EDITORIAL/OPINION
PHOTO CAPTION: German Chancellor Merkel with French President Sarkozy.

When It Comes to Electric Cars, Reality Bites

Andrew McKillop questions the viability of electric cars based on resource limitations.

Published: 22-Nov-2011

By Andrew McKillop

Can the world switch to electric cars? The simple answer is no - and the complicated answer is also no.

Consumers in almost any motorized car loving country, now including China and India whose car industries have until recently shown straight-line upward growth (with China already vastly outdistancing the USA by car output) have a common complaint at the fuel filling station. They whine and complain about oil prices because they buy gasoline and diesel fuel almost daily, at least regularly, and are keenly aware of price changes. These are usually upward.

The "problem of Peak Oil" has been dusted off in 2011, and has started becoming an almost respectable theme for the elected, and self-elected political and corporate guardians of consumer society and civilization (if we can call it a civilization). Their answer is now: Electric cars and vehicles, collectively called EVs.

It sounds neat on paper, and leading editorialists - myopic visionaries with rose coloured glasses - quite regularly beat the drum for "switching" from oil-fuelled mass car fleets, to electrically propelled mass car fleets. In their most delirious flights of fancy, The Switch is presented as being possible and able to operated "almost overnight". Leading politicians who defend the all-electric road transport future, such as France's Sarkozy and Germany's Merkel, gaily talk about millions, even a low number of tens of millions of EVs on the roads of their countries by about 2021. Ten years is an awful long way in the future for politicians who, with luck, might cling on to power another 6 months !

REALITY IS A DOWNER
Again on paper and in the imagination, converting from OVs (oil fuelled cars) to EVs looks good for an imaginative future where "renewable electricity will dominate". Flexibly defined by many politicians, this imaginative future is quite precisely planned and programmed - but certainly not financed and funded - for the European Union's 27 countries, for as long as the EU hangs together in its present format. For the EU27 and by 2020, some 25% of all electricity could or might be produced from renewable sources and in particular windfarms, solar plants - and good old hydropower, as well as a long list of exotic new renewables. This electricity is often sold to the masses as "renewable and free", but in reality its costs and therefore its sale price is very far from free, even if it is renewable.

Using this renewable and "almost free" electricity to charge EVs therefore looks nice on paper, and sounds nice for stressed oil-buying consumers at the fuel filling station. The details - like EVs costing $35 000 or $45 000 each if they are anything like the size, weight and performance of their OVs - come in second. And in any case politicians like the Sarkozy-Merkel duo, and the USA's Obama continually bid up the amount of grants, aids and tax breaks they solemnly undertake to pay EV buyers - if they are still in power.

Converting the ultimate symbol of personal transportation, from vehicles powered by oil to vehicles powered by clean, free and renewable electricity from the wind, sun, waves and tides  is of course a fairy story, but relative to the sovereign debt rout, Les Indignados, people politics and the Arab Revolt, the EV fairy tale is perhaps not especially delirious and extreme. Just par for the course.

We can call the EV story a fairy tale of modern times, like the Global Warming scam, designed to shield oil consuming motorists from the realities of life in the real world by stampeding them into dead end non-solutions that fatten corporate kleptocrats and gratify self-styled visionaries of the Green Future.

THE OIL LIMIT - AND OTHERS
The number of reasons why The Switch will not and can't happen in real life are many, and in any case time is short. This is not primarily a technology issue but concerns a wide sweep of economic, energy and natural resource issues, constraints and limits. EVs cannot solve these challenges. Not one.

In 2010, the world produced an average of 87 million barrels of crude oil per day. That works out to about 4.6 barrels or 190 US gallons per year, for each of the planet's 6.9 billion inhabitants, in 2010. The variations in average per capita oil consumption were, as might be expected, extreme, and extremely close linked to wealth and poverty. Consumers in rich countries like Norway, Qatar, USA and Japan consumed as much as 25 barrels per capita; in poor countries like Nigeria and Chad (which produce and export oil), and Malawi or Burkino Faso (which do not) oil consumption averaged less than 1.5 barrels per capita per year.

More important, any country with a sizeable OV car fleet consumes much more oil, than countries that have not yet got the car bug. This is certain and sure. Equally important, producing cars takes materials like steel, copper, aluminium, rubber, lead, plastics and other raw materials or finished products which are (surprising to some, perhaps !) not in unlimited supply. For EVs we need even rarer materials.

