Elon Musk, Chairman, CEO and Product Architect of Tesla Motors, addresses a press conference to declare that the Tesla Motors releases v7.0 System in China on a limited basis for its Model S, which will enable self-driving features such as Autosteer for a select group of beta testers, Oct. 23, 2015 in Beijing, China.

 

Tesla Motors has been making headlines since it’s production of the Tesla Roadster in 2008, which was the first electric sports car on the market. Since then, the American-based company has taken massive leaps forward in the electric car industry. They have solidified themselves as top contenders in this market, and their newest releases, the Model S and the Model X crossover SUV are posting impressive numbers due to their low carbon footprint, affordable prices, and unparalleled luxury in the electric vehicle industry.

 

More recently, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, has unveiled the Tesla Model 3, an all-electric four-door compact luxury sedan. Initial production and deliveries are being planned for the end of 2017, with mass-scale production scheduled for early 2018.

 

The concept behind electric vehicles is sound and is backed up by an un-tapped market. Not to mention, the marketing freedom that Musk has with this company is paramount to their success; the average consumer can purchase a luxury sedan that drives itself, is very affordable, and oh yeah, doesn’t emit any carbon emissions.

 

Or do they?

The Hidden Carbon Footprint Of Every Tesla Vehicle Lies In Their Batteries

How green is a Tesla, really? Devonshire Research Group, an investment firm that specializes in valuing tech companies, dug into the data and concluded that Tesla’s environmental benefits might be more excited than warranted.

 

Devonshire isn’t saying that Tesla is pulling a Volkswagen, or that its cars are spewing greenhouse gases from invisible tailpipes. It’s arguing that Teslas (and, by extension, all electric vehicles) create pollution and carbon emissions in other ways. Each stage of an EV’s life has environmental impacts, and while they aren’t as visible as a tailpipe pumping out fumes, that doesn’t make them any less damaging.

 

It begins with how you get your energy for your Tesla in the first place. The carbon footprint from any individual Tesla car solely depends on where you live and how your local grid generates electricity.

 

“If you use coal-fired power plants to produce the electricity, then all-electrics don’t even look that much better than a traditional vehicle regarding greenhouse gases,” says Virginia McConnell, an economist at the Environmental Research firm Resources for the Future.

 

Conversely, if your local grid incorporates a fair amount of renewable solar and wind energy, like California, your electric vehicle is pretty clean.

 

Operating Power Generating Units in America

 

It’s great to drive a green vehicle that emits no carbon dioxide chemicals into the atmosphere like a regular gas-powered car would, but if your electricity grid is burning fossil fuels in other to receive its energy, you aren’t necessarily solving the problem of carbon emissions by driving a Tesla vehicle, or any electric car for that matter.

 

However, I don’t think this graph alone does this argument any justice. For the sake of comparison, let’s analyse which method of transportation is cheaper concerning the natural resources needed to produce the necessary energy. For this argument, let’s compare how much physical coal is required to generate enough electricity to power the average electric vehicle for 300 miles.

 

First off, the official statement: no grid is 100% coal generation and virtually all new demand these days reduces the percentage of coal generation on a grid.

That said, let’s break it down:

A 2012 Tesla Model S with the 85 KWH battery pack has an EPA rated range of 265 miles. Tesla Model S.

 

Some math tells us that 300 miles would require about 96 KWH. “Since coal has a heat value of 20,000 kJ/kg, for producing one KWH we need (10765 / 20000) 0.538 kg of coal. ” The Coal Quantity Used in a Power Plant 96 KWH would require, once again through simple math, just under 52 KG of coal or about 114 pounds of coal.

For comparison, gasoline weighs 2.83 kg or 6.25 lbs per US gallon, so 20 gallons would weigh about 57 kg or 125 pounds, slightly more than the coal. Of course, that’s assuming a car that gets 15 miles per gallon which kind of sucks.

What’s fascinating about this comparison, given how close the weights are, is looking at energy density.

A tonne (2000 pounds) of coal has 28,000,000 BTUs (British Thermal Units).
A gallon (6.25 pounds) of gasoline has 124,000 BTUs
Energy Content in Common Energy Sources

More simple math tells us the following:

Gas has 19,840 BTUs per pound.
Coal has 14,000 BTUs per pound.
Hmmm… What does that mean for travelling 300 miles?

Gas requires about 2.5 million BTUs to travel 300 miles.
Coal only requires about 1.6 million BTUs to travel 300 miles.
That’s only about 64% of the energy required if you use coal generated electricity. What gives?

Well, what gives is that centralized coal plants are a lot more efficient at turning heat into power than decentralized internal combustion engines. I’m not a scientist, so I can’t tell you more about this, but you can read more about this here.

So there you go. Basically, a big heavy sack of coal is equivalent to four five gallon cans of gas from an electric car perspective, and even though electricity grids emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning coal, it is still better for the environment than burning gas.

 

But Wait, There’s More

Carbon emissions from power grids are not the only environmental impact of Tesla vehicles; Electric cars need to be light, which means they include a lot of high-performing metals. The lithium in the batteries, for example, is super light and conductive — which is how you get a lot of energy without adding too much weight to the vehicle. Other rare metals are being added throughout the car, mostly in the magnets that are about everything from the headlights to onboard electronics.

