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The Electric Car Fetish
29 Dec, 2010 01:01 pm
Many automobile enthusiasts believe that the electric car is the wave of the future that will help save the environment while expanding the availability of private transport to the world's growing middle class. They are likely wrong on both counts.
I registered my skepticism that the electric car would ever become a widespread phenomenon. I cited resource constraints for key metals needed for batteries and the length of time needed to turn over the existing car fleet--around 17 years in the United States, for example. That assumes, of course, that the necessary infrastructure to produce such a fleet is already in place, which it isn't and won't be for some time, if ever.
If the peak in oil production is close by, then that alone would doom the widespread adoption of an electric car fleet since global society could soon be dealing with an immediate oil crisis that wouldn't wait on the slow cycles of new technology adoption. (Some people believe we are already dealing with that crisis and that it began with the 2008 oil price spike which saw crude oil futures vault to $147.)
One can easily cite all the obvious impediments that constrain the widespread adoption of private electric automobiles: the lack of charging infrastructure; the poor performance of electric vehicles for range and acceleration compared to gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles; consumer skepticism about electric vehicles; and the creaking existing electrical infrastructure which would probably need serious expansion to accommodate a worldwide fleet of private electric automobiles. Perhaps all of these problems could be overcome if the world had decades to work on them. But it is doubtful that we have that kind of time.
In addition, there are three issues which rarely get a hearing. First, in the United States, for example, transportation produced 33 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions in 2008. (I was unable to find comparable figures for the world.) If the entire automobile and truck fleet were to be electrified, the amount of carbon dioxide emissions would decline, but not by as much as one might expect.
The problem is that as of 2006 (the latest year for which global figures are available) 66 percent of the world's electricity is generated by conventional fossil-fuel powered plants, according the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The number is 71 percent for the United States, the country with about one quarter of all motor vehicles in the world--about 256 million out of approximately 1 billion.
That means that simply replacing the current gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicle fleet with one running on electricity will not even come close to reducing carbon dioxide emissions from that source by the 80 percent that scientists say is vital to preventing catastrophic climate change. We'll simply be substituting cars powered by gasoline and diesel with ones powered indirectly by coal and natural gas.
Of course, we could greatly increase our deployment of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to accommodate the need for new greenhouse gas-free electricity generation, couldn't we? There are three problems with this view. First, both sources are intermittent, so we will have to maintain a substantial baseload generating capacity using fossil fuels to ensure adequate electricity production when the wind fails and the sun isn't shining.
Second, the scale of deployment would almost be unimaginable. The energy density of windmills and solar panels is at least an order of magnitude lower than that of fossil fuels. The square miles of photovoltaics and the number of windmills needed to generate electricity for an automobile and light truck fleet would imply an enormous footprint for these sources of power. Third, the time to scale up such solutions to the necessary level might be decades. This is the so-called rate-of-conversion problem. It actually takes time to implement alternative energy and infrastructure solutions. The key question is: How much time do we have? The answer appears to be: Not very much!
Let's assume for the moment that climate change can be ignored--a big and dangerous assumption, I know! The next question we must ask then is: Is there enough fossil fuel and nuclear power to run an electric car infrastructure? Several developments should give us pause. First, a recent study suggests that coal production from existing coal fields may peak in 2011. That's not a misprint. Second, even though claims for vast supplies from new shale gas fields are being bandied about, there is reason for caution about natural gas supplies as well. Shale gas reserves are actually much more limited than widely believed; they are costly to produce; and, their extraction will likely be hampered by concerns about water pollution. Recently, the governor of New York ordered a moratorium on shale gas drilling until concerns about groundwater safety could be evaluated. Similar actions from other states seem likely as concerns about water supplies mount, and legislatures paused to think through stricter regulations that will mean slower exploitation of this resource.
As for nuclear power providing the additional electrical capacity we would require, one need only review the history of the civilian nuclear power industry to realize that there is little chance of this happening. The regulatory hurdles to rapid expansion are very large. The amount of uranium left to power the current fleet of uranium-fueled reactors is in doubt. And, the lead times to build nuclear generating plants are measured in decades, not years. Nuclear-generated electricity will likely do no more than maintain its share of electricity production in the decades ahead as plants beyond their service life are decommissioned.
