Do Electronic Powered Cars Save Money and Resources?

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For eighteen months I’ve been blogging about the energy storage sector and discussing the current and potential markets for batteries and other manufactured energy storage devices. A recurring theme that I’ve discussed many times is the unrecognized but undeniable truth that while plug-in vehicles masquerade as conservation measures at an individual level, they’re incredibly wasteful at a societal level. The conclusion is counter-intuitive and my articles on the subject invariably draw heated criticism from self-anointed defenders of the faith. Their arguments, however, do not change the inescapable truth that plug-in vehicles are one of the most wasteful concepts ever foisted on gullible government officials and an unsuspecting public. 

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  • AHH

    The article is a little screed-like, and it took me 2 or 3 readings before I figured out the argument, so let me try and summarize.
    He is working from 2 basic premises:
    1) The battery requirements for fully electric (or plug-in) vehicles are 10 times as much as the battery requirements for a Prius-type hybrid. I do not know if this is true or not; it surprises me but he claims to be a “battery guy” which I certainly am not.
    2) The supply of batteries will be a limiting factor in what cars can be built and put on the road. This is probably true to at least some extent as battery facilities are slowly being built. I don’t know about over the long term.
    If one grants these 2 premises, then absolutely it is better for the environment (and for reducing dependence on imported oil) to put the batteries into hybrids than into fully electric vehicles, because you can get 10 times as many hybrids on the road replacing gas guzzlers, and the environmental benefit from one fully electric vehicle is only a little bit more (certainly not anywhere near 10 times better) than the benefit of one hybrid.
    Now I’m feeling smug about that Prius we bought in October …

  • Larry

    The guy is always comparing the effects of 1.5 million all electric cars with 10 times as many Priuses. If you compare 15 million electrics to 15 million Priuses his numbers don’t look nearly as good. There may not be enough to lithium to build 15 million all electrics, but batteries can be made out of other materials. In his pollution figures he also leaves out that any new capacity that comes on line will be powered by natural gas (1/2 the C02 emissions of coal) or by renewable sources like wind. All in all, not very impressive.

  • BradK

    Aside from the battery argument, the CO2 emissions argument is more relevant. Fully electric vehicles are not eliminating emissions unless the electricity is produced by means that don’t emit CO2. Not only that, but supplying the amount of electric energy required to replace gasoline would drastically increase the emissions of CO2 at the place of electrical generation and make those areas extremely “smoggy”.
    About the only major positive impact of fully electric vehicles would be to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, which *might* have positive geopolitical results. Or it might not.

  • Espen

    As the above commenter wrote, it depends on how the electricity is produced. But it certainly improves the quality of air in urban areas.

  • Steve S

    …sure, all well and good, but I think the strategic future value is the important one.
    Personal transportation is a HUGE energy consumption for our nation. Transfering the source of that energy from the internal combustion engine inside the vehicle to a coal plant down the road may not have any effect on emissions or on consumption, but it is a major step towards it.
    I think the argument is similar to saying “I didn’t earn a single penny for the hours I spent in law school, in fact I paid the school a lot of money instead, so clearly going to law school won’t help you earn money.” This ignores the potential future results of the decision…

  • Phil

    Our family is actually considering making an EV out of a regular gas vehicle. Highway speed and range of 100 km. If we wanted to be fully green, power it by an array of solar panels on the house roof. Not going that far. An ideal situation would be at least one person in a family working in or near the town where they live and the other commute if necessary. I hybrid and 1 all ev vehicle. Old battery technology does not go into the landfill, but gets recycled. Old cars rather than being destroyed become EV,s. Popular are bettles, mg’s, fiero’s, small trucks like rangers and s10s. This is recycling at its best. When the body rusts out the guts can be put in another ev. The motors go 1000000, but the batteries only a few years. Let’s face it, gas is not going anywhere to soon, getting hybrids and ev’s on the road is good, and only going to float a few boats, but it’s better than dumping money into hydrogen cells that are extremely costly.

