Should Electric Vehicles be Illinois’ Future?
By: Jacob Regan
While electric vehicles play a vital role in Illinois’ future, upgrading public transportation is essential to creating a greener Illinois. As the new year begins, expect to see electric vehicles become a more prominent part of everyday life. The number of people using electric vehicles is rising: in November 2017, Illinois had an electric vehicle count of 8031; at the end of last year, that number was 57311. On the political side, Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth secured $8.215 million for statewide programs for electric buses, charging infrastructure, and electric paratransit vehicles. This money is also to be used for electric vehicle readiness programs across the state.
Governor JB Pritzker contributed by passing and amending the Reimagining Electric Vehicles in Illinois Act, which intends to incentivize electric car manufacturers to bring or keep their business in Illinois.  Furthermore, the Illinois EPA provides a rebate for anyone that purchases an electric vehicle, and the IRS offers a tax credit for purchasers of new electric cars. Illinois also passed the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, which partially focuses on building electric vehicle architecture.
There is a good reason for this: gasoline-fueled vehicles produce major amounts of pollution, including carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide. In addition to contributing to environmental damage, this leads to serious health issues and even death. Speaking from the perspective of environmental benefits, electric vehicles do not emit any of the pollutants associated with traditional cars. Compared to gasoline-fueled cars, electric cars produce significantly less greenhouse gasses throughout their lifecycle. The incentive model too appears to be sound: state subsidies whose value increased over $1,000 led to a 5-11% increase in electric vehicle registration; in Illinois’s case, registration significantly dropped when the state discontinued the incentive program (however, one should note that the overall record is somewhat mixed–not every state that revoked its incentive had dropped registration numbers).
Driving Electric Vehicles Where You Live May Not Be So Impactful
However, there are drawbacks. For one, depending on where one lives, driving an electric car can be a gamble due to the power plants from which the vehicles receive energy. Chicago is on the Reliability First Corporation West (RFCW), which primarily relies on a combination of gas, coal, and nuclear energy. The overall carbon dioxide output rate in RFCW is greater than the national rate–coal makes up almost a third of RFCW’s fuel mix, while nationally it is only 19 percent. Charging electric vehicles does create less greenhouse gasses, and helps the country reach emission reduction goals–but as electric car use rises, so shall the use of the dirty grid energy. We need to reduce this use as much as possible.
Mining Rare Earth Metals Required for the Manufacture of Electric Vehicles Can Lead to Negative Impacts to the Environment and Human Health
The second issue is that electric vehicles run on lithium-ion cell batteries. These batteries require cobalt, rare earth minerals, and the titular lithium. While manufacturing lithium batteries and maintaining the electric car does not produce as many pollutants as a gasoline car over its lifetime, there are other environmental issues present. Lithium primarily comes from Australia, Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. Lithium mining in Chile occurs in the Atacama Desert; mining the metal requires extracting vast quantities of groundwater (numbers fluctuate, but it appears to be between 500,000 and two million liters of water for a ton of lithium ). Adding to the Atacama’s already arid nature, extracting lithium degrades the ecosystem and drives the indigenous people from their ancestral home due to a lack of water.
Researchers have also expressed concern that the environment and communities near lithium mining operations will very likely be exposed to the lithium. This is because such operations use evaporation ponds, the use of which involves the risk of lithium moving easily by winds and storms–this can result in people consuming lithium, overdose of which can be death. Another concern is the chemicals used in the evaporation process could leak out and contaminate nearby water supplies, leading to electric vehicles using 58% more water resources than gasoline cars.
Lithium mining has also been shown to threaten an ecosystem’s fragile balance—for example, advocates of the volcano flamingo worry that mining lithium in the Altiplano region will endanger the species’ future. Lithium mining has also been shown to harm indigenous communities’ social fabric, relegating women to a secondary status. Locals have expressed frustration at the amount of pollution the lithium mining creates, the unfairness of the contracts, and at how mining operations tend to put little to no money back into community infrastructure projects like sewer systems.
Most cobalt mining occurs in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In the Katanga province, where much of the mining occurs, researchers sampled the urine of those living near mining and smelting operations. They found that they had higher concentrations of metals, including cobalt, in their urine samples than those in other parts of the DRC. Cobalt is a toxic metal that can damage the heart and thyroid, cause asthma, and is the main contributor to hard-metal lung disease. Meanwhile, processing the rare earth metals used in the batteries results in radioactive waste. As demand for electric vehicles rises, these problems will continue to worsen.
