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Electric Cars Do Come at A Cost!

The excitement and enthusiasm displayed by politicians and greenies alike at the advent of electric car technology, along with the spread of charging points around the country comes at a cost that they clearly don't fully undertstand, or prefer to ignore. 

There are two major metal requirements necessary to make them work in any practical fashion - cobalt and lithium, and graphite besides, on a smaller scale. The demand for each has come about because of their need in the manufacture of batteries for all manner of mobile devices, and in particular - electric cars. The need is seldom discussed as we follow behind the pan-pipes of Apple, Samsung and Tesla. It is simply too uncomfortable to recognise the conditions that prevail in those areas of the World whence by far the majority of the two minerals are obtained - Bolivia in the case of Lithium, and the Congo in the case of cobalt. It is the latter that is discussed in the following article.

Today's Washington Post carries a story that should give those who otherwise tut-tut about child-labour, and exploitation generally cause for pause:

"The world’s soaring demand for cobalt is at times met by workers, including children, who labor in harsh and dangerous conditions. An estimated 100,000 cobalt miners in Congo use hand tools to dig hundreds of feet underground with little oversight and few safety measures, according to workers, government officials and evidence found by The Washington Post during visits to remote mines. Deaths and injuries are common. And the mining activity exposes local communities to levels of toxic metals that appear to be linked to ailments that include breathing problems and birth defects, health officials say."

And that is just the start.

"The Post traced this cobalt pipeline and, for the first time, showed how cobalt mined in these harsh conditions ends up in popular consumer products. It moves from small-scale Congolese mines to a single Chinese company — Congo DongFang International Mining, part of one of the world’s biggest cobalt producers, Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt — that for years has supplied some of the world’s largest battery makers. They, in turn, have produced the batteries found inside products such as Apple’s iPhones — a finding that calls into question corporate assertions that they are capable of monitoring their supply chains for human rights abuses or child labor."


"Yet 60 percent of the world’s cobalt originates in Congo — a chaotic country rife with corruption and a long history of foreign exploitation of its natural resources. A century ago, companies plundered Congo’s rubber sap and elephant tusks while the country was a Belgian colony. Today, more than five decades after Congo gained its independence, it is minerals that attract foreign companies.

Lithium-ion batteries were supposed to be different from the dirty, toxic technologies of the past. Lighter and packing more energy than conventional lead-acid batteries, these cobalt-rich batteries are seen as “green.” They are essential to plans for one day moving beyond smog-belching gasoline engines. Already these batteries have defined the world’s tech devices.

No one knows exactly how many children work in Congo’s mining industry. UNICEF in 2012 estimated that 40,000 boys and girls do so in the country’s south. A 2007 study funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development found 4,000 children worked at mining sites in Kolwezi alone."

Skyrocketing Demand:

"Cobalt is the most expensive raw material inside a lithium-ion battery.

That has long presented a challenge for the big battery suppliers — and their customers, the computer and carmakers. Engineers have tried for years to craft cobalt-free batteries. But the mineral best known as a blue pigment has a unique ability to boost battery performance.

The price of refined cobalt has fluctuated in the past year from $20,000 to $26,000 a ton.

Worldwide, cobalt demand from the battery sector has tripled in the past five years and is projected to at least double again by 2020, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.

This increase has mostly been driven by electric vehicles. Every major automaker is rushing to get its battery-powered car to market. Tesla’s $5 billion battery factory in Nevada, known as the Gigafactory, is ramping up production. Daimler aims to open a second battery plant in Germany soon. LG Chem makes batteries for General Motors at a plant in Holland, Mich. Chinese company BYD is working on huge new battery plants in China and Brazil.

While a smartphone battery might contain five to 10 grams of refined cobalt, a single electric-car battery can contain up to 15,000 grams."

There is more - much more - read it, and understand just what this brilliant new industry that is being touted as the answer to, or at the very least, a significant answer to global warming is all about. Simply pushing the button on your iPhone, or turning the key on your sparkling new electric car, similar to that those that politicians and others are rushing to buy, apparently to prove their "earth-caring credentials," does not make the questionable origins of the raw materials on which they depend, disappear. 

