Tesla Motors' Dirty Little Secret Is a Major Problem

Think Tesla’s Model S is the green car of the future? Think again.

Jan 19, 2014 at 1:00PM

Model S Photo Gallery
Tesla Motors Model S. Photo: Tesla Motors.

Energy independence, a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, lower fuel costs: All of these promises are factors behind the rise in electric vehicles' popularity. Unfortunately, they're more fiction than fact. Here's why, and how it could affect companies like Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA).

Do you want cancer with that battery?
Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy undertook a study to look at the environmental impact of lithium-ion batteries for EVs. The study showed that batteries that use cathodes with nickel and cobalt, as well as solvent-based electrode processing, have the highest potential for environmental impacts, including resource depletion, global warming, ecological toxicity, and human health. The largest contributing processes include those associated with the production, processing, and use of cobalt and nickel metal compounds, which may cause adverse respiratory, pulmonary, and neurological effects in those exposed. 

Tesla Model S Base

Tesla Model S base. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In other words, li-ion batteries that contain nickel and cobalt have a significant effect on health and the environment. More specifically, this includes Panasonic's automotive grade li-ion batteries, which contain lithium, nickel, cobalt , and aluminum, and a proprietary cathode geometry developed jointly by Panasonic and Tesla -- and are currently used in the Model S.

Exchanging one energy dependency for another

The above sounds bad, right? It gets worse. One of the big pushes behind "green" vehicles is the goal of reducing the country's energy dependence. Consequently, when considering battery-powered vehicles that rely on lithium, it's important to ask where the lithium comes from.

Salar Brine

Salar Brine. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The answer? Not America. That's not to say America doesn't have lithium, it does, but most of the lithium that America uses is imported from other countries. Precisely, according to the 2013 U.S. Geological Survey, from 2008-2011 America's import sources were: Argentina, 52%; Chile, 44%; and China, 3%. This necessarily leads to the next question, "Why does America prefer to rely on imported lithium?"

Simply put, lithium, in its pure form, doesn't occur naturally on Earth. So in order to obtain it, it must be mined through hard rock or salar brines. More importantly, salar brines -- the most economical and popular way of obtaining lithium -- destroy the environment. Friends of the Earth, Europe states:

The extraction of lithium has significant environmental and social impacts, especially due to water pollution and depletion. In addition, toxic chemicals are needed to process lithium. The release of such chemicals through leaching, spills or air emissions can harm communities, ecosystems and food production. Moreover, lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and also causes air contamination.

And, the European Commission on Science for Environmental Policy states that "[lithium's] continued use needs to be monitored, especially as lithium mining's toxicity and location in places of natural beauty can cause significant environmental, health, and social impacts." 

A bleak outlook
Clearly, the above isn't great news for those who are concerned about the environment beyond their backyards. And it's not the only bad news for EVs. The EPA found that when looking at life-cycle impact assessments, categories such as global warming potential, acidification potential (transformation of air pollutants into acids), eutrophication potential (water pollution often leading to excessive water weed/algae growth), ozone depletion potential, photochemical oxidation potential (air pollution), human toxicity potential, occupation cancer hazard, and occupational non-cancer hazard, the only time an EV battery scored better than a plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle's battery is in the category that measures potential for global warming.  

Unfortunately, the EPA added this statement about global warming potential: "GWP benefit only appears when the electricity grid relies less on coal production and more on natural gas and renewables. ... Accordingly, in regions where the grid is more heavily coal-centric, the study results suggest that PHEV-40 vehicles may be preferable if global warming impacts are highly valued." 

Tesla Supercharger

Tesla Supercharger. Photo: Jurvetson via Wikimedia Commons.

Obviously, that's bad news for EVs, which brings us back to Tesla. Tesla's made a name for itself as the future of "green" cars, and as of the time of this writing, its stock price is trading as if that's true. However, according to Climate Central, in 46 states Tesla's Model S is the least climate-friendly EV, and it's worse than all but two hybrids when it comes to CO2 emissions over 100,000 miles of driving. When you couple that with the above information from the EPA, it's clear that Tesla isn't nearly as "green" as it wants you to believe.

What to watch
EVs sound promising on the surface, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty, they're not nearly as environmentally friendly as they seem, nor do they help America become energy independent. Further, thanks to its battery, the Model S is even less environmentally friendly than most other EVs. As such, it doesn't meet the requirements for "green car of the future," which means Tesla's high stock price may be unsustainable in the long term.

Yes, the Model S is a nice car -- it should be for what you pay for it -- but the future of green technology? Not without a major overhaul of its battery. Further, if you're looking for an environmentally friendly car, greenercars.org, part of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, lists Toyota Motor's (NYSE:TM) Prius C as the Greenest Vehicle of 2013. It's closely followed by Honda Motor's (NYSE:HMC) Fit, and Volkswagen's (NASDAQOTH:VLKAY) Jetta Hybrid. Consequently, if you're looking for your next truly green auto stock, you may want to steer clear of Tesla Motors. Or, if you're just looking for an environmentally friendly ride, I'd take a closer look at the above three vehicles. 

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Fool contributor Katie Spence has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

4 in 5 Americans Are Ignoring Buffett's Warning

Don't be one of them.

Jun 12, 2015 at 5:01PM

Admitting fear is difficult.

So you can imagine how shocked I was to find out Warren Buffett recently told a select number of investors about the cutting-edge technology that's keeping him awake at night.

This past May, The Motley Fool sent 8 of its best stock analysts to Omaha, Nebraska to attend the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder meeting. CEO Warren Buffett and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger fielded questions for nearly 6 hours.
The catch was: Attendees weren't allowed to record any of it. No audio. No video. 

Our team of analysts wrote down every single word Buffett and Munger uttered. Over 16,000 words. But only two words stood out to me as I read the detailed transcript of the event: "Real threat."

That's how Buffett responded when asked about this emerging market that is already expected to be worth more than $2 trillion in the U.S. alone. Google has already put some of its best engineers behind the technology powering this trend. 

The amazing thing is, while Buffett may be nervous, the rest of us can invest in this new industry BEFORE the old money realizes what hit them.

KPMG advises we're "on the cusp of revolutionary change" coming much "sooner than you think."

Even one legendary MIT professor had to recant his position that the technology was "beyond the capability of computer science." (He recently confessed to The Wall Street Journal that he's now a believer and amazed "how quickly this technology caught on.")

Yet according to one J.D. Power and Associates survey, only 1 in 5 Americans are even interested in this technology, much less ready to invest in it. Needless to say, you haven't missed your window of opportunity. 

Think about how many amazing technologies you've watched soar to new heights while you kick yourself thinking, "I knew about that technology before everyone was talking about it, but I just sat on my hands." 

Don't let that happen again. This time, it should be your family telling you, "I can't believe you knew about and invested in that technology so early on."

That's why I hope you take just a few minutes to access the exclusive research our team of analysts has put together on this industry and the one stock positioned to capitalize on this major shift.

Click here to learn about this incredible technology before Buffett stops being scared and starts buying!

David Hanson owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and American Express. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, Google, and Coca-Cola.We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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