"Electric vehicles are the Next Big Thing in transportation. Car enthusiasts are fans of their instant acceleration, and the fledgling driverless car industry sees some natural synergies between fleets of autonomous vehicles and batteries. But their biggest cheerleaders have to be environmentalists, who laud EVs’ lack of tailpipe emissions want to see them wean the world off of oil.
But the green credentials of the electric car industry deserve further scrutiny, in particular the environmental impact of the batteries that power these vehicles. The FT reports:
Mining companies are already positioning themselves to meet the increased need for raw materials that go into lithium-ion batteries, but there is growing concerns over their environmental footprint especially as a host of new mining companies start production to meet rapid rises in demand.The last point raised there is particularly troubling, and it’s one that applies to many industries with “eco-” or “clean-” prefixes. As demand for a product grows (in this case the lithium ion batteries), increasing stress is put on supply chains which raise quality control concerns and, if you’re in the business of peddling products that are supposed to be good for the environment, can undermine that eco-friendly marketing.
Lithium is currently extracted from brines beneath the deserts of South America and evaporated using the energy of the sun. But an increasing proportion is coming from crushing rock in Australia and processing the mineral in China, which is more energy intensive. Goldman Sachs expects capacity addition by hard rock to be equal to brine by 2020 in order to meet demand from electric vehicles.
In addition, most of the new supply is coming from smaller mining companies rather than established players, according to Francis Condon, an energy and mining analyst at fund manager RobecoSAM. “We’re starting to see new sources being found and smaller mining companies and also non-mining companies getting involved,” says Mr Condon. “Some of these opportunities are arising where environmental codes are not as strong and social settings not as protective or inclusive. It’s a combination of risks.”
Calling electric vehicles green is a great way to move product, but it doesn’t necessarily make it so. As this industry grows and demand for the materials that make up batteries ratchets up, companies are going to start looking to less environmentally friendly sources. This is an opportunity for unscrupulous firms: attract customers with some snazzy aspirational eco-marketing without doing any of the work to back those green claims up. It happens a lot more than the average customer knows, and electric vehicles are just the latest example."