Should you buy an electric car / electric vehicle (EV)? What are the important factors you need to consider before making your final decision? What are the disadvantages and advantages over gasoline vehicles. I cover a lot of territory in this article but ultimately I’m here to help you make the right buying decision for your situation — and budget.
There are many headlines saying that 2021 is to be the year of the electric vehicle (EV). People are keen to explore the advantages of owning an electric car. The growing trend of environmental awareness is certainly a driving force behind switching from gas to electric for transportation. A lot of people are drawn to the idea of cheaper running costs. You don’t have to pay for gas and electric cars are not as expensive to maintain, at least in the short term.
We cannot ignore the price of EVs when deciding whether to buy an electric car. These are very expensive vehicles. Even with government rebates in some countries and the possible savings of electricity vs gas, electric cars are not really viable in terms of cost.
We can expect electric car prices to decrease over time as demand increases. Though this is probably not going to be a reality for some time to come. Battery technology is also a challenge to the success of the electric car.
Is now the best time to buy an electric car?
Enthusiasm for electric cars in the US has been a slow. According to the US Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, plug-in electric vehicle sales only accounted for 1.9% of the light-duty vehicle market share in 2020. This figure was down from 2.1% in 2019. Short term demand for electric cars in the US is decreasing. In many other countries, the opposite is true. In China, light-duty plug-in EV sales increased from 4.5% in 2019 to 5.1% in 2020. China is largest market for these vehicles. Europe has seen the greatest increase in plug-in EV sales, from 2.3% in 2019 to 3% in 2020.
Why are Americans shying away from the global trend in moving away from fossil fuels? The answer may be a lack of government incentives. In some states, like California, there has been a huge move toward electric cars. Back in the early 1990’s, California was the first to introduce government regulations promoting electric cars. California has been the world leader in moving from gas to electric for passenger vehicles. Though, even in California, growth in EV sales has been slower than anticipated. It is likely that Biden environmental policies will change the way Americans view electric cars. Though, we can only speculate as to what effect Federal policy will have on consumer demand for electric cars in the US.
I can’t help asking if the notion that electric cars are the answer to climate change is not, perhaps, a political one. Is the electric car a realistic solution to our environmental issues? The answer is a lot more complex than many would have us believe.
If you’re considering buying an electric car, get the facts and make an informed decision. In this article, I intend providing you with those facts. Of course, I have my opinions on the matter, and will not shy away from offering my views on the topic. However, I will try to provide an objective analysis of the situation and, hopefully, let you decide if it is the right time to buy an electric car.
While I’m sure that electric cars are the future of the automotive industry, I’m unconvinced that the technology is where it should be for EVs to be a viable economic reality. A lot of this has to do with battery technology.
Before we begin, a distinction needs to be made between the types of electric cars available:
- Electric Hybrid: these cars use an electric motor and a gas engine. The car is designed to run on the electric motor, mostly for urban driving. The gas engine is used to charge the battery and provide extra power when driving at higher speeds on the freeway. This system is often considered as the best of both – electric energy for cleaner, quieter driving, without the restrictions of limited battery storage, thanks to gas backup.
- Plug-in Electric Cars: Using only an electric motor, plug-in electric cars rely entirely on electric energy stored in the battery. These are typically lithium-ion batteries, though solid state batteries are gradually being introduced by some manufacturers.
In order to charge the battery, the car needs to be connected to an electric outlet. These cars have a limited range, anything from 200 to 400 miles. It can take up to 8-hours to fully charge the battery. Though high-power charging stations can reduce this to 4-hours for some electric cars.
- Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Cars: Like a plug-in electric car, these vehicles rely entirely on an electric motor. Instead of using a conventional battery to store energy, a hydrogen cell is used. This generates energy through the reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. Basically, hydrogen is extracted from water, using electrolysis. The electricity used to convert water into hydrogen cam be compared to the electricity used to charge lithium batteries.
