Opinion: Rush to electric cars may harm the environment and snuff out valuable alternatives

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Steve Sutcliffe sees the accelerated mass adoption of electric cars having unforeseen environmental costs and smothering technologies with real short-term value…

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, they say, and when it comes to the electric car revolution, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate phrase. Take what’s going on in northern Portugal at the moment, which, as it turns out, is western Europe’s richest source of lithium.

Now lithium, as you know, is an element we’re going to need an awful lot more of once petrol and diesel-powered new cars are banned in the UK in just nine years’ time. This is because the batteries that run our EVs – and our phones, our e-bikes, our e-scooters, you name it – all contain lithium.

But lithium, like coal, needs to be mined, and that means large swathes of the civilisations that live near the mines (like those in northern Portugal) tend to suffer very badly in our quest for this precious metal – because mining for lithium ain’t exactly a five-minute process.

To extract lithium from the Earth you basically need to pump a massive amount of brine solution into it, having drilled a rather large hole to pour it into. You then leave what comes out of the hole to evaporate for months, creating a delightful gunge of manganese and potassium and all sorts of other salts, before whizzing what’s left through a giant filtration system to produce – ta-dah – lithium carbonate.

You don’t need to blow things up to mine lithium, which is good. But you do need an awful lot of water to extract it – as in half a million gallons PER TONNE of mined lithium. Which is where the darker side of lithium mining rears its ugly head, the one that Ms Thunberg & Co don’t tend to talk about too much when they’re talking up the process of going green.

Because unfortunately history demonstrates that mining for lithium on a large scale – and boy is it going to need to be large – introduces droughts and famines into the communities that live anywhere near the mines. Pollution of the water supply can also be a bit of an issue, too, although the mining companies tend not to want us to know any of this, aiming major compensation deals at anyone or anything, including entire countries, that stand in their way.

In Portugal’s case, UK-based mining company Savannah Resources is leading the charge towards extracting the Michael – sorry, the lithium – out of the lands lived in and farmed for thousands of years by the local communities near its centre of operations in Barroso.

It’s all fine and dandy, though, because according to Savannah’s CEO, David Archer, his company will “provide Portugal with a whole raft of opportunities for downstream developments in the lithium value-chain.”

Opportunities within the lithium value-chain, I’m not sure that’s quite how the farmers of northern Portugal will view the compulsive disruption of their ancient communities. But the message is typically domineering; keep your trap shut and you’ll make millions out of this (but not as many millions as we will, obviously) and by the way, we really will try very hard indeed not to wreck your beautiful countryside in the process. And even if we do make a bit of a mess of the surroundings, maybe buy yourself a Ferrari and get over it.

Sound familiar? In many ways it feels much like the embryonic stages of the fossil fuel industry but without the more obvious sources of pollution to worry about, namely us setting fire to the product. Yet arguably lithium mining could, in the long run, wreak almost as much havoc on our planet as the mining of fossil fuels.

Except this time it’ll be all dressed up in a shiny new green-coloured suit, handing out the folding green of compensation before, not after, the mayhem has unfolded, which is may be some kind of improvement I suppose.

Either way, the hypocrisy is gruesome to observe, and some of us do seem hell bent on ruining it for the rest of us one way or another, mainly to get rich.

The alternatives to our alternative fuels So perhaps a smarter way to power whatever devices we choose to use and drive around in, both now and in our future, is to consider some of the other sources of energy that are available to us; ones that don’t require the use of drills, diggers, chemicals or explosives, and which don’t inflict so much damage on the environment.

Sources such as the sun or the wind, or the natural energy contained within our oceans. Or, indeed, within the minds of our smarter engineers.

Take the Lightyear One, a car that’s been jointly developed by Dutch electronics firm Lightyear and the tyre company, Bridgestone. Yes, it’s an EV at heart and, yes, it uses a lithium-ion battery. But the battery itself is an unusually small one and it can be recharged on the move mostly via the sun.

What’s more, because the Lightyear One’s tyres are so efficient in their resistance to drag and its streamlined body boasts the drag coefficient of a perfectly aimed dart, it has a claimed range of 725km. Now that is a little bit more like it.

Yet what’s arguably more intriguing still, certainly as far as the immediate future of vehicle propulsion is concerned, is the development of what’s known as synthetic fuel. This is a fuel that’s already carbon neutral yet one that’s entirely compatible with fossil fuel engines.

In other words, you can run a 911 on it no problem or, indeed, a mere diesel-engined Golf without any modifications being required. But because of synthetic fuel’s massively increased efficiency, engines run cleaner on it and produce more power (much as they do when burning super high-octane racing fuel) and pump way less CO2 into the atmosphere in the process.

According to some very clever thinkers at companies like Porsche and Bentley (who are duty bound to say as much, you might argue) synthetic fuel is a highly efficient alternative to electrification, and although it may only be a twilight solution to our problems overall, we are surely in an “every little helps” situation right now.

True, synthetic fuel is expensive to make and still produces unwanted emissions ultimately, but its real-world effects on the planet are, claim its creators, less significant overall than those of a full blown EV if you take every factor of its production and increased efficiency into consideration.

Which surely makes it a very significant thing indeed in the here and now?

The trouble is, and as things stand, synthetic fuel will merely be a method of propulsion for second-hand cars only from 2030 – it is still classed as a fossil fuel – so its outright potential may never be realised. To succeed and make a difference, our governments need to seriously think about giving synthetic fuel some kind of qualified stay of execution.

They also need to think hard about all the other sources of energy that could, and should, be invested in right now, rather than putting all their eggs in just one conveniently packaged, EV-labelled basket.

But then governments aren’t exactly renowned for making the correct decisions when it comes to energy. The companies that mine and provide us with our energy have far too much influence to wield in the grand scheme of things. Which means the consequences of our governments making bad decisions, ones that just so happen to trouser them vast pots of gold in the process, tend to get swept under the carpet anyway.

It’s still not too late, although that day is now screaming towards us at break-neck speed, powered by whatever fuel you can think of – except, perhaps, the right one.

Steve Sutcliffe 

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