Tesla’s electric cars may not be that sustainable after all

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Tesla's electric cars

Tesla’s electric cars are often believed to be highly sustainable. Indeed, Tesla says that its mission “is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” And in creating “an entire sustainable energy ecosystem”, the company has devised innovative technologies such as Powerwall, Powerpack and Solar Roof.

 

Where is the evidence of sustainability?

However, as sustainability writer Per Grankvist argues, while Tesla may have a sustainable vision, actual evidence of its sustainability is lacking. Grankvist emphasises:

 

Despite being a listed company, Tesla publish no information about its own efforts in making Tesla a sustainable company. Yes, that’s right: No. Information. At. All.

 

He adds:

 

Visit any website of a large or medium-sized company and chances are big that you’ll find a section outlining what they do in the field of sustainability. Some companies describe this briefly, others go to great length describing everything from their environmental footprint to their social responsibility, from their whistleblowing policies to where they stand in the question on whether to use palm oil or not. But not Tesla. Despite being called a sustainability champion, you won’t find a section called sustainability is conspicuously absent on tesla.com. It’s not that they call it something else, there’s actually very little information at all regarding sustainability on the website.

 

On the one hand, Tesla may be keeping its sustainability aspect a secret because it wants to keep the details of its tech under wraps. So it may be staying true to its sustainable vision but just not announcing it to the world. On the other hand, this secretive mentality could be because there isn’t enough evidence of the company’s sustainability to match its mission statement. Sustainability doesn’t even seem to be part of the skill set that Tesla desire of its employees.

 

Why Tesla’s electric cars are not sustainable

While many people will get a Tesla car thinking they’re doing something hugely positive for the environment, the reality is a bit different. Grankvist says:

 

But at the same time as companies around the world like to get a Tesla car in order to make a statement about their sustainability ambitions, signaling that they walk their talk, Tesla isn’t taking and might not be walking either.

 

Tesla owners can charge their vehicles with the company’s own Superchargers. And you would think with the company having sustainability at heart that the power used at these Superchargers is from renewable or carbon neutral sources.

Yet Tesla provides no information on this. So we pretty much have to assume that the electricity used in Superchargers is only as sustainable as the country that produces that energy. As Grankvist points out:

 

In Norway, where hydropower generates most of the country’s electricity, the climate impact of charging a Tesla will be close to zero. In the US, on the other hand, almost two thirds (64.8 percent) of the electricity used is generated from fossil fuels (by burning coal and gas). In Germany, the same figure is 55 percent. It’s of course still much better than using 100% percent fossil fuels to power your car, but the electricity is still not sustainable at all.

 

Grankvist actually recommends buying a BMW 3-series in the plug-in version rather than a Tesla Model 3, since it is “generally designed and manufactured in a more sustainable way.”

 

Sustainability hype

Devonshire Research Group, an investment firm that specialises in valuing tech companies, says that the sustainability benefits seem to be based on a lot of hype. While electric cars may emit less greenhouse gas emissions than gas-powered vehicles, electric cars can be environmentally unfriendly in other ways. As Wired underscores:

 

Electric cars need to be light, which means they include a lot of high-performing metals… But those rare metals come from somewhere—often, from environmentally destructive mines. It’s not just Tesla, of course. All electric vehicles rely on parts with similar environmental issues. Even solar panels depend on rare metals that have to be dug out of the earth and processed in less-than-green ways, says David Abraham, author of the book The Elements of Power.  

 

Virginia McConnell, an economist at the environmental research firm Resources for the Future, points out that:

 

the greenhouse-gas-emissions footprint of electric vehicles can be pretty high on the front end, as they’re being built. And so you need to get a lot of benefits on the other side, when you use it.

 

Tesla may be helping to move us toward a greener society. But as I highlighted in an article for The Canary, since “electric cars are only as green as their energy supply”, Tesla will have to figure out how to make its cars more eco-friendly than they currently are. Which may not be such a difficult endeavour, as the company is making great innovative strides in terms of solar energy and battery storage.

 

Other solutions

If we look to the space exploration industry, we can see that a rocket powered by nuclear fusion would be highly sustainable since it would produce zero greenhouse gas emissions.

NASA has also been developing cold fusion tech that could see small, safe nuclear reactors being placed in the cars of the future. If Tesla wants to create a truly sustainable car, then it should also consider the enormous transformations that could take place by investing in fusion energy.

 

About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe

Sam is a writer who is especially interested in space exploration, sustainability, animal agriculture, nutrition, well-being and smart drugs.

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