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Tesla: the real environmental impact

Since the introduction of the initial Tesla electric vehicle (EV), consumers have sought accurate information regarding the total carbon footprint of EVs as they compare to traditional internal combustion engines (ICEs). We know Elon Musk’s Tesla vehicles create less pollution out of the tailpipe, but what about those batteries? The truth is, direct comparisons are difficult to make due to the endless variables to take into account. But as more information about batteries and manufacturing becomes available, it is important to consider all of the factors to make the most sustainable decision when it comes to car ownership.

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Tesla’s messaging

Some of Tesla’s claims over the years have amounted to little more than hype. There’s even been a dose of greenwashing in the creatively crafted claims regarding sustainable corporate practices. Still, Tesla is the undeniable leader in the innovation, production and style now associated with energy-efficient cars. So, how green is Tesla, and is owning one really a thoughtful consideration for the environment?

Related: Go off the grid with a Tesla-powered adventure vehicle by Ready.Set.Van.

Manufacturing impact

Running a factory is resource-intensive. Reports vary regarding the carbon footprint of the actual product though. While the parts are different, it’s generally accepted that Tesla vehicle production is equivalent or less-consumptive than standard vehicle builds.

From the beginning, Musk has spouted claims about the efficiency of Tesla plants, with the use of high-tech robots for precision and LED lighting to save energy as well as reliance on local renewable energy. The company claims to have earned a zero-waste certification at the Fremont plant, although there have been reports showcasing the company’s waste at this plant. As new plants are constructed from the ground up, they are built to rely on renewable energy sources. In addition, the company’s water reduction efforts are seen across the sales, service and delivery facilities. It has even implemented waterless car washes in some areas.

While the company goal is to lead the way in sustainable practices, it is still hovering around progress rather than perfection. By comparison to standard manufacturing practices, however, Tesla’s conservation methods are welcome environmentally.

Materials sourcing

The main hit to the environment in regards to Tesla EV production is in the materials needed for the batteries. There have been deep contradictions between Tesla’s stated objectives to source raw materials from suppliers who ensure environmentally friendly and ethical processes and reports of a questionable supply chain. Over the years, there have been accusations of poor treatment of the Indigenous population surrounding a lithium mine in Argentina, a dirty source of graphite from China and cobalt mined under harsh conditions.

Tesla responded by saying the supply chains are complex and the company is continuing to find ways to clean them up. The company stated, “Reliably determining the origin [of these materials] is a difficult task, but the due diligence practices required of our suppliers adds transparency to help us and our suppliers adhere to the responsible sourcing principles of our Code.” You can read the Tesla Supplier Code of Conduct and the Human Rights and Conflict Minerals Policy to better understand these goals.

Tesla interior with dark seats and large central screen

Lifespan

Electric cars don’t rely on the same parts as a combustion engine, and overall EV components last longer. With this in mind, comparisons shouldn’t be made on a one-to-one basis. ICE vehicles will need to be replaced more often, doubling the impact of material sourcing, manufacturing and scrap waste. In short, a product that lasts longer produces less waste.

Charging stations 

One of the prevalent arguments regarding EVs is the fact that they charge using electrical power. That power is most often sourced from the local power grid, which can be composed of a variety of sources including the very fossil fuels electric cars aim to eliminate. While Musk has repeatedly claimed that Tesla charging stations are 100% powered by renewable energy, this statement from a company spokesperson is likely closer to the truth. “We aim for carbon neutrality, and where the market allows via wholesale power purchase, we source renewable energy, even though it is slightly more expensive. In Europe, the power for all our Supercharger stations is sourced by renewable energy. Continuing to convert our superchargers to solar power will push us further down that road.”

To some degree, it’s out of Tesla’s hands when it comes to public electricity, including what the consumer uses once they get their car home. It’s up to each Tesla owner to invest in solar panels or subscribe to renewable energy sources through their utility provider.

It’s important to note the combination of energy sources varies widely across the country. For example, Iowa relies on wind for around 40% of its energy production while West Virginia sources nearly 100% of its energy from coal. Therefore, even an electric vehicle can be petroleum-consumptive in areas with a heavy reliance on fossil fuels.

While Tesla may not be able to count on complete reliance on renewable energy, it does own a solar power production company. This adds up to a carbon offset, which is a good thing. However, it shouldn’t be considered when measuring the carbon footprint from Tesla cars as a whole.

Battery disposal

Battery disposal is another hot topic with concerns over massive, and potentially toxic, waste. However, the newest generation of batteries, especially Tesla batteries aimed at eliminating cobalt altogether, are highly recyclable. Not only can 90% of the battery be recycled, but even after its usable life in a Tesla, the battery can be used for energy storage for another 20 years or so. In addition, batteries can be refurbished by replacing bad cells or removing good cells to use in another battery.

three Teslas driving down a road flanked by trees

Tesla’s appeal and innovation

The bottom line is Tesla has propelled EV production ahead by leaps and bounds with its innovation and dedication to sustainable practices. Perhaps even more powerful is the sleek, appealing designs that excite buyers and continue to grow a customer base willing to now own an electric vehicle. It has been, and continues to be, a driving force for continued improvements across the industry and a catalyst that sparks individuals to drive into the future of electric vehicles. Both are a win for the planet.

Via The Drive, Clean Technica and Slate

Images via Unsplash

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