  • Phil

    Sorry all,
    I actually read the article now (never post without reading the whole article). I can see his point that making hybrids is a better use of the technology and can more readily lessen oil dependance. However, hybrids do not all get amazing gas mileage, just the new prius and the old small honda insight. New hybrids get modestly better millage than new gas compact cars. What would be best for impact is to have a variety of fuel options, gas, diesel, bio-diesel, electricity, hybrids to meet consumer demands.
    Many hobbyists have made viable electric cars that do not use the expensive lithium batteries, but older cheaper less expensive batteries, but believe they are making a difference. One thing the writer doesn’t mention is the reliability and ease of use of the all electrics vs. the hybrids. An ev has 1 moving part, one small motor that if broken can be easily repaired. All else is a charger, batteries and controller. Very simple technology in comparison. If someone can put one together in a weak in the backyard, it must be fairly simple to manufacture.

  • Joe

    To say that diverting resources away from hybrids to build plug-in EVs in the near future results in more net CO2 release and more gasoline usage is legitimate from my understanding. To say, however, that “there is no denying the fact that fully electric cars and plug-in hybrids are unconscionably wasteful,” is simply not true. My guess is that the author let his outrage at mis-allocated government funds compromise his judgment when he wrote that article, because by any measure fully electric cars are a far more efficient way to transport people in terms of total energy per mile than any gasoline engine (if you do a full “well-to-wheel” type analysis).
    Also, his assertion that EVs are not CO2 free is obviously true, but he overlooks an important point: if the ultimate goal is zero or very low CO2 emissions, we’ll never get there if everyone drives a Prius or Insight. On the other hand, if we had a fleet of EVs right now, we still wouldn’t be emissions or oil free today, but it would mean that we’d have a more efficient means of transportation AND when we someday develop enough clean power we WOULD be emissions and oil free (rather than being stuck with a bunch of oil burning Priuses)
    Should we probably make more hybrids than EVs in the near future if our short term goal is lower emissions and gasoline consumption? Yes, but there’s no reason to get worked up about it because market forces will almost certainly point us in that direction regardless of government subsidies.

  • John L

    Many incremental improvements in energy efficiencies coming our way, but no “breakthrough” on the horizon. As the writer notes, 90% of the world would like to have a piece of the energy-rich lifestyle of the wealthiest 10%. This is a massive problem.
    As China continues to industrialize and generate wealth in the 21st century (as the West did in 20th century), they will demand more energy (they are now building a major coal power plant every 3-4 days). To a lesser degree, the same is true of India. That’s 1/3 of the world waking up to new wealth in an effectively zero-sum energy-driven economic model.
    The problem is two-fold: most of the new energy coming on-line is dirty (coal), and liquid fuels are economically supply-side limited. Energy is the defining proxy of the 21st century, and those who have it will define the shape of emerging global culture.

  • I had the fortune of working at a firm in the 1980’s that did alternative energy design and policy consulting. On staff was a nuclear high-energy physicist from Argonne National Labs named Dr. John Martin. He was one of the most down to earth, humble men I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. He would sit with his brown bag lunch in the dining room, and we would chat about energy, the environment, policy, etc.
    One of the things that he would explain over and over as we discussed these topics was that the public media and policy folks tend to focus on the wrong numbers. We should be focusing on NET energy savings and NET environmental impact. Your electric car example is a good one. We don’t think about all the energy and resources it took to build that car, and if there is any hope at all of gaining that loss back over the usable life of such a vehicle.
    As a physicist, he was good with numbers, and with just a few logical assumptions, he would quickly “do the math” as make his point that most of the time, these “high-tech” solutions to “saving” are actually extremely wasteful.
    Hence, a “high-energy” physicist had turned into a “low-energy” technology proponent. Dr. Martin passionately argued for “appropriate technology” solutions that used resources more efficiently, focused on conservation, and had a much higher NET energy savings and Lower environmental impact.

  • The Co2 argument seems to assume that you are not getting your electricity from wind, solar, etc.

  • Micah

    Jeff, that’s a common refrain but the truth is that getting electricity from wind doesn’t decrease CO2 release. Actually, wind energy is EXACTLY the same type of problem as the electric car: it’s a massive capital investment with zero (as in, absolutely zero) decrease in carbon emissions. If you factor in the carbon used to build the wind farm, it comes out WAY in the negative. Or positive, I guess, depending on how you’re counting. Whatever, it’s the bad side.
    Wind doesn’t reduce CO2 emissions because it doesn’t decrease coal burning. It doesn’t decrease coal burning because you can’t turn off a coal plant when a wind plant is in action. The coal plant keeps burning coal at the same rate, it’s just that the electricity doesn’t get made.
    Wind energy is the dirtiest and most wasteful energy “source” that there is.