So, what can we do about transportation? The quickest way to reduce liquid fuel consumption and thus carbon dioxide emissions in transportation would be to implement ride-sharing programs based on successful pilot programs around the world. This would mean allowing people to use their private cars as essentially part-time cabs. The advantage is that it reduces traffic, fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions NOW--not at some unspecified date in the future. The technical issues have already been worked out. It is the cultural ones which are the sticking points.
Second, we should in my view electrify public transportation to the extent possible. This would protect this part of our transportation infrastructure from sudden fuel shocks. And, it should be possible to do this with only a fraction of the outlays needed to make private electric cars available. In addition, public transportation should be vastly expanded with an eye toward new ways of configuring public transport that require significantly less energy, meet consumer expectations more readily, and can be cheaply and modularly constructed.
If the public had been able to foresee that the private automobile would lead to the despoilation of huge swaths of prime farmland to build roads and highways; the emptying out of many of America's and the world's cities into suburban sprawl; high blood levels of lead in children (from leaded gasoline which is now outlawed); a sedentary lifestyle that would contribute to an obesity epidemic that reaches down into children younger than 10; a nightmarish number of people killed and maimed on roadways each year; air pollution that regularly threatens human health; climate change through the production of greenhouse gases; and dependence on a fuel supply--petroleum--that has led to several wars and which regularly undergoes huge price swings; if they had known all that, would the public have agreed to allow the private automobile to become the dominant form of transportation in the so-called developed world?
It's time to let go of the car culture so we can rid ourselves of its myriad ill effects. And, it is time to let go of the electric car fetish that is merely an extension of that ruinous car culture.
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It takes 52 months start to power on to build a nuclear plant, the delays in the US are due to Luddites who are not numerate.
The rest of the article is similarly not founded on facts - we are not going to run out of uranium, the energy in 'waste' alone is enough to power the whole world for hundreds of years.
Mr. de Souza makes the point that electric cars could be useful as part of an integrated electric transportation strategy. I agree. My critique is of the idea that the privately owned electric automobile would allow us to continue with business-as-usual. I favor ride sharing as an immediate strategy and do expect cabs to be part of such an integrated strategy.
Spec apparently agrees with me that electric cars will simply not make private transport available to the expanding middle class in places such as China and India, at least not for long.
Mr. Dawson makes an important point that one of capitalism's main drivers in the last century has been the automobile. Certainly, the auto industry will not simply allow policies to be put in place that discourage car ownership. But, if peak oil is imminent, this may not matter as people may simply not be able to afford car ownership.
Mr. Martin suggests that we have plenty of uranium fuel left in the form of waste. What he doesn't tell you is that we simply don't have the reprocessing facilities to turn it into fuel. And, even if we did, we would still have to turn to breeder reactors to create enough fuel for hundreds of years. So, where are these breeder reactors? No country is contemplating the introduction of commercial breeder reactors and none are operating at this time. Time is ticking down on Mr. Martin's nuclear economy. It can't be built without a rather swift and thoroughgoing change of direction in policy and priorities. He admits that the "Luddites" in the United States are holding up such a change, but he offers no solution. And, it takes a lot of fossil fuel to build and run a nuclear power plant. If fossil fuels are declining, it won't be easy to afford the huge buildout we'd need to replace the energy we get from fossil fuels. One can rail against the obstacles to nuclear power. But without concrete proposals to overcome those obstacles, one cannot simply state that nuclear power will somehow provide all the electricity we require.
1) Naturally, the battery makers will tell you that there is plenty of lithium around. But no one can point to mining infrastructure necessary to extract it in the quantities contemplated for a worldwide fleet. There is the additional problem of securing rare earth minerals such as neodymium used for magnets in electric motors, currently monopolized by the Chinese who have cut back export quotas. There are other sources, but the Chinese currently supply 90 percent of the rare earth market.
2) Mr. Cardoso doesn't dispute the rate of turnover.
3) He tells us that the technology is available. I never said it wasn't. He admits the infrastructure hasn't been built.
