Can the success of SpaceX save Tesla

Elon Musk's vision put to the test: can the electric car save the environment?

Can the electric car save the environment?

As a visionary you can imagine a lot, the question is what will actually come out of it in the end. I would like to take a closer look at the extent to which Elon Musk has succeeded in launching a sustainable transport option with his Tesla electric cars.

If Elon Musk is one, then he is most certainly a visionary. In fact, I think it is not entirely unlikely that, in 500 years, people will see Elon Musk as the most influential person of the entire 21st century.

At school he was bullied and beaten to the point of unconsciousness. Today Elon Musk is a billionaire and recognized as one of the greatest visionaries of our time.

With Tesla and SpaceX (and he also had a hand in PayPal), Elon Musk is currently changing our world. Musk is not primarily interested in making as much money as possible and then lying on the lazy skin on a nice private island.

He sets himself high goals and wants to make the world a better place. With the Tesla electric cars, he wants to accelerate the transition to sustainable mobility, and with SpaceX, in the best case scenario, also secure the survival of humanity on another planet.

In an interview, he even went so far as to say that it doesn't matter to him whether Tesla wins as a company or another manufacturer of electric cars wins, as long as people emerge victorious.

In a video, I'll tell you whether Tesla is the future and to what extent the electric car will help save the environment. If you don't want to (or can't) watch a video just scroll down a little further and you will find everything - and a little more - also as text.

I have been active in the battery world for 15 years and today I mainly take care of portable batteries for my customers from industry, gastronomy, research and medical technology. But over 10 years ago I was also quite active in the field of electromobility. I've already electrified a Golf 1 convertible, hybridized a Daimler diesel sprinter with lithium-ion batteries and worked on turning a small electric vehicle from China into a vehicle suitable for everyday use.

At that time, I was completely excited. Today I see the matter with the electric vehicles with mixed feelings. I am examining Elon Musk's vision of environmentally friendly electromobility on the basis of three aspects.

1. The fuel

In principle, the electricity for electric cars can be obtained from sustainable energy sources such as wind power, solar systems and hydropower. According to the current electricity mix in Germany, at least 30% of the electricity generated comes from hard coal or lignite and “only” 46% from renewable sources. Depending on the electricity mix with which an electric vehicle is charged, a Tesla is currently at least partly powered by energy from fossil resources.

Of course, a lot will happen here over the next few years. By 2050 at the latest, one wants to be climate neutral within the EU and that will only work with more energy from renewable energies. The fuel used in electric cars will therefore become greener and greener over the next few years.

Even today, you can jet across Europe with a Tesla and not consume a single liter of oil. Just have to pay a little attention to where the current that flows into the battery comes from. In the future, however, it will definitely be more sustainable and ecological to be mobile with the electric car.

However, fuel is not everything that should be considered in the eco-balance of an e-car. It is very important (drum roll)….

2. Manufacturing

The battery and everything else

If you just look at what is happening directly on the road, the ecological balance of an electric car is outstanding compared to a gasoline-powered car. After all, no exhaust gases come directly from the car.

Depending on the production of the energy that is stored in the vehicle's battery, however, the emissions occur earlier and that is when energy is obtained from coal or natural gas.

Overall, the ecological balance of an electric car looks pretty good up to this point. Now comes the hammer and that is the production of the battery.

For the battery of an electric car, you need lithium, cobalt and nickel, among other things. These raw materials are currently still being mined in such a way that the extraction is extremely damaging to the environment. In Chile, for example, an extremely large amount of water is evaporated for the mining of lithium, which could lead to the salinisation of entire regions (a more environmentally friendly alternative could be lithium mining in Saxony, of all places). Otherwise, the mining of rare earths is often quite ethically questionable. One hears again and again of child labor in connection with the extraction of raw materials such as cobalt and, overall, the working conditions and the protection of workers are often catastrophic.

Of course, the production of the rest of the car also requires a lot of resources (this is no different with electric cars than with normal combustion engines). A lot of energy is used in the production of steel and aluminum.

Quite controversial: the ecological balance of electric cars

So before we even drove a kilometer in a car, we already have a “CO2 backpack” of at least five tons on our back due to the production.

Especially with the large and heavy Tesla models Model S and Model X there is the huge battery, which alone weighs 600 kg. That's as much as half a VW Polo. The large use of raw materials and the processing effort mean correspondingly high energy consumption and thus CO2 emissions, which is reflected in the negative side of the ecological balance of electric cars. It is therefore no wonder that the electric car usually does worse than a car with a combustion engine when calculating the life cycle assessment for production.

