Tesla Motors' Dirty Little Secret Is a Major Problem

Tesla Motors Model S. Photo: Tesla Motors.

Energy independence, a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, lower fuel costs: All of these promises are factors behind the rise in electric vehicles' popularity. Unfortunately, they're more fiction than fact. Here's why, and how it could affect companies like Tesla Motors .

Do you want cancer with that battery?
Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy undertook a study to look at the environmental impact of lithium-ion batteries for EVs. The study showed that batteries that use cathodes with nickel and cobalt, as well as solvent-based electrode processing, have the highest potential for environmental impacts, including resource depletion, global warming, ecological toxicity, and human health. The largest contributing processes include those associated with the production, processing, and use of cobalt and nickel metal compounds, which may cause adverse respiratory, pulmonary, and neurological effects in those exposed. 

Tesla Model S base. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In other words, li-ion batteries that contain nickel and cobalt have a significant effect on health and the environment. More specifically, this includes Panasonic's automotive grade li-ion batteries, which contain lithium, nickel, cobalt , and aluminum, and a proprietary cathode geometry developed jointly by Panasonic and Tesla -- and are currently used in the Model S.

Exchanging one energy dependency for another

The above sounds bad, right? It gets worse. One of the big pushes behind "green" vehicles is the goal of reducing the country's energy dependence. Consequently, when considering battery-powered vehicles that rely on lithium, it's important to ask where the lithium comes from.

Salar Brine. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The answer? Not America. That's not to say America doesn't have lithium, it does, but most of the lithium that America uses is imported from other countries. Precisely, according to the 2013 U.S. Geological Survey, from 2008-2011 America's import sources were: Argentina, 52%; Chile, 44%; and China, 3%. This necessarily leads to the next question, "Why does America prefer to rely on imported lithium?"

Simply put, lithium, in its pure form, doesn't occur naturally on Earth. So in order to obtain it, it must be mined through hard rock or salar brines. More importantly, salar brines -- the most economical and popular way of obtaining lithium -- destroy the environment. Friends of the Earth, Europe states:

The extraction of lithium has significant environmental and social impacts, especially due to water pollution and depletion. In addition, toxic chemicals are needed to process lithium. The release of such chemicals through leaching, spills or air emissions can harm communities, ecosystems and food production. Moreover, lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and also causes air contamination.

And, the European Commission on Science for Environmental Policy states that "[lithium's] continued use needs to be monitored, especially as lithium mining's toxicity and location in places of natural beauty can cause significant environmental, health, and social impacts." 

A bleak outlook
Clearly, the above isn't great news for those who are concerned about the environment beyond their backyards. And it's not the only bad news for EVs. The EPA found that when looking at life-cycle impact assessments, categories such as global warming potential, acidification potential (transformation of air pollutants into acids), eutrophication potential (water pollution often leading to excessive water weed/algae growth), ozone depletion potential, photochemical oxidation potential (air pollution), human toxicity potential, occupation cancer hazard, and occupational non-cancer hazard, the only time an EV battery scored better than a plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle's battery is in the category that measures potential for global warming.  

Unfortunately, the EPA added this statement about global warming potential: "GWP benefit only appears when the electricity grid relies less on coal production and more on natural gas and renewables. ... Accordingly, in regions where the grid is more heavily coal-centric, the study results suggest that PHEV-40 vehicles may be preferable if global warming impacts are highly valued." 

Tesla Supercharger. Photo: Jurvetson via Wikimedia Commons.

Obviously, that's bad news for EVs, which brings us back to Tesla. Tesla's made a name for itself as the future of "green" cars, and as of the time of this writing, its stock price is trading as if that's true. However, according to Climate Central, in 46 states Tesla's Model S is the least climate-friendly EV, and it's worse than all but two hybrids when it comes to CO2 emissions over 100,000 miles of driving. When you couple that with the above information from the EPA, it's clear that Tesla isn't nearly as "green" as it wants you to believe.

What to watch
EVs sound promising on the surface, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty, they're not nearly as environmentally friendly as they seem, nor do they help America become energy independent. Further, thanks to its battery, the Model S is even less environmentally friendly than most other EVs. As such, it doesn't meet the requirements for "green car of the future," which means Tesla's high stock price may be unsustainable in the long term.

