Tesla and other EVs’ potential to reduce emissions is widely underestimated: study

There are a lot of misconceptions about electric vehicles, but arguably the most prominent is the argument that EVs pollute more than their internal combustion engine-powered counterparts. Despite being debunked over and over again by people like Tesla CEO Elon Musk and organizations like Bloomberg NEF, the “long tailpipe” myth has remained incredibly persistent.

A recent study from electric mobility expert Auke Hoekstra has concluded that electric vehicles actually have the potential to be far cleaner than expected, especially since battery manufacturing and the power grid will likely not remain static. As the adoption of more efficiencies in battery manufacturing are rolled out and as more and more energy is gathered through renewable sources, the greenhouse gas emissions of electric cars like the Tesla Model 3 will see a dramatic reduction.

The findings of Hoekstra et al. stand in stark contrast to the conclusions of a study published by scientists Christoph Buchal, Hans-Dieter Karl and Hans-Werner Sinn earlier this year, who claimed that a Tesla Model 3 pollutes more than a Mercedes-Benz C 220 d due to the greenhouse gas emissions involved in the production of the electric car’s batteries. This conclusion, according to Hoekstra, has several critical mistakes.

For one, researchers such as Buchal et al. tend to overestimate the emissions produced in the battery manufacturing process. Hoekstra noted that around 65 kg of greenhouse gas emissions is emitted for every kWh of battery produced, which includes extracting and refining raw materials and actually producing the battery cells themselves. Buchal’s study estimated that the Model 3 emits 145–195 kg/kWh for its battery production, which does not take into account new chemistries that are adopted for battery production, or improvements in the cell manufacturing process.

The lifetime of batteries is also grossly underestimated in studies that allege EVs pollute more (or marginally less) than gas cars. In Buchal et al.’s case, for example, the scientists estimated that the Model 3’s batteries would only last 150,000 km (around 93,000 miles) before they are scrapped. This is a miscalculation, considering that current-generation batteries are estimated to last at least 1,500 to 3,000 cycles before they lose 20% of their capacity. For a vehicle like a Tesla Model 3 with Dual Motor AWD, which has a range of 310 miles, this would give the car around 747,000 km (about 464,000 miles) on the low end (1500 cycles) before their batteries would need replacing. And even after this, the batteries are recycled, not discarded, as noted by Elon Musk.

Perhaps the most notable miscalculation from EV critics is that many fail to account for the fact that electricity itself is getting greener with the adoption of renewable energy solutions. Battery-electric vehicles in some areas of the globe might be driving on power generated from coal today, but that will not always be the case. If an EV is driven on renewable energy sources, Hoekstra estimates that the battery-powered vehicles’ emissions would drop by a factor of 10. And that’s computing it using current-generation renewable technology.

The struggle for the future’s preferred form of propulsion will continue to be waged between batteries/electric motors and fossil fuels/internal combustion engine. Yet, it is essential to note that the internal combustion engine is already a mature technology that has likely reached its peak. Battery-powered cars, on the other hand, are only getting started. Heralded by the Model 3, the advent of disruptive vehicles like the new Tesla Roadster, the Rivian R1T pickup, or even the Porsche Taycan could ultimately seal the deal on electricity being the preferred source of propulsion in the years to come.

An Abstract of Hoekstra et al.’s study could be accessed here.

Simon Alvarez

Simon is a reporter with a passion for electric cars and clean energy. Fascinated by the world envisioned by Elon Musk, he hopes to make it to Mars (at least as a tourist) someday.

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