Are electric cars actually worse for the environment?

Given the concerns over how clean traditional combustion engines are, there has been a small but noticeable shift to electric vehicles.

According to figures released by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), year-to-date sales of pure electric vehicles are up 37.3% on the same period in 2016.

While the numbers remain low – 11,127 pure-electric cars have been sold in 2017, which is just 0.5% of the two million or so cars registered in the UK – the EV and broader Alternatively-Fuelled Vehicles (AFV) sector look prime for growth.

If the prospect of zero emissions wasn’t enough, the rising interest is being fuelled by the threat of pollution charges in city centres, scrappage incentives and government grants for electric vehicles..

However, are electric cars as green as people think? We examine the evidence.

Zero emissions, but only on the street

From the moment an electric car hits the streets, it is emitting no tailpipe emissions, but it will still produce pollution from tyre and brake dust. However, the real environmental impact occurs before the EV has left the factory floor.

A report by the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics revealed that it takes twice the amount of energy to build an electric car as a conventional vehicle.

The main problem is the battery. A report by IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute found that battery production produces 150-200kg of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt hour (kWh) of produced battery.

Further issues concern the materials used in lithium batteries, which tend to be rare metals that exist in tiny quantities and hard-to-reach places.

For example, to extract lithium from brines beneath the deserts of South America, salt-rich waters are pumped to the surface and evaporated using the sun over many months.

But lithium also comes from crushing rock in Australia, before being processed in China in a more energy-intensive method. As EV production ramps up, analysts predict that the hard rock process will become the norm.

Lithium and cobalt are vital ingredients in battery production, and both have the potential to slow the growth of the electric car sector. Supplies are limited, which results in mining companies increasing their footprint in search of new deposits.

Francis Condon, an energy and mining analyst at RobecoSAM, warns that the hunt for raw materials has the potential to be an environmental disaster.

"We're starting to see new sources being found and smaller mining companies and also non-mining companies getting involved. Some of these opportunities are arising where environmental codes are not as strong and social settings not as protective or inclusive. It's a combination of risks."

READ MORE: 11 ways to cut your driving emissions

‘Whole-life’ concerns over batteries

The material used in battery production presents a more long-term problem. Thomas Turrentine, director of the Plug-in Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center at the University of California, said: "The positive side is [the batteries are] not particularly toxic."

However, unlike lead or nickel-based batteries, they can be difficult to recycle, which could lead to problems further down the line. More than 90% of batteries used in conventional cars are recycled, versus less than 5% of lithium-ion batteries.

"One of the challenges of making battery recycling economically viable is the quantity of battery material that is needed to keep utilisation rates of recycling facilities sufficiently high," said analysts at Morgan Stanley, in the Financial Times.

"The risk, therefore, is there may not be the necessary infrastructure in place in time for the first significant wave of EV batteries to reach end of life."

In reality, a well-maintained modern electric car should be able to achieve 150,000 miles and beyond before the battery begins to lose capacity, although this figure will reduce if a rapid-charger has been the predominant means of charging.

At some point, owners will be faced with replacing the battery – likely to cost far more than the value of the vehicle – or being left with a very expensive paperweight.

Further balance is provided by the fact that, when charged, an electric car will not produce a single gram of emissions while on the move. Towns and cities filled with EVs will be cleaner and more pleasant.

The source of power is key

However, the key here is 'when charged'. Quite simply, an electric car is only as clean as the power it uses to keep moving. And herein lies the problem: can a zero-emissions vehicle truly be labelled as such?

Today, the UK makes the majority of its electricity by burning natural gas and coal which accounts for 29% of the country's greenhouse emissions.

Even in super-legislative California, 60% of electricity came from burning fossil fuels in 2015, while one-third of US power is sourced from coal-fired power stations.

There are reasons to be optimistic. In Q1 2007, coal accounted for 37.02% of the UK's electricity generation mix, but a decade later that proportion had fallen to 9.98%. Meanwhile, gas was down from 42.82% to 36.49%.

