The promise of electric vehicles - written in December, 2021.

Since moving to the U.S., myself and my husband have always had the one car that we have shared between us. Due to our different schedules and being on a good bus route, we didn’t feel the need for two. When it came to the decision to purchase a new car recently, we decided that, because of the way the Earth is being affected by fossil fuels, releasing large amounts of greenhouse gases in to the air and contributing to global warming, we would switch from a gasoline powered car to an electric. It was around this time, President Biden signed an executive order, seeking to cut carbon emissions and was calling for the government to ensure that Americans shift towards electric vehicles. This was another reason we figured making the change to an electric car, sooner rather than later, was the best thing to do. As the transportation industry is the largest source of planet warming green-house gases in the U.S. and accounts for around one-fifth of global emissions, contributing significantly to climate change, it’s crucial, now more than ever, that we all look at how we travel.

Having spent some time reading up on electric vehicles (EVs), I am aware however, that while there are many pros to them there are also some cons. One is their high initial upfront cost which can be off putting for people. While this is understandable, according to the New York Times, a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that electric cars were more climate friendly than gas-burning ones and that, over a lifetime, they were often cheaper too. As they have lower maintenance and charging costs compared to gasoline prices, this tends to offset the higher upfront prices over time and may save drivers money in the long-run. In the case of the U.S., electricity is much cheaper in comparison to gas, making electric car charging costs, for example in California, around half the price of powering a traditional car for driving the same distance.

One of the other issues of EVs, is that when they are being made, they can have a greater environmental impact than fossil-fuel powered ones. However, as soon as they start being driven they are less harmful to the environment. They don’t have an exhaust tailpipe and emit nothing, unlike traditional vehicles which emit CO2 and a collection of other gases and particulates in to the air. The lithium battery that is being used for electric vehicles to run on can also cause pollution. While this has been a point of contention over the last decade, according to reports, electric vehicles are still greener and you are still doing the earth a favor in making the switch to one. The good news is that this issue is currently being looked in to by material scientists, who are working on two main challenges to do with these batteries. One is that they are examining ways, “to cut down on the metals in the batteries that are scarce, expensive, or problematic because their mining carries harsh environmental and social costs”. Another is that they are working “to improve battery recycling, so that the valuable metals in spent car batteries can be efficiently reused.” Efforts to improve the make-up of the batteries, in general, to make them more environmentally friendly, are being made.

While electric vehicles are one of the most promising technologies for reducing emissions in global transportation, the benefits they bring also depend on the source of the power they run on. EVs are powered by electricity but if that electricity is created by combustion of fossil fuels, then they are not being powered by clean energy. For them to be a truly green option, all EVs need to be powered by renewable energy. The climate benefit of EVs also depends on the carbon intensity of the electricity used to make the battery. With our dependence having been so high on fossil fuel (petroleum, natural gas and coal) since The Industrial Revolution and in recent decades, it’s imperative now that we act on other energy sources available to us, if we are to transition to a low-carbon and greener society.

Former Vice President Al Gore has been calling on Americans to convert to wind, solar and other renewable sources for years. He believes that we have the solutions to climate change and that they are readily available to us. We just need to continue implementing these alternative sources of energy and in doing so, we will help to provide jobs in the renewable energy industry and bring down costs. According to an article on Thomson Reuters, Gore has said, “the overall cost of renewable energy is going down, and the quality is improving. Five years ago, electricity from solar and wind was cheaper in 1% of the world: now it’s cheaper in two-thirds of the world. Fossil fuels and nuclear power will eventually be priced out of the market if these trends prevail.”

From what I have also been learning, local and indigenous communities have invaluable knowledge to share with us about their renewable energy initiatives and it’s important that we listen and learn from them. Recognizing that our reliance on fossil fuel is killing the Earth, or Mother Earth as they refer to her, many indigenous communities are moving away from fossil-fuel based extraction toward renewable energy initiatives. Many of their communities have excellent wind, solar, biomass and geothermal resources that produce clean energy. Having mastered the art of living on the earth without destroying it, many Indigenous peoples are working to initiate culturally appropriate energy solutions so they can continue to model their symbiotic relationship with nature, while also working to promote and assert their rights and attract investment.

