Are EV Batteries Really All That Green?

We all know that electric vehicles (EVs) offeri a greener mode of transportation as far as tail-pipe emissions go. But how environmentally friendly in general are those lithium-ion batteries used to power EVs?

The short answer is greener than expected, with a few important considerations. According to researchers at Empa, the ecological footprint of the most commonly used type of electric vehicle battery, the lithium-ion, is roughly equivalent to a 70 MPG gasoline-powered automobile. (This is believed to be the first time the ecological footprint of these batteries has been calculated.)

battery switch station

Image via Better Place Blog

Measuring the impact of these batteries was no easy task, as the degree to which the process of the manufacture, usage and disposal of the batteries used to store the necessary electrical energy is detrimental to the environment is not known, exactly. This life-cycle assessment measured all factors, “from scratch,” so to speak, for both li-ion batteries currently used in electric cars and improved, more environmentally-friendly ones coming down the line.

Overall, the study showed that the car’s Li-ion battery drive is in fact only a moderate environmental burden, as, at most, only 15 percent of the total carbon footprint of an electric vehicle can be ascribed to the battery (including its manufacture, maintenance and disposal). However, the greatest factor in calculating the battery’s impact was its fuel source. “Refueling” with electricity derived from a mixture of atomic, coal-fired and hydroelectric power stations (the norm in Europe), results in three times as much pollution as from the Li-ion battery alone. If the electricity is generated exclusively by coal-fired power stations, the eco-balance worsens by another 13%; on the other hand, if the power is purely hydroelectric, then the overall carbon footprint of the battery improves by a whopping 40%.

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Susan DeFreitas has covered all manner of green technology for EarthTechling since 2009. She is a graduate of Prescott College for the Liberal Arts and the Environment, and has a background in marketing green businesses. Her work on green living has been featured in Yes! Magazine, the Utne Reader and Natural Home.