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STUDY: Driving Electric Cars Can Be Dirtier Than Using Diesel Engines

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by Jason Hopkins

Another study has called into question the environmental benefits of electric vehicles, citing the amount of carbon pollution emitted when making lithium-ion batteries.

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Depending on where it is manufactured, an electric vehicle can emit more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than an efficient conventional car, according to data compiled by Bloomberg New Energy Finance and Berylls Strategy Advisors. The problem centers around the development of lithium-ion batteries, which largely power electric vehicles.

It takes significant energy to manufacture these batteries, and the process can actually mean more carbon pollution is released if it’s manufactured in a country heavily reliant on fossil fuels.

“It will come down to where is the battery made, how is it made, and even where do we get our electric power from,” said Henrik Fisker, a CEO of a company that develops electric vehicles, in a statement to Bloomberg.

While electric vehicles (EVs) produce little-to-no carbon emissions when they hit the roads, the manufacturing of EVs can produce so much pollution, it can cancel out long-term benefits for the environment. As EVs make up a larger share of the vehicle market, the supply of lithium-ion batteries is expected to come from countries such as China, Germany, Poland and Thailand — places where coal still takes up a big share of the energy portfolio.

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For example, the average vehicle owner in Germany could drive a conventional car over 31,000 miles — around three and a half years — before a Nissan Leaf with a 30 kWh battery would best it in carbon-dioxide emissions, according to estimates from Berylls.

“It’s not a great change to move from diesel to German coal power,” former Tesla manager Peter Carlsson said. “Electric cars will be better in every way, but of course, when batteries are made in a coal-based electricity system it will take longer” to beat diesel engines, he explained.

The case is different when examining a grid that enjoys a much larger share of clean and renewable energy. In Norway, where hydroelectricity largely powers the grid, EVs can produce almost 60 percent less over their lifetimes, beating out even the most fuel-efficient diesel engines.

This is far from the first time the environmental bona fides of EVs have been questioned.

Engaged Tracking, a London-based research firm, found in June that the production of Tesla vehicles may be just as bad for the environment as diesel or petrol-fueled cars. A study released by the Manhattan Institute in May reached similar conclusions.

Electric car critics have also called out manufacturers for the massive tax subsidies they receive from the U.S. government. Given that mostly higher income families purchase EVs, these subsidies essentially serve as a tax on poor and middle-income Americans who don’t wish to purchase these costlier vehicles.

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