The Pollution of Electric Vehicles
Electric vehicles have recently come into popularity, but what many don’t know is that they have existed for over one hundred years. Electric vehicles made up twenty eight percent of all vehicles in 1900 according to the American census from 1905. Since their creation, electric vehicles have come in and out of the public’s view in the form of concept cars which never came to flourishion. These vehicles captured the public’s attention making unbelievable promises of saving the environment through zero direct emissions. The lack of battery and computer technology never allowed these concept vehicles to see public roads until as of recently. Major motor companies including Ford, Chevy, Toyota, and Honda have seen the spike in popularity and jumped on this electric bandwagon. The reason for the recent boost in popularity is because of the rising public awareness of tailpipe emissions affecting our planet, which has resulted in climate change. Electric cars do not have tailpipes to emit any kind of direct emissions into the environment, so concerned people have turned to these electric vehicles in the belief that this will make a dramatically positive change to our total emissions. Electric cars are thought of as the technology of the future with their streamlined simplistic interiors and marketing that makes them seem superior to their fossil fuel guzzling counterparts. Recently, many states in the U.S. have made promises to stop selling gasoline cars by 2035 in order to save the environment. What many consumers don’t know is that electric cars run on dirty energy thanks to irresponsibly sourced electricity, and if these electric cars are pushed by 2035 it will most certainly result in more pollution. Today’s electric cars, while much more technologically savvy and efficient, emit pollutants and still run on dirty energy from coal and gas plants just as they did over one hundred years ago.
This misconception has led many people wanting electric cars to replace gasoline cars in the United States. Many states across the U.S. have started making plans to phase out gasoline and diesel powered cars within the next fifteen to twenty years and start selling only electric cars in their place. Coultura is an organization whose goal is a gasoline free America. Coultura has documented all of the states’, cities’, and countries’ goals to replace fossil fuel vehicles. States, such as New Jersey, have been documented making legislation to make car sales all electric by 2035 in order to phase out gasoline vehicles. Other states that have made goals to stop selling gasoline powered cars from 2030 to 2040 include New York, California, Washington, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. All of these states share similar goals on when they will make this change despite having completely different challenges. Some countries as a whole have said that they are making plans to slowly convert to electric cars, like Ireland, who is taking steps to put the banning of sales of new gasoline cars into legislation. Norway is making the soonest plans of putting this ban in place by 2025. This goal is very reachable for Norway as most of its residents prefer electric cars with sixty percent of all cars on the road already being electric. Iceland plans to eliminate the sale of gasoline cars by 2030, but also says it plans on eliminating half of its gas stations by then. These goals seem easily reachable and appear to be the smartest decision for our environment. What these governments do not understand is that these goals are immense and unreachable. This decision will result in increased pollution from energy production and will also result in increased pollution from the production of these cars.
Many approve of these dates and believe that moving to electric vehicles will still be best for the environment saying that moving to electric vehicles have little to no downsides. The Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, otherwise known as the EERA, talks about the downsides of gasoline vehicles saying “Direct emissions are emitted through the tailpipe, through evaporation from the fuel system, and during the fueling process… All- electric vehicles produce zero direct emissions, which specifically helps improve air quality in urban areas.” Gasoline and diesel cars do emit direct emissions through their tailpipes, but electric cars also have very similar emissions. Electric cars may not have tailpipes connected to them, but they have smokestacks attached to their electric producing factories. These factories produce as much emissions as their fossil fuel counterparts. In order for energy to be considered clean energy, the U.S. would have to stop making electricity through the use of coal, diesel, or any form of natural gas. According to statistics by the US Energy Information Administration, this may be a challenge for the US as nineteen percent of electric production comes from coal and forty percent comes from natural gas. This means a total of fifty nine percent of electricity production runs on dirty energy, and if cars were to be run on clean energy in the future that would mean fifty nine percent of all electricity produced would need to be replaced. This does not include the increased demand for energy with more people owning electric cars. Countries like China and India would have a much harder time completing this goal as India’s usage is forty five percent coal, and twenty percent petroleum. China’s energy production is fifty nine percent coal, twenty percent petroleum, and eight percent natural gas. This would mean for India, sixty five percent of its production would need to be changed, while China would need to change eighty percent of all of its electricity production. These numbers help put China and India in the top fifteen countries with the most polluted air in the world. These countries will have an extremely hard time trying to convert to clean responsibly sourced energy within the next twenty years if they were to convert to electric vehicles too. These forms of energy production allow toxic forms of pollutants to enter the air.