4)He says anyone can charge at home. Yes, using a trickle charge which takes a long time. If you want a fast charge you must put in a 220 plug for the Nissan Leaf. The cost is not small, about $2,000 according the Nissan site. He claims that thousands of charging stations are being built, but he offers no proof.
5) Range is a problem. He is correct that acceleration can be quite good, but only if the vehicle has a sufficient number of very costly lithium batteries. The Tesla is an example. You can order one on the Tesla site for $101,000. The Volt has good range only because it has a gasoline-powered generator. A good idea to extend range. You can get a Volt for a measly $41,000 and then apply for a tax credit to lower your cost.
5) If widespread consumer acceptance were already a fact, the current electric models would not be produced is such small quantities.
6) Mr. Cardoso claims that no new electricity infrastructure will be needed for electric cars but he offers no proof that a huge new user won't require the expansion of the grid and the addition of power generating stations. Yes, I suppose a few electric cars won't tax the system. But 10s of millions will require more electricity generation to be added. Moreover, he is certain that people will choose to recharge only in the evenings. That seems like a very doubtful assumption given the habits of many drivers.
It is the promoters of the electric car as a panacea for our oil addiction and as a solution for business-as-usual who are misleading us.
Bottom line: Everything is dependent on fossil fuels. How do you make an electric vehicle? Answer: You need to use one heckuva lot of coal and oil to do it. Next question: How do you manufacture, deploy, and maintain all the renewable infrastructure that will supposedly provide the "clean" electricity to charge EV batteries? Same answer. Next question: Because no vehicle, even an electric vehicle, is worth a cent without well-maintained roads and bridges, how do we build and maintain traffic infrastructure? Answer: Road construction and maintenance are totally dependent on oil. Even asphalt comes from oil.
Ultimately, expensive oil will kill EVs as surely as it will kill ICE vehicles.
Just for the fun of it, let's go one level deeper. Who produces energy and makes cars and all of our other industrial products? Answer: Skilled workers and engineers. Already, many industries -- including the oil industry -- are facing shortages of engineers, skilled workers, and technical workers. It takes a lot of energy to educate and train these people, and energy decline is already crimping our ability to maintain the required numbers of these essential personnel.
But there's still more. In addition to the "who," let's consider the "what" of that which makes it possible to produce an electric car. Can you imagine how much fossil fuel energy is embodied in our industrial infrastructure? Everything from mines to blast furnaces, machine shops, assembly plants, foundries, ports, railroads, power plants, and all the other many components of the industrial infrastructure are built and maintained with fossil fuels.
Believing that electric cars are the answer is astonishingly puerile thinking. The obstacles to an electric-car future are far, far greater than the availability of lithium.
It is pretty obvious that the future is electric vehicles of some sort but to expect that electric "copies" of todays large fast cars will ever be affordable to the average person is just not reasonable.
The real problem is that current automobiles are too large and too fast and we expect to be able to use them for long trips even though they are mostly used for short trips. Build regional and intercity high speed rail and a great transit systems to cover the longer trips, then small, low-speed, limited range electric vehicles can be used for shorter trips. These vehicles are relatively cheap as they don't require the thousands of dollars of batteries that are required for longer trips at high speeds.
On the public electrified rail transport, keep in mind that all tools wear out. Bearings, wheels, rails, ties, electronics, seals, seats, flooring, etc. all need to be replaced at some point. Electrified rail transit runs on more than electricity. Each cycle in recycling has losses. Eventually, all mechanical systems will run down. Just a question of when.
Oh the joys of driving on a gravel road, that is "Washboarded".
With breakthroughs now being born, within perhaps very few years, all new cars and trucks may be electric or hybrids.
And without using batteries, cars can become power plants when parked, selling electricity to local utilities and possibly paying for themselves in the process.
Breakthrough technologies that are presently hard to believe are in the birth canal.
With sufficient support, by the end of this year, they will begin to emerge into the market.
That will cause many who doubt these revolutionary systems are possible to do a fair amount of head scratching.
But, oil prices will begin to decline and fossil fuels to be left behind.