Thursday, May 19, 2011


How Green Are Electric Cars?

By Henry Curtis

On May 16, 2011 Kanu Hawaii sponsored a filmed called “Carbon Nation” at Bambu Cafe on Bethel Street, Honolulu.

Followed the film there was an hour long panel discussion with Richard Ha (Ku`oko`a; Hamakua Springs Country Farms), Brian Goldstein (Better Place) and Scott Seu (HECO).
The chief problem with both the film and the panel discussion was that ideas, concepts and solutions were tossed out without analysis, critique or questioning.

Better Place is slowly building a statewide electric car charging network. Last month the first facility was deployed. Better Place announced: “The installation of the first 10 charge spots across Oahu – five at the Sheraton Waikiki and five at three Hawaiian Electric sites – is the result of cross-sector partnerships between Better Place, Kyo-ya Hotels & Resorts , Starwood Hotels & Resorts Waikiki, Hawaiian Electric Company and the Hawaii Renewable Energy Development Venture.”

Brian Goldstein (Director, Better Place Hawaii) stated at the panel discussion:  Lithium batteries have no heavy metals, they can be almost completely no toxic metals, they can be almost entirely recycled and there is a huge supply of lithium. It’s one of the most ecologically clean mining, forms of mining on the planet.”

But is that true? Is Lithium mining clean? First, what is lithium?

Lithium is the lightest metal. It floats on water. It is highly reactive and flammable. Lithium deuteride serves as a fusion fuel in staged thermonuclear weapons. Trace amounts of lithium are common. It is present in all organisms and in the ocean.

How much lithium do we need?

William Tahil, research director with technology consultant Meridian International Research. William Tahil (The Trouble with Lithium): "to make just 60 million plug-in hybrid vehicles a year containing a small lithium-ion battery would require 420,000 tons of lithium carbonate - or six times the current global production annually." Furthermore, the 60 million electric cars would be just 15% of the world’s existing stock of 900 million cars.

Where is lithium found?

Currently three countries account for most of the world's production: Chile (41%), Australia (24%) and Argentina (12%). Chile and Bolivia have 75-90% of the world's reserves.

Is lithium mining clean?

Lithium extraction comes at a very high environmental cost. In the invasive mining process the land is destroyed, local wells are polluted and the water table drops.

Lithium is mined in salt plains and salt lakes. Large lithium deposits exist in the Salar De Uyuni salt plain (Bolivia), Salar de Atacama (Chile), Salar de Hombre Muerto (Argentina), Taijinaier Salt Lake (Qinghai Province, China), Dangxiongcuo Salt Lake (Tibet), and the Zhabuye Salt Lake (Tibet).

                                             Salar de Atacama (Wikipedia)

Dan McDougall (In search of Lithium): "I travelled across Chile to the Atacama desert, the single biggest source of lithium outside Bolivia.  In the parched hills of Chile's northern region the damage caused by lithium mining is immediately clear. As you approach one of the country's largest lithium mines the white landscape gives way to what appears to be an endless ploughed field. Huge mountains of discarded bright white salt rise out of the plain. The cracked brown earth of the site crumbles in your hands. There is no sign of animal life anywhere. The scarce water has all been poisoned by chemicals leaked from the mine.  Huge channels and tracts have been cut into the desert, each running with heavily polluted water. The blue glow of chlorine makes the water look almost magical, but these glistening  pools are highly toxic. The chlorine used to water down the potentially carcinogenic lithium and magnesium compounds that are commonly found in the water table around lithium deposits.”

U.S. Lithium Production

The U.S. led the world in lithium production prior to the late 1990s. Foote Mineral Company mined spodumene in Kings Mountain, North Carolina and then brine in Nevada's Silver Peak. In the late 1990s Chile slashed prices for its lithium production to successfully gain world market share.

A consortium has proposed renewed production in Nevada.

Final Environmental Assessment For Chemetall Foote Corporation Electric Drive Vehicle Battery and Component Manufacturing Initiative Kings Mountain, NC and Silver Peak, NV (September 2010): “The Silver Peak site is located in a rural area approximately 30 miles southwest of Tonopah, in Esmeralda County, Nevada. It is located in the Clayton Valley, an arid valley historically covered with dry lakebeds (playas). ...Chemetall’s Silver Peak site occupies approximately 15,000 acres and is dominated by large evaporation ponds on the valley floor, some in use and filled with brine while others are dry and unused. ...The majority of the Clayton Valley is undeveloped land consisting of patented and unpatented mining claims granted by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), as well as a cattle grazing allotment (including a corral and stock water points) issued by the BLM.”

The Movie

The Inconvenient Truth was aimed at the Left Wing. The Great Warming was aimed at the Evangelical Crowd. The Carbon Nation was aimed at conservatives.

The Guardian noted that “Carbon Nation is billed as ‘a climate change solutions movie that does not even care if you believe in climate change’, and some of the interviewees say they aren't sure whether global warming is man-made or not.”

The major roles in the film focused on white men and their solutions. There were a few women and a token black male. Supporting roles were more diverse. The film offered a lot of doom and gloom and a lot of hope and opportunity and a smorgeous board of alternatives. But it didn’t mention any side effects or impacts of alternatives, nor did it analyze the contradictions between approaches.

Carbon Nation stated that we are “one nation” and that the myriad of county and state energy policies must be ended in favor of one supreme national policy. There is no mention of local values, local issues, and local concerns.

The film contradicted itself: it suggested that we consume too much and that we can make a boatload of cash supporting clean energy and energy efficiency. That climate change may or may not be real but the needed change will be profitable.

# # #

Henry Curtis


I have a new idea which could make invading middle east counties a thing of the past. Mandate the building of smaller cars. While some might argue this will affect their right to drive a large gas guzzler, I'm thinking about the thousands of American and hundreds of thousands of middle eastern lives that have been lost so we can have that choice.

To Henry: the electric cars will be a boon to HECO, of course, and HECO will burn coal to run them. Not very green.

To Old Diver: the gas guzzlers also profited the car companies, of course, and they, as corporations, are more important than we are.

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