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Reasons for Consumer Resistance
Persuading people to switch from “conventional” to electric vehicles (EVs) is crucial for the global effort to reduce emissions. Most modelling assumes this. Many politicians are calling for it. And even car manufacturers are now increasingly seeing it as an opportunity rather than a risk.
But, unsurprisingly, there is still considerable resistance. One problem is the limited range of EVs and the time it takes to charge them. According to a Department of Transport report the most common reasons for not purchasing an EV was the availability of chargers, the limited range and the cost.
Another issue is that some media outlets recently promote a working paper published by a German thinktank, which sought to claim that “electric vehicles will barely help cut CO2 emissions in Germany over the coming years”.
In addition some people claim that manufacturing the batteries raises serious ecological, ethical and human rights concerns ethical and that they cannot be recycled after use.
So what are the facts?
According to Wikipedia, Tesla Model S currently has the greatest range between charges, which is between 500 and 600 km. This is about the same as the average petrol-driven vehicle.
The time to charge a battery to give 100 km driving range varies from 10 minutes to 8 hours depending on the technology used, according to Wikipedia. At present the average time is about 8 hours to fully recharge, but as charging points improve this could reduce dramatically.
Carbon Brief’s US analyst Zeke Hausfather found a varied picture across models and geographies, but nevertheless it is simply wrong to suggest that electric vehicles do not outperform fossil-fuelled cars when it comes to emissions.
Zeke’s detailed factcheck pores through the available studies to pull out the data on full lifecycle emissions. For example, the Nissan Leaf (Europe’s top-selling EV in 2018) produces considerably fewer emissions over its lifetime than the average conventional vehicle – even when the production of the battery and the way the electricity is generated is factored in (chart above).
Batteries for electric vehicles need to provide a lot of energy in a small package, which requires fairly large quantities of cobalt in lithium-ion batteries. Cobalt production is a critical issue for battery production and the future of electric mobility. Much of it is currently mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the process raises serious ecological, ethical and human rights concerns, so reducing dependency on it as demand for batteries rise is one of the greatest challenges.
Dr. Gavin Harper, a Faraday Institution Research Fellow at the Birmingham Energy Institute’s project on Recycling and Reuse of lithium-ion batteries (ReLiB), stated that “if we face constraints around cobalt, some feel we should focus this precious resource on more demanding applications such as EVs. It may make more economic sense to recycle EV batteries for use in brand new batteries for cars, rather than using them in a used state in a less demanding application [such as power storage].”
Re-use of batteries
One popular method is to re-use them as power storage for domestic and commercial buildings. Nissan recently launched the largest power storage facility in Europe to use both new and used car batteries; the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam (above) uses 63 second-hand EV battery packs and 85 new battery packs, which feed off of 4,200 solar panels on the stadium roof.
Recycling of batteries
Another huge consideration is the recycling process. Belgium-based company, Umicore, is one of the businesses already offering recycling for lithium-ion batteries. It reclaims the valuable metals using a combination of pyro- and hydro-metallurgy, and while the company currently runs a pilot plant, it can still recycle around 35,000 EV batteries per year. According to a company spokesperson, Umicore “can easily scale up its recycling activities when the market grows, which we expect to happen in 2025.”
New Battery Technology
Changing battery technology is another big factor. One hope for the future is sodium-ion batteries, which operate in much the same way as lithium-ion and are similarly recyclable. Sodium is cheaper and far more abundant than lithium, so if sodium-ion batteries can be brought up to the same performance levels as li-ion it could be a no-brainer. The UK Battery Industrialisation Centre currently being built in Coventry could contribute significantly to this development.