According to the EERA, electric cars “reduce the emissions that contribute to climate change and smog, improving public health and reducing ecological damage.” This pollution results in climate change and negative health effects of the people who breathe in this air. The Union of Concerned Scientists brings together research on challenges that negatively affect the globe through pollution such as the effect of gasoline and diesel vehicles. What comes out of the tailpipe includes particulate matter, which can be described as soot that can enter deep into the human lungs. Volatile organic compounds that are released result in smog and can cause a plethora of respiratory illnesses. Some gases released include nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and greenhouse gasses, which is a large contributor to climate change. All of these chemicals that come out of tailpipes can cause cancers, birth defects, lung disease, and even heart problems. Electric vehicles still produce these same exact chemicals and more, but just not directly out of their non-existent tailpipes. Electric vehicles get most of their energy from power plants which are powered by different kinds of fuel. These plants run on coal, natural gases, and other types of fuel which can be just as harmful for the environment, if not more. The American Lung Association talks about different types of chemicals emitted from these electricity generating plants which have a major effect on our health. These plants release chemicals such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other hazardous chemicals which we then breath in. Nitrogen dioxide, as an example, can have major effects by causing ozone pollution. Energy plants also release particle pollution which can possibly blow hundreds of miles away and land in your own town. The American Lung Association says that these coal, oil, and natural gas plants are the largest contributors of carbon pollution and the biggest driver of climate change.
The EERA makes a separate point that every process of producing this gas from extracting it to putting it into your vehicle causes pollution, saying “Life cycle emissions include all emissions related to fuel and vehicle production, processing, distribution, use, and recycling/disposal. For example, for a conventional gasoline vehicle, emissions are produced when petroleum is extracted from the ground, refined to gasoline, distributed to stations, and burned in vehicles. Like direct emissions, life cycle emissions include a variety of harmful pollutants and GHGs.” Electric vehicles also produce emission in the creation of their fuel similarly to gasoline vehicles. The production of each type of energy for these power plants go through very similar mining and extracting processes, and with the diversity of different kinds of energy production there are different types of pollution and illnesses resulting from this. The American Lung Association says that this mining pollutes the environment and especially the health of the workers. Coal miners suffer from lung related illness, especially pneumoconiosis, which scars the lungs and impairs the ability to breath. Workers who are surrounded by uranium in the mining process have a much higher chance of developing cancers, like lung cancer, thanks to the radiation that constantly surrounds them. Workers who extract natural gases and oil also have a much higher risk of cancer thanks to their toxic surroundings. The mining process of extracting oil or natural gas through fracking leads to even more toxic emission entering the air we breathe. The American Lung Association says that the transportation process leads to even more pollution as the movement of coal, oil, and natural gas is usually transported through trains which run on coal. This endless cycle keeps spewing chemicals into the environment while trying to produce clean energy. Every process from the mining, to the transportation, to the creation, emits toxins into the air and negatively affects the health of the people involved.
The EERA says that these electric cars limit pollution in urban areas which is true, but this pollution instead takes place outside these urban areas. Electric power plants, like coal, are built outside of less populated urban areas. In New Jersey, two coal power plants exist close to each other in South Jersey. These coal power plants are located directly on the Delaware river with another coal power plant across the river in Chesterfield Pennsylvania. Instead of spewing chemicals into these urban areas they pollute the nearby rivers where soot can land and then float into the ocean. So what is the difference between the emissions of gasoline and electric production? According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, gasoline and diesel powered transportation make up twenty eight percent of all emissions in the United States. Fifty nine percent of this is just regular commuter cars. Electricity production makes up twenty seven percent of all pollution in the United States, making the difference only one percent between transportation and electric production. With the demand for electricity increasing as electric cars take over the road, this number will soon be surpassed.
The demand for electricity will most certainly increase as electric cars start taking over the roads. Alex Brown from the Pew Research Center says that California expects to see electric vehicles consuming 5.4 percent of electricity by 2030. All states are different though, as Wyoming would need to up its energy production by about seventeen percent, while states like Maine have to produce fifty five percent more energy. With drastically different numbers in each state, why are so many states making a promise of selling only electric vehicles by 2030 or 2035. If states do not have the ability to make any goals yet because of an inability to produce this amount of electricity, they will still be overwhelmed. States like Maine will have a higher demand for energy because of their neighboring states’ increased numbers in electric cars. The system could also be overwhelmed, according to Brown, when he addresses charging times. Most Americans have a very similar nine to five schedule in which once they come home they turn their lights on, turn the TV on, make food, and if they own an electric car they will plug it in for the next day of use. This consumption of power at the same time each day increases strain on the system and can possibly lead to an overload if precautions are not taken. The increase needed to produce more electricity alone is massive, but with sixty percent of power already being dirty energy, there is no possible way to make electric cars run on clean energy by 2030 or 2035. Most people who are concerned over pollution created from energy plants do not understand the environmental risks the vehicle themselves have.
