What's the Carbon Footprint of Making a Tesla Battery?

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via. Electrek/ Ron Hutchings photo of Gigafactory

When it comes to cars, I am an equal opportunity whiner.

Among the hundreds of comments complaining about my post Hydrogen: folly or fuel of the future? were many that suggested that TreeHugger or I must be getting paid by Tesla. It's not true; I whine about every kind of car.

One of the knocks environmentalists and urbanists have against electric cars is that they don’t reduce number of cars on the road, and that there is a huge environmental cost to actually making them. Here is a picture worth 3,000 words: an aerial view of Tesla’s Gigafactory making batteries on Electric Drive in Sparks, Nevada. Frederick Lampert of Electrek did a count and determined that there are 3,000 cars parked in that lot, and the factory is only 30 percent built out.

Gigafactory location

Google Maps/via

The factory is in the middle of nowhere, really -- 23 miles from the nearest city of any size, Reno, Nevada. If we assume that this is the average distance workers are commuting (and it is likely a lot farther), that the cars are powered by gasoline, and that they are average size, then according to the EPA they pump out about 411 grams of CO2 per mile or 18.9 kilograms per round trip. Multiply that by 3,000 and you have 57 tonnes of CO2 generated every day just by the the workers driving to the factory. The average car puts out 4.7 tonnes per year. So every day that the Gigafactory workers drive to work to make batteries for carbon-saving electric cars, they generate as much CO2 as 12 conventional cars do in a year.

Commenters also noted in our post on hydrogen powered cars that there is a significant environmental impact in the mining of the lithium, cobalt, and nickel that go into the batteries. Lithium is actually not so bad; most of it is extracted from brines that are evaporated by the sun. According to the Financial Times,

Chile’s SQM, one of the largest producers of lithium from brine, said more than 97 per cent of its energy comes from the sun, and other types of energy is only used for pumping and transporting the brine to its plants. It estimates it produces 1 tonne of C02 [sic] per tonne of lithium carbonate produced.

However, more and more lithium is being sourced through hard rock mining and its footprint is increasing. Electric cars still have a huge physical and carbon footprint and, while they are obviously better than ICE powered cars and probably better than hydrogen powered, vehicles, they are still cars. As Alex Steffen noted years ago:

The answer to the problem of the American car is not under the hood, and we're not going to find a bright green future by looking there.... There is a direct relationship between the kinds of places we live, the transportation choices we have, and how much we drive. The best car-related innovation we have is not to improve the car, but eliminate the need to drive it everywhere we go.

Nothing has changed, which is why this TreeHugger will continue being critical of any kind of car, and will continue to promote walkable cities, bicycles and public transport as the real solutions to the problem of decarbonizing our society.