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From the blog

Electric cars: are they a sustainable option or are we just driving around the bend?

by Ryan Lee

Electric vehicles (EV) are nothing new, with the first one constructed back in the 19th century; however, until recently EVs have remained in the shadows compared to petroleum-based cars due their inability to gratify our growing demands and expectations for performance and affordability. So why are EVs being so widely considered right now?

The past 20 years has seen climate change become more of a focus, with governing bodies declaring climate emergencies and the UK placing a ban by 2030 on the sale of Petrol and Diesel cars. Also, with transportation being the UK’s single largest contributor, responsible for over 30% of the UK’s total GHG emissions, it has rightly drifted into the climate change hot seat. So, are today’s EVs sustainable and are they a practical way to help overcome climate change?

There has been some doubts on whether owning an EV is practical and cost-effective. However, these attitudes are shifting as the charging infrastructure has increased exponentially in recent years, with demand almost doubling since 2016 (BBC). Moreover, the BBC offers a useful diagram showing which areas of the country currently offers the most charging points; checking here might help determine if an EV is something that you could feasibly steer into. With both consumer demand and government interventions picking up speed, the infrastructure will only continue to improve, so it is becoming increasingly viable for anyone to get behind the EV wheel.

As the innovation of battery technology has continued to improve, there still remains the difficulty of maintaining high-power delivery over a prolonged period of time. Currently, no battery technology offers both without considerably increasing the size and cost. Performance also falters in varying temperatures, requiring additional power in order to regulate and ensure they work efficiently.

Erratic driving, overcharging, and fast charges largely reduce the available power from the battery overtime. Current EV batteries have an estimated lifetime of approximately 8-10 years, which pose some doubts on the overall economic and financial cost of EVs, particularly as battery packs are very expensive (sometimes more expensive than a small car). Fortunately, more rigorous requirements are being placed on producers to increase the life expectancy of batteries up to 15 years, which could greatly improve EV’s total carbon footprint and viability. Drivers will also be able to prolong the lifetime of their battery by adopting better driving habits and learning how best to maintain their vehicle, such as limiting fast-charging when possible.

Adversely, EV batteries currently require the sourcing of scarce materials, such as cobalt and lithium, which involve mining in high-conflict areas, water intensive practices and high risks in contaminating water supplies and land. This leads us to question the ethical and environmental impact that the manufacturing of EVs currently imposes. There are also some complications with recycling the batteries, which is energy intensive, costly, and inefficient in recovering significant quantities of these rare materials.

Although these concerns are extremely valid and a topic for debate, EVs do offer many improvements to petroleum cars. The most obvious is the reduction in carbon emissions, which is strongly associated with the climate crisis and to many complications with our health.

Although it is not yet safe to fully claim that current EVs are a “sustainable” alternative, EVs are undoubtedly a big step in the right direction, offering an overall lower carbon footprint and cleaner air in urban areas. Furthermore, government initiatives such as the Faraday Battery Challenge are increasing the research and innovation into radically improving battery technology that will inevitably help lead to improved efficiency, usability, and potentially utilise materials that do not pose ethical and environmental concerns. With the increased backing and innovations seeking to include hydrogen and other biofuels to work in conjunction with EVs, we are finally witnessing petroleum-based cars being edged off the road.

No matter what the future for transport holds, it is also undeniable that the most sustainable option would still be to ease off the accelerator and opt to work from home, walk, bike or use public transport whenever we can. 2020 saw the largest reduction in global CO2 emissions, resultant of the current pandemic substantially curtailing our travelling habits both by air and on roads (BBC, 2020).

If enough of us can alter our lifestyle and opt for days where we stop making unnecessary journeys by car, we can take back control of our environmental impact, rather than just awaiting innovators to reinvent the wheel.