Natural Resource

Global production   (metric tons)

Per capita annual supply     (6.9 billion population)

Crude Oil

4 275 000 000

649.0 kg

Iron & Steel

2 400 000 000

363.0 kg

Aluminum

41 500 000

6.3 kg

Rubber (incl synth)

24 500 000

3.6 kg

Copper

16 200 000

2.3 kg

Lead

4 100 000

0.65 kg

Nickel

1 550 000

0.18 kg

Rare Earth Elements

130 000

20 grams

Lithium

25 300

4 grams

This table is a classic "step down" hierarchy that in large part is fixed by factors as hard to change, and hard to talk around, as the average crustal abundance of metals and minerals. Waving a magic wand, or giving a Facebook launch to the latest gimmick idea - for example Smart Grids to help recharge massive EV fleets if they were ever be built - will not work. Lithium is rarer than the REE (rare earth metals). The REEs are rarer than nickel, which is much rarer than aluminium, which itself is rarer than iron. The planet was made that way.  There is no alternative.

This brings up the first and most carefully avoided limit, for EV boomers trying to sell their scam: How do we exchange, substitute or replace oil, using metals and minerals as the oil substitutes ? We can easily find the weight of lithium (for lithium-ion or lithium iron carbonate batteries) needed for each EV. Alternately, if the EV is operated on nickel-metal hydride batteries, we can also calculate the resource requirement. Where REEs are used in the high-density magnets for their motors, depending on model and technology, we can find the amounts of REEs needed (the Nissan Leaf we ca note does not use REEs, but gets lower motor performance because of this).

We can the find the electric power plant capacity needed to recharge EV fleets, if they were ever built - remembering that building power plants certainly and surely needs plenty of raw materials, is expensive, and takes time.

NISSAN LEAF REFERENCE MODEL
We do not yet have any standard reference model for electric cars. They can be family size sedans, but can also be micro cars. Batteries used for EVs can range through a certain number of technology types, but these always range from less expensive (traditional lead-acid), to nickel-metal hydride and cellphone-type lithium based batteries, which are the increasingly convergent choice of most family sized sedan-format electric car manufacturers.

To date, car types able to be called "reference EVs" are few in number: they include the Renault-Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt, BYD E6, and a few others, including the lower cost, small sized lead-acid battery powered Mahindra Reva and li-ion REVA. In every case there are "special factors" which separate these vehicles from regular OVs. These include EV costs on a like-for-like basis by weight, passenger capacity, speed and acceleration, which are usually 4 - 8 times more expensive than OVs. They also include important factors like battery lifetimes, replacement costs and real range or distance able to be had on a recharge, over time, as the battery lifetime shrinks. Other differences also exist, nearly all of them defavorable to EVs.

Using the Nissan Leaf as reference, its battery and recharging specifications are:

NISSAN LEAF


Car weight

1575 kilograms

Power need for recharging (fast charge mode)
Power need for 1 million EVs

50 kiloWatts   50 000 Megawatts (MW)

Regular (slow) charge mode 5 hours
Power need for 1 million EVs

5   kiloWatts  5 000 Megawatts (MW)

Battery type and weight

Li-Ion  200 kilograms

Battery materials

Lithium Manganese Aluminium Carbon Copper Fluorine Phosphorus  Organic solvents

Battery recyclability

25.2% (74.8% one use only)

Taking these as likely or probable battery specifications for all-electric family sized EV fleets in the next 10 years, we can scale up by the number of OVs that are targeted for replacement - in the fantasy world of political and corporate dreamers and schemers. We can add that while the US, Canada, the European Union, Japan and South Korea are near saturated, and have very slow growing fleets, this is not the case for China, India, Brazil and all other Emerging economy countries.

THE CHINESE CAR BOMB
Car manufacturing has radically shifted East since year 2000, more intensely since 2005. China now produces more cars each year than either the European Union (No 2) or the USA (No 3). India's car output is far behind China's but is growing at least as fast - at double-digit annual percentage rates. Outside China and India, but staying in the Emerging economy world, car production is growing at double-digit rates in several other "new comer car countries', including Brazil, Argentina, Turkey, Malaysia, Iran, Thailand and others.

