Essay Contest 2019 - Second prize in category Mobility: Electric Vehicles: Solution or Threat?

    It is no secret that electric vehicles (EV) have been gaining people’s attention in the last couple of years. No better way to illustrate this fact than to consider Norway, the country with the highest usage of electric vehicles per capita in the world. After October 2018, 10.2% of the vehicles in Norwegian roads were plug-in vehicles [1]. 60% of cars sales in March 2019 in Norway corresponded to EVs according to [2]. These are only a couple of figures from Norway. For a more general picture, take into account Tesla, one of the biggest players in the EV sector. They reached a new record on the third quarter of the present year, producing 97000 electric vehicles [3]. The rise of EVs is because of the obvious benefits they bring to their end-users (who usually fail to consider any other aspects): no harmful emissions and a more efficient performance than internal- combustion-engine (ICE) vehicles (both economically and energetically). But, are electric vehicles really a harmless solution for the environment? How will they affect the energy transition process? 

    Batteries are essential components in most electric vehicles nowadays. The growing demand for EVs implies, therefore, a growing demand for batteries to run them with. One of the main problems of this technology is their lifetime. All batteries experience a decrease in performance over time due to their usage. As a consequence, an appropriate method to dispose of them has to be found due to the toxicity of the materials involved in their production. Some of them are being recycled by using them in other applications for which they are still suitable [4]. Nevertheless, ass you already may have thought of, this only represents a band-aid and it is not even close to a sustainable permanent solution. Then, electric vehicles are not as environmentally friendly as they want us to believe. Which brings us to the next point: do EVs still have a future? Are they going to take over the mobility sector? 

    To answer these questions in a short way, I would say: yes. If previous experiences have taught us something regarding technologies that pose negative consequences for the environment (or to themselves) in a long term, is that people do not care much about those consequences as long as they get immediate, tangible benefits and most of all when it comes to financial aspects. To put in a very clear way, an end-user will prefer an electric car over a conventional ICE car because they can perceive the immediate advantage of less greenhouse-gases emissions and will care less for the battery disposal problem because it’s tomorrow’s problem and in general there is less consciousness of the actual magnitude and complications of the situation. 

    However, if we talk of economical aspects, that’s when people usually start thinking ahead. Some people are motivated to purchase an EV because of the fact that, in the long run, it will be cheaper. It costs less to charge an electric car than refilling the gas tank of a combustion-driven car. Furthermore, because of the increased efficiency of batteries over ICEs, charging is needed with less frequency than refilling a gas tank. Do not misinterpret me, I am not trying to say that EVs should be banned because of the battery disposal problem. The point that I am trying to illustrate is that this issue should be tackled as soon as possible and that people should be made 
aware on these matters to create consciousness so that they care about something more than financial aspects. 

    To continue with the idea, I also believe that EVs will in a not-so-distant future take over because of the current circumstances in the area: governments in some countries are imposing policies that benefit greatly electric cars’ users, some vehicle manufacturers and governments have already committed to increase the percentage of EV they produce by 2025 [5], battery technology is becoming cheaper [6], among others. Nonetheless, I think it is safe to say we still have a couple of decades before that happens. 
Implementation of electric cars could entail a myriad of changes at different levels for the energy market. For example, an option that’s already being explored and applied is vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology, whose objective is to store excess energy in the grid from renewables in car batteries and, then, send it back to the grid in periods of high demand. This is a clear example of how EVs act as support for the energy transition process, making it easier to integrate renewable sources (such as solar and wind) while helping to maintain balance in the grid. But there might be some other possibilities that come along with electric cars that are not being considered well enough. 


    As usage of EVs increases, usage of gas-driven vehicles decreases. This leads also to a decrease of fuel consumption which, through taxes, is a main source of revenue for governments. The transition to electric cars could, then, lead to a decrease in the income of some countries. Governments might try to compensate this by applying taxes to electric vehicles owners in order to keep a sustainable economy. So, this could be the way in which the segregation of EVs might be affected at some point in the future. Nevertheless, this would probably occur when the technology has already been adopted by a big percentage (if not the majority) of people. 

    To wrap up, let’s point out the main ideas. First of all, the rise in the electric vehicle usage is undeniable and, probably, inevitable (at least for a couple more decades) regardless of the environmental impact that might be caused by batteries after their lifetime has already passed if a solution is not found. They still, nonetheless, bring a lot of benefits over conventional vehicles and that is one of the reasons why that market will continue to grow. The segregation process might take some time in certain parts of the world (especially outside of Europe and North America) where climate change is still not a main concern. By bringing electric vehicles into the pictures, the transition to a more sustainable energy system can be achieved easily but it can also bring serious consequences at an economic level for the energy market. 

By: Ezequiel José Quijada

Published on: 02.12.2019


[2] nearly-60-of-sales-in-march 
[4] Jungst, R. “Recycling of Electric Vehicle Batteries”. Industrial Chemistry Library 10, pp. 295- 327 [Online]. Available at: library [Accessed 30 September 2019] 

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