 

But those rare metals come from somewhere —  often, from environmentally destructive mines. It’s not just Tesla, of course. All electric vehicles rely on parts with similar environmental issues. Even solar panels depend on rare metals that have to be dug out of the earth and processed in less-than-green ways.
two women working at a lithium mine in Africa
Two women extracting minerals while looking for Lithium at a mine in Africa[Amnesty International and Afrewatch]
Rare metals only exist in tiny quantities and inconvenient places—so you have to move a lot of earth to get just a little bit. As in every stage of the production process for Tesla vehicles, mining has hidden emissions. Many mines rely on rock-crushing equipment with astronomical energy bills, as well as coal-fired furnaces for the final baking stages.

 

Those spew a lot of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in the process of refining a material destined for your zero-emissions car. In fact, manufacturing an electric vehicle generates more carbon emissions than building a conventional car, mostly because of its battery, the Union of Concerned Scientists has found.

“We’re shifting pollution, and in the process, we’re hoping that it doesn’t have the environmental impact,” says David Abraham, author of The Elements Of Power.

 

He believes that when you add all the environmental impacts, they still come out in favour of electric vehicles. (The Union of Concerned Scientists agrees; it found that even when you add in emissions from battery manufacturing, EVs generate half the emissions of a conventional car over the course of its life.) Still, consumers and investors should understand what it takes to make the materials that enable their green choices. “I don’t think there’s been much discussion of that,” Abraham says. “We can’t look at mining as an over-there thing and Tesla as an over-here thing. They’re intricately linked.”

 

Overall, “the greenhouse-gas-emissions footprint of electric vehicles can be pretty high on the front end, as they’re being built,” says McConnell. “And so you need to get a lot of benefits on the other side when you use it.” And after you’re done using it.

 

What Happens to Tesla Batteries When They No Longer Power A Car?

Where is the battery going to go? The good news is: not to a landfill. “It has not been accepted for a battery that comes out of a car to go to a landfill for decades,” says electric car advocate Chelsea Sexton. Instead, “battery recyclers are piloting technologies to recover a lot of materials from those batteries,” says Shanika Amarakoon, a researcher at the firm Abt Associates who partnered with the Environmental Protection Agency to write a report on the impacts of lithium-ion batteries in electric cars.

 

A Tesla battery is big—the pack in the Model S tops half a tonne, far bigger than anything most e-recycling outfits take—so coming up with an efficient and cost-effective recycling process will take some work, and from my knowledge, only a few companies specialize in recycling lithium batteries right now.

 

However, that could change when there are million of electric vehicles on US roads and millions of old batteries to recycle. The more batteries that are out there, the more interest there is in figuring out how to recycle them or recapture rare earth metals from them; This could be the beginning of a very profitable market.

 

Plus, used electric car batteries can still be useful for energy storage, whether in a single building or as part of grids that incorporate more solar and wind. That can help offset the environmental costs of making the batteries in the first place.

Companies are already jumping on the bandwagon. Tesla’s Nevada neighbour will soon begin recycling batteries. Aqua Metals plans to open a battery recycling factory in the Tahoe Reno Industrial Centre, which has been located on the same 166-mile industrial park that holds Tesla’s Gigafactory.

 

The two-year-old startup, based in Alameda, Calif., broke ground on the factory a little less than a year ago and now has major recycling equipment in place to start breaking down lead-acid batteries from cars, golf carts, and data centres before the end of the year.

Companies that recycle Tesla Batteries
Aqua Metal’s Chief Commercial Officer Steve Cotton explains the process that tears the batteries apart. Fortune/Katie Fehrenbacher

 

The company says its process uses less energy, is less expensive, and is more environmentally-friendly than the standard way to recycle these types of batteries, which is smelting.

 

Electricity demand for tesla batteries
The future for the electric car industry has its sceptics and criticisms, but it does show promise to explode in coming decades.

 

Tesla has proven to be a leader in the industry with record-breaking numbers for proposed future sales. In a statement, Tesla announced that it has taken 325,000 deposits thus far, which amounts to “$14 billion in implied future sales”. To further hammer home the achievement, the company said that the Model 3 represents the “single biggest one-week launch of any product ever”, also pointing out that it did this without any advertising whatsoever.

 

With this being said, demand for the recycling of batteries used in Tesla vehicles will also see an increase, and will hopefully minimize the environmental damage that lithium batteries have the power to do.

 

Electric vehicles are not perfect, and they still have a long way to go until producers can claim there is no carbon footprint left behind from the cars altogether. However, with where global markets are heading, we can certainly get close in coming decades.


Tesla vehicles will shake up the North American car market in the next few years, and through the process, will minimize our societies carbon footprint as a whole.

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David McDonald

David McDonald

David is a 19-year-old Canadian student currently attending the University of Guelph. He currently studies Public Management and economics with hopes of one day becoming an accomplished journalist. David enjoys reporting on global events and actively try to make a difference in the world.
David McDonald

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