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Before you buy an electric vehicle, ask: Will I drive it enough to make it eco-friendly?

If you can't rack up the miles, then you might be better off with a traditional gas guzzler

It does seem to be working. The move towards electric motoring does seem to be taking root, and indeed sprouting, in the minds of Irish car buyers. It’s not quite fully grown yet, but given the cars that are hitting the market, and the promised investments in the charging network, that 2030 deadline for the end of internal combustion engine (ICE) sales is starting to look less and less outlandish.

The thing is, once we’ve all bought our new electric vehicles (EVs) we’re going to have to keep them on the road. We’re going to have to rack up the miles or kilometres, and make sure that we pass them on to a new owner in good enough condition so that they can continue the job. Or there’s just no point.

Why? Because the total lifetime CO2 emissions of an EV are front-loaded. Put it this way – Volvo’s all-electric spinoff, Polestar, recently worked out that, driven for 200,000km, a “normal” petrol-engined Volvo XC40 has total lifetime emissions of 58 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2).

For an all-electric Polestar 2, an equivalent car, the figure is 27 tonnes of CO2 if you’re only and always charging up the battery with wind power. Which is good, but the data shows a significant issue with electric cars – the energy input needed when the car is being built is far higher than that for a conventional petrol car.


The battery, especially, triggers pretty substantial CO2 emissions when it’s being built, and so there’s a crossover point. A crossover point where driving the electric car is better for the environment than driving the petrol car. The biggest chunk of a petrol car’s total lifetime emissions comes from its use, whereas for an EV, it comes when it’s built. According to Polestar’s estimates, you need to rack up 50,000km before the two lines on the graph cross over, and the petrol car – in total – starts to emit more than the EV.

That's a big chunk of mileage. Over a typical three-year ownership, an average Irish driver will not quite hit that 50,000km figure – they'll most likely get to around 48,000km. Even then, that 50,000km figure is predicated on "filling up" your battery with renewable wind power. Use the average European Union electricity generation mix, which of course still includes a lot of fossil-fuel generation, and the number jumps to 78,000km.

Okay, so those figures are specific to Polestar, and will be different for other cars from other car makers. Volkswagen, for example, claims that a combination of renewable energy for its factories and carbon-offsetting, means that a new ID.3 electric hatchback is at net-zero carbon emissions when it lands in a dealership – although we’re not sure if the emissions of the container ship and the car transporter are being taken fully into account there …

Basically, though, we’re going to need to ensure that any EV that’s bought between now and 2030 and beyond, racks up a maximum possible mileage. If it doesn’t, then you may have actually been better off with a petrol car all along.

That means keeping EVs bought this year on the road well past 2030 and that might present a problem – battery degradation. If you were to buy an original 2010 Nissan Leaf today – a car that was an award-winning game changer when it was new – you'll most likely find that the battery has degraded to a point where it's close to being unusable for all but the shortest urban hops. So we're going to need to replace or repair the batteries in older EVs as we go, not least because making new batteries is, as we already know, bad for emissions.

Thankfully, there is some good news on that point. According to Renault Ireland, which has had an EV – the Zoe – on sale for almost as long as the Leaf, it offers buyers an eight-year battery warranty and "if an issue does occur, the cells are repaired, as opposed to the entire battery pack." Nissan Ireland told The Irish Times that a battery pack in an older Leaf model can be replaced for around €5,000; "This is inclusive of a €1,000 rebate paid to you on return of your existing battery to Nissan. Equally, Nissan says that a degraded battery "does not need to be upgraded, it simply needs to be charged more often."

A study, carried out by telematics and fleet management company GeoTab, showed that while batteries will degrade over time, and with use, the good news is that most will out-live the service life of the cars in which they are installed.

“As you might expect, the older a vehicle is, the more likely its battery has deteriorated” said Charlotte Argue, GeoTab’s senior manager of fleet electrification. “However, when looking at average decline across all vehicles, the loss is arguably minor, at 2.3 per cent per year. This is good news. If you purchase an EV today with a 250km range, losing about 27km of accessible range after five years is unlikely to impact your day-to-day needs.”

