Equilibrium/Sustainability — Nail in coffin for rural EV range anxiety

·10 min read
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Electric vehicle (EV) ranges have reached the point that they allow even drivers in very rural areas to access essential services, according to a new study.

Scientists from Australian National University (ANU) found that 93 percent of rural Australians could reliably access “service hubs” with even the lowest-range EVs, according to a study published on Friday.

“That’s without needing to recharge en route,” Bjorn Sturmberg of ANU said in a statement.

Policymakers have long pointed to consumer “range anxiety” — the fear of being caught far from home in a drained EV with no place to charge. Sturmberg suggested that not only is that no longer a problem for most rural Australians, but the benefits of EVs might now outweigh inconveniences.

“It’s difficult and expensive to get diesel out to these communities,” he said, adding that “electric engines are simpler and more robust than fuel engines” — a factor which decreases needs for maintenance and the shipping-in of parts.

Further questions remain for rural communities, coauthor Francis Markham said, like how EV ranges are affected by travel on dirt and gravel roads or in very hot climates — a category which would include the Australian Outback or (increasingly) the interior Western U.S.

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Send tips and feedback: Saul Elbein. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.

Today it’s a classic two-topic Equilibrium, in which we’ll take a look at how forever chemicals spread from trash to water to food, followed by a look at how surging prices for battery minerals is threatening to strangle the energy transition.

Seafood contaminated with forever chemicals

Clams and oysters are the newest products revealed to be contaminated by possibly toxic PFAS — highlighting the danger that these substances pose to the food supply.

Bad seafood: On Wednesday researchers from Florida International University revealed that oysters from several beds — Marco Island, Tampa Bay and Biscayne Bay — were contaminated with PFAS and similar compounds.

  • PFAS area collection of thousands of chemicals used to create compounds resistant to reactions with water and fire, which is why a common source of PFAS is nonstick pans or firefighting foam, according to a Centers for Disease Control fact sheet.

  • Because they don’t break down in nature, they’re often called forever chemicals. And as they build up over time in the bodies of a wide array of living things, from humans to oysters, they can cause serious harm. 

Health impacts: In humans, PFAS have been linked to a wide variety of problems, such as how they interfere with bone growth in teens, raise diabetes risk in women and are linked to cancer.

And exposure in the womb to PFAS in consumer and industrial products is leaving children with higher rates of liver disease, according to a study published on Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Not great for oysters either. In Biscayne Bay — which Miami is built beside — where the oysters had the highest levels of contamination, it had stunted their growth and made them grow thinner shells, according to a statement from FIU.

  • From the oysters themselves, the health risks are low, the researchers said.

  • More troubling was a suggestion in their paper that the poisoned oysters might be a “bioindicator” of high levels of PFAS pollution in the broader urban environments near the oyster beds — which include Tampa, Miami and Cape Coral.

Urban risk: A 2021 study from FIU found traces of 30 types of PFAS in the tap water of Miami, Broward and Palm Beach, as well as (in lower amounts) in Biscayne Bay and other waterways.

How bad were they? Like much else with PFAS, it is hard to tell. The levels were still below Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits at the time, but in June the EPA slashed limits for two of the compounds found — PFOA and PFOS — to nearly zero, the agency reported, adding that it was investing $1 billion in reducing PFAS contamination.

  • More troubling is that PFAS bio-accumulate, meaning constant exposure to even small concentrations can build up over time, the Centers for Disease Control noted.

  • EPA estimates may also substantially undercount the problem by counting only 30 PFAS compounds out of a possible 9,000, The Guardian reported on Wednesday.

More mollusk, more problems: On Wednesday canned food manufacturer Bumble Bee recalled its 3.75-ounce cans of smoked clams for PFAS contamination, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

The company says it imports from a third-party manufacturer in China — but almost three-quarters of seafood processed in and exported from China originated elsewhere, a Science paper found in February.

IT’S IN THE WATER

The problem isn’t restricted to seawater — PFAS are found in freshwater supplies and fish across the country.

Let’s look at a couple examples of how PFAS contamination of freshwater contaminates the food supply.

Fish in Wisconsin: Many Wisconsin freshwater fish, including those from Green Bay and lakes and rivers around Madison, are contaminated with PFAS,  the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources warned on Thursday, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Milk in Maine: Municipalwater contamination is directly linked to another source of contamination of the food supply — through the process of spreading the nutrient-rich sludge of “biosolids” from wastewater plants on fields as fertilizer, The Wall Street Journal reported.