The Swedish environmental institute IVL took a closer look at the CO2 emissions of combustion engines and electric cars, including production and raw material extraction, and published a study on this in May 2017. The result: even if a Tesla is always refueled with climate-neutral electricity, it takes a whole car life to make up for the poorer ecological balance in production compared to a combustion engine.

Of course, the e-car skeptics and also broad sections of the press relied on this study and used it as a hook to present it as if electric cars were basically more environmental killers than environmental savers ...

By the way, Elon Musk commented on the study on Twitter as follows:

“To call that clueless would be generous. Lithium-ion batteries need much less energy, and the Gigafactory is powered by renewable energies anyway. "

Musk does not provide specific figures, but if you look at what his gigafactories should look like, you can immediately see what he means (the actual factory doesn't (yet?) Look that fancy).

The battery factories are to be completely covered with photovoltaic systems, which incidentally come from SolarCity, a subsidiary of Tesla. And wind farms are also to be built on the surrounding hills.

One can certainly not blame Musk for the fact that the ecological balance of the production of his electric cars does not play a role in his vision.

And the Swedes from the environmental institute IVL have also rowed back. In an update of their study on the life cycle assessment of electric vehicles from 2019, the researchers come to a much more positive result with regard to the life cycle assessment of electric cars.
In the meantime, the batteries could be produced in large numbers much more efficiently and the possibility of production with electricity from 100% renewable energy has been taken into account (similar to the Tesla Gigafactory). Better recycling was also included.

According to the current status, electric cars that are operated with the average electricity mix have a slight advantage in terms of the ecological balance. If only regenerative energy flows into the battery, the electric car is now significantly greener.

Conclusion: Tesla cannot necessarily be lumped together with other manufacturers of electric cars. It is true that compared to combustion cars, electric cars start with a larger CO2 backpack, which they have to catch up with over the course of their service life. Elon Musk and Tesla worked right from the start to keep the CO2 balance for the manufacture of their vehicles as small as possible.

All in all, it is logical for me that at the beginning of a “relatively” new technology, the sustainability requirement cannot yet be fully met. As with most innovations, it is a process. And now it actually looks as if the eco-balance of electric cars is usually better than that of combustion engines thanks to an optimized production and recycling process.

3. The charging infrastructure

There are already almost twenty thousand charging stations in Germany to fill up electric vehicles with energy. Nevertheless, I see major problems arise when the domestic electricity consumption increases briefly at 6:00 p.m. in the new housing estate for all single-family houses, when cooking, washing, air conditioning and whatever is going on. If 30 to 50 electric cars on a street are then pumped full at the same time with a fast charger, I could imagine that the power supply would be quite stressful.

Well, we still have a few years until electric cars are so widespread. It is quite possible that we will find a solution by then. For example, intelligent, time-delayed charging control for vehicles or decentralized storage of energy in household batteries could help.

So electric cars or what?

Overall, from my point of view, Elon Musk is well on the way to realizing his vision of sustainable, electric mobility. A problem that has not yet been fully clarified and that worries me a little is the disposal of the huge batteries in electric cars.

Even the first Teslas sold are still in operation. But if the batteries reach the end of their lifespan en masse, we could face a major environmental problem that could possibly ruin the ecological balance of electric cars.

I am therefore very positive about the development of hydrogen technologies. Sure, the efficiency of hydrogen didn't blow anyone's mind today. But the development funds that are being released in Asia show that there is some competition here.

Here in Germany, too, things are making good progress with the fuel cell. This is shown by David Wenger, an entrepreneur friend of our group of companies. He is already known as an absolute expert with his research and development center for thermodynamics, fluid mechanics and process engineering and is now very committed to the further development of fuel cells. Currently it can already supply a hydrogen filling station, a hydrogen storage system and a power-to-gas system.

If it is now possible to increase the efficiency of the fuel cell a little and then combine it with a small lithium-ion battery that doesn't weigh 600 kg because it “only” serves as a range extender, then we'll come the (hybrid) dream of sustainable traffic and transport very quickly.

Without Elon Musk, who has been constantly challenging the status quo of how we get from A to B since 2008, we would certainly not be that far on the way to sustainable mobility today. So I only have to say:

Thank you Elon Musk for your visions.

I regularly send out updates from the world of batteries in my newsletter. The best thing to do is to register here. I am glad that you are there.