Road Ahead

Electric Vehicles Not Sustainable


The problem is the entire EV industry and infrastructure is being pushed by government mandates and subsidies, not by natural market demand.

Several issues have come to light recently that call into question the environmental benefits of electric vehicles. It’s all got to do with how EVs are manufactured and recycled, as well as how the electricity they use gets generated. These are issues that will not be resolved easily.

A recent report commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency on the life-cycle analysis of lithium-ion batteries finds they can lead to “resource depletion, global warming, ecological toxicity and human health impacts.” Whew! It goes on to say that the nickel and cobalt cathodes used in li-ion batteries “may cause adverse respiratory, pulmonary and neurological effects in those exposed.” Doesn’t sound very green to me.

The EPA report, titled “Application of Life-Cycle Assessment to Nanoscale Technology: Lithium-ion Batteries for Electric Vehicles,” adds the cathode issue could be solved using nano technology, but the energy required to manufacture those cathodes currently is prohibitive.

Another EV study that came out this year, “Comparative Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Conventional and Electric Vehicles,” published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology by Yale University, says the carbon footprint of EVs could be “indistinguishable from those of a diesel vehicle” depending on how far they are driven and where they get electricity.

The key to these two studies is they look at the life-cycle energy use of EVs. That means they calculate all the energy needed to manufacture the vehicles, plus the amount and sources of energy used in operation and the energy needed to recycle them. Unlike some auto makers who advertise their EVs are zero-emissions vehicles (are you listening Nissan?), these studies show EVs are anything but emissions free.

For example, in France, which generates most of its electricity from nuclear power, an EV may generate only 15 g of carbon dioxide per kilometer. Very clean! But right across the border, the predominantly coal- and natural gas-powered grid in Germany means an EV will generate 100 to 120 g of CO2 per km. Ironically, the European Union wants gasoline and diesel cars to achieve 95 g CO2 per km by 2020. But EVs are exempt from this regulation because it classifies them as, you guessed it, “zero-emissions vehicles.”

The story actually gets worse in China, which generates 85% of its electricity from coal. Two separate studies, one from the University of Tennessee, the other from Yale and Xinghua Universities show China’s already miserable levels of urban air pollution will only get worse if Chinese consumers embrace electric cars. I guess we should be glad EVs are not selling well there, or anywhere.

Except that I’m not glad. I love driving EVs. And I especially love how they reduce noise pollution. The problem is the entire EV industry and infrastructure is being pushed by government mandates and subsidies, not by natural market demand. 

That tells me the current market for electric-powered vehicles is not sustainable. And as the studies above show, they are not environmentally sustainable either. At least not yet.

John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit, and “Autoline Daily,” the online video newscast.



Discuss this Blog Entry 9

on Jun 25, 2013

*Sigh* Disruptive technology always brings out the naysayers...

Yes, there should be government subsidies; they help generate demand until some scaling efficiencies can take effect, lowering the cost and helping to "naturally" generate demand.

Yes, there will be some byproduct pollution from EVs, but nothing close to what ICEs generate! If the technology is not yet perfect, should we just pack it up and go home? (Big Oil would love you to think so)

I don't have a source for this, but read that 30% (and growing) of the U.S. electricity is powered by solar and wind turbines (which the GOP says changes the weather...). The Li-Ion batteries are being recycled, thus reducing their impact.

The recharging infrastructure is growing exponentially.

Anyone remember when videos were first introduced? If you could find a retail outlet, it cost mega-bucks to buy one, and renting one practically took an act of congress. Yet here we are today.

The technology is only going to get cleaner, more efficient, and cheaper as time goes by. That's what technology does. But it does take support of Early Adopters like you and me to get it off the ground.

Speaking of which, I purchased a used, 2011 Nissan Leaf and have been keeping a diary of the experience. EV curious? Follow along!

on Jun 26, 2013

Amy, I would like citation on that. My bill from National Grid informs me our electrical supply is about 1.5% alternative generated. I have a second property in Maine, Central Maine Power also lists source generation, they cite 3% alternative sources. We here in Massachusetts wanted Cape Wind to be a success, but the "Green Movement" fought it it tooth and nail. After billions of taxpayer dollars erecting towers and stringing lines, the "Green Movement" won their court case and the towers and lines were torn down at a cost of billions more of taxpayer dollars. If you really want "sustainable energy" you and your people are going to have to get their act together and stop wasting taxpayer time and money.

