Batteries – how environmentally suitable are they really?

Electric vehicles are quieter, more energy-efficient and cleaner than their fossil fuel-powered counterparts. Having said that, however, there are several questions regarding their batteries. How environmentally suitable and sustainable are lithium-ion batteries, if we look at the entire picture? Volvo Trucks’ Director Environment and Innovation, Lars Mårtensson, discusses the advantages and disadvantages.
Lars Mårtensson, Volvo Trucks
Lars Mårtensson, Volvo Trucks’ Director Environment and Innovation.

One important component in lithium-ion batteries is cobalt, which mainly comes from the Congo. Amnesty International has reported on child labour and human rights crimes in that country. What do you do to ensure that the raw materials for the batteries you use are extracted in a responsible way?

“We naturally do not approve any materials for our products that are mined or manufactured in an unacceptable way – this is clearly stated in our code of conduct. We work together with our various suppliers to chart the origins of our raw materials. In order to drive this development, the Volvo Group together with a number of other automotive manufacturers created an organisation called Drive Sustainability, which focuses on examining and improving working conditions and environmental impact in raw material supply chains. Many issues still have to be resolved, but the measures we are taking are important steps.” 

How good are batteries from a climate perspective? Is there a risk that their high energy consumption during manufacture ‘eats up’ the environmental benefit that electric propulsion offers when during vehicle use?

“Battery manufacture is admittedly energy-intensive, but in a lifecycle perspective there is no doubt that heavy electric commercial vehicles are highly beneficial from the energy and climate perspectives. This is primarily because electric motors utilise energy far more efficiently than combustion engines do. So the more kilometres you drive during the truck’s lifetime, the greater the difference – to the benefit of the electrically powered truck.” 

Is it really defensible to run on electricity if the energy used to manufacture and charge the batteries comes from non-renewable energy sources, for instance coal?

“It is of course optimal to use renewable energy at every stage. If the electricity is produced from fossil fuels, the climate benefit is reduced. Thanks to the high efficiency rating of the electric motor, it is still beneficial to choose electricity rather than fossil diesel. However, if you compare a truck running for instance on biogas with an electric truck that gets its energy from coal-fired power stations, the result is not equally clear.”

What will you do with all the batteries once they have come to the end of their service lives? Can they be recycled in a good way, or will they simply cause a new environmental problem?

“We naturally take our manufacturer’s responsibility seriously. We are currently involved in several projects to examine how batteries from heavy electric commercial vehicles can have a second lease of life and be reused, for instance for storing solar energy. And when the service life of the batteries used in our trucks is over we will ensure that they are dealt with in a suitable way.”