With the introduction of the Clean Car Discount in 2022, the skyrocketing prices of petrol and diesel across the country and the increasing number of electric vehicles available in New Zealand, we are seeing more EVs on our roads than ever before.
With such rapid growth in the popularity of EVs, Kiwis want to understand the impacts of a large-scale transition to electric vehicles, within the context of New Zealand.
To answer these questions, we investigated some of the most common questions and concerns about the environmental impact that increased EV uptake will have on NZ, and in particular, how they really compare to ICEVs (internal combustion engine vehicles).
Here’s what we discovered.
WHAT EV MYTHS HAVE WE COVERED?
Internal Combustion Engine Vehicle (ICEV) and Electric Vehicle (EV)
Throughout this article, we’ll refer to ICEVs and EVs; here’s a quick breakdown explaining the difference between the two.
Petrol and diesel vehicles both use internal combustion engines (ICEs). A battery electric vehicle (BEV) uses an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine. These vehicles use large traction battery packs to power the motor. Because EVs run on electricity, the vehicle emits no exhaust from a tailpipe and does not contain the typical liquid fuel components in ICEVs. A plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) contains both an electric powertrain and an internal combustion engine.
EV MYTH ONE:
Manufacturing EVs is just as bad for the environment as ICEVs
Electric vehicles typically have a smaller operating carbon footprint than gasoline cars, even when accounting for the electricity used for charging. It makes sense that during their usable life, electric vehicles are better for the environment than their ICEV counterparts, as they aren’t powered by fossil fuels. In fact, an EV in the New Zealand fleet emits 83% fewer greenhouse gases than a comparable ICEV during its time on the road.
So, are electric vehicles are still as eco-friendly when the manufacturing process of the car and battery are taken into consideration?
Vehicle manufacturing is an energy-intensive process
Regardless of whether your car is an EV or ICEV, the process to manufacture any vehicle is energy-intensive and requires the extraction and refinement of raw materials to build parts.
For this reason, to understand the environmental impact of your vehicle you must take into account not only the impact of using your car, but also the manufacturing process.
When measuring the efficiency of a vehicle, it has become common to measure the processes involved in the entire ‘life cycle’ of a vehicle – referred to as ‘cradle to grave’. This is the sum of the emissions from raw materials, production, shipping, operation and end-of-life disposal – not just how clean it is to operate.
With the full cradle-to-grave life cycle in mind, the question becomes:
does an EV have a smaller carbon footprint over its lifetime than an ICEV?
Manufacturing an Electric Vehicle
ICEVs have been around for a while, and although they’ve had the time to perfect their manufacturing process and we’ve seen increased pressure on the importance of fuel economy and emissions, the thermal efficiency of the average light vehicle engine remains between 20-35%, and we’re not seeing much improvement beyond this.
In comparison, EV engines run on lithium batteries.
Battery production is known to be the most energy-intensive part of the manufacturing process of an EV. For this reason, the location where the EV’s battery is manufactured is significant. If it’s manufactured on a ‘dirty’ power grid it becomes a major source of emissions over the EV lifecycle.
Fortunately, to improve this issue, battery makers are working towards more responsible supply chains, and have the potential for cheaper, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly energy storage in the near future.
While the manufacturing of ICEVs has seemingly stalled in reducing carbon emissions, EVs have a cleaner and ever-improving future ahead.
Vehicle body and other car parts
Overall, the emissions from the manufacturing of EV parts are about the same or less than ICEVs. Producing parts such as the drive-train or glider for EVs have shown to have similar emissions or in some cases 10% less than ICEVs due to the lighter weight of the vehicles.
THE BOTTOM LINE
When comparing the total lifecycle emissions of electric vehicles and internal combustion engine vehicles – including the manufacturing process – EVs were found to have at least 40% fewer emissions than comparable ICEVs, making EVs overall the significantly better vehicle choice for the environment.
EV MYTH TWO:
Producing electricity for EVs is just as bad for the environment as using ICEVs
While 80% of EV drivers globally charge their EV at home which can be done from inside your garage or carport with appropriate safety in place, there is still a need for public charging infrastructure.
The New Zealand Government, alongside several innovative private companies, has made substantial commitments to establishing a robust charging network across the country, to make electric vehicle charging locations accessible to all.
