Electric Evasion: The Great Green Car Con

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Greenwashing 101:  Why electric cars can make things worse


by Michael Dawson

For any product that gets produced, green-ness involves four questions:

  1. Material Intake: How much and what types of material does making the product extract from the environment?
  2. Material Output: How does the product end up putting materials back into the environment, in the form of manufacturing, product operation, and garbage/recycling wastes?
  3. Energy Use: How much total energy does manufacture, use, and recycling of the product require?
  4. Alternatives: How does the product in question perform in the above three areas versus available alternative means of performing the same type of work facilitated by the product in question?

You may have already noticed that capitalists never publicly admit the existence and complexity of all four of these questions. That is for the obvious reason that capitalism is virtually impossible if these questions are taken seriously. Making big money almost always requires ignoring one or more of these questions, and the capitalist system as a whole is as heedless of ecological limits as just about any dystopian fantasy one could concoct.

Doubt this? Then I would invite you to consider the emerging overclass proposition that cars with electric motors are green.

In order for this to be true, the manufacture, use, and eventual trashing of electric cars would have to:

  1. Sharply reduce both the overall amount of materials and the level of non-renewable materials presently going into the making and use of personal transportation machinery;
  2. Sharply reduce both the overall amount of materials and the level of toxic materials coming out of the making and use of personal transportation machinery;
  3. Sharply reduce the overall amount of energy required to make, use, and eventually trash personal transportation machinery; and
  4. Score better in all the above areas than alternative forms of personal transportation machinery would, if given the chance.

Electric cars, of course, could never satisfy that fourth criterion. The laws of physics are very strict, and they dictate that each household or person using a 3,500-pound, 95% idled item to accomplish what could otherwise be accomplished with 1-pound walking shoes, 25-pound bicycles, and the use of shared, constantly operating public transit infrastructures is simply criminally harebrained.

Yet, despite this point, I think it is also very important to consider just how woefully electric cars will, if they ever achieve planned levels of distribution, perform in relation to all three of the prior questions.

Take, for instance, the claim that electric car batteries are somehow green things.

For starters, the $36,000 battery in the $115,000 (counting the charging equipment) Tesla Roadster contains 6,831 separate lithium-ion battery cells and weighs 992 pounds, or as much as 35 modern, medium-quality bicycles.

Lithium is a non-renewable resource, and is extremely likely to be desperately needed in the future for non-transportation energy storage purposes, in a post-fossil-fuel age of greatly diminished and much more intermittent electricity generation and use.

But, meanwhile, what about the recycling of this 992-pound object at the end of its expected 7-year useful life? Battery recycling is a process touted by Tesla’s propaganda arm as being wondrously efficient and “non-toxic.”

Let’s take a gander, shall we?

The US Department of Energy has granted $9.5 million to a company in California that plans to build America’s first recycling facility for lithium-ion vehicle batteries.

Anaheim-based Toxco says it will use the funds to expand an existing facility in Lancaster, OH, that already recycles the lead-acid and nickel-metal hydride batteries used in today’s hybrid-electric vehicles.

There is currently little economic need to recycle lithium-ion batteries. Most batteries contain only small amounts of lithium carbonate as a percentage of weight and the material is relatively inexpensive compared to most other metals.

But experts say that having a recycling infrastructure in place will ease concerns that the adoption of vehicles that use lithium-ion batteries could lead to a shortage of lithium carbonate and a dependence on countries such as China, Russia, and Bolivia, which control the bulk of global lithium reserves.

When old batteries arrive they go into a hammer mill and are shredded, allowing components made of aluminum, cooper, and steel to be separated easily. Larger batteries that might still hold a charge are cryogenically frozen with liquid nitrogen before being hammered and shredded; at -325 degrees Fahrenheit, the reactivity of the cells is reduced to zero. Lithium is then extracted by flooding the battery chambers in a caustic bath that dissolves lithium salts, which are filtered out and used to produce lithium carbonate. The remaining sludge is processed to recover cobalt, which is used to make battery electrodes. [Source: Technology Review]

Tesla’s publicists, of course, do not mention things like the energy expense of cryogenic freezing; exactly what substances comprise that “caustic bath”; or whether industrial cobalt powder is really “non-toxic.”

Worse, even Tesla’s P.R. department admits this much: “The result from this process is that we are able to recycle about 60% of the battery material.”

In other words, 40 percent of the rare and toxic and energy-intensive things that go into an electric car battery will be lost and injected as garbage into the environment after each and every 7-year manifestation of these things.

Such is the substance of “green” in our market-totalitarian epoch… Gods help us all.

Michael Dawson lives in Portland, Oregon, where he teaches sociology and writes blogs about corporate capitalism, commercialism, and cars-first transportation. He can be reached at mdawson@pdx.edu


  • Yves Engler writes:

    Even with alternative fuels or better fuel efficiency the private car will continue to be an ecological catastrophe. From steel and aluminum, to paint and rubber production, to automotive assembly, manufacturing an average automobile generates enormous pollution. A Summer 2007 study titled, From Dust to Dust, concluded that half the energy a car uses in its lifecycle is in the production and destruction phases. Growing awareness of these energy costs prompted Norway to make it nearly impossible for car companies to advertise as “green”, “clean” or “environmentally friendly” without proving that this was the case in every aspect of the lifecycle from production to emissions to recycling.

    The basic point is this: there is no such thing as a green car. It is not sustainable for individuals to hop into a two, four or eight thousand pound metal box for mobility.

  • To Ian: Thanks for your reply.

