energy insights

U.S. Holds Key to Lower Electric Vehicle Emissions

While they’re not perfect, studies show electric vehicles account for lower carbon emissions than vehicles with internal combustion engines.

That seems obvious considering plug-in EV’s don’t have tailpipes. So, who needs a study to make a claim like that?

The fact is, EVs need lithium-ion batteries, which require lithium and an assortment of other minerals that must be mined and shipped overseas. Additionally, the manufacturing process is energy intensive, using electricity that is largely generated by coal-fired power plants.

There are lots of questions, confusion and outright myths surrounding electric vehicles, so researchers are taking a closer look at the industry, and what they are finding may be surprising.

One thing is certain, the EV world is not one-size-fits-all when it comes to emissions. The EV battery manufacturing process is the main emissions culprit, and its carbon footprint can vary depending on location.

For example, 25% to 40% of electricity in Japan and South Korea is generated with coal, which is one of the dirtiest fuels out there. But Japan and South Korea are clean compared to China, which uses coal to generate 65% of its electricity. And that’s significant, considering China makes more lithium-ion batteries than any other country.

By comparison, only 22% of U.S. electricity is generated with coal. The remainder is generated with cleaner burning natural gas, 38%, and emissions free nuclear, 19%. Renewables, such as wind, hydropower and solar account for nearly 20% collectively.

In addition to electrical generation to power the manufacturing process, consider the fact that a typical EV battery weighs about 1,000 pounds. China, South Korea and other Asian countries are shipping thousands of these heavy batteries to the United States each year. Have you ever wondered about the carbon footprint of cargo ships crossing the ocean?

The consensus is that transporting goods by sea requires an industry total of 300 million tons of fuel annually, mostly diesel, which produces about 3% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. That’s as much as Germany emits annually.

Prior to production of the batteries, trucks, trains and ships carry thousands of tons of raw battery materials, such as lithium, nickel, copper and other minerals from mines to battery manufacturing facilities. Considering the volume of other goods being transported around the world, the EV battery industry is accountable for only a fraction of transportation emissions, but wouldn’t it be cleaner to manufacture EV batteries closer to where the raw materials are produced?

China is the world’s top market for EVs, yet it’s also the top carbon emitter and relies heavily on foreign exports of lithium and other raw materials, which must be transported very long distances before reaching China’s ports. The U.S., on the other hand, is the second largest EV market, has an emerging battery manufacturing industry, but more importantly has the capability of building a much lower carbon-required domestic supply chain.

And that brings us back to the researchers at the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). Electric cars are much cleaner than internal combustion engine cars over their lifetime, their analysis says. And even though the EV battery manufacturing process accounts for higher emissions than conventional vehicles, the lower operating emissions of electric vehicles make up the difference in about two years.

But there’s room for improvement, researchers say, and they’re not pointing at EV technology. For them, future improvement comes down to the decarbonization of the electrical grid, citing significant potential to lower battery manufacturing emissions. They say a 30% decrease in carbon intensity in electricity generation could reduce battery production chain emissions by 17% and cleaner electricity would further reduce EV operating emissions.

In a nutshell, the report suggests EVs are getting the job done when it comes to lowering emissions, but it’s not optimal to make EV batteries in places that burn large percentages of coal for electricity generation.

So, from an environmental perspective, the best place to manufacture EV batteries appears to be the United States, which leads the world in carbon emission reductions. Meanwhile, the country has bountiful mineral resources within its borders, so carbon-spewing cargo ships would not be needed to carry tons of raw materials to our shores, not to mention the thousands of heavy EV batteries that are coming in now.

The U.S. is a proven steward of the environment with a history of standing alone as a leader in the world. Perhaps it’s time for America to stand up, open its mines, build its manufacturing facilities, and take its leadership role in the EV industry.

As the ICCT says in its 2021 white paper, “As important as it is to reduce the emissions from fuel and electricity production and consumption, such reduction should of course not come at the cost of higher vehicle production emissions.”

Instead of exporting jobs and manufacturing to an adversarial country, such as China, and contributing to the highest carbon emissions in the world, the U.S. needs to take a responsible lead in making a real difference in the race against global climate change by converting to EVs and dramatically lowering vehicle emissions across the board.