the battery problem
To estimate the true ecological footprint of the electric car, it is necessary to take into account its entire life cycle. The manufacture of this type of vehicle pollutes more than diesel, because of the battery. In fact, the batteries contain cobalt, lithium, nickel or graphene that are extracted from the subsoils of Africa and South America, under deplorable environmental and social conditions. Extraction requires the deployment of heavy machinery. “So you have to grind these minerals. It takes chemistry to separate the components. And so, we will have a lot of pollution, we will have mining effluents. We don’t see these impacts, but they are huge at an environmental level”, explains Jonas Moerman, energy specialist at Ecoconso, to RTBF.
The battery is then assembled in China in highly polluting factories. And since the battery is heavy, the vehicle must be light. Aluminum is therefore used for the bodywork, the production of which consumes four times more electricity than steel.
Leaving the factory, an electric car therefore has a “carbon debt”. This excess pollution compared to a “conventional” car gradually disappears while driving because the electric vehicle produces no emissions. To make up for its debt, it has been calculated that a small electric car must travel at least 20,000 kilometers. Which is still quickly achieved. On the other hand, a larger vehicle such as an SUV will have to travel 100,000 kilometers to erase its carbon debt. Because the more massive a vehicle is, the more important its battery is and the more materials it takes. For example, the battery of the Renault Zoe weighs 305 kg, that of the Audi e-Tron is 700 kg. Small vehicle battery is generally guaranteed for 8 years.
Ideally, you would use 50 kWh batteries, “which is still reasonable for a small car, but a little tight for a bigger one,” explains Jonas Moerman.
One solution to the pollution caused by battery production would be to produce them closer to home, where factories and electricity are cleaner. Much of the electricity produced in Asian countries comes from coal, while in countries like Belgium, it comes from nuclear power.
What about battery recycling and the pollution it creates? There are several solutions to limit it as much as possible, such as xStorage. This involves using end-of-life car batteries for home energy storage.
In conclusion, is the electric car really green? The answer is no. But a small electric vehicle will pollute less over time than a conventional car.
IS EUROPE READY FOR 2035?
By 2035, 100% of new vehicles must have “zero emissions” on European roads. However, petrol and diesel vehicles will continue to be allowed to circulate in the EU after this date because the law does not concern the sale of used vehicles. While gasoline vehicles are already in decline, it is primarily mild hybrids (petrol and diesel) that benefit, with a quarter of vehicles of this type sold in Europe in the first quarter of 2022.
The price of electric cars can drop quickly as they are mass produced. But are we ready for 2035? It’s hard to predict. In Belgium, the government wanted to end nuclear power by 2025. But Plan B is to extend two of the four nuclear reactors by ten years if necessary. Will there be enough energy to charge all electric vehicles? Yes, predict experts. But we still don’t know the cost of that energy. In addition, the number of terminals currently available is not very high. According to the latest ChargeUp report, Belgium has only 129 power stations per 100,000 inhabitants.
However, the European Council of Environment Ministers is willing to change its mind if vehicle costs remain too high. The Commission will assess in 2026 the economic and social feasibility of the transition.
SOLAR, THE FUTURE?
In many countries, engineers are working on a new electric car concept based on solar energy. The aim is to allow the battery to recharge continuously while driving thanks to sunlight, but also to allow charging via a terminal if necessary. The challenge is to be able to offer an attractive and safe design, integrating solar panels, but also that the design is not too energy intensive. Currently, the price of these cars is very high, but it could become more affordable in the near future. The Dutch manufacturer Lightyear already offers an electric car model covered with solar panels from 30,000 euros. Its entry into production is scheduled for 2024-2025. Sono Motors Germany’s Sion, which can be ordered now, is around the same price. Its 456 half-cells integrated into the body make it possible to add 112 km of autonomy on average (up to 245 km) per week to the battery. On a fast charging dock, it fills the battery up to 80% in 35 minutes. A great promise for the future!