Though, the process of hydrogen conversion is less efficient than charging a conventional battery. When the hydrogen is converted back into electricity, it is released as water vapor. In a sense this is the most environmentally friendly method of storing energy. Water is converted into hydrogen and the back into water. This is a closed loop, natural cycle.
- Passive Hybrid Electric Cars: Like a conventional hybrid, passive hybrid vehicles utilize an electric motor and a gas engine. Though, the car does not run on the electric motor. The gas engine provides normal propulsion. The electric motor is only used when extra power is needed for acceleration. This improves the performance of the vehicle, whilst greatly reducing fuel consumption.
For mixed driving situations (urban and freeway), a passive hybrid car will usually be more fuel efficient than a conventional hybrid, thanks to a greater weight reduction by using a much smaller electric motor and battery. This also reduces the cost of manufacturing the vehicle and its environmental footprint.
Through the course of the article, I’ll be discussing and comparing the types of electric vehicles in greater detail. Possibly, the most important part of the debate will be about battery technology and the environmental impact of generating the electricity needed to power these cars.
Learn More : Hybrid Cars : Pros and Cons
The Pros and Cons of Electric Cars
There are two factors that make all types of electric vehicles more efficient. Apart from improved energy efficiency, in certain conditions, there other benefits that reduce pollution.
Electric energy is more efficient when accelerating. An electric motor has immediate torque, whereas a gas engine requires the engine RPM to increase to provide more torque.
At higher speeds, an internal combustion (gas or diesel) engine is usually more efficient. Once the engine reaches optimum RPM, it does not require much fuel to maintain its speed.
Using the kinetic energy that is otherwise wasted during braking is the main reason why electric vehicles are more economical and, therefore, more environmentally friendly.
What is regenerative braking?
The principle of regenerative braking recovers the energy lost during braking and stores it in a battery. The electric motor is essentially reversed. When accelerating, the motor uses electric energy from the battery and converts this into mechanical energy to turn the motor.
When you apply the brakes on an EV, the motor acts as an alternator. It uses the rotation of the wheels to convert mechanical energy into electric energy. By utilizing the motion as a source of energy, it slows the car down. When using the force of motion to generate electricity, the motor (acting as an alternator) absorbs this energy. In so doing, it not only utilizes energy that would otherwise be wasted, it reduces wear on the conventional brakes.
Because of the stop-start nature of urban driving, regenerative braking and efficient acceleration make plug-in electric cars, hybrids, and passive hybrids the most economical means of urban transportation.
A plug-in electric car produces no emissions. Of course, this depends entirely on how the electricity supplied to the grid is generated. Later, we’ll be discussing the challenges facing electricity generation for electric cars.
Hybrid electric cars are not entirely emission-free as they still use a gas engine. However, the reduction in fuel consumption greatly reduces the amount of harmful emissions into the atmosphere.
When considering emissions for hybrid electric vehicles the issue of passive hybrid vs active hybrid becomes quite important. Many believe that conventional hybrid cars, like the Toyota Prius, are better for the environment because they can run on the electric motor that produces no emissions. A passive hybrid car requires the gas engine to be running permanently.
Ironically, a passive hybrid is usually better for the environment. The system was developed for high-performance formula-one racing. The idea was to improve acceleration by using an electric motor to give the car a speed advantage. At the same time, the fuel savings form regenerative braking and more efficient acceleration, results in fewer fuel stops, providing a time advantage in the competitive world of auto racing.
The next evolution of the passive hybrid was used by super car manufacturers, like Ferrari, to make a high-performance commercially available car that can meet strict carbon emission regulations, thereby reducing the carbon tax on these vehicles.
In 2020, VW introduced passive hybrid on certain models and in 2021, Mercedes Benz did the same. The advantage of passive hybrid vs active hybrid is a lower weight and reduced reliance on a lithium-ion battery which is expensive and contains toxic materials that can be hazardous if not correctly recycled. Realistically, passive hybrid is, in my opinion, the best electric vehicle technology currently available.