Electric cars themselves don’t emit fumes overtime, but are filled with chemicals that hurt our environment. Electric car batteries are made up of different kinds of heavy toxic metals but are primarily made up of lithium, unlike batteries from 1900, which were primarily nickel cadmium. According to the Institute for Energy Research, lithium mining can also lead to contamination. Lithium mines also produce emissions from the mining process and transportation, but can also result in soil contamination. This contamination in places like Argentina, contaminates streams that are used for farms which goes to livestock and the water irrigation systems for crops. This contaminated water kills fish that live in the river and cows that survive on it. In part of Chile, sixty percent of the water was consumed which results in farmers and their communities having to find their own water in other nearby locations. The reason lithium production uses so much water is because of the daunting process it takes to mine it. Holes are drilled in the ground inside of salt beds, and brine is pumped up to the surface where it sits in a bed of water until the water is evaporated. The Institute of Energy Research says that 500,000 gallons of water are needed per metric ton of lithium extracted. This process produces only enough lithium to create less than one hundred electric cars. The positive side of lithium is that products such as electric car batteries can be recycled, this is if someone cares enough to recycle them. Electric cars should last about twenty years for the average American before the batteries are dead, and with batteries unable to be replaced because they are a structural part of the car, this will result in the entire car having to be thrown away. If these cars were abandoned or dumped in a waterway, they could pose a serious environmental threat.
Electric vehicle batteries also pose a threat if they were to malfunction which could cause toxic emissions to be released. Firefighters have a completely different challenge putting out electric vehicle fires, says the U.S. Fire Administration. Electric car batteries even have the ability to combust when they are not being driven. Electric vehicles are always on because the batteries need to constantly be cooled or they will go through a process called thermal runaway. Thermal runaway results when batteries constantly get hotter until they explode, unless they are cooled. These fires are considered a different category for firefighters and are called class C fires. These electric vehicle fires can reach temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit and require a completely different kind of foam. These fires take hours to put out, unlike gas or diesel vehicles, can deliver a shock, emit toxic fumes, cause lithium burns, have toxic runoff, and can also reignite after 24 hours. This poses a serious threat to firefighters especially as electric cars take over the road.
Electric vehicles are projected to be the only car on the road leaving fossil fuel cars being obsolete. The challenge is producing more energy from factories while simultaneously changing energy to clean energy, safely producing the amount of lithium needed for car production, and giving supplies to firefighters as electric cars take over the road. One solution to two of these problems is solar power. Solar power is looked at as the pique form of clean energy production. The EERA says “Charging your EV on renewable energy such as solar or wind minimizes these emissions even more.” According to the Union Of Concerned Scientists, the downsides of solar is that solar panels use a large amount of land, need large amounts of water in order to cool them, and also solar panels are made with many toxic chemicals that can pose environmental issues if not taken care of properly. The largest downside is that many people can not afford solar, and even if someone can afford it, they are not always in the correct location for solar panels to do their job. Solar is one of the best possible options to save the environment as long as it is used smarter, just as everything is.
Electric vehicles are the future and will eventually take over our roads, making the world a much healthier place. The issue is over pushing the need for electric vehicles on the road because one form of pollution from fossil fuel vehicles will result in hundreds of different kinds of pollution with electric vehicles. Eventually these issues will be fixed, and the system will become self sufficient as long as the correct steps are taken and not rushed. Norway currently already has sixty percent electric vehicles and their production from electricity is powered by ninety eight percent clean energy so their goal to go electric by 2025 is completely reachable. The United States and many other countries still have much to accomplish. In the future, electric vehicles will take over, and the recycling system of lithium will become semi self sufficient as long as a recycling process is put in place. Incentives by auto companies could reassure that people will not abandon these cars. Auto makers would be able to recycle the lithium and scrap metal, leaving the least amount of waste possible. This will limit the amount of lithium that would need to be mined. One of the first steps the U.S. should make is pushing large companies to convert to electric vehicles because medium and heavy duty trucks are twenty three percent of vehicle emissions according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Large companies that own warehouses, such as Amazon and UPS, can place solar panels on their roofs. This helps these companies run on almost completely clean energy just by using space they are already not using and saving the amount of land used for solar. States will face large challenges trying to replace dirty energy plants, but it is still possible to reach clean energy. With the right steps we can limit the amount of emissions produced while converting to electric vehicles, and we could possibly see all electric vehicles by 2050. Forcing electric cars on the road as soon as possible to fix emissions, will just result in more emissions. Every piece of the puzzle needs to be understood or we would find all of our work to be counterintuitive.
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