on Jun 26, 2013

We really have a long way to go before all-electric vehicles make sense. Currently, for all but the more expensive models, the electric car cannot be the only vehicle in a household. Hybrids like the Prius make much more sense, as they not only use a greener battery type (NiMH), but they have proven to be extremely reliable as a single vehicle solution.

on Jun 27, 2014

Norton, Lets not forget that the Prius has been around for 10+ years. Its believed that Toyota lost $15,000 on each car the first generation (consumer got at least $7500 tax credit). In the auto industry new technology needs 3 cycles of learning in order to get cost out. 3rd generation Prius powertrain is just now getting launched in more of the Toyota portfolio. Plot the current EV sales on top of the Prius early sales and you see they are tracking almost exactly. But when we now need hybrids in mass they are refined and available. Same goes for EV and Fuel Cell. Lets get them commercialized and then drive the cost out and efficiency up so in 2022 and beyond we are ready (2 cycles of learning) for high volume. Sure its costly but the world needs us to take these long shots and hope that one of them succeeds in time to save the planet.

on Jun 26, 2013

Given 80%+ electricity is Fossil Fuel (FF) generated, EV's are FF powered. Am I the only one who will mention that Obama's war on FF's contradict his push for more EV's?

on Jun 26, 2013

Every major industrialized country has designated electric vehicles as the magic bullet to address climate change. McElroy's commentary points out that EVs are a flawed solution. Battery electric vehicles are not selling well anywhere in the world, even with big incentives. Not even in Europe, where fuel costs $9 a gallon. Governments can force auto makers to build EVs, but they cannot force consumers to buy them. Unless fuel prices suddenly soar (that's not impossible) all governments, not just the U.S., need to rethink their EV-biased climate change strategies.

on Jul 9, 2013


You think the EPA hates batteries? You should see what they think about gasoline, tail-pipe emissions, ground level ozone, global warming, oil spills, wars for oil, fracking, etc. etc. etc.

Can't help but think these things are the answer for places like LA, Tokyo, Singapore, and a ton of Euro cities with severe smog issues. A little downstream or upstream pollution can be managed a lot better than tailpipes.

My thought on this matter goes this way...Sure there are issues with early batteries. Sure there are issues with the way electricity is currently generated in many areas of the world. If more people use electricity to run cars, the game will change on both fronts. Better batteries, better ways to make them, fewer rare earth resources used, better methods for recycling and maybe even finding some way to re-use some of the remains of old batteries AND better power stations. It'll cost money, but electric cars would pump money and urgency into projects like this. That's opportunity and we are always looking for that.

Here's where electricity saves: It's a lot easier to make he grid more efficient than to make each individual car more efficient. It's easier and safer to transport electricity to where it's used than fuel. Electric cars are more efficient ON THE ROAD. They don't make so much heat instead of kinetic energy. They don't have to run when they're stopped, even for a few seconds. They lend themselves to regenerative braking very nicely. They're going to be much simpler and cheaper to build than ICE cars. Gasoline cars still have a solid future. They will have to get a lot more efficient too in order to make the cut.

My concerns about electric are: 1. that they will eventually drive themselves and that will be boring. 2. That we'll need to start paying for road repairs by taxing electricity used in cars and that will be complicated...or will raise the price for all electricity...not good. 3. That electric vehicles are so easily monitored. Your whereabouts are just about known now. With the tech in these cars, we'll be able to track anyone. That's just creepy.

Congrats. You're one of the few writers about electric cars who has actually driven one. It's really difficult to describe to people how much these things can rock as cars. The Model S is a tremendously fun vehicle with so much going for it that it could be the dirtiest car in its class and I'd still want to own one.

on Jul 9, 2013

So what you're saying is that the EPA should stay as far away as possible from say, quarter-mile dragway? Where exhaust systems are usually just headers to an ORP and if you ask about a catalytic converter people will look at you like you're speaking Mandarin, right?

on Sep 12, 2016

Well, we have found several environmental benefits of electric vehicles. It is quite beneficial to reduce vehicle emission and pollution. Therefore the demands of an electric vehicle is rapidly increasing day by day; apart from the environmental benefits, we can also get different types of other beneficial features also. So it will definitely boost our driving experience.

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Drew Winter

Drew Winter is Editor-in-Chief of WardsAuto World magazine and a Senior Editor at He was won numerous awards for his work in both print and digital media and has been...

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Tom Murphy is executive editor of WardsAuto World magazine, with an emphasis on technology and suppliers. He leads selection of the Ward’s 10 Best Engines and Ward’s 10 Best Interiors...
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