Reduced Noise Pollution
Electric cars are quieter than conventional cars.
The greatest challenge facing the viability of the electric car is battery technology. The development of the lithium-ion battery and subsequent improvements has been the breakthrough that has made EVs possible. Though, there are questions with regards to the environmental impact of lithium ion batteries.
Even though other battery technologies exist, and new methods are being developed, lithium-ion remains the most popular method of storing electricity for electric cars and renewable energy like solar and wind.
If we are going to assess the long term viability of electric cars, we need to understand the economic, scientific, and ecological implications of the battery technology that is used to supply these vehicles.
Lithium Ion Batteries
Because lithium-ion is the most popular source of rechargeable electricity storage currently used for electric cars, this type of battery should be scrutinized closely. Is lithium-ion battery technology really the most efficient form of electricity storage? More importantly, what is the environmental impact of lithium-ion batteries?
There can be no doubt that lithium-ion batteries have been one of the greatest discoveries of our time. The technology was first experimented with in the 1970’s and gradually gained popularity as a compact, efficient, and lightweight alternative to other batteries, like lead acid and nickel cadmium.
Small electric devices, like phones and laptop computers were the first to benefit from this technology. Later, improved lithium-ion batteries allowed for cordless appliances and power tools to replace old-fashioned corded electric equipment.
In order to produce a more powerful and efficient lithium-ion battery, capable of renewable energy storage and powering electric cars, new combinations of lithium and other elements were experimented with. These batteries are much more expensive than the compact batteries used for portable devices.
Despite the higher cost, lithium-ion batteries are considered the most efficient method of supplying an electric vehicle. With a discharge efficiency of 80 – 90%, not other commercially available battery can compete. When we consider all the conversion losses, from charge to discharge, and inversion for the electric motor, the best lithium-ion batteries are about 75% efficient for an electric car. On average, a well-maintained gas engine is only 30% – 35% efficient.
One issue that cannot be ignored is battery safety. Even with improved manufacturing techniques and integrated safety technology, lithium-ion batteries are notoriously unstable. In a collision, lithium ion batteries can easily explode. The video clip below, shows an electric car after leaving the road and exploding during filming for the popular Amazon series, The Grand Tour.
The vehicle continued to burn for two days after the incident in an uncontrolled run-away fire. Even though the initial fire was extinguished, the battery cells continued to short circuit, reigniting the fire each time this happened. Once the battery cells start to short circuit, they will continue to burn until all the battery cells are destroyed and there is basically no way of preventing this reaction.
VIDEO | See How Lithium-Batteries Burn
Even though lithium-ion batteries are very efficient, we have to consider the environmental impact of using lithium ion batteries. Lithium mining is highly controversial. In countries with an abundance of lithium, large natural water resources have been contaminated.
Recycling of lithium-ion batteries is rare and expensive. It estimated that around 80% of all used lithium-ion batteries end up in landfill sites. The leaching of toxic elements into the soil and ground water is an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen. The effects of which will only be realized many years from now.
In my opinion, small low-powered lithium-ion batteries are one of the greatest conveniences of our modern age. Using these batteries for small appliances, provided the batteries are safely recycled, is a wonderful thing.
However, large-scale production of lithium-ion batteries for grid power storage and electric vehicles is simply not viable. When we take into account the cost of responsible mining and recycling these batteries, they become economically prohibitive. Okay, this may be just the opinion of one writer, Elon Musk will surely disagree.
Solid State Batteries
Solid state batteries eliminate a liquid or gel electrolyte that is generally used for all rechargeable batteries. Some lithium-ion battery manufacturers have developed solid state lithium batteries. While these batteries are slightly more efficient and a little safer than gel lithium-ion batteries, they do not address the environmental issues posed by the use of lithium for batteries.
