Do you feel ‘duped’? We fact check Rowan Atkinson’s EV...

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    Do you feel ‘duped’? We fact check Rowan Atkinson’s EV takedown

    Ginny Buckley

    13 Jun 2023

    We’re big fans of Rowan Atkinson, but his recent article in the Guardian seemed to us like a real ‘Mr Bean’ moment. At, we think many of the statements made are misleading without some further context. And so we wanted to clear the air with some balanced fact checking, so you’re armed with the right answers when someone asks you down the pub.

    The biggest issue we have with the Atkinson's article was the claim that batteries “only last about ten years”. A quick glance at any of the most popular used car advertising sites the day of the article’s publication found 75 Nissan Leafs all with perfectly good batteries in working order - that were over 10 years old.

    It seems someone at the Guardian did the same, as the original article was amended two days after its publication to say ‘batteries last upwards of ten years’. And that wasn’t the only part that had an edit. A week after its publication - the Guardian has made five corrections to claims in Rowan's article.

    Unfortunately, it's only the original source that actually gets corrected. So for anyone else who may have seen the original misleading article and missed the numerous corrections, here’s a bit of context about electric car batteries.

    Battery Life

    Electric car batteries contain valuable metals such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese, as well as steel and aluminium for the casing - none of those are actually rare earth metals, something else that was claimed in the original article - and all of which can be recycled.

    Also, today's electric car batteries are designed for durable, high-intensity performance. As a result, you can expect them to last 15-20 years on average. Yes, they will lose some of their ability to hold charge over time, resulting in a reduced range on some older models.

    But in many cases the battery will outlive the car itself and more modern batteries have robust systems to manage the temperature of batteries and how they charge, which will help to increase their lifespan.

    So not only do batteries last longer than 10 years, they also have a second and even third life beyond this - something that was omitted from the Guardian article completely. That will give them a useful life of 20-30 years, which is longer than most petrol and diesel car engines will last.

    Blue used Nissan Leaf for saleThere are plenty of decade old Leafs with life left in them

    Battery Recycling

    An amazing 100 million vehicle batteries are expected to be retired over the next decade - and they are all of huge value. It makes neither economic nor environmental sense for EV batteries to be dumped in landfill – it simply won’t happen. Recycling these metals helps to reduce the environmental impact of EV production and their use.

    The EU already requires that EV batteries be at least 50 percent recyclable by weight, increasing to 65 percent by 2025. Old EV batteries retain around 60 to 70 percent of their original capacity after the car had been scrapped. And they have plenty of uses.

    They can be used as a battery energy storage system for homes and businesses, or to power electric vehicles that are used for light-duty applications like golf carts and forklifts. For example, 148 old Nissan Leaf batteries have been used to create a 3-megawatt battery storage used at Ajax Football Club’s stadium in Amsterdam.

    The former Chief Technical Officer of Tesla has launched a start-up to recycle electric car batteries and just secured a US government for a $2bn loan to support construction of a new plant. Northvolt, a Swedish battery manufacturer, is adding a recycling plant to its lineup, while Renault is repurposing a factory for making cars into one that recycles batteries - and also the cars themselves.

    That's just a few of the great things happening with battery recycling - and there's a lot going on in this area. This is an industry undergoing rapid transformation and disruption. The recycling process for EV batteries may still be relatively new, but it is becoming increasingly efficient. And as the industry grows, the cost of recycling EV batteries will come down.

    The recycling industry is growing fast.

    EV production

    Let’s move on from batteries to how electric cars are produced. To quote the article again: “Greenhouse gas emissions during production of an electric car are 70% higher than when manufacturing a petrol one”. A couple of days after publication this was also corrected.

    But let's take a look at that first and much repeated claim. Volvo did a huge study in advance of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in 2021, claiming that greenhouse gas emissions during production of an older C40 electric car are nearly 70% higher than when manufacturing a petrol one - which is where Rowan got his figure from. In some cases that is true, but it doesn’t take into account something called ‘carbon payback’.

    This is the idea that while electric cars use more energy in their production and have a ‘carbon debt’ over their petrol or diesel counterparts there’s a carbon payback period that depends on factors like the size of the battery, the fuel economy of an equivalent petrol or diesel car, and of course the big one - how the power used to charge an EV is generated.

    An electric car is only as green as the energy you put into it and Reuters are one of many organisations that have crunched the numbers on this to find out when electric vehicles become cleaner than petrol cars. The test was done under laboratory conditions and the model is now being used with other tools to help shape policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

    They took a Tesla Model 3 with a range of 300 miles. And their extremely scientific test calculated that once you drive this car out of the showroom you’ll have to drive another 13,500 miles before you're doing less harm to the environment than an equivalent petrol or diesel model. That’s based on driving in the US where at the time 23% of electricity came from coal-fired plants. That’s roughly the equivalent of a year's driving.

    In Norway, which generates almost all its electricity from renewable hydropower, the break-even point would come after just 8,400 miles.If the electricity to recharge the EV comes entirely from coal, generated in countries like China and Poland, you would have to drive 78,700 miles to reach carbon parity.

    We can also quote the excellent ‘Carbon Brief’ who crunched the numbers around carbon payback and the Nissan Leaf back in 2019. They discovered that in the UK, the lifetime emissions per kilometre of driving a Nissan Leaf EV were about three times lower than for the average conventional car, even before accounting for the falling carbon intensity of electricity generation during the car’s lifetime.

    It’s a complex subject and we don’t think Rowan did it justice in his Guardian article. Nor, disappointingly, did Volvo in their often reported study. So that's why we’re here to clear the air!

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