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The Road to EV Transformation is Still Paved by Fossil Fuels

Let’s explore fossil fuel usage and the broader move to electrification, particularly through the example of the Electric Vehicle (EV). As this article will explore, fossil fuels often play a more significant role in our supply chain and society than may at first be apparent, which means a move to EVs and more broadly to electrification doesn’t necessarily translate to significantly reduced fossil fuel use.

People transition to EVs for various reasons such as to lower costs, but one of the main ones is a desire to reduce fossil fuel and climate impact. Vehicle gas usage is certainly a contributor to gas demand and production and EVs do reduce ongoing usage overall, but a broader aspect of our supply chains is that every piece of that vehicle has still been touched by oil/gas and even ongoing EV operation requires oil and gas inputs.  So lets explore this further as to why its not so easy to just flip the switch from fossil fuels in the case of an EV. We will do this through a look at the makeup of the vehicle, its production, the infrastructure it uses, and ongoing power usage. Note, this article doesn’t get into the specifics of overall carbon inputs/outputs, but offers a general look at the considerations.

Vehicle Components/Structure: Approximately 50% of a vehicle today (2023) is made from plastics, polymers and composites which are all made from oil products (petrochemicals). Some quick examples are the foam in the seats, dashboard, electrical wiring coverings, carpets, bumpers, tail lights, steering wheel, tires and much more. In fact many components you think would be structural metal, are often now made from carbon composites instead. The point here is every vehicle, EV or not, is now significantly made of petrochemicals through its use of plastics. The upside of plastic use in vehicles is that they have now become lighter and more efficient, resulting in lower ongoing gas and/or electrical usage. Ironically, EV’s are often heavier than similar sized gas vehicles due to the weight of the battery, so its even more vital for lighter weight plastics and composites to be used in EVs.

Vehicle Production and Delivery: The manufacture of an EV involves machinery, coolants, hydraulics, lubricants and many other inputs to make and assemble the components, many of which are generally made from or use oil and gas. The battery alone requires a significant amount of fossil fuel inputs in addition to the impact of mining the raw materials. Also to get supplies to the plants, these will come in gas powered trucks and the supplies themselves are likely made using oil and gas inputs too in some way. Then once a vehicle is complete, it will likely be shipped via gas powered car carriers (at least the final miles) and other fossil fuel powered delivery methods. Its an endless supply chain, production and delivery rabbit role that can’t easily be disconnected from its dependency on fossil fuels., despite some non-gas powered components to all these steps.

Ongoing Electrical Usage: The electrical production in Ontario where I live comes from various sources, but 27% of this supply comes from oil and gas (per IESO). This varies depending on the region in North America,  but fossil fuels still make up a considerable amount of our electricity supply so every time an EV is recharged, its still in a way powered on ~1/4 gas. Yes, the power usage and quantities are lower, but the point here is an EV is still dependent on fossil fuel to power it today. The remainder of the supply is mostly nuclear or water/hydro, which again we could go down a similar rabbit role on the production, supply chain and parts used in maintaining these and their dependency on oil and gas.

Driving Infrastructure: A quick example is that the roads EV’s drive on are partially made from fossil fuel inputs (bitumen) and all the paint on these roads are made entirely from petrochemicals. The equipment used to lay pavement and paint are also all gas powered. Again, this is a rabbit hole that we could go down further, but the point is everything is still touched in some way by fossil fuels.

Moving away from fossil fuel vehicles (or any gas powered equipment) will certainly lower dependence on oil and gas and any movement towards a cleaner and more diverse energy supply is a move in a positive direction in my opinion. My point with everything above however is that there is such a complicated and tangled supply chain we operate and live in that is dependent on fossil fuels. And as a result, we will likely live in a world (in our lifetimes at least) that is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels no matter how much we electrify and diversify our inputs and usage. Faced with this reality and the interdependency of our supply chains, perhaps progress and success can be better measured through movement towards diversification and moderation within a diversified energy and usage environment. This approach acknowledges the importance of all stages of our supply chain on our economy, the environment, our fellow citizens, and our society as a whole while continuing with progress and innovation.

Ron Laidman, MBA, P.Eng., C.Dir.