The market for electric vehicles (EVs) is growing worldwide. Auto manufacturers are adapting to the growing demand for sustainable vehicles. Among others, Audi pledged to go all-electric by 2033, and GM will end production of its gas-powered light-duty vehicles by 2035.


It is easy to understand why there is growing interest in EVs when we consider the transportation sector accounts for nearly 30% of all emissions in the U.S. Light-duty vehicles (personal vehicles) account for 58% of all emissions within the transportation sector. By comparison, aircraft make up 10% of transportation emissions. If one is focused on reducing emissions, a personal EV can significantly reduce one's carbon footprint. Corporate EV fleets help companies reduce their footprints, as do trucking fleets.


According to GreenCar, EV sales were up 26% in 2021 over previous years sold. As the sale of electric vehicles increases, so too do debates over the efficacy of the charging network and the environmental profile of batteries. At Emerald, we aren't afraid of debate — in fact, we welcome it. So let's dive in!


How Sustainable are Electric Vehicles?

MIT research data shows that the total emissions per mile of an EV is less than a combustion-engine vehicle. This doesn’t represent the whole story, however.


Although EVs eliminate emissions, we have to account for the environmental toll of producing electricity to power the vehicles. Most electricity is still generated from fossil fuels. EVs are only emission-free if the electricity they use comes from clean, renewable sources. 


The electricity running in any region’s grid is usually generated from various sources. Some regions have a high proportion of renewable energy. Others do not.


Let’s compare the emissions generated by charging an EV to that of a regular car. The average new gasoline-powered car sold in the U.S. has a fuel economy of 31 mpg. The average EV would be equivalent to a gasoline-powered car that gets 88 mpg.


Move this car to a region with a cleaner power grid like upstate New York, and that EV would be equivalent to a car that runs at 231 mpg. Move the car into St. Louis or the surrounding area, and the car now runs at an equivalent of 40 mpg. Not all electricity is created equal.


With the production of electricity becoming increasingly greener, the "fuel efficiency" of EVs also increases. Meaning as time moves forward, EVs have the edge.


How Sustainable are EV Batteries?


EV Battery Production

On the other side of this coin, a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative concluded that the production of an EV generates more emissions than the production of a gasoline-powered automobile. The majority of these emissions come from the production of lithium-ion battery cells. 


The production of EV batteries is a very energy-intensive, high-temperature process. Depending on where the EV is manufactured, it can lead to 30-40% more production emissions than a gasoline-powered car.


The majority of EV batteries come from China. The newer factories use a higher proportion of renewable energy, but some of the older factories are still powered by fossil fuels, meaning higher emissions to create that electric vehicle.


The production of EV batteries is not their most problematic aspect, however. The raw materials needed to produce an EV battery can be especially worrying.


Poor Mining Practices

Mining practices in resource-rich countries are often unethical and environmentally unsustainable. Further, the massive supply chain of raw materials adds to emissions. EV batteries require high-quality lithium and cobalt.


Demand for lithium has been increasing amidst a dwindling supply. On our current path, a global lithium shortage is expected by 2023. Lithium mining is also associated with the desertification of South America’s “lithium triangle”.


Cobalt is abundant in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). More than half of the world’s cobalt comes from this country. The DRC is infamous for conflict minerals mined using forced labor, violence, and corruption that all lead to the financing of armed groups, prolonging wars in the region.


Cleaning up our mining practices and where we source materials is paramount to ensuring the sustainable production of EVs.


Lack of Recycling Infrastructure

As the prevalence of EVs grows, so will the number of batteries reaching the end of their lives. As most EVs are still relatively new, we haven’t had to deal with an abundance of retiring batteries. This honeymoon phase will soon reach an end, however.


Estimates are that between now and 2030, 12 million tons of lithium-ion batteries will retire. There is no legislation requiring lithium-ion batteries to be recycled in the U.S. The European Union and China require battery manufacturers to set up collection and recycling systems. 


In most cases, it is less expensive to source newly mined materials than to recycle and reuse materials. Part of this is due to the difficulty in recycling EV batteries.


Most EV batteries are made without recycling in mind, making it incredibly difficult to disassemble them. Recyclers have to shred the batteries and sort the metals rather than dismantle the batteries and repurpose the old parts.


As more and more batteries reach the graveyard, it will be important to ensure that their recyclability is accounted for in production.


Cold Weather + Charging Network Challenges

When a snowstorm hit the DC-Virginia area in January 2022 and cars were stranded for more than a day, the EV community took a PR hit: batteries died (and gas tanks went dry too.) In this scenario, while only 5% of the calls to service providers were from EV drivers, the roll-out of mobile charging units did not meet demand. Gas cars could be filled with a gallon or so to help them reach the nearest station, but the EVs needed to be towed to charging stations.


Recently while driving my EV home, it was a cold day in remote Ohio and my anxiety rose as the distance to the nearest charger mirrored the distance to empty on my EV's battery. On a non-cold day, I could have made it home without charging. In this case, my experience was flavored by cold temperatures that reduced my battery life and extended distance between charging stations. Needless to say, I slowed down, used my seat heaters, and reduced fan speed to preserve battery life. I made it safely to the charging station with 12 miles of battery life to spare. Whether it's hot or cold, and batteries hold enough charge or not, the charging network is not yet sufficient across the U.S.


The recently passed infrastructure bill calls for setting aside $5 billion to build charging stations. This investment will help communities and businesses meet the changing transportation needs of all of their stakeholders, including citizens, employees, and customers.


Getting Ready for EVs

At the end of the day, EVs are here to stay. Are you and your business or organization ready? Emerald Built Environments is your team for sustainability. We will help you prioritize, develop, and implement an effective sustainability strategy, and help you identify resources for building your EV infrastructure. Ready to Take the Next Step?