium reserves.

When old batteries arrive they go into a hammer mill and are shredded, allowing components made of aluminum, cooper, and steel to be separated easily. Larger batteries that might still hold a charge are cryogenically frozen with liquid nitrogen before being hammered and shredded; at -325 degrees Fahrenheit, the reactivity of the cells is reduced to zero. Lithium is then extracted by flooding the battery chambers in a caustic bath that dissolves lithium salts, which are filtered out and used to produce lithium carbonate. The remaining sludge is processed to recover cobalt, which is used to make battery electrodes. [Source: Technology Review]

Tesla’s publicists, of course, do not mention things like the energy expense of cryogenic freezing; exactly what substances comprise that “caustic bath”; or whether industrial cobalt powder is really “non-toxic.”

Worse, even Tesla’s P.R. department admits this much:  “The result from this process is that we are able to recycle about 60% of the battery material.”

In other words, 40 percent of the rare and toxic and energy-intensive things that go into an electric car battery will be lost and injected as garbage into the environment after each and every 7-year manifestation of these things.

Such is the substance of “green” in our market-totalitarian epoch…Gods help us all.

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6 thoughts on “Electric Evasions”

  1. A book called “Sustainable Energy, without the hot air” by David McKay which I’m reading, and very impressed with, says that electric cars are the major innovation in green transport. (of course, no cars at all is the ideal scenario but the author paints them as the lesser of evils)

  2. This article is somewhat lacking in perspective.

    After giving a very cogent summary of what needs to be considered regarding the overall effect of a product on the environment, the author then focuses on a rather tiny component of the typical car’s effect, namely, a 925 lb battery pack. By far, this amount of weight is dwarfed by the weight of fuel exhaust produced in the lifetime of a gasoline powered car. A car that gets 25mpg and is driven 100,000 miles will produce 77,600 lbs of carbon dioxide exhaust. The weight of a car, let alone a battery pack, is not even a significant figure in such a number.

    Now of course an electric car that is charged with electricity generated with fossil fuels will also produce tens of thousands of pounds of carbon dioxide waste in it’s lifetime. On the other hand, an electric car could conceivably drive 100,000 miles in 7 years off of the energy produced by a mere 1000 lbs or so of solar panels. Thus electric cars could conceivably reduce a cars ‘material output’ impact on the environment, by weight, from something like 100,000 pounds to something like 5,000. This is not something that environmentalists should turn up their noses at, even if it isn’t as good as riding a bicycle instead.

    (Of course environmental impact is not reducible to lbs of waste, either, but I’m just using the same approach to the subject as the author above…)

    Secondly, some nitpicking… but it is well deserved nitpicking.

    “40 percent of the rare and toxic and energy-intensive things that go into an electric car battery will be lost and injected as garbage into the environment”

    Of course I’m not vouching that Tesla’s numbers aren’t spun somehow, but going off what they actually say…
    -10% of materials are re-used, so it’s only 30 percent that ends up as trash
    -they are rather clear that the “rare and toxic” things are what is recovered, and the remaining 30 percent is mostly plastic, which (as they say), could probably also be re-cycled.

  3. Jaggedben, as you know, solar PEV panels are expensive in both energy and monetary terms. There is also the question of what we want use them for, if they ever become a serious overall source of electricity. Do we want to devote them to cars, or things like homes and hospitals?

    In any event, as it stands, if electric cars do become more than halo-ware, they will be run with coal and natural gas.

    I won’t repeat myself on the topic of the charging infrastructure electric cars would require, which I’ve covered on this blog more than once.

    Finally, I did see that 10% “reuse” number. That simply means they’ll have a huge pile of plastic lying around, plastic that can’t be used again in the battery production system. The main point is that 40% of the materials in these huge batteries is not going to be recycled into the system. And that, of course, is the Tesla number. Corporations never fudge such things, right?

    Anyhow, thanks for your feedback. I’m not saying electric cars have no role to play. In places outside the cars-first USA, they certainly do. But they are simply not a viable, sustainable long-term technology, as their legions of promoters assert and imply.

  4. “Green transport” that accepts the automobile as the main mode of accomplishing everyday commuting is an oxymoron, in my analysis. We need to radically reconstruct our towns and cities to progressively reduce dependence on cars. If we do not do this, we are in massive world-historic trouble.

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