EVs, or electric vehicles, are certainly a step in the right environmental direction. After all, manufacturers plan to replace the current fossil fuel-guzzling vehicles with their electric cousins to fight climate change and reduce emissions. However, they aren’t as emission-free as people think. Indirectly, the overall impact of EVs may not be so rosy.
Samik Mukherjee explains that many experts are strongly considering the downsides of the EV shift, from the use of rare-earth metals to the increased electricity requirements to the near-impossible recyclability of certain components.
The Mining of Rare Earth Metals
Manufacturers use neodymium, a rare-earth metal, to make ultra-strong magnets found in electric motors. And, as many can imagine, mining it isn’t emission-free.
In fact, it produces thorium contamination. Thorium is a radioactive element found inside metal that can have negative impacts on the environment.
But it isn’t just the mining emissions that can be problematic.
From 1965 to 1995, Mountain Pass near the Mojave Desert in California was the globe’s primary supplier of rare-earth elements. However, the extraction of such metals wreaked havoc on the Californian wilderness, with a federal investigation finding roughly 2,300 liters of radioactive wastewater in the desert soil.
While that investigation didn’t stop mining in the region, it certainly prevented other rare-earth mines from being discovered in the United States of America.
So, where do manufacturers obtain neodymium and other rare earth metal required for electric vehicles? From China and other geopolitically sensitive countries.
US manufacturers fear China will begin reducing rare earth metal exports, meaning supply chain security is somewhat diminished. And while the nation struggles to obtain a bolstered supply, there are concerns about the dirty extraction processes that would once again bring devastation to the country’s natural habitats.
The Rising Electricity Load
As their name suggests, EVs use electricity as their primary fuel source, potentially overloading utility companies as their popularity increases.
While McKinsey analysts suggest the e-mobility growth won’t drive substantial increases in overall electrical-grid power demand in the midterm, it will certainly shape the load curve.
Forecasts suggest evening peak loads will be the most substantial change, as people return home from work and plug in their electric vehicles. Although, it’s safe to say that the effect will represent just a small percentage.
That said, there are issues surrounding the source of EV power. If it’s coal-based power plants leading the charge, are they really any better than their petrol- or diesel-hungry cousins?
The Recyclability Proves Challenging
Finally, recyclability is difficult for electric vehicles due to their batteries. If sent to a landfill, the green benefits of such cars become null and void. The batteries’ cells emit problematic toxins, damaging environments around the world.
Unfortunately, industry leaders state that recycling the batteries might be even more dangerous. One wrong move and they can short-circuit, release harmful fumes, or combust.
Currently, EV batteries aren’t made to be recycled. But that will have to change if the future of an all-electric mobile future is to be a genuinely healthy reality.