Tesla & The Electric Car Revolution

Tesla has been at the forefront of the electric car revolution and is now the most valuable carmaker in the world. Not only has it transformed the industry, but it has made Elon Musk the richest man in the world, with a net worth of $185bn.

Tesla has shown the world that electric cars can be viable and desirable. They have reinvented the designing, building and selling of cars, and have their own supply chain unlike other manufacturers.

And now the car giant plans to release the Cybertruck – Elon Musk’s answer to the pick-up truck. It boasts an acceleration from 0-60mph in as little 2.9 secs, with up to 500 miles of range.

The demand for electric cars is also escalating – global sales reached 3.2 million in 2020 – meaning there is stiff competition ahead for Tesla. Almost every carmaker in the world has started producing EV’s as ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) cars need to run on polluting petrol or diesel, which other than being unsustainable in their CO2 emissions, are also choking up city streets and the air we breathe.

But how sustainable are electric cars really?

They seem to be a fantastic solution to the fight against climate change, and claim to have zero emissions. But how true is it that they are harmless to the planet?

The fundamental difference between conventional thermal (ICE) cars and electric cars has to do with the process by which the potential, (or stored) energy is transformed into kinetic energy.

In thermal cars, this happens through a chemical reaction, whereas electric cars release it electrochemically without any kind of combustion. Most electric cars (Tesla being the first), use lithium-ion batteries – no fuel is burned which means there is no air pollution happening while driving.

However, if the electricity used to charge the vehicles does not come from sustainable sources like solar panels, wind turbines or hydroelectric plants, the CO2 emissions for an EV can easily be higher than those of a conventional car.

So how many EVs are indeed charged with clean energy versus ‘dirty energy’, i.e. coming from fossil fuels? A quick snapshot shows impressive numbers;

(Total cars fuelled by renewables and gas in 2018)

  • Norway 100%
  • UK & Netherlands 70%
  • US & Germany 50%
  • China 35%

(Source Bloomberg New Energy Finance 2018)

This has only improved since then as countries further foray into renewable energy. It is important to view the numbers above in the context that EVs make up only 4.2% of global car sales today and will increase to about 10% of the total by 2025. Hopefully, we can keep up with the energy demand!

And how sustainable are the EV batteries?

EV batteries are made from rare earth elements like lithium, nickel, cobalt or graphite which only exist under the earth’s surface. The mining of these materials is putting increasing pressure on existing mining operations and it is estimated that $ 30-45 bln will need to be invested in mining capacity by 2025 to meet the global demand for EV batteries (source Linklaters ”Powering the future: Sourcing raw materials for Electric vehicle batteries).

EV batteries have still 70% of their capacity intact after 7 to 10 years, but this will not be enough to power a vehicle. It is therefore important to make use of its residual value and there is an emerging secondary lithium-ion battery recycling market.

However, the mining of these raw materials per se is creating serious environmental challenges as the mining activity generates contaminated atmospheric dust, pollutes ground and surface water (and uses a lot of it) and delivers harmful elements in our food-chain.

So the real question is: are EVs better than traditional ICE cars? As a direct effect on reducing air-pollution in cities, absolutely yes. But further strides need to be made in manufacturing ‘cleaner’, better, and cheaper EV batteries with longer lifespans, while also finding good use of the batteries’ components at the end of their life. Only then may we answer the question above with a resounding YES!

Recommended links: