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Electric cars: electric not magic

Unfortunately, lithium batteries will become scarce and expensive, and should be reserved for public transport and shared-use schemes.
James Nix


 It’s electric! The Tesla Model S electric vehicle seen plugged in at the 2010 American International Auto Show
It’s electric! The Tesla Model S electric vehicle seen plugged in at the 2010 American International Auto Show

The view that electric cars will one day occupy the position now held by their internal combustion counterparts is an impression frequently conveyed, but it isn’t backed up by the facts. Electric cars rely on lithium batteries, but the supply of lithium is only enough to make 10% of the world’s cars. To put it another way, there is only enough lithium available to make five million of the 50 million cars produced each year. Although this shortage was denied at first, now even car manufacturers accept the problem, and Mitsubishi admit that lithium supplies are so tight that by 2015 electric cars may be uncompetitive to build.


Already, a lithium battery pack can account for €7,000 of the cost of a new electric car. And the car industry faces intense competition from the portable electronics sector – a battle it can’t realistically win. A lithium battery required for a new car is 100 times larger than that needed for a laptop. Because carmakers like Mitsubishi know that the rising cost of lithium is likely to discourage the sales of electric cars much more than mobile phones, music players and laptops, it has sought to partner directly with three countries that control 70% of lithium reserves – Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. Mining lithium is a dirty process. Vast amounts of chlorine are used to bleach out other chemicals found with lithium deposits, and the chlorine destroys the local water table. Industrial lithium production has already laid waste thousands of square kilometres, leaving water supplies too polluted even for agriculture, and ending farming in parts of Chile and Argentina. It threatens to the same in Bolivia. Sulphur dioxide is another nasty by-product, belched out by lithium plants.

The second single largest source of lithium is the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, a vast 10,000 sq km salt plain, visited by over 60,000 people a year. With deep, closely-spaced trenches needed to recover lithium, its fate would be sealed by lithium extraction. To draw a parallel, mining Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni would be much like churning up our Burren. The Bolivian government has given the go-ahead to a small state-sponsored pilot plant at the edge of the Salar, and deflects questions regarding future expansion. William Tahil, who began writing reports with a purely economic focus, now stresses our responsibility not to fall into the traps of the past, “We cannot have ‘green cars’ that have been produced at the expense of some of the world’s last unspoiled and irreplaceable wilderness”.

Essentially, electric cars are being billed as a means to continue our high levels of personal mobility as fossil fuels become more expensive, both financially and environmentally. But becoming hooked on lithium is scarcely an answer to being addicted to oil. The wider political implications are stark, entrusting key Latin American countries with the global importance now held by the Middle East. Touting electric cars as a widely-applicable solution simply switches reliance from oil to lithium, doing little or nothing to reshape the low-density model of development that still pre-dominates today in Ireland, albeit that development is now on a reduced scale compared to the previous decade. A limited option is being inaccurately portrayed as a widespread solution. And recycling lithium provides little in the way of an answer; across the EU only 20% of lithium batteries are recycled.

As well as the problem with lithium supply, we have to get real about other careless assumptions too. It has been suggested that wind energy will yield “surplus” power at night, and this electricity, unless it’s put into electric cars, would otherwise be “spilled” from the grid. Not quite. Smart metering is being installed to allow power to be used for a variety applications when the wind is blowing. For example, a pre-loaded washing machine can be programmed to turn itself on if the wind picks up overnight, and if there has been no wind by, say, 6am the smart meter will take conventional electricity to start the washing machine churning. The point is that power from intermittent wind could be used for a wide variety of other applications or processes, in the home, at businesses and other facilities. Moreover, wind energy could also be stored using batteries or pumped storage. In short, there is no analysis to show electric cars are the best use for renewable electricity.

What is becoming clear is that electric vehicles are more of a niche application than most car marketers would have us believe. In Paris the average car spends 95% of the time parked at various locations. This points towards a solution where electric cars would be deployed in much the same way as the Dublin Bikes scheme, with docking bays doubling as recharging stations. In fact, this is already happening in Paris with the Autolib project – a car version of the hugely successful bike-hire scheme. In Ireland, it makes sense to adopt this vision, placing electric cars at key strategic locations, and perhaps wiring them into a central computer system that allows online booking. In Paris, the vision is to reduce car ownership and car use, allowing car owners to sell off petrol and diesel cars they only use now and again, in exchange for access to an electric vehicle they can use now and again. The plan is not to replace oil with lithium.

Because rechargeable lithium battery packs are a scarce resource, there’s a strong case to devote them to vehicles that are publicly available to us all, rather than a wealthy few, namely electric buses, taxis and shared-use schemes like Autolib. Overall, lithium needs to be a path to power-down, not a route to run ourselves into a new shortage of another raw material. Electric cars won’t take us away from the rising cost of oil, or allow us to enjoy the mobility we enjoy today by simply switching to a different technology. For our long term welfare, we must make the most of what limited lithium exists, and much more importantly, prioritise solutions that remove the need for powered transport.