By Ian Bradford
There was a time when I thought electric vehicles and wind and solar power were good ideas. That was before I began to find out a great deal about them. I suppose I was like the general public, who do little or no research and follow what others, particularly the Government says, like sheep.
There are problems with all three and I will attempt to outline them. It is important to understand the problems because the government wants to phase out fossil fuels and replace them with renewables such as wind and solar energy. It has already indicated that the import of petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles will be stopped.
Electric vehicles are unfortunately no panacea
Noted climate change skeptic Bjørn Lomborg has said that “it is absurd for middle class citizens in advanced economies to tell themselves that eating less steak or commuting in an electric Toyota Prius will reign in rising temperatures.” Electric cars are branded as environmentally friendly, but generating the electricity they require almost always involves burning fossil fuels in most countries, and even in New Zealand. “Moreover, the production of energy intensive batteries for these cars invariably generates significant CO2 emissions.”
In 2018, electric cars replacing petrol and diesel vehicles, saved 40 million tonnes of CO2 worldwide, with the effect of reducing global temperatures by just 0.000018° C, or a little more than a hundred thousandth of a degree Celsius by the end of the century — that is 2100. To put it another way, in that year 2018, electric cars stopped a temperature rise of 0.0000002° C or two millionth of a degree. Of course, you might argue as more electric cars are made, the temperature rise saving will increase, but then you are putting more CO2 into the air in the manufacturing process, so that one at least partially balances out the other.
I remind readers that the Earth’s temperature has risen just 1° C since the original industrial revolution ended 170 years ago and just about all of that rise was from natural processes — nothing to do with humans.
Batteries are problematic
The biggest problem with electric vehicles is the batteries. The batteries weigh between half a tonne and one tonne. That’s a very heavy battery. It takes about 20 minerals to make a battery. Among these are lithium and cobalt. I mention the cost should you need to replace a battery — at present about $7,000 for a small car.
However, one major concern is the mining of cobalt. About 70% of cobalt for electric vehicles comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is a violent and corrupt country so supply is not guaranteed.
The Sunday Times of London had the headline in 2019: “Congo’s Miners Dying to Feed World’s Hunger for Cars.” At least 36 people had been killed after a copper and cobalt mine collapsed in the Lualaba province in South East Democratic Republic of Congo. This number was later increased.
Among the considerable number of deaths in mines in the Congo are many children. Amnesty International found that children as young as seven were working in the mines in very dangerous conditions. These children face long term health problems with lung disease and the risk of fatal accidents.
Just how many children have been killed is unknown, but there may be a considerable number. UNICEF estimated that there were 40,000 children working in mines across Southern Democratic Republic of the Congo. One 14-year-old orphan started when he was 12 and spent as long as 24 hours down the tunnels in one stretch. Traders buy cobalt from areas where child labour is rife and sell it on to a Chinese mineral giant. In spite of these mining operations the electric car industry cannot get enough cobalt. In 2016 the demand for cobalt was about equal to the supply. As the demand increases the supply will not be able to keep up.
In 2018, NZ’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern introduced legislation for children’s well-being and child poverty reduction; she was the minister for these. She appears to be concerned about the welfare of children. Yet the Climate Change Commission convened by the Government is recommending to the government that petrol and diesel vehicles should be replaced by electric vehicles. The Government states that it will go with the CCC’s recommendations. So the PM seems happy with electric vehicles with batteries containing cobalt from the Congo mines where children work and are killed doing so.
Concerns over Lithium-ion batteries
There’s another problem. Electric vehicles are powered by a rechargeable Lithium-ion battery. Danger occurs when the Lithium–ion battery is damaged, which might happen if the battery is exposed to extreme heat or something penetrates the battery wall. The batteries can store a large amount of energy in a small space. When damaged that energy escapes by a process called thermal runaway, and it can lead to ignition or even explosion. It is not common, but if they occur they can be extremely dangerous.
In an electric vehicle fire over 100 organic chemicals are generated. These include toxic gases like carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide both of which are fatal to humans.
While the fire service can wear protection, the general public will not generally have this protection. The recommendation for an EV fire is to let it burn out. That means closing a road for several hours. That’s because the water poured onto the fire has to run somewhere and it will contain nasty chemicals. However, once the fire has been put out the problem is not over. EV fires are known to reignite hours, days or even weeks after the initial event and they can do so many times. Recovery firms are increasingly concerned about dealing with EV’s. Just because a fire is burned out at that moment, there is no way of knowing if it will ignite in the back of a pick-up truck or in the storage grounds.
There’re more problems. You may want to install a charging system at home. That’s going to cost around a thousand dollars plus installation. We need charging points all over the country. And will the present electricity supply be able to cope when there are two or three million electric vehicles on the road?
Another problem is recycling of battery components. The components can be recycled but every country needs to set up facilities for doing this. That will be very costly, but then there is the never-ending possibility of ignition. A recycling building could be destroyed any time if a battery suddenly burst into flames.
Is buying an electric vehicle worthwhile?
I’ll leave it to the reader to decide. But remember that replacing all our petrol and diesel vehicles with them will make only the tiniest fraction of a degree difference to the temperature of the Earth.
Whatever temperature change there is on Earth is due almost entirely to natural processes, over which we have no control.