There are thousands of public electric vehicle charging stations across New Zealand. You can find them in public areas like supermarket car parks, shopping malls, campgrounds, tourist spots and beaches. Most major petrol companies have also installed EV chargers at many of their sites. Learn more about New Zealand’s public charging network here.
Another common concern for Kiwi drivers is that even if a charging station is within range, the time it takes to charge the vehicle will be too long and inconvenient. Not only are the charging stations placed conveniently, but by using a ChargeNet DC rapid charger, you can typically add about a 100 km range in 15 – 30 minutes, depending on how many kW you want, and the connection that your EV uses. If you’re in a rush or only need a few extra kilometres, you can disconnect at any time.
The New Zealand Power Grid
New Zealand is committed to generating electricity from renewable sources, making producing electricity for our growing number of electric vehicles increasingly more efficient than most other countries.
New Zealand has the third highest rate of renewable energy as a portion of primary supply in the OECD (after Norway and Iceland). 40% of our energy comes from renewable sources, such as hydro, geothermal and wind.
The New Zealand Government has a target of 100% renewable electricity generation by 2030, meaning there are activity strategies and investments in place to continually reduce the carbon emissions of our electricity grid.
Alternative EV Charging Methods in New Zealand
Ecotricity, which supplies electricity to the two main charging infrastructures in New Zealand, provide 100% renewable and carbon zero certified electricity – generated solely from wind, hydro and solar sources. This means when EV owners charge their cars at public charging stations, EVs have even less of a carbon footprint.
New Zealand’s solar adoption currently sits at around 1.3% of the country’s total electricity connections, but it’s growing fast. In 2021, Sustainable Energy Association New Zealand (SEANZ) reported that total installs grew by around 36% on the previous year. Using solar panels to charge your EV at home is an even more eco-friendly option.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Because New Zealand has such a clean power grid, charging electric vehicles here in NZ is an eco-friendly option. In fact, our high levels of renewable energy mean the benefits from reducing EV emissions are greater than in most other countries and in some cases would produce 80% fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
Plus, as New Zealand is committed to zero-carbon emissions by 2030, the efficiency of generating energy for EVs is only likely to improve over time.
EV MYTH THREE:
The world will run out of lithium
Most modern electric vehicles use a rechargeable lithium-ion (Li-on) battery to power the electric motor, which then turns the wheels (acceleration) instantaneously and faster than a combustion engine. Because of how effective lithium-ion batteries have proven to be, they’re used widely by leading EV manufacturers such as Tesla.
In 2021, Global EV purchases jumped to 6.6 million from 3 million a year, and because of the sudden growth in the market, concerns have been raised by consumers about the availability of the main component required to build these batteries – lithium.
So, how much lithium is available globally, and will this become an issue?
Where does lithium come from?
There are two main sources of lithium in the world; hard rock mines and brine water. In fact, 87% of the world’s lithium comes from the sea and involves a lengthy evaporation process to obtain.
Lithium is abundant on five continents. With 8 million tons, Chile has the world’s largest known lithium reserves, followed by Australia (2.7 million tons), Argentina (2 million tons) and China (1 million tons). There are also smaller quantities of the valuable raw material within Europe
The total global reserves are estimated at 14 million tons – which corresponds to 165 times the production volume in 2018. The good news is, most analysts suggest it will never see the shortages, cartels or sales restrictions that oil does.
What about other battery components?
While the supply of lithium isn’t currently a concern, the supply of cobalt and other battery materials used in much smaller quantities is more limited.
Because of this, research into newer battery chemistries and redesigned electronic components (such as denser nickel) that cut usage of scarce and expensive materials is also constant.
For example, some of the largest makers of lithium batteries for cars have set targets to eliminate cobalt (a much more scarce and problematic battery metal) from their chemistries. Some companies have also seen success in using cobalt-free batteries, with Tesla reporting that nearly half of all of its vehicles produced in the first quarter of 2022, use nickel and cobalt-free iron-phosphate (LFP) batteries.
THE BOTTOM LINE
While the question of the supply of lithium to power EVs is a valid one to raise, the abundant supply of lithium and the projections of demand show that even with the increased level of mining, it’s unlikely that the world’s lithium reserves will be jeopardised.
The success of companies like Telsa and Panasonic in removing more scarce components from lithium batteries such as cobalt also bodes well for the sustainability of EV batteries in the future.
EV MYTH FOUR:
The ethical and social issues around mining for EV components outweigh the benefits
It is true that there are a number of ethical and social issues surrounding the mining of EV battery components that are cause for concern.
