Toyota Motor Corporation (ADR) (TM), General Motors Company (GM), Ford Motor Company (F): Is This the End of the All-Electric Vehicle?

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Battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs, get a lot of credit for being “zero-emission” cars. However, that designation isn’t entirely accurate. BEVs are only “zero-emission” if you disregard emissions from charging the battery and exclude manufacturing emissions. If you include those — and you must, to factor in the overall climate impact — BEVs, in large part, are worse for the climate than hybrids.

So what does that mean for the future of BEVs?

2011 F-CELL. Photo: media.mbusa.com.

Science vs. what’s popular

The push to find a “green car” is a worthy venture. Cars have a negative impact on the environment by producing a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Right now, BEVs are seen as the next big thing, and on the surface, they’re great. They don’t use gas, thereby reducing our dependence on foreign oil. They can be charged with green energy — where available. And when they’re running, they don’t produce emissions like a vehicle with an internal-combustion engine.

Unfortunately, if you look at the lifecycle of a BEV, you’ll find some concerning facts. First, it’s true that BEVs are only as green as what charges the battery. But that’s only part of the picture, as battery manufacturing produces a 10,000- to 40,000-pound carbon debt, which, according to Climate Central, can only be overcome by charging the car on green energy, and driving it for tens to hundreds of thousands of miles.

Second, according to the National Academies of Science, lithium-ion batteries are “the battery of choice for electric vehicles for the foreseeable future” because of technological difficulties facing other types of batteries. That’s a problem, because lithium is an alkali metal and isn’t naturally occurring. Consequently, it has to be refined after being extracted through salar brines (the most common approach) and mined hard rock.

Furthermore, the European Commission on Science for Environmental Policy states: “Although there is no immediate shortage of lithium, its continued use needs to be monitored, especially as lithium mining’s toxicity and location in places of natural beauty can cause significant environmental, health, and social impacts.”

What’s the alternative?

Two possible solutions are to shift the entire grid into running on only green energy, or to find an alternative to batteries. There’s already a push to use more green energy, such as solar, wind, and hydro power, which will definitely help cut down on CO2 emissions. But even if the grid did go entirely “green,” it still wouldn’t get rid of the initial carbon debt from batteries — and there’s still the issue of lithium.

The second solution — finding an alternative to batteries — has a number of promising options. Recently, the University of Colorado at Boulder developed a way to split water into its hydrogen and oxygen components using sunlight. That development is a major breakthrough for hydrogen, as it makes the process of obtaining the element much more efficient.

Bring on the hydrogen

The Department of Energy has estimated that the lifecycle emissions of future hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, or FCVs, powered by natural gas will be less than those of hybrid electric vehicles, or HEVs. Climate Central estimates that an HEV’s lifecycle emission is less than a BEV. As such, it stands to reason that an FCV powered by hydrogen that’s obtained through sunlight will have fewer lifecycle emissions than BEVs. More good news? A number of car manufacturers are actively pursing hydrogen fuel cell technology.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL, has teamed up with Toyota Motor Corporation (ADR) (NYSE:TM) to test the Highlander fuel cell hybrid. Toyota Motor Corporation (ADR) (NYSE:TM) also teamed up with BMW and announced that they’ll unveil a new hydrogen fuel-cell car at the Tokyo auto show in November — and it’ll go on sale in 2015 with a price of less than $70,000. Meanwhile, Daimler (OTCBB:DDAIF) AG‘s Mercedes-Benz and Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) have teamed up for a “practical approach” to fuel cells, and General Motors Company (NYSE:GM) and Honda Motor Co Ltd (ADR) (NYSE:HMC) — which have the most patents for fuel cells — are working together to jump-start the hydrogen infrastructure. According to CNN, “virtually every major carmaker is preparing to launch hydrogen-powered models in the next few years,” which means FCV may be a viable alternative to batteries sooner than you think.

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