    Technological advances in making the internal combustion engine more fuel efficient (of which there have been many in recent decades) are more about increasing profits than conserving fuel supplies. The Ford Escape Hybrid is about $7,000 more expensive than the plain vanilla Ford Escape, and costs lots more to repair and maintain.

    As Simon Butler recently pointed out, “useful technologies alone won’t come close to dealing with the climate crisis. If the capitalist growth machine is left untouched, energy efficiency gains will simply lay the basis for higher energy use and could even make the climate crisis worse.”

    Ford still can’t get around the fact that their vehicle runs on gasoline alone, even if they are able to take some of the gas-guzzling stigma away from the sport utility vehicle and persuade consumers to part with more money in order to enjoy the illusion of “going green”.

    • Thanks Jeff … I entirely agree that “improving” cars is no alternative to replacing them with public transit. My comment was only about how the technology works — the battery is charged from the brakes, not directly from the engine, making it more fuel efficient.

      I live in a rural area where there is no transit at all, so I don’t have the choice of not driving. My experience with a hybrid is that it uses less gas than the gas-only equivalent, and that the cost of maintenance has not been any higher — the difference isn’t enough to offset the car’s higher price, but it does make me feel a little bit greener — even us tough-as-nails Marxist types need such feelings now and then!

      I have no way of measuring its CO emissions, but I presume they are lower. I agree with Bill that the car’s display makes me more aware of my driving habits, and more able to choose ways of using less gas. I suppose that feature could be implemented on a non-hybrid as well, but I haven’t seen it.

  • Operating battery powered electric vehicles over long distance makes little sense and the TESLA is just an overpriced toy for rich people.
    But I think the article by Michael Dawson is wrong about some issues;

    Lithium is an element, not a fuel and is no more “non-renewable” than Iron or Aluminium are, just rarer.

    The issue of the energy requirements of recycling Lithium Iron batteries and the environmental consequences, applies to all manufactured articles.

    World reserves are probably sufficient for the mass production of plug-in hybrids.
    If not, there are other options, such as fuel cell vehicles.

    The real question with all EV’s is how the electricity is generated in the first place.
    If it comes from renewable sources like wind and solar power, batteries have one particular benefit;

    They can store power and return it to the grid when they’re not in use. This acts as a buffer to the grid and compensates for the variability of renewable power sources.

    The argument over public vs private transportation is a different question;
    Public transport, based on electric power is much more energy efficient and less polluting than private cars. But public transport can be inflexible and doesn’t serve all areas.

    Better integration of public and low pollution private transport, including EV’s, cycle and pedestrians, is the best way forward.

    Ultra PRT in an interesting system from this point of view. This uses automated electric vehicles, that operate on guided tracks and afford passengers the choice of destination who else they travel with.

    The vehicles are currently powered by Lead Acid batteries, but could be adapted for Ultra-Capcitors, Fuel cells or Li-Ion batteries.
    One big advange being that they only need to store enough power to reach a recharging station.

    A prototype Ultra PRT system is currently on trial at Heathrow Airport, London.
    If succesful, such a system could be potentially be up-scaled to a city-wide basis.
    It would provide a completely flexible, safe, low-pollution, 24 hour local transportation system.

    But that would require the funds and the political will!

    A detailed description of the Heathrow trial is here:-


  • I’m skeptical that the full-cycle energy and material input/output of my hybrid is less than for my brother’s gas-only version of the same car. Harvesting kenetic energy does reduce the total use of gas (by 20%?) and brakes (by 50%???). But on the other side is the production/disposition of the extra battery, electric motor/generator, etc.

    On the other hand, I want to underline the behaviorial effects as potentially significant. My driving habits have changed a lot in response to the hybrid’s display of current fuel and electricity consumption (and more operational choices than in a gas-only car). I used to think about how to reduce my comute *time* (via timing, route selection, etc.) but now reducing my comute *gas* consumption has really become second nature.

    A social ethic around imposing less noise also becomes possible when low speeds can be powered by battery. No one hears me come and go from my apartment parkade or creep down the back alley.

    We need a huge increase in culture related to energy. The only antidote to the Jevons Paradox is consciousness. It will require red-green social power but it also needs individual practice and expression.

  • And then there’s Jevon’s paradox:

    In 1865, English economist William Stanley Jevons discovered an efficiency paradox: the more efficient you make machines, the more energy they use. Why? Because the more efficient they are, the better they are, the cheaper they are and more people buy them, and the more they’ll use them.
    – from: Alec Dubro, The Myth of the Efficient Car

  • The auto manufacturers are even marketing as “hybrids” vehicles that depend entirely on hydrocarbon fuel for their energy inputs.

    The Ford Escape Hybrid, presented as a “greener” kind of compact SUV, has a gasoline engine, an electric motor, and a storage battery that powers the latter. Depending on the circumstances, the Escape can run on the gasoline engine or the electric motor, or both.

    The catch, however, is that the electricity that charges the storage battery (and thus powers the electric motor) is entirely generated by the gasoline engine. Thus, the relatively low energy efficiency of the internal combustion engine (generally about 20%) is made even less efficient by the addition of the further energy transfer processes of battery charging, storage in the battery, and operation of the electric motor.

    And 100% of all the energy consumed by the vehicle comes out of the gas pump!

    • Jeff, that’s sort of correct, but I think misleading. Of course all of the car’s energy comes ultimately from the gasoline, but the the battery is charged by the braking process, not directly from the engine. So kinetic energy that would normally, in a non-hybrid, be dissipated as heat, is used to drive the generator that charges the battery. The entire process is more efficient. Not great, but it does reduce gas consumption noticeably, especially in stop and go traffic