Environmental and Health Issues Raised by Electric Vehicles, Including Motorcycles

Zero’s SR/F electric motorcycle

The electric vehicle revolution is well underway, of course, and there are clearly environmental benefits associated with the new technologies. But it is not all good news, and MD readers should understand some of the basic facts.

Current technology requires that nearly all electric vehicles contain batteries with three essential ingredients that need to be mined, including lithium, cobalt and nickel. The environmental costs of mining are well known, but are beyond the scope of this article. Although the supply of these ingredients is finite, depending on the necessary mining investments and political instability issues being resolved, the supply of these ingredients should not be a major issue over the next several decades.

Lithium is more frequently discussed, but the supply of cobalt is potentially more problematic given the political instability of its primary source, the Democratic Republic of Congo. Take a look at this article regarding the supply issues surrounding cobalt and nickel.

The disposal of all the batteries is, of course, an environmental problem, although there is some progress in recycling lithium and cobalt from batteries.

Another fairly obvious point often overlooked by the average consumer is that the electricity used to charge these batteries (plug-in sources) is largely generated by the burning of fossil fuels (roughly 63% of U.S. electricity generation). The rest comes from nuclear energy (20%) and renewable energy sources (17%). The statistics for 2018 can be found here. So charging your electric vehicle involves, although indirectly, the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, natural gas and petroleum. Certain parts of the country rely on differing percentages of fossil fuels and renewables, of course.

A topic getting more attention lately is the impact on health of EMF (electromagnetic fields) radiation exposure. The studies are all over the place, unfortunately, with some of them biased by industry funding. EMF exposure can have a negative impact on health, including causing cancers, but the safe amount of that exposure is the subject of seemingly endless debate. All cars produce EMF, but electric and hybrid vehicles seem to produce significantly more EMF than ICE powered vehicles.

This article contains a good summary of the EMF issues, but also take a look here and here. EMF exposure is greater when the source of the radiation is physically closer … automobile drivers’ feet are exposed to more radiation than their heads, for example. On a motorcycle, of course, the rider is extremely close to the EMF sources – physically straddling the engine, typically. We are not aware of any specific studies on the health impact of EMF exposure on riders of electric motorcycles.

So buy and enjoy your new electric motorcycles. With the major OEMs about to jump in, we should see them everywhere before too long. Just make sure you understand that the burning of fossil fuels in ICE powered vehicles is not the only source of human health and safety concerns – electric vehicles pose their own.

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