Long-Distance Shipping of Electric Car Parts Adds Environmental Impact

By · August 05, 2013

In January 2012, Nissan announced that it transported the all-electric LEAF using a ship partially powered by solar panels.

Last week, BMW introduced the BMW i3, its first production electric car. The innovative EV uses lightweight aerodynamic carbon fiber materials manufactured in Washington state, and then shipped to Germany for assembly. This begs the question: Is an electric car still green when the batteries and other parts are shipped across the globe before final assembly?

We can draw an analogy to the "food miles" concept used by local food advocates to describe the increasing environmental impact of shipping food—even organic food—long distances before it's sold at your local market. In other words, the environmental resource cost of building or using any widget is amplified by shipping that product, or its components, around the planet. One reason to buy a plug-in electric vehicle is to reduce your personal environmental footprint—but that motivation can be undermined if the production of the car excessively contributes to global warming.

Tracking the Distance

To make the i3, BMW engineers used a combination of aluminum to build the chassis (a.k.a. Drive module) and carbon fiber reinforced plastic to build the passenger compartment (a.k.a. Life module). The design reduces weight without compromising safety.

BMW claims manufacturing the i3 consumes around 50 percent less energy and 70 percent less water, in comparison with the average for other BMW vehicles. The company's goal in manufacturing the i3 is to have a carbon footprint about one-third smaller than the BMW 118d, which was awarded World Green Car of the Year in 2008. To that end, BMW powers its Leipzig plant, where the i3 is assembled, with on-site wind generators.

However, the carbon fiber material used in making i3 begins its life at the Mitsubishi Rayon-SGL Precursor Co. Ltd. in Otake, Japan. That company produces polyacrylonitrile fiber, which is shipped from Japan to the SGL Group (SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers) facility in Moses Lake, Washington, where the raw carbon fibers are made. From Moses Lake, the raw carbon fibers are shipped to a series of BMW factories in Germany where the material is laminated, compressed with plastic resins, and formed into car parts.

Now consider that the battery pack for the Chevy Spark is manufactured by A123 Systems LLC at factories in Michigan. The battery—as well as the electric motor produced in Maryland—are shipped to Korea, where they're installed into Spark EV bodies. The gasoline Chevy Spark is built by GM Korea and is sold worldwide. The Chevy Spark EV is simply the electrified version of the gas-powered Spark, and therefore it makes sense for its production to occur in Korea. Unfortunately, this means components are shipped from the U.S. to Korea, and then assembled in a car that's shipped back to California or Oregon for sale.

Think Local

The Nissan LEAF provides a counterpoint. For the 2011 and 2012 model years, all LEAF production occurred in Japan. But beginning with the 2013 model year, the Nissan electric car is made in the U.S. and in England for sales in their respective continents. Making the LEAF in Japan had several negative impacts. The disasters resulting from massive 2011 earthquake in Japan affected manufacturing in Japan, limiting production of the LEAF. In addition, Nissan faces an unattractive exchange rate when making cars in Japan and selling them in the U.S. Shifting production to the U.S. helped Nissan reduce the price of the 2013 model.

Nissan Leaf electric motors and battery packs, as well as final assembly, now occurs in Nissan's factories in Tennessee.

Battery cells for the Chevy Volt (and soon, the Ford Focus Electric) are manufactured at LG Chem's factories in Michigan. Previously those Volt cells were made at LG factories in Korea. GM manufactures the battery packs (using LG Chem cells) for the Volt at its own domestic factory. It will be a few months before these batteries appear in cars on dealers lots, because of the lead-time required for battery pack production. LG Chem was originally slated to start production at the Holland, Mich. in 2012 but weak sales of the Chevy Volt caused a delay.

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