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Consumer awareness needed to ensure that EVs emerge as a truly ‘Sustainable’ alternative

Transportation is the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG). When we think about the GHG from transportation, we mostly picture the tailpipe emissions. However, much of the emission happens during the manufacturing and end-of-life phase.

This article by Dr.ing. Praveen Kumar discusses a few aspects of consumer awareness necessary to ensure that the consumers make an informed choice when making an EV purchase decision. The article also intends to ascertain that EVs can emerge as a sustainable and environmentally friendly alternative to ICE vehicles if we consumers become aware and make judicious choices.

From a long-term sustainability point of view, we need to ensure that EVs and their subsystems are manufactured in a manner that does not cause avoidable environmental harm. As evolved consumers, we need to ask questions beyond the price tag, range and top speed to apprise ourselves of the supply chain that puts these vehicles on the road. It is imperative that consumers are aware of the industry practices and the source of the constituent parts. This will go a long way in ensuring that the companies do not overlook the difficult but sustainable options in the interest of easy and opportunistic sourcing decisions.

Let’s take a look at different EV subsystems and raw materials in the EV supply chain, which would play a huge role in determining the ‘sustainability’ quotient of EVs.

Rare earth elements (REE) – Rare earth elements are frequently used in cells and permanent magnets for electric motors. Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania estimates [1] that processing each ton of REE produces 1 ton of radioactive material. The production of REE has a social impact which we as consumers overlook. A report by German broadcaster DW cites [2] multiple examples of ecological and social damage resulting from irresponsible rare earth mining practices. For instance, many companies in China, the world’s larger producer of rare earth elements (REE), have sprayed acid over the mining areas to separate the REEs from other ores. These mined areas are often abandoned after excavation and remain no longer viable for agricultural use.

There are many organisations working towards developing and commercialising magnet-free motor technologies for EVs. However, large-scale commercialisation of the technology is still considered a few years away.

Lithium – EV batteries use Lithium. The lithium extraction process uses a lot of water—approximately 20,00,000 litres per metric ton of Lithium [3]. Suppose batteries are recycled to extract the constituent Lithium. In that case, the water consumption for the same amount can be reduced by at least 50%.

However, for recycling to be effective, high-quality Li cells must be used (grade A). These cells are expensive, but as responsible customers, we must pay for them and demand the EV manufacturers use them. Please note that grade B and lower quality cells are not recyclable. Unfortunately, most companies in India are currently using B-grade cells in their EV batteries to reduce the cost. This practice was also corroborated by a report by the agencies involved in investigating recent fire incidents with electric 2Ws.

Cobalt – More than half of the world’s cobalt, a critical component in high energy density lithium-ion batteries (e.g. NCA and NMC), comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and 20% of it is mined by hand. Amnesty International documented that children and adults mining cobalt in narrow tunnels are at risk of fatal accidents and severe lung disease [4]. No revolution is worth it at the expense of exploiting fellow humans at some other geographical location.

End-of-life batteries – Irresponsibly disposed battery packs may lead to environmental damage by seeping harmful substances into groundwater and entering the food chain. OEMs should formulate and communicate a clear plan for end-of-life management of the battery packs.

Product quality and lifetime – The current push towards electrification has also led to mushrooming of many companies operating EV assembly and sales on a trading model. Many of the EV start-ups have taken an opportunistic route to enter the automotive industry and go on assembling the imported CKDs without any in-house R&D and technology.

If we buy an electric vehicle that is not properly engineered and we are forced to discard it within 2-3 years, then we are adding to the environmental pollution.

As responsible consumers, we must be ready to shell out money for a sustainable product rather than fancy features that do not add much intrinsic value. A case in point is that we pay for features like playing music from the two-wheeler’s dashboard or navigation – features we already have on our phones. We must understand that these features add to the overall cost of making a vehicle. The same money can be diverted towards ensuring battery safety (better cells, proper BMS and thermal management) and sustainable sourcing to get a no-frills, solid engineered product.

What can one do as a customer to keep the OEMs and their business practices in check?

As customers, the onus of quality and sustainability also lies on us. It is our foremost duty to ask the OEMs the following:

  • What is the total carbon footprint of producing the vehicle?
  • What recycling plans are in place once the vehicle and the battery reach end of life?
  • How much of the material used in the vehicle has come from recycled processes?

We must take pride in using an environmentally healthy product rather than a glitzy product. Near to mid-term existential threat to human civilization could occur in the next 30 to 50 years if the environmental issues are not addressed. Most of the readers of this article will experience it in their lifetime, and their children will certainly experience it.

Hence, as consumers, we must demand ‘end-to-end’ sustainable products and ensure that the next generation has a chance at a good life. If we do not demand more transparency into the overall lifecycle of the products we use, we will end up creating a huge pile of electronic garbage and all the green revolution will go down the drain.


[1] https://kleinmanenergy.upenn.edu/research/publications/rare-earth-elements-a-resource-constraint-of-the-energy-transition/

[2] https://www.dw.com/en/toxic-and-radioactive-the-damage-from-mining-rare-elements/a-57148185

[3] https://www.instituteforenergyresearch.org/renewable/the-environmental-impact-of-lithium-batteries/

[4] https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/11/industry-giants-fail-to-tackle-child-labour-allegations-in-cobalt-battery-supply-chains/

About the Author

Dr.ing. Praveen Kumar is a Professor in the Department of EEE – IIT Guwahati and also leads the E-mobility Research Lab at the institute.

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