WORLD CAR FLEETS 2010


Region or Country

Car numbers (private vehicles below 2500 kgs weight)

Average number of cars per  1000 population

European Union

220 million

440

USA

215 million

715

China

79 million

58

Japan

77 million

605

Brazil

65 million

250

Russia

41 million

320

India

22 million

18

Canada

21 million

660

South Korea

21 million

445

Other countries

approx 275 million

Variable

World

950 - 975 million

about 130

 

NOW BUILD AND RECHARGE YOUR EV FLEETS
What we find is a reality wall for EVs so high that The Switch (to a fully motorised all electric car future) is such pure fantasy it is avoided - even by its most blustering shills.

These, like Renault's Carlos Ghosn talk loudly about attaining production rates of 1 million EVs per year "by about 2016". The quantum leap they would need to match the world's current output of OVs, about 75 million per year, and then replace the existing stock of around 950 - 975 million OVs, growing at about 55 million a year (after the scrapping of about 20 million a year), is so far beyond their admittedly world class ability to lie, boast and brag - that only fantasy will suffice.

As we know from the first table, for every ton of global oil production, we produce 5 kilograms of aluminium, less than 2 kgs of copper, a half kilo of lead, and so on down the scale - to lithium. Like we also know, lithium is the Holy Grail for EV boomers, who can present this light metal as relatively "eco friendly', or relatively non-toxic, but this does nothing to change its rarity. To be sure, it is fun to know the world's oceans contain an estimated 230 billion tons of lithium - dissolved in about 1450 billion cubic kilometres of water - which means there is about 140 kgs of lithium in every cubic kilometre of seawater ! More seriously, we need to know the world's mineable and extractible reserves of lithium.

These are mainly located in Bolivia, Argentina, Portugal and Russia and their exact extent is most certainly a controversial subject, but the US Geological Survey in 2007 estimated these may be as little as 13.75 million tons. The most optimistic estimates, assuming a large increase in lithium prices, extend this to about 29 Mt.

SAVE OIL - SAVE RESOURCES
Increasing metals and minerals consumption in a vain attempt to conserve oil will rapidly trigger an explosion of non-oil metal and mineral commodity prices. Letting world OV car fleets spiral up, as if there was no oil limit, will trigger a huge increase of oil prices - and soon.

The question is simple: which do you prefer ?

Under any hypothesis, any scenario, supply and demand imbalances will eliminate all apparent short-term advantages that could or might be obtained from spending large chunks of public money to boost  EV production and utilization. The net result will simply make the situation worse. The time needed for this can be as low as 5 years.

What we find with the "Electric Vehicle Paradox" is that any energy policy, any business model which dramatically increases metal consumption in an effort to save oil - must fail and will fail.

The only transport technology that can survive in a resource-constrained world is quantifiable and able to be set by completely transparent criteria. Unsurprisingly it already exists, and only needs recycling: energy efficient transport measured by full resource-and-energy life cycle intensity per unit of transport utility delivered (for example million passenger-kilometres per year). Just as unsurprisingly, the earliest-type EVs, that is several EVs plugged or bolted together and called urban and suburban electric railway transport, have a great fixed bed and metallic track record, both above ground and underground. The above ground version are called trams. You heard of them ? The underground version are called subway or metro trains. You heard of them ?

To be sure there is a social impediment to broadening the use of rational alternatives. Modern Web enabled consumers in their $15 000 oil burning car need to hurry down to their daily 30-mile be-in or tailback at the entry and exit of major urban centers, every day. Here, they can sniff exhaust fumes, pick their noses and move forward at an average 15 kilometres-per-hour speed, burning 20 or 30 litres of oil per 100 kms, and feel "relevant" or even socially important. This is Consumer Society, rejoice.

What we know from heavyweight global changes operating at this time is that Global Consumer parasites are likely a species on the road to extinction. Satisfying their Need To Consume will soon become less than interesting, and much less than important. For private one-owner automobiles, resource effective technologies range from simple stop-start idle elimination at the low end, to Prius type semi-electric vehicles (with a high dependencee on REEs) at the high end, but these technologies are marginal when we look at the resource and energy footprint and resource recyclability.

Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

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