Solid state aluminum batteries may well be the answer. The technology exists but is not yet commercially available. Aluminum mining is much less invasive than lithium. Aluminum is not as toxic. Most importantly, aluminum recycling is an established practice. This means it is cheaper and easier to recycle 100% of aluminum batteries.
Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I can’t help wondering if the multi-billion dollar lithium-ion battery industry is preventing the solid state aluminum battery from becoming a commercial reality. Fair enough, when you’ve invested billions building manufacturing facilities, you want to ensure that you make a profit before the technology becomes redundant.
Although hydrogen cell electricity storage appears to be the most environmentally friendly solution, it has not been widely accepted. Again, my conspiracy questions arise. If we were to use hydrogen cells for electric vehicles, there will be no real corporate profit.
It is relatively inexpensive and quite easy for a regular gas station to build an electrolysis hydrogen facility on site. This means they only need a water supply to provide cheap fuel which is just as convenient as gas. The cost of providing hydrogen from a plat like this will depend on the utility electric cost. But there is no transportation required and raw material, water, is about as cheap as it gets compared to any other fuel.
The greatest advantage to using a hydrogen fuel cell is no recharge times. You can fill your car with hydrogen as quickly as you do with gas. Another advantage is the power to weight ratio for extended range.
If you want to increase the range of a lithium-ion battery, it needs to be larger. This increases the weight, cost, and environmental impact of the battery. Hydrogen is lighter than gas or air, for that matter. To use a larger hydrogen tank has almost no impact on the weight of the vehicle. It does not increase the cost of vehicle by any noticeable margin, and there is virtually no environmental impact to using hydrogen.
The disadvantage of using a hydrogen cells is that it is less efficient than lithium batteries. Estimates range from as little as 30% efficiency, up to around 50%, if we eliminate transportation for local hydrogen production.
Like lithium-ion batteries, hydrogen is highly volatile and there is a risk of fire. However, the technology used to store hydrogen safely has been in use for over a century and has basically been perfected. If this technology were to be mass-produced, like lithium-ion batteries, it would become much cheaper.
In the end, the lower energy efficiency that makes hydrogen less favorable than lithium-ion or solid state batteries is offset by its low environmental impact. Manufacturing the hydrogen storage tank and fuel cell uses very common materials that are not expensive and abundantly available. Using the fuel is a perfectly natural cycle of converting water into hydrogen, which is converted back into water when used.
It is probably the most sustainable means of storing electricity. Personally, I think it is the best technology of our time. Ironically, it is the simplest and oldest technology too.
Generating Electricity for Electric Cars
Regardless of what type of electric car, or the battery technology that is used, generating the required electricity is the greatest challenge we face. Especially when the objective is to provide environmentally sustainable energy.
If we are going to be using electricity, instead of gas to power our cars, that energy has to come from somewhere. This means increased demand on an already overextended electricity grid. The US is not able to meet current demand for electricity. In 2019, the US imported 59.05 terawatts from Mexico and Canada. More than 90 countries around the world are unable to meet domestic demand for electricity and need to import it from neighboring countries.
If we are not able to meet our current demand, how will be able to supply the increased demand for electric cars? More importantly, how is this electricity going to be generated. In 2019, only 17% of US electricity generation was renewable. The majority of electricity in the US is supplied by natural gas, coal, and nuclear generating plants.
If we use fossil fuels to generate the electricity to supply our electric cars, then there is no real environmental benefit. Providing sustainable renewable energy is the dilemma of our time. There really is no simple solution.
There is a general belief that all we need to provide green renewable energy is simply a matter of political will and corporate investment. Though the reality is far more complex.
We’ve already discussed battery technology in the context of electric cars. When it comes to using renewable energy, this conundrum become exponentially greater. It’s quite an expensive undertaking storing enough electricity to supply a car for 200 – 400 miles (a few hours). In order to supply an electric grid, we need more than a million times more storage for a period of about a week or more. Even the most optimistic of scientists are of the opinion that it is impossible to store this kind of electricity, for that length of time, with the technology we currently have at our disposal. The technology exists, but it is not yet efficient or affordable enough to be used on this scale. We need improved battery storage methods, that are less environmentally invasive and more cost effective to produce.