The IPCC and other bodies researching climate crisis solutions recognize that indigenous peoples should be at the center of decision-making when it comes to renewable energy, due to their expert knowledge, self-sufficiency and their achievements in sustainable development. Sadly, however, indigenous peoples are not always consulted in the development and implementation of their energy alternatives. Often, the benefits of the renewable energy elements they have shared are not shared with them, even though their communities are already experiencing some of the profound effects of climate change. The negative impacts they are experiencing from global warming makes the switch to solar power all the more urgent for them. This is something that needs to be looked at seriously and improved upon.

According to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, “human actions still have the potential to determine the future course of climate”. The way in which global warming is continuing to wreak havoc on the Earth, with devastating consequences such as rising sea levels, melting glaciers, heat waves, wild fires, and longer, more intense droughts, is posing an enormous threat to the land, species and people’s livelihoods. As the IPCC report implies, it is very much up to us to look at the various ways we can react and move forward against these devastating events. If transportation is the most carbon polluting sector in the U.S., apparently accounting for nearly a third of emissions and a fifth globally, then this needs to be one of the main things we focus on working to reduce.

If President Biden’s aim is to make half of all vehicles sold in the U.S. be electric by 2030, the affordability of EVs, as well as all of the issues mentioned above, most definitely need to be improved upon. It is encouraging to read that the barriers that may be preventing widespread adoption of these cars now, are being looked in to and will continue to get smaller over time. One improvement, currently in process, is that Tesla will be investing in new batteries that will use a lithium-iron-phosphate chemistry instead of nickel-cobalt-aluminums. Apparently, this should lower the cost per vehicle over time and prevent the inhumane mining conditions of cobalt in places like the Congo, where there have been reports of terrible working conditions for miners. Not only is the mining negatively impacting the environment and biodiversity in the Congo but there are also huge concerns for children who are being forced to work under harsh conditions to mine the cobalt too. This is not something I was aware of until I began to research more about EVs for this post. You can read more here. While you can consider EVs an important part of our approach to mitigating climate change, it’s also imperative that we are extremely mindful of the way people and their communities are being treated and potentially affected by their production.

When it comes to other added benefits of EVs, they also cut out other fuel costs. Specifically, the fuel that is being shipped for the use of fuel powered cars; the fuel that is used for the trucks that transport the fuel from the ship to gas stations; and the drilling of oil for that fuel that also has a cost. All of these factors will mean that the need for fuel trucks and gas stations can be phased out over time.

Myself and my husband ended up purchasing a Tesla Model 3 and thankfully, so far so good. I have to admit that I never enjoyed having to stop off for gas, especially at night or when it was cold or raining so not having to do that anymore is a huge plus. What we have done, similar to what a lot of people tend to do is purchase a battery charger and have had it fitted in our garage. That way the car can be charged over-night and we don’t have to worry about finding somewhere to do it throughout the day. If you do purchase an electric car and find that you need to power it up, there are a growing amount of charging stations in the U.S., so you will never be too far from a place to charge. If needed, you can check out public charging using apps or online maps. An added bonus of the EV is that you save on an emissions test every year!

I do understand that in rural, remote areas, it may not be practical to purchase an electric car. The driving range on a full charge may not be sufficient to get around and there is likely a lack of charging stations. Hopefully, as time goes on and improvements are made, driving range will increase and more charging stations will become available. However, that’s only likely to happen if more people buy EVs and it starts to make economic sense for installers of public charging stations. Not everyone is an urban dweller with a large disposable income so it’s crucial that the cost of these cars be made affordable for as many people as possible.

Affordability of electric vehicles

For information, you may be able to apply for a grant or federal tax credit to buy an electric vehicle under a certain value, depending on where you live. A used electric vehicle may also be more affordable but if you’re having difficulty coming up with the money to buy one, you can look in to seeing if you qualify for a clean vehicle assistance program or some other tax break. These programs may be few and far between currently, but hopefully over time, there will be more programs like this on offer.

You can read about other ways to reduce your transportation footprint here