Excerpts from an April memo sent to Toyota dealers, and quoted Monday in The Wall Street Journal, made plain the challenges of electric vehicle manufacturing when it comes to the illusion of the EV’s manufacturing environmental impact.
The memo states several facts that should give well-meaning environmentalists pause. Consider that:
- “More than 300 new lithium, cobalt, nickel and graphite mines are needed to meet the expected battery demand by 2035.”
- “The amount of raw materials in one long-range battery electric vehicle could instead be used to make 6 plug-in hybrid electric vehicles or 90 hybrid electric vehicles.”
- “The overall carbon reduction of those 90 hybrids over their lifetimes is 37 times as much as a single battery electric vehicle.”
- “To meet the federal sales targets, 1.2 million public chargers are needed by 2030. That amounts to approximately 400 new chargers per day.” Certainly, that isn’t happening, as a thicket of government regulations makes that nearly impossible.
Maintaining reliable supply of earth metals
What few government officials appreciate is that the environmental impact of driving an electric vehicle starts with producing its battery, which requires a number of rare metals be mined from the earth, such as lithium, cobalt and nickel. And this is proving to be a big challenge as new electrified vehicles first came to market, automakers relied on cobalt as a major component for their cells. But metal is mined under treacherous circumstances using child labor, according to accounts from human rights groups and various media reports.
So automakers reduced the amount of cobalt in their batteries, compensating by using more nickel. This has caused a growing demand for nickel, a result of government mandates, not market demand, causing automakers’ concern about maintaining a sufficient supply to meet demand.
Initially, automakers relied on sulfide nickel found in Canada and Russia, which must be extracted from deep mines. But in recent years, those sources have been eclipsed by the nickel found in Indonesia, which is far closer to the surface. This is less costly to extract in monetary terms, which is why Ford invested $4.5 billion in an Indonesian nickel processing facility in March in partnership with PT Vale Indonesia, and Chinese refiner Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Co.
Similarly, a joint venture between Hyundai Motor Group and LG Energy Solution has led to the construction of a new battery plant that should start production there next year. Indonesia accounts for about 50% of the nickel used in EV batteries last year, according to CRU, a commodities business intelligence firm cited in a Wall Street Journal report, and is expected to reach 80% by 2027.
Indonesia is becoming a key supplier of nickel as government law bans its export.
A huge environmental cost
But the Indonesia’s growth as a nickel supplier comes with a huge environmental cost, according to a Monday Wall Street Journal report. Indonesian nickel ore resides beneath rain forests that have to be cleared, eliminating wildlife habitats. Also, the forests are typically located near pristine waters and coral reefs.
But the environmental impact doesn’t stop there. To make the nickel suitable for battery use, it’s refined using carbon-intensive manufacturing method perfected in China and powered by coal. The process produces an industrial waste known as tailings, which have to be properly disposed of to avoid water pollution.
Automakers, including Tesla, know this, but the EV maker says the impact is equalized within two years compared to an internal combustion vehicle. In fact, a March 2021 University of Toronto/Dow Jones analysis that compares the Tesla Model 3’s manufacturing and driving emissions with those of a Toyota RAV4 show that by 21,000 miles, the Tesla will produce fewer emissions, and by 100,000 miles, it will have produced 77% fewer.
However, Toyota’s April report to dealers suggests that the world’s governments are pushing an EV ideal at odds with reality, one that could be replacing one environmental disaster for another.