Yes, the Model S is a nice car -- it should be for what you pay for it -- but the future of green technology? Not without a major overhaul of its battery. Further, if you're looking for an environmentally friendly car, greenercars.org, part of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, lists Toyota Motor's Prius C as the Greenest Vehicle of 2013. It's closely followed by Honda Motor's Fit, and Volkswagen's Jetta Hybrid. Consequently, if you're looking for your next truly green auto stock, you may want to steer clear of Tesla Motors. Or, if you're just looking for an environmentally friendly ride, I'd take a closer look at the above three vehicles. 

Don't let car companies take you for a ride
You don't know it yet, but you probably spent $1000's more than you should have on your vehicle. In fact, the auto industry can be such a dangerous place for consumers that our top auto experts are determined to even the playing field. That's why they created a a brand new free report on The Car Buying Secrets You Must Know. The advice inside could save you thousands of dollars on your next car, so be sure to read this report while it lasts. Your conscience, and your wallet, will thank you. Click here now for instant access.

The article Tesla Motors' Dirty Little Secret Is a Major Problem originally appeared on Fool.com.

Fool contributor Katie Spence has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Dien Kim Nguyen

Katie, this story is SO wrong many ways but I will point out just one. From Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lithium-ion_battery):

"Since Li-ion batteries contain no toxic metals (unlike other types of batteries which may contain lead or cadmium)[40] they are generally categorized as non-hazardous waste. Li-ion battery elements including iron, copper, nickel and cobalt are considered safe for incinerators and landfills. These metals can be recycled, but mining generally remains cheaper than recycling."

If lithium ion is so cancerous, why are you still using cell phone, laptop, and other countless gadgets? I see hypocrisy in the author as well anyone else says otherwise. Remember only bad writer writes without producing references to facts.

January 21 2014 at 8:50 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

This article is full of misinformation and very poorly researched. Tesla batteries are 100% non toxic are about 90% recyclable. All mining and drilling operations can be dirty and need to be carefully regulated. Fracking for natural gas is much dirtier and more destructive that lithium mining.

Also, the information about GWP is completely untrue. Direct from an EPA report 4/13: "It is important to note that this study and data contained in a previous study
suggest that, in comparison to internal combustion engine vehicles, there are significant benefits in GWP for EVs regardless of the carbon intensity of the grid."

The Tesla results in an average of 4 TIMES LESS CO2 than a gasoline car in the US. Even where electricity comes 100% from coal, it still puts out less CO2 than a gas car.

You should correct your errors.

January 21 2014 at 5:25 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Tesla recycles 75% of their batteries.
Elon musk owns solar city which has is showing promising results for storing solar power.
Tesla is profitable, not in debt.
Do your research before you say dumb things, and don't claim tesla is god, do your research and show it to the naysayers.

sources: http://money.cnn.com/2013/05/08/autos/tesla-earnings/

January 21 2014 at 12:50 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The new Giga-factory is planned to:

1. Supply all of Tesla's batteries (probably SolarCity as well).

2. Run as a carbon neutral facility.

3. Produce zero harmful byproducts.

Perhaps most importantly, it will be designed from the ground up to recycle every battery that goes out its doors once those batteries have completed their useful lives.

You mentioned many of the toxic materials used in current Li-ion batteries. However, you do not mention that the batteries are 100% contained throughout their useful lives (barring a wildly catastrophic accident).

Given the above environmental goals of the Giga-factory, I would also expect Tesla and its Giga-factory partners to strongly favor acquisition of raw materials from suppliers that use environmentally safe processes.

My information comes from public statements made by Elon Musk in the 2013 3Q financials meeting. Feel free to Google the transcripts.

Please provide your specific sources.

January 21 2014 at 10:09 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Thomas Earle Moore

I'm sure folks railing against the expense and supposed ineffectiveness of Tesla's approach to transportation would be happier if you could get a tax credit and HOV permit for driving one of the many luxury gas guzzlers made by other manufacturers? You'd certainly be a lot more credible if you would critique vehicles in a particular price range instead of comparing kiwis with watermelons. We will soon see what the future holds for alternative vehicle competition in the mass market price range, but at present there is nothing that escapes the stranglehold of oil like a Tesla.

January 20 2014 at 11:55 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Reminds me a lot of those articles that set out to prove that a Hummer was cleaner to drive than a Prius. We know what a hoax that was in the end.

To begin with the rest of the world isn't as backwards as the US when it comes to cleaner power generation. While the US is content to keep company with other third world powers like China and India on this front, the rest of the world has moved on. As such the Model S is quite clean everywhere else.

