Are Electric Cars Green? The External Cost of Lithium Batteries

The Energy Collective, by N Nadir   5/15/13
electric car

One of the more fashionable concepts that one hears among people who regard themselves as environmentalists, is that the world would be much better off if only we could make the electric car mainstream.   Without having engaged in any kind of systematic survey among serious thinkers on the environment, I certainly feel this is the case [among environmentalists], although with a little digging, one can see that this is certainly not universally held to be the case, especially if one looks in the primary scientific literature.
A recent article in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, for example noted that China already has 100 million electric vehicles and that the health and climate benefits and deficits of these vehicles is decidedly mixed, particularly because of the high externalities associated with China's overwhelming dependence on coal power.    
The majority of these “vehicles” are, in fact, electric scooters, and their overall externalities are much lower than other electric cars, just as motorized scooters powered by gasoline have lower externalities than gasoline cars. 
But China has also been producing and promoting electric cars, as many people in the United States are also doing, and the authors of this paper examine the externalities of electric cars by analyzing the primary energy sources China uses to generate electricity.
With the current electric generation mix in China, the authors claim (See Table 1 if you access the original paper) that for the city of Shanghai, for instance, the death toll associated with PM2.5(Particulate Matter approximately 2.5 μm in size) resulting from the use of gasoline cars in that each year is about 9 people per 10 billion km traveled (1,000,000 cars*10,000 km (car-yr)-1, whereas the cost in terms of an electric car via the same mechanism is thought to be 26 persons deaths resulting from the same number of kilometers traveled.   Included in their calculation is a stochastic factor called the intake fraction, which accounts for the average distance from a coal plant that provides electricity for Shanghai and the probability that particulate matter from its exhaust will be deposited in lung tissue.   (The intake fraction’s units are parts per million.)   The intact factor is actually lower for the coal generating units, as they are at some distance from the city, whereas the gasoline (or diesel) car produces particulates at the point of use.   Nevertheless, there are so many more particulates released with coal than with gasoline that the electric car actually performs worse than the gasoline car (although better than diesel cars).
If one considers the carbon dioxide cost, the situation represents no spectacular savings either.   In Beijing, the electric car releases as much carbon as a gasoline car getting fuel economy of 9L/100 km (26 mpg), a modest, at best, efficiency number in modern times.
I am a strong advocate of nuclear energy, and regard it as the only source of energy with the right combinatorial optimization of safety, sustainability, ease of scale up, cost, and environmental impact - the general public susceptibility to selective attention with respect to the these concerns notwithstanding - that might have had any reasonable chance at providing a decent lifestyle for the 7 billion people on this planet, almost all of whom assume their own right to life, and if not to liberty, than certainly to the pursuit of happiness.
Since it is widely, if wrongly, believed that nuclear energy is only suitable for the generation of electricity, one might suppose that I would at least be sympathetic, in theory, to the electric car.   Afterall, if China were to succeed at its stated goal of building more nuclear power plants than the rest of the world now has combined, the health cost and greenhouse external cost would be vastly improved for such cars.
To be perfectly honest, I am not sympathetic to any aspect of the car CULTure, but surely I must believe that if we must have cars, than electric cars are the way to go.  No?
The electric car is no more sustainable than the gasoline or diesel car in my view, and, as is the case with much hyped wind industry, the reason has to do not so much with the fuel properties as it does with the metal content of the machinery.
The paper from the primary scientific literature to which I will refer in this document is, as of this writing in the same journal to which I've referred above (and yes, I do read other journals) and can be found in the "ASAP" section as of this writing:
The question here is the same question that people often regard as a show stopper for discussions of nuclear energy - although the question is trivial for so called "nuclear waste" and is not trivial for almost anything else - specifically, "what do you do with the waste."
Even if there is enough lithium to displace the 1 billion internal combustion engine cars that now pollute the earth with electric cars, it is the electronic waste problem - one of the most intractable problems now faced by humanity - that should dominate the question.
To wit, the authors write as follows: 
Rechargeable lithium-based batteries have displaced nickel−cadmium and nickel metal hydride batteries to become the dominant energy supply components in portable consumer electronic products due to Li-ion’s superior energy density and slow discharge in idle mode.1These advantages have also led to the adoption of lithium batteries in electric vehicles, military, and aerospace applications. Consequently, the global market for lithium batteries is projected to increase from $7.9 billion in 2008 to $8.6 billion in 2014.1 With a relatively short life span of about 2 to 4 years, rechargeable lithium batteries in portable electronic devices will contribute substantially to the increasing problem of electronic waste (e-waste), the fastest growing segment of the U.S. solid waste stream2,3...
 ...Lithium batteries contain potentially toxic materials including metals, such as copper, nickel,and lead, and organic chemicals, such as toxic and flammable electrolytes containing LiClO4, LiBF4, and LiPF6.4 Human and environmental exposures to these chemicals are typically regulated during the manufacture of lithium batteries through occupational health and safety laws, and potential fire hazards associated with their transportation are regulated through the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (49 CFR 173.185),5 but there is inconsistent policy about the fate of discarded lithium batteries in e-waste that is distributed internationally.3,5,6 This study focused on metals in three types of batteries entering the waste stream, Li-ion and Li-poly batteries from older phones and lithium batteries from newer smartphones that are increasingly entering the waste stream.

It will not serve to repeat all the findings in this paper - one may refer to the original if one is interested - but it should suffice to say that the authors conclude as follows:
Results of this research indicate that rechargeable lithium based batteries associated with portable electronic products are potential sources of hazardous metal pollutants in the environment. These metal pollutants can adversely impact environmental quality and human health, particularly in regions of the world that lack infrastructure for solid waste collection, sorting, and recycling. This study has identified metals, Co, Cu, Ni, and Pb that, under simulated landfill conditions, would leach out concentrations that would exceed regulatory limits, thereby rendering their respective lithium batteries hazardous under U.S. federal and state laws. These results call for increased coordination of regulatory policies to support the recycling of portable rechargeable batteries, and for improved DfE strategies to reduce the levels of hazardous chemical components of consumer electronic products.
It is interesting to note that this weekend, about 1,000 protesters gathered in the Songjiang district of Shanghai to protest a plan by  Hefei Guoxuan High-tech Power Energy Co Ltd to build a lithium battery plant there.   The protest was made on environmental grounds.
I expect that people will note that many electric cars do not rely on lithium batteries, as the highly subsidized Tesla car for millionaires and billionaires does, but the question, "what does one do with (electronic) waste?" applies to all kinds of energy storage devices, even if - especially in connection with so called "renewable energy" - various kinds of energy storage are assumed to have neutral or negligible external costs, a claim that is ridiculous even with a cursory review of the thermodynamics of energy storage.
The case is not absolute, but it is instructive.