One of the most repeated complaints from opponents of renewable technologies (solar, wind and electric vehicles) is the amount of waste generated at the end of their life. They are usually accompanied by many false or exaggerated claims about their toxicity, volume, lack of value or lack of recycling. Most opponents of renewables insist that this cost of recycling be paid upfront, usually in an effort to discourage their growth, taking into account its full cost. I agree, we should account for the full cost of all energy sources.
Electric car batteries, for example, come in many different sizes, but a good average is 1,025 pounds, or about ¢ of a ton. They also come in many different chemistries, and the field is rapidly changing with new technologies or adjustments to existing technologies. A BEV battery system is a complex assembly of batteries, electronics and enclosures integrated into a durable structure. The batteries themselves are constructed from graphite, lithium salts, and various metals such as aluminum, copper, cobalt, and nickel. They are not easy to recycle and contain toxic elements, but have you ever looked at what’s in a gallon of gasoline or tried to recycle it? Have you ever thought about what comes out of your tailpipe and why we don’t insist on recycling it rather than just throwing it into the air?
Before you can have a recycling industry for li-on batteries, you need to have raw materials to work with. It is estimated that a Li-on EV battery will last around 200,000 miles, or 17 years. Most of the electric vehicles produced are still running, so there is little raw material available to build a recycling industry. Even after an EV has reached the end of its useful life in a car, it still has 70-80% capacity left. There is a very active market for used EV batteries for stationary renewable energy storage, grid peak shaving, backup power and classic car conversions. Due to demand from DIY startups, used EV batteries sell for 60% more than new ones.
Let’s take a look at what powers the old-school internal combustion engine: gasoline. The average car on the road today gets about 25 miles per gallon and travels 14,000 miles per year, using 560 gallons of gasoline (your mileage may vary). At 6.3 pounds per gallon, that’s 1764 pounds of fuel per year and 30 tons over the expected 17-year life of an EV battery. In just one year, the fuel needed for an ICE vehicle already weighs more than 70% more than an EV battery. (Electrons flowing through an EV battery have weight, but that doesn’t add up to much, even over years and years.) But how toxic is gasoline compared to batteries?
The exhaust coming out of your tailpipe contains some pretty nasty stuff. Over 17 years, a typical gas-powered car will emit 2,639 pounds of carbon monoxide (toxic to humans and animals), 1,418 pounds of sulfur and nitrogen oxides (respiratory irritants and causes acid rain, smog and thinning of the ozone layer), 1,583 pounds of hydrocarbons (a carcinogenic and climate-warming gas), 132 pounds of fine particles and soot (a carcinogen and contributor to lung disease) and 162,840 pounds of carbon dioxide (a gas that warms the climate). In fact, car exhaust in the United States kills 53,000 people, 50% more than car accidents, according to a 2017 study by MIT.
A careful person will tell you that I liken the dangers of gasoline-powered car exhaust to that of an EV battery. I do not include the pollution released by the production of electricity to power the car. True, but isn’t that the point? Aren’t they really saying that generating electricity (mostly from fossil fuels) creates pollution and that should be considered when evaluating electric cars, but should be ignored when evaluating damage caused by petrol cars? Opponents of renewable energy also ignore pollution from coal mining and combustion, oil extraction and refining, hydraulic fracturing, natural gas transport and combustion, and reservoirs. highly radioactive spent fuel from nuclear power plants. They are sounding the alarm over false claims of toxins leaking from solar panels, but ignoring the toxins spewing from their tailpipes. They lament the birds lost to “killer” wind turbines, but ignore the fact that the open waste pits of oil and gas extraction kill many, many more.
What is really needed is to convert our transportation as quickly as possible from fossil fuel cars to electricity, while converting the electricity grid as quickly as possible away from fossil fuel generation. Recycling half a ton of batteries after 17 years (or more) of pollution-free use will be nothing compared to the damage caused by 30 tons of burnt gasoline with the toxic by-product dumped into our air during the same period.
Thomas Meara is a resident of Jamestown.