As if to underscore the opposing forces of Yin and Yang, and the premise that for every action, there’s a reaction – or more colloquially: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” – comes a new study conducted by a team from The Wall Street Journal about the barriers for some carmakers on the production of electric vehicles.
Many in our societies falsely believe that the EV is the ‘silver bullet’ to drastically reducing vehicle emissions. If you are an Australian EV owner, then you can only re-charge your EV from an electricity grid powered by coal-fired power stations. Zero emissions? Nope!
And, you can forget about the argument that we are phasing out coal-fired generation in favour of electricity from renewables. In Australia, renewables cannot replace or even begin to supplement electricity supply from carbon-intense generation, or substitute coal-fired generators to maintain base load and consequently a stable electricity grid.
Because of the makeup of the combination of rare earth metals, plus lithium and other substances (cobalt, lithium, nickel, copper, etc) necessary for the manufacture of EVs, this makes EVs very expensive to purchase.
The country making the cheapest and most affordable EVs right now is China – simply because it has vast reserves of all the minerals, elements and rare earth metals required for the manufacture of EVs.
This has forced conventional carmakers which are trying to add EVs to their vehicle ranges, to search out alternatives to some of these precious metals – and the search is not going well.
Whilst the race is on to find alternatives, there is another consideration which EV owners are not taking into account, and that is the total degradation of the landscape after the mining and extraction of these substances. More on this later.
The WSJ cites this latest challenge for EV makers as the ‘Nickel Pickle’.
“To make batteries for EVs companies need to mine and refine vast quantities of nickel, but the process of getting the nickel out of the ground and refining it is particularly environmentally unfriendly.
Indonesia has the world’s largest nickel reserves, and although it’s close to the surface and relatively inexpensive to mine, the nickel can only be found in large swathes of forests, so vast rainforests must be cleared.
Then the refining process demands a highly carbon-intensive process involving extreme heat and high pressure which leaves behind a toxic waste ‘slurry’ which is very difficult to dispose of.
One Indonesian miner received approval to expand operations into an area three times the size of New York’s Central Park.
The mine’s Australian owner, reported that the forest clearing caused greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 56,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide – the equivalent of driving 12,000 conventional cars for a year – based on calculations by the WSJ.”
In April last year a report from Tesla said that EVs caused more emissions during the manufacturing phase than conventional vehicles, due to the process of extracting and refining minerals.
The push to extract more nickel has also created pressing new environmental concerns. The refining process involves dousing nickel ore in sulphuric acid and heating it to more than 200C at enormous pressures.
In addition, companies face questions about how to get rid of the waste. It’s difficult to safely sequester in tropical countries because of frequent earthquakes and heavy rains which destabilise the soil, causing waste dams to collapse.
A 2018 Indonesian law allowed companies to obtain permits to discard mineral waste into the ocean! However, as yet, this has not happened, due to pressure from environmentalists.
On the other side of the world in the Atacama ‘triangle’ in South America, the recovery of lithium ion from a lithium-rich slurry which sits in ponds on the surfaces, leaves the landscape completely degraded and unusable for any other purpose whatsoever.
Next time I want to bring to your attention the confusion and obfuscation which exists around the development of ‘blue’ and ‘green’ hydrogen – another plan marred by unacceptable environmental costs.