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Hybrid And Electric Vehicle Batteries: Eco-Help Or Eco-Hazard?

Hybrid and electric vehicle owners are generally pretty proud of their contribution to easing the environmental impact on the planet’s fragile ecosystem.  But a recent report published by the EPA questions the impact of the batteries used by eco-vehicles on health and the environment.

The report highlights a study with the heady title "Application of Life-Cycle Assessment to Nanoscale Technology: Lithium-ion Batteries for Electric Vehicles." The study was performed by the EPA in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy, the Li-ion battery industry, and members of the academic community. The aim of the study was to identify health and ecological hazards that pertain to the batteries and to take steps to remediate those issues, if any were found.  Improving battery performance while the technology is still evolving was another focus of the research.

According to the report, the nickel and cobalt used in the lithium-ion batteries proposes a health hazard to those exposed during their production. Concerns raised in the study include the health risks of workers in the manufacturing process, who’ve been found to have an increased incidence of respiratory and pulmonary problems. Increased risk of neurological problems is also a concern for those involved in the battery’s production. Additionally, the study found that the net effect of the production of the batteries actually increases the effects of climate change. Global resource depletion is also an issue raised in the study.

Another ecological issue involves the impact of recharging plug-in batteries in parts of the U.S. – particularly the Mid-west and South, where coal-fired power plants are used to produce electricity.

Shanika Amarakoon, an Abt Associates analyst involved with the study said, “These impacts are sensitive to local and regional grid mixes. If the batteries in use are drawing power from the grids in the Midwest or South, much of the electricity will be coming from coal-fired plants. If it's in New England or California, the grids rely more on renewables and natural gas, which emit less greenhouse gases and other toxic pollutants. However, impacts from the processing and manufacture of these batteries should not be overlooked."

So what’s the upshot of the EPA study?  Lithium (Li-ion) batteries used in hybrid vehicles and all-electric vehicles present a huge potential asset when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but steps must be taken to reduce the negative impact on the environment and public health.  Given time and research, the green vehicle industry will almost certainly be able to resolve these issues.