Every action has a re-action - even in such an apparently benign action as getting behind our Council's promotion of electric car technology - some would say, an action born mainly from ignorance, or worse, 'the blind leading the blind.'

I could print an equally disturbing report on the Bolivian lithium, and Chinese graphite industrys, but this is probably enough for the moment. The old adage of "be careful what you wish for" applies equally in both cases. 

No, I remain a sceptic of the electric car industry, and its surrounding hoop-la! Not the least because of the likely need to keep carbon based generation available to meet the marginal power demand that results from car charging.

It is not that electric cars are not, on balance, a desirable commodity, just that a little balance and awareness is equally desirable. 




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Reader Comments (3)

I am conflicted on the transition to electric cars. NZ is better placed than almost any other nation to reduce emissions because most of our electricity comes from renewable sources. But those who see it as a panacea miracle cure for climate change globally are deluded .

Transitioning from a century old fossil fuel global transport system will take decades. Norway leads the way and may ban fossil fuel vehicles by 2025. Even under the most optimistic scenarios Norway will not be all electric until 2035. Meanwhile .....

"While renewable energy is growing rapidly, a full transition to a renewable energy economy is still decades away. Projections from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) suggest continued heavy dependence on fossil fuel energy as late as 2040. That is a recipe for climate disaster if we are supposed to reduce carbon emissions worldwide by 80 percent by 2050 in order to maintain a livable planet."

It takes large inputs of fossil fuel to manufacture and ship electric vehicles.

If electric cars are powered exclusively by electricity generated from fossil fuels, as they are in most nations - they are no more climate-friendly than high-mileage gasoline-powered cars and less climate-friendly than some hybrid-electric cars.

Greater energy efficiency actually leads to more energy demand - The Jevons paradox.

So while I support efforts in NZ to transition to electric - we should be emulating the leadership shown by Norway - this transition will take many decades globally. Unfortunately we do not have decades to substantially reduce greenhouse gases.

Doubt this ? Then consider the latest inventory of carbon undertaken last month by Oil Change International - a US think tank has these key findings.

Key Findings:

The potential carbon emissions from the oil, gas, and coal in the world’s currently operating fields and mines would take us beyond 2°C of warming.

The reserves in currently operating oil and gas fields alone, even with no coal, would take the world beyond 1.5°C.

(NOTE the reference to "currently operating" fields will take us over the Paris limits)

Key Recommendations:

No new fossil fuel extraction or transportation infrastructure should be built, and governments should grant no new permits for them.

Some fields and mines – primarily in rich countries – should be closed before fully exploiting their resources, and financial support should be provided for non-carbon development in poorer countries.

The government's bob each way - yes we will sign the Paris agreement but will also grant new permits for oil exploration and fracking is a sick joke

October 4, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterlets

Forget electric cars, the real future fuel for cars is hydrogen. It can be done now, but is still very expensive. Applying normal economic principles price will come down in time.

October 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterInterested

Hydrogen is an energy storage mechanism, it’s not a source of energy, So you have to get that energy from somewhere. It’s extremely inefficient.

Hydrogen is limited in that to create it, water needs to be electrolysed and the power to do this has to come from somewhere. It then has to be pressurised so enough can be stored in a tank to drive a car.

But if you took a solar panel and used that energy to just charge a battery directly, rather than trying to split water, take out the hydrogen, dump the oxygen, compress the hydrogen and then put it in a car to run the fuel cell, it is about half the efficiency. Why do that? It makes no sense.

Then there is the huge and costly task of developing the infrastructure to support hydrogen, from creating enough of the gas, (for which you need a power source ) transporting it and building a network of filling stations – there are just four in the UK at present.

On efficiency electric wins hands down.

Both electric and hydrogen do face the same issues -- they involve a massive transition for the world's transport fleet from fossil fuels . This will take decades - time we do not have if we are to avoid dangerous climate change

October 4, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterlets

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