While Electric Vehicles are an Important Step, Public Transportation Remains the Most Efficient Path Towards Reducing Carbon Emissions
There are some solutions to the problems above. One method is to recycle the lithium batteries to reduce the amount mined. Another solution is to optimize grid charging infrastructure. Electric vehicle aggregators and network operators can do this by committing to charging that does not damage the battery and preserves energy, such as two-step charging and coordinated charging. However, the most important strategy is for the government to provide alternatives to electric vehicles. One such alternative is public transportation, in the form of buses and trains.
First off, buses and trains are much more efficient than individualized vehicles–they use significantly less energy than cars and have a much larger passenger throughput (especially trains). Passenger trains are also making the jump to being battery powered–Metra recently announced that they plan on developing battery-driven trains. Admittedly, these battery powered trains do use lithium batteries. However, this is not the only path for trains. For one, trains and buses do not need batteries if they run on overhead catenary wires.
There is also the Maglev–a magnet powered train that countries like China, Japan, and South Korea have used for almost 20 years. A train may run on hydrogen, and that technology is getting closer to widespread use, with tests of the fuel cell performed in Germany. Electric vehicles, as of now, are still expensive–though car prices are higher in general, electric cars are significantly pricier.  Even with tax credits and incentives, not everyone can purchase one. Right now, Metra offers monthly passes for $100.
Illinois has made some advancements toward improving public transit: as mentioned before, Senators Duckworth and Durbin secured millions of dollars to develop electric buses and rural paratransit (Pace buses). They also secured money to improve accessibility at the Oak Park and Ridgeland stations on the CTA Green Line. In addition, 1.5 million dollars was allocated for a zero emission locomotive pilot for the Metra Rock Island line. These are commendable accomplishments. However, these should be first steps, not final ones. In the future, Illinois and the rest of the country must continue to strive for better public transit.
There is no doubt that electric cars are more environmentally friendly than gasoline cars. However, they cannot be solely relied upon. Acknowledging the faults and limitations of electric vehicles and filling in those gaps with a larger emphasis on public transit is necessary to creating a greener Illinois. While electric cars play a vital role in reducing carbon emissions, upgrading public transportation is essential to creating a greener Illinois.
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 Reimagining Electric Vehicles in Illinois Act, Il. Gen. Assemb. 20 ILCS 686, § 5, https://www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/ilcs3.asp?ActID=4229&ChapterID=5.
 Electric Vehicle Rebate Program, IL EPA, https://www2.illinois.gov/epa/topics/ceja/Pages/Electric-Vehicle-Rebates.aspx.
 Credits for New Clean Vehicles Purchased in 2023 or After, IRS, https://www.irs.gov/credits-deductions/credits-for-new-clean-vehicles-purchased-in-2023-or-after.
 Rachel Grudzinski, Electric Vehicle Legislation in Illinois, Chicago-Kent Journal of Environmental and Energy Law (December 2, 2022), https://studentorgs.kentlaw.iit.edu/ckjeel/2022/12/02/electric-vehicles-legislation-in-illinois/.
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 Supra note 15.
 Hiroko Tabuchi, Brad Plumer, How Green Are Electric Vehicles?, New York Times (Mar. 2, 2021, updated Nov. 9, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/02/climate/electric-vehicles-environment.html.
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 Ce ́lestin Lubaba Nkulu Banzaet et al.,High Human Exposure to Cobalt and Other Metals in Katanga, a Mining Area of the Democratic Republic of Congo, 109 Env’t Rsch. 745, 750 (May 31, 2009).
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 Metra to Create Battery-powered Locomotives, Metra (Aug. 17, 2022), https://metra.com/newsroom/metra-create-battery-powered-locomotives.
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 A counterpoint to this is the fact that Tesla just cut its prices, which could mean the cars are becoming cheaper. Patrick George, Tesla’s Big Price Cuts Mean ‘A Major Shift in the EV Market’, The Verge (Jan. 14, 2023) https://www.theverge.com/2023/1/14/23554886/tesla-price-cut-ev-market-deman-elon-musk.
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 Press Release, supra note 3.