Apart from storing the electricity, we need to generate it in the first place. Photovoltaics (PV), or solar electricity, is one of the best ways to provide clean electricity with a relatively small environmental impact. However, obtaining silicon with the correct crystalline structure to manufacture solar panels is restricted.
There is only enough viable silicon available to meet around 20% of our current global demand for electricity. When we consider increasing demand in developing countries, this percentage is greatly reduced. Add in population growth, and it becomes even less. So far, we’ve only considered current demand for domestic, commercial, and industrial electricity consumption. What happens when add electric cars into the mix? With less than 5% of the world’s cars using electricity today, we will need to increase electricity supply massively to meet this demand.
This estimate is only for light-duty vehicles. Commercial trucking and busses use a lot more energy that passenger cars. To make a real difference, we need include these vehicles in the move to electric power. Some city transport authorities have already introduced electric busses, and this is a good thing, as long as we find a sustainable way to generate the electricity needed for this mode of transportation.
Apart from solar, wind, geothermal, and hydro power are also viable sources of clean energy. Hydro-electric power generating plants are not new. Some of the first commercial power stations used hydro-power. There aren’t many sites left for hydro-electric generators.
Geothermal and tidal power is the great undiscovered source that fills many of us with hope. The potential for this energy is enormous and a lot needs to be discovered in order for us to efficiently harness this valuable source of renewable energy.
Wind generators have become more common. Though wind power only accounted for a little more than 5% of global electricity generation in 2018. There are limited sites for efficient wind generation and the power storage issues are one of the main obstacles to practical use of wind power.
Is there a solution? Should I Buy An Electric Car?
It is human nature to find better ways of doing things. Unfortunately, we tend to learn from our mistakes rather than using foresight.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the internal combustion engine was seen as the answer to all the pollution problems of the time. This is because animal-powered transport in cities were the problem of the era. Accumulation of manure in the city streets was a problem with no real solution. It was impossible to remove horse manure fast enough. It polluted the city streets and was washed into the rivers when it rained, polluting the city water supply.
It seems that when we try solve one crisis, we invariably create a new one for the future. It would be great to find permanent solutions, but this may just be hopeful thinking.
Despite our imperfect nature, we continue to look forward and try find workable solutions. Along the way, we should find a means to meet our energy demands. It will mean taking a comprehensive approach.
We need to reduce our current electric demand by using more efficient appliances and improving electric distribution. New electric storage technology is essential to our survival. There is a lot happening and I foresee a variety of energy storage methods being implemented – traditional electrolyte batteries, thermal batteries, hydro batteries, and mechanical batteries that use weight and height to store and release energy.
Hopefully, scientists will find new ways to use energy sources that are currently under-utilized. Until these discoveries materialize, our best hope of meeting our future electricity needs is by building more nuclear power stations.
Nuclear power is not an ideal solution, but it is a fuel that produces zero carbon emissions, and this is an immediate priority. Basically, nuclear power is a short term solution to a greater crisis. Fortunately, a lot of new technology has made nuclear power a lot safer. It also possible to reuse nuclear waste. This means we can eliminate the problem of disposing of our current nuclear waste. It also means that we won’t be creating additional waste for future generations to contend with.
Although this is far from an ideal solution. It may the only way to buy the human race some time before we find more permanent solutions. As long as people keep looking for new and better technology, there is hope for a better future and I’m sure the electric car will be part of it.
For now, it’s all a bit of a compromise. Passive hybrid cars, although quite expensive, are a good deal better than conventional gas-powered cars. They are not the real deal, if we’re considering a truly electric car. It’s just the best we can do at the moment, until we find better methods of generating and storing power.