  • Unfortunately, biosolids can also contain PFAS — and the state of Maine is investigating 700 sites for potential PFAS contamination from biosolids, the Journal reported.

Line of contamination: One family profiled by the Journal illustrates the connection. Katia and Brendan Holmes fed their dairy cows hay from their farm, which had been fertilized with biosolids — which means those cows’ milk is now contaminated with PFAS, she told the Journal.

  • That forces them every day to milk the cows and discard the milk they produce — after being forced to do voluntary recalls from 30 local stores that bought their products.

  • “We’re doing the best we can to figure it out and move forward,” Holmes told the Journal.

EV boom fuels price spikes that could throttle it

The global move toward clean energy and EVs is running into shortages of lithium, a key material needed to manufacture current batteries for EVs and utility storage.

  • That is leading prices to soar, which threatens to roadblock the energy transition and incentivizes a push to find new supplies that poses unknown risks to the world’s oceans.  

  • But from iron-based hydrogen fuel cells to water-based residential batteries, a variety of new battery chemistries are trying to steal lithium’s crown — and potentially sidestep its supply restrictions.

High ambition, high demand, high prices. In June, lithium prices stood at $62,000 per metric ton — considerably less than the $78,000 they hit in April, but more than six times where they stood in January, Al Jazeera reported.

The prices are driven by growing consumer and corporate appetite — and a government push — for light-duty EVs, according to analysis cited by Al Jazeera.

Sales of EVs hit 6.3 million units last year, a number that is expected to increase more than fourfold by 2030, Al Jazeera reported.

There’s an irony there: The success of initiatives to get more customers into EVs, in other words, is the main factor that has pushed up prices to where fewer people will be able to afford them.

As long as EVs are expensive to make, manufacturers will focus on making higher-margin luxury vehicles — not the mass models needed to truly make a dent in global climate targets, as we reported.

Limited supply, strategic exposure: For now, the major new global supplies of lithium are likely to come from two massive sites in Australia — the major global supplier of the raw ores — and to be processed and turned into batteries in China, Al Jazeera reported.

This level of concentration is similar to that the International Energy Agency warned of on Thursday in the context of solar panels — a supply chain in which China is also predominant.

NEW SOURCES MEAN NEW RISKS 

Lithium mining could emerge over the next decade as a critical threat to the world’s ocean life, according to a study in Nature Ecology & Evolution published on Thursday.

  • Some deep-sea brine pools — highly salty, dense regions of the deep ocean — have high concentrations of lithium, the paper noted. 

  • New technologies — like solid-state electrolyte membranes — also allow the miners to concentrate lithium levels in seawater by a factor of 43,000, according to the paper.

These factors are likely to turn mining attention from land to the deep sea, putting the poorly understood organisms that live there at risk, the study found.

That threat is requiring governments, companies and universities to begin planning how to reliably monitor mining’s impacts such environments, the scientists wrote.

And on the subject of sea mining: Mining efforts aimed at gathering rare earth elements from the seafloor — compounds used in much high-tech manufacturing — would create ecosystem-disrupting noise in poorly understood regions of the deep ocean, according to a paper published in Science on Thursday.

  • At ranges of 2 to 3 miles, the sound would be enough to injure or drive off sound-sensitive animals like blue or sperm whales, the study found. 

  • Even at further distances sound could be enough to disrupt the lives of the countless other species that navigate by sound. A single deep-sea mine could send interfere with the lives of animals within a radius of as much as 300 miles across the ocean, The Guardian reported.

Such disturbances in deep ocean life could also have broader consequences.

“The deep sea houses potentially millions of species that have yet to be identified, and processes there allow life on Earth to exist,” deep sea ecologist Travis Washburn of the Japan-based National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology said in a statement.

Alternatives bloom: Several alternatives exist to cut demand for lithium — particularly in stationary batteries.

Here’s a few that in the news just this week:

And startup Salient Energy is selling zinc-ion batteries for residential and commercial storage — offering them as a form of battery that, thanks to a chemistry derived from water, is far less likely than lithium-ion batteries to catch fire.

Friday Follow-ups

Revisiting stories from earlier in the week.

East River now hosts migrating dolphins

Planting the tropics in North Carolina

  • We reported on farmers in Africa returning to ancient grains as a means of staving off food shortages with crops better adapted to local ecosystems. Now Grist reports on a North Carolina farmer trying a similar form of adaptation by planting tropical taro — a sweet, starchy root crop originally from Southeast Asia — in the still-temperate west of his state.

Fire, fire everywhere this summer

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you next week.

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