Come 2032, if President Joe Biden has his way, most Americans who want new cars may have to buy electric vehicles. While the administration insists that such a mandate will reduce climate change, the fact is, when adding up the emissions required to produce and power the batteries of electric vehicles, EVs can create more carbon emissions than gas-powered cars.
New proposed regulations on automobile emissions from the Environmental Protection Agency would require 60% of new car sales to be battery-powered electric vehicles by 2030 and 67% by 2032, compared to fewer than 6% in 2022.
The stated rationale: These cars produce fewer carbon emissions than cars with internal combustion engines, emissions contribute to global warming, and global warming poses a threat to the planet and mankind.
What the regulations don’t seem to take into account is, electric cars don’t have tailpipe emissions, but their batteries are charged using electricity. And much of electricity production—unless it’s from renewables, hydropower, or nuclear energy—still results in carbon emissions.
Battery-powered electric vehicles might sound attractive when gasoline is over $3 per gallon. And electric Ford F-150 Lightning pickup trucks may be fun to drive, especially if you don’t need to tow anything, but these new purchases might not be reducing greenhouse gas emissions and saving the planet.
A 2022 paper by Kelly Senecal of Convergent Sciences and other scientists compares greenhouse gas emissions from plug-in, battery-powered electric vehicles with emissions from hybrid vehicles, which combine internal combustion engines with small battery packs.
The conclusion: pure plug-in battery-powered vehicles can create more emissions than hybrids and even more than some traditional internal combustion engine vehicles—whose fuel delivery, air delivery, and ignition systems have improved over the past 20 years, increasing overall vehicle gas mileage.
Batteries Use Fossil Fuels for Charging
Research shows that electricity for battery-powered vehicles is coming from coal and natural gas rather than renewables.
To minimize emissions and cost, electricity grids tend to use clean sources such as nuclear, solar, and wind as much as possible. But demand often exceeds what these sources can provide, and when these renewables aren’t sufficient, additional sources of energy come from fossil fuels and hydropower.
The added demand for electricity resulting from the rapid adoption of more electric vehicles under the new regulations could move us even further away from the point where demand can be met by low-emission sources.
If battery-powered vehicles were able to be charged with emissions-free energy, then emissions from transportation could perhaps be reduced. But until emissions-free fuels are plentiful enough and reliable enough to meet demand and have a net environmental benefit, battery-powered vehicles will still rely on fossil fuels and will not reduce emissions.
Producing Batteries Results in Emissions
Seventy percent of the world’s electric batteries are produced in China, and 83% of China’s energy comes from fossil fuels, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The longer the range of the battery, the more carbon is used in the production process. Senecal has calculated that carbon emissions to produce a battery for a Nissan Leaf were equivalent to driving a gasoline-powered BMW 320d for 24,000 miles. For a larger Tesla Model S battery, carbon emissions used in production are equivalent to driving the BMW 320d for 60,000 miles.
In addition, transporting batteries from China to the United States uses additional emissions, but the magnitude is more difficult to calculate.
Mining Minerals for Batteries Causes Environmental Damage
Those concerned about greenhouse gas emissions may also be worried about the negative effects on the environment of mining for battery components. Such mining, which itself creates emissions, disrupts the land in low-income countries, such as cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where abuses of mine workers and significant pollution from mining have been documented by Amnesty International.
Lithium is another crucial component of batteries, and China, Chile, Argentina, and Australia are home to potentially damaging lithium mines, according to the Institute for Energy Research.
The stark conclusion of all this is, until electricity can be generated by emissions-free power, battery-powered vehicles will generally increase, rather than reduce, emissions. The EPA’s new rules to put more EVs on the roads will make travel more inconvenient and costly for drivers without reducing emissions.
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