That said, there are a number of changes being made by leading EV manufacturers to lessen the impact of these issues, and when placed within the context of wider problems already caused by fossil fuel mining – the mining of EV materials is comparatively less severe.
Here are some of the key contentious issues with EV battery component mining and where they currently stand.
Battery metals vs. oil as a source of tension and instability
The global transition towards EVs is actually playing a positive role in reducing the global importance of oil and weakening its role as an aggravating factor in regional and global conflicts.
There’s no debate that we live in a fossil fuel-centric world.
Oil is currently one of the most important and valuable commodities and constitutes a major source of income for the governments and corporations that control its production and distribution. As a result, the struggle for oil resources remains a noticeable factor in many areas of political instability, tension and conflict in the world, notably Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, South Sudan, Libya, Venezuela and the South China Sea.
Effectively, a global decrease in petrol and diesel vehicles and a move towards electric vehicles would result in a decrease in demand for oil, and in turn, conflict.
Although the role of the metals used to create lithium-ion batteries (ie. lithium, cobalt, nickel) hasn’t been a significant driver of political instability and conflict so far, especially when compared to oil, this risk is expected to grow as demand increases alongside an uptake in EVs.
Cobalt and copper mining ethics
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) accounts for approximately 70% of the world’s cobalt mine production and holds almost 50% of the world’s known reserves. In addition to cobalt, DRC leads the world in the production of copper, another major component of EVs; copper is used in electric motors, batteries, inverters, wiring and in charging stations.
It’s well known that the DRC has a poor record of unjust working conditions and child labour and the ethics and environmental damage of mining practices have come under scrutiny recently.
To combat this, there are a number of supply chain auditing initiatives that have been set up to ensure that suppliers are up to standards set by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The Congolese government has also promised to pilot regulated areas for artisanal miners.
The mining industry as a whole is also being held more accountable globally and parts of the global auto industry are now focusing intently on ethical sourcing. For example, BMW now buys cobalt directly from mines to avoid child exploitation by intermediaries.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The ethical, social and political issues surrounding the control and supply of the world’s oil reserves far outweigh the issues surrounding the mining of battery materials.
In regards to the ethical issues around mining resources such as cobalt in the DRC, the combination of the increase in regulations, commitment to using ethical suppliers and new technology removing cobalt as a necessary element in creating EV batteries indicate a positive and less ethically contentious future for the EV industry.
EV MYTH FIVE:
We will end up with massive EV battery dumps around the world
Generally, your EV battery will last you up to about 300,000km, can be recharged several thousand times, and still be useful after ten or more years of operation. However, like most rechargeable lithium batteries, over time EV batteries will hold their charge less effectively and the range you’ll be able to drive on a fully-charged battery will decrease.
Because EV batteries do become less effective over time, there is general concern about what will happen to the masses of end-of-life batteries, and whether they’re recyclable or destined for landfill.
The good news is, once an EV battery is no longer fit for purpose, there are a number of ways it can be recycled and repurposed for its second life:
EV batteries can be disassembled and the best cells reassembled and sold as reconditioned vehicle battery packs.
Cells that are still okay, but not fit for vehicle use can be repurposed into battery storage systems and have another 8 to 15 years of life.
EV Batteries as Storage to Support the Electricity Grid
Some used EV batteries can be utilised as stationary storage to support the electricity system and facilitate the integration of renewable electricity sources and help stabilise the grid.
This second life use would therefore increase capacity for uptake of renewables and minimise the need for peak fossil plants, resulting in fewer emissions for the entire grid. The best part about this method of repurposing is that the next generation of EVs would in turn be powered by a ‘cleaner’ grid.
THE BOTTOM LINE
While there is currently only a small-scale market for battery lifecycle extension options, the future is promising. Direct cathode recycling is promising for carbon emissions offset and could be cheaper than battery production from scratch, used EV batteries can be used to improve electricity grids, and usable cells can be reassembled and sold as reconditioned vehicle battery packs.
These measures are promising to prevent mass-scale battery dumps.
MORE EV MYTHS EXPLAINED
Throughout 2022, we will be releasing more EV myth-busting resources. Our second resource discusses whether electric cars are actually better for the environment than gas-powered cars, and then we will cover common misconceptions around EV safety.
Stay up to date on our myth-busting series here.