Electric cars may be just as harmful to the environment as traditional vehicles

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Electric vehicles (EVs) are becoming increasingly popular and are seen by many as an “environmentally friendly” option. But research by McKinsey highlights that EVs might not have the impact many people expect, and in fact could just introduce new environmental concerns.

While EVs accounted for only about 1% of global annual vehicle sales in 2016 and just 0.2% of vehicles on the road, McKinsey estimates that by 2030 EVs (including battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids) could rise to almost 20% of annual global registrations. Adoption could rise even faster under aggressive scenarios.

The research quotes surveys which suggest that 30% of car-buying individuals and nearly 50% of millennials will consider purchasing an EV for their next car instead of one powered by a traditional internal-combustion engine.

The McKinsey research highlights three areas where EVs could have a negative impact on the environment:

  • Land use for charging stations;
  • Fossil fuel consumption to provide the electricity; and
  • Raw material for batteries.

Looking at land use, McKinsey points out that there are currently more than 400,000 public charging points that support the more than three million EVs now in use globally. They suggest this will have to rise significantly to meet the EV increases forecast. They don’t believe that simply replacing gas stations with charging points or adding more charging points that are the size of gas stations will be sufficient to service the expected number of EVs.

The McKinsey research suggests it will take multiple rapid 120-kilowatt charging stations with eight outlets to dispense a similar amount of range per hour as the standard-size gas station of today.

McKinsey also points out that more EVs mean that more electricity will have to be produced. Coal will be part of the equation but approximately 80% of the forecast growth in US electricity demand is expected to be met with natural gas. They state that, if half of the automobiles on American roads were EVs, daily US natural-gas demand would be expected to increase by more than 20%.

Demand for cobalt and lithium for batteries will also grow sharply and could cause ecological concerns from the increase in mining activity.

It therefore seems likely that electric vehicles will have costs as well as benefits for society, our environment, and the resources we consume.

McKinsey & Company

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