Next, the author makes no allowances for improvements. Even the US is cleaning up its act with cleaner power coming on stream. And lithiium mining can be made cleaner. And recycling can greatly reduce the demand for lithium in the automotive sector to begin with.

Next, the assumptions. To begin with, who only uses a car for 100 000 miles? Let alone one built as strong as the Model S? But of course, go beyond 100k miles and Katie's math and assertions would be turned upside down. So conveniently assign a life that allows a lifecycle to come out in favour of her assertions.

Finally, the author ignores the biggest driver of EVs: cost of oil. By 2020, premium fuel that all of Tesla's competitors use could easily be over $6/gallon. Heck, regular might be over $6/gallon. At that price, the most high end of hybrids would get you 50 miles of a really boring drive. But a Models S will do twice the distance for the same cost for someone with a lead foot, while offering more space and comfort. And that's an unfair comparison really, how many of the Model S' competitors even break 40mpg?

January 20 2014 at 10:28 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Keef Wivaneff

Tesla owners in Norway are getting MEGA PEEVED!


It's in Norwegian but Google will translate it for you.
Funniest thing I've read in a long time.
Not so funny if you are stuck in the cold with a BRICK!!

January 20 2014 at 6:40 AM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
Ashley James

Tesla is a very volatile stock, a the cars are not for the common man, people just cant afford them


January 20 2014 at 6:24 AM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
Keef Wivaneff

-You ignore the fact that Tesla batteries are 99% recyclable
NOT TRUE..no recycling facility exists

-You also ignore the Supercharger network which will be powered by Solar.
SOLAR PANELS are just for show and make a pitiful contribution to energy consumed

-You ignore that a large percentage of Tesla owners use solar installed at their home and/or business to charge their car.

-You ignore the well publicized Tesla Giga factory that will be carbon neutral and powered completely by Solar.
This factory will be the largest lithium battery manufacturing plant in the world and will be used to supply batteries to Tesla cars...and recycle used batteries.

January 20 2014 at 5:50 AM Report abuse -6 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Keef Wivaneff's comment
Chandy Pand

Keef, it must be so hard when you can't afford the car ever.

January 22 2014 at 12:33 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Keef Wivaneff

The Tesla cult followers are getting a bit cross!
From the Yahoo finance Tesla message board
"dustycowboy711 • 1 hour 58 minutes ago
I've never said this about anyone, ever, I'm a peaceful man, but I hope she gets cancer and dies a slow painful death while watching her family ignore her pain and squabble over her assets.
Sentiment: Buy
What a charmer!

Never mind.
What Katie says is entirely true but it gets even worse.
Despite what the Tesraelites claim - the Lithium batteries are NOT recyclable.
They are crushed and used as roadbase.
The Model S contains almost 2 tons of virgin aluminum which uses massive amounts of electricity to refine.
Components of the car are not designed for easy recycling and even if the metal could be recovered it is only good for making drink cans.
The electricity to charge electric vehicles comes almost entirely from fossil fueled electricity.
Solar does not work at night and storage methods are still "coming real soon"
(need more money)
New improved batteries are also "coming real soon"
(need more money)


January 20 2014 at 5:42 AM Report abuse -5 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Keef Wivaneff's comment
Nate Decker

Katie, you are sounding like an idiot.

It doesn't matter if solar owners charge their cars at night. The power they generate from solar during the day offsets the power they would have consumed from coal during that same time period. The night is the lowest demand for electricity and the best time to draw from the grid. If someone puts solar on their house because they bought a Tesla, of course that it is a net reduction in consumption of dirty energy. To say anything else is just asinine.

Not to mention the fact that energy generated from a big plant with expensive scrubbers and heavy equipment is much more efficient and cleaner than energy produced in a car's engine. You can't use clean methods in a combustion engine.

I live in Utah and we have some of the worst air in the country because of the mountains and the inversions that we experience here. Even if power plants were DIRTIER than car engines, I would STILL advocate for using electric vehicles. The power (and pollution) of a power plant can be generated away from the population centers. You have no such option with cars.

Here, you obviously need some help:

January 22 2014 at 1:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dien Kim Nguyen

Keef, I feel sorry for you, dude! For your reference you don't ever need 2 tons of aluminum to build a sedan. Get some sleep. :-)

January 25 2014 at 11:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply