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Roddy Graham's blog: 11 January 2011 - How green are EVs?

Date: 11 January 2011

Roddy Graham is chairman of the ICFM and commercial director of Leasedrive Velo

As electric vehicles start to make inroads into mainstream motoring, it's worth pausing to not only wait for the silent whoosh as one goes by but also to consider just how clean and efficient these vehicles really are. And currently, you're going to have to wait around for ages for one to come along so you have plenty of thinking time too!

Firstly, like any vehicle they need to be produced, which not only uses up energy but also some pretty rare materials. Lanthanum, a rare earth element (REE), is used in the production of hybrid vehicle batteries. Another, Neodymium, makes the lightest and strongest magnets used in the electric motors of hybrid vehicles. Problem is that 97% of REEs are sourced from China and the world's second largest economy has just announced that it is cutting export quotas for REEs by a massive 35% for the first six months of this year.

While REEs are found in some of the most inhospitable areas, close to the Earth's surface, mining them presents considerable environmental risk. The ores in which they are found contain radioactive elements such as radium, thorium and uranium. And to refine REES requires the use of toxic acids which leave a nasty waste sludge behind. At least a saving grace is that the mining takes place in remote areas but it's no wonder REEs are now described as 'clean energy's dirty little secret'!

So bad is the potential pollution that the world's biggest REE mine until the turn of the Century, located in the Mojave desert in California, had to be closed down in 2002 after a major spill of radioactive waste water and other hazardous materials. It will however be re-opening later this year due to world demand for REEs, and no doubt the US's concern over reliance on China.

So that's just one dirty little secret behind electric vehicle production, not to mention the aforementioned energy and other raw materials required in their production.

Once on the road, the pollution doesn't stop there either as they have to be charged up every 125 miles or so. That requires electricity, often provided by dirty coal-burning power stations, not exactly the most environmentally friendly solution.

Take Detroit as an example, home of the US auto industry. The majority of the power supplied in the area is from nine coal-fired power stations. No wonder Detroit Edison is sponsoring the first 2,500 home charging stations for the first electric car buyers at a cost of $2500 each. Even in central Michigan the scenario is the same, with four large coal-fired power stations sponsoring a similar scheme. And some of these power plants are ancient ones too, dating back to the 1920s!

While in the UK, the Plug-In Car Grant of £5000, covering nine eligible vehicles emitting 75g/km of CO2 or lower, went live on January 1, potential US car buyers of electric and hybrid vehicles are not so lucky, gaining a tax credit of just $7500, to offset the huge upfront cost.

And lest we forget America's place as the world's second largest polluter of carbon emissions behind China, its cars account for only nine per cent of CO2 emissions compared to the UK's 11.5%, its power stations playing a greater part.

To cap it all, not all electric or hybrid vehicles are as efficient as they are claimed to be. The hybrid Chevrolet Volt is said by GM to deliver 50 mpg when powered by fuel but owners are covering just 38 miles on a gallon. GM's response was that it would be 10-15% worse if it were not sometimes petrol driven!

Much has been made of the advent of the electric car, especially now the Nissan Leaf is Car of The Year. All well and good but don't look at electric and hybrid vehicles through rose tinted glasses. There is much yet to commend the internal combustion engine, especially the smaller capacity versions. Even F1 is going the 1.6-litre turbocharged route in 2013. There is life in the old dog yet!

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