Over the same period, wind and solar energy increased from 1.65% to 14.41%. Sadly, as this Guardian report points out, solar power does not work in the dark, windmills stop spinning if there's no wind, and there's no capacity to store solar and wind-generated electricity to use later.

Until 100% of EVs run on 100% renewable power, the electricity source will remain a thorn in the side of an electric car's green credentials. Crucially, though, an electric vehicle has the potential to be 100% green, at least from the perspective of driving and the source of power.

Also, production techniques and battery technology will inevitably result in less reliance on rare and hard to reach materials. Overall, the electric car will get greener, while the internal combustion engine is on a fast-track to decline.

Petrol or diesel cars require fossil fuels to operate, which is delivered to filling stations by diesel-powered tankers.

But what of the future? The National Grid estimates that the number of plug-in cars and vans could top 9m by 2030 or between 7m and 26m by 2050, up from around 90,000 today.

Putting aside the concerns over electric car production for a moment, that could put a severe strain on the charging network, not to mention the electricity supply.

According to Zap-Map, there are currently around 14,000 charging connectors in the UK: nowhere near enough to cope with the expected surge in demand.

Shell has installed charging points at three petrol stations and intends to add a further 10 by the end of the year. The National Grid suggests that the remaining 7,000 or so petrol stations "should be sufficient to cater for the needs of motorists."

Of course, some degree of home charging will be required if the infrastructure is to cope with the increased number of electric cars.

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The push for renewable power

The National Grid predicts that solar power will have the largest share of electricity generation by 2050 and that electric cars could have the potential to return electricity to the grid.

In the short-term, the future is less rosy. In 2016, the Energy and Climate Change Committee warned that the UK will fail to achieve its 2020 renewable energy targets to provide 15% of its electricity, heat and transport fuels from renewable sources.

Research conducted by the Mobility, Logistics and Automotive Technology Research Centre in Brussels found that an EV that uses electricity from non-renewable sources will emit slightly more emissions over its lifetime than a diesel car, but less than a petrol car.

Switch to green electricity and the EV will produce up to six times less carbon emissions over its lifetime compared to a petrol car.

While the switch to renewable energy might be a slow process, the development of electric car technology is likely to be anything but. Next-generation EVs will be bespoke builds, offering extended range, swifter charging times and improved practicality. In short, EVs will go from niche to mainstream.

Take the updated version of the Nissan Leaf, which offers an extended 235-mile range and ability to be charged to 80% in just 40 minutes.

The forthcoming Tesla Model 3 could achieve up to 220 miles of range, while the Jaguar i-Pace is predicted to offer a range of at least 311 miles.

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Will the future be electrified?

Everything points to battery-electric cars being the future of mass transportation. For a while, electric was seen to be neck-and-neck with hydrogen in the race to achieve mainstream appeal, but it would appear EV might have edged ahead.

While the likes of the Toyota Mirai and Honda Clarity are undoubtedly impressive, they are produced in limited quantities and sold in small numbers. Hydrogen might have a strong future in Japan, but only through large-scale investment from the government.

Meanwhile, Daimler, which produced a string of hydrogen fuel cell concepts, appears to have turned its back on the technology, instead forging ahead with a new electric car sub-brand, with the aim of building 10 EVs.

Other companies to nail their flag to the EV mast include Volvo, which has announced every new car it launches from 2019 will feature an electric motor, and Jaguar, which promises to do the same thing from 2020.

For now, though, the electric car will remain a niche prospect for the majority of UK buyers. Range anxiety, a high cost of entry and the perceived lack of a suitable infrastructure means an efficient and cleaner petrol or diesel car might be the most realistic purchase for the majority of motorists.

Environmental hero?

Back to the original question: are electric cars actually worse for the environment. Without wishing to sit on the fence, there is no definitive answer.

Locally, there's little doubt that electric cars will help to make our towns and cities cleaner, quieter and more pleasant. Nationally and internationally, the pressure to extract raw materials, the energy used in car production, and the source of electricity combine to rob the electric car of its holier-than-thou status.

The technology will improve, new and less damaging materials will be developed, and renewable energy will become a dominant force. Only then will the electric car become an environmental hero.