The research carried out by GeoTab covered 6,300 electric vehicles; a mixture of privately-owned cars and company vehicles, and included some 1.8-million driving days worth of data. GeoTab says that the data it has accumulated allows it to predict battery degradation rates for 64 different electric car brands, models, and production years. It has incorporated that data into an online tool, that consumers can use to guesstimate the battery life remaining in their car, or one that they intend to purchase second-hand.

The drop-off in battery performance isn’t linear, though. The 2.3 per cent annual drop is an averaged figure, but actually battery life and performance seems to proceed in something of an S-curve – there’s an initial sharp drop in performance, followed by a more gentle downward trend, before a final sharp, deep, drop at the end of the battery’s life. “Fortunately for the drivers, too few batteries we’ve observed have reached the end-of-life drop for us to predict at what point this is likely to occur,” said Argue. “We will continue to monitor to see when the non-linear degradation, also known as the “heel” begins.”

Tesla says that it is currently working on a battery design that can be charged as many as 4,000 to 5,000 times – enough for a theoretical one-million miles. “As a portion of the carbon footprint is emitted during the production phase of each vehicle, utilisation of such vehicle over 1,000,000 miles dramatically reduces the lifetime carbon footprint per each mile travelled.

Furthermore, battery recycling has the potential to further reduce emissions as components of a battery pack can be captured and reused, displacing much of the need for raw material mining and the associated emissions” said Tesla in its annual environmental impact report.

Battery recycling programmes are also urgently needed, both to up-cycle older cars to keep them running (rather like buying a refurbished phone or laptop) and also to feed the factories making new cars. Lithium supplies are, after all, finite.

"An important finding from a report we commissioned on end of life batteries is that Europe has inadequate lithium-ion battery recycling capacity or expertise" Alex Keynes, clean vehicles manager at environmental think-tank Transport and Environment.

"Most recycling today is done in Asia. Even on a moderate EV uptake scenario, Europe's current recycling capacity, estimated at 33,000 tonnes per year, will not be enough when current electric cars come to the end of life from 2030 onwards. Also important is is the fact that there is almost no lithium battery recycling at a commercial scale in Europe today with most companies providing low value collection or shredding only.

"The ultimate goal should be to fully recover all the valuable materials in a battery at the end of its lives – notably lithium, nickel and cobalt. For example, extracting a ton of lithium requires 1,900 tonnes of water, mostly consumed by evaporation. In areas where lithium is extracted through brines, like in Chile's Salar de Atacama, there is evidence of shrinking pasturelands, failing crops, and disappearing flora and fauna.

On battery design, it is important that the design of battery cells and packs incorporate circularity to ease the disassembly, repair, reuse and recycling. The new battery regulation should require every battery manufacturer placing their products on the EU market to design batteries in a way that aids these goals, but while also avoiding overly-prescriptive provisions given the fast pace of technological innovation.”

It's not just batteries – ideally, we need car makers to make their cars rather more robust. We need to move as far away as possible from the old 1950s General Motors model of built-in obsolescence and annual updates, and towards a model where cars are built to last, and can be easily updated and upgraded, both in terms of their batteries and their on-board systems.

That is do-able, but arguably it means moving consumers to a different way of buying and owning a car – paying more over a longer period of time, with possibly a “top-up” finance package mid-way through a car’s life to upgrade or replace the battery pack and maybe some of the other hardware too. The already-common over-the-air software updates being rolled out by many car makers should take care of the rest.

In many ways, this could be a better way of owning and driving a car. More robust construction will mean fewer of the quality niggles that so annoy owners today. Longer ownership spans, with regular updates and upgrades, potentially means more ownership satisfaction, and more chance for the car maker or dealer to up-sell modifications later in the car’s life.

That, potentially, could help ease some of the employment worries at the dealer and servicing level that surround the mass introduction and adoption of electric cars. Ultimately, it could mean that we will need a single, simple, standard for battery packs, adopted by all, so that repairs and replacements can be more easily effected.

The switch to electric motoring isn’t just about how much range you can squeeze from your new wheels. That’s too reductive. It’s actually about building an entirely new motoring eco-system.