Who Killed the Electric Car?

[ Who cares about electric CARS?  Civilization ends when trucks stop running, and trucks can’t run on batteries because they’re too heavy (93% of the cargo weight, 25% of the cargo space), and an all-electric truck fleet would require thousands of new power plants, mostly running on finite fossil fuels. Although Wall street can endlessly come up with new financial products to skim the wealth of the middle class, scientists have to work within the laws of physics and thermodynamics. This is the main reason why even a car battery is not likely to ever pan out, as I explain below.  A more up-to-date version of this post on batteries, and electrifying trucks and locomotives can be found in my book, which also explains why it may be impossible to have an 80 to 100 percent electric grid depending on renewables.  We face not just a fossil fuel shortage, but an electricity shortage in the future, which will strike once natural gas declines to the point it can’t keep the grid balanced. Since natural gas is very local because the USA has few LNG terminals, this may come sooner than expected.  Despite the hype about 100 to 200 years of energy independence promised by many economic pundits, Patzek in his lifeitself blog makes the case that there may be only 3 to 7 years of shale gas in the Barnett, Fayetteville, Haynesville and Marcellus shales.  The decline of conventional natural gas was at a crisis point in 2004 and conventional gas has continued to decline since then. ]

Who Killed the Electric Car? 

by Alice Friedemann August 29, 2014  www.energyskeptic.com

The battery did it.  Batteries are far too expensive for the average consumer, $600-1700 per kwh (Service). And they aren’t likely to get better any time soon.

“The big advances in battery technology happen rarely. It’s been more than 200 years and we have maybe 5 different successful rechargeable batteries,” said George Blomgren, a former senior technology researcher at Eveready (Borenstein).

And yet hope springs eternal. A better battery is always just around the corner:

  • 1901: “A large number of people … are looking forward to a revolution in the generating power of storage batteries, and it is the opinion of many that the long-looked-for, light weight, high capacity battery will soon be discovered.” (Hiscox)
  • 1901: “Demand for a proper automobile storage battery is so crying that it soon must result in the appearance of the desired accumulator [battery]. Everywhere in the history of industrial progress, invention has followed close in the wake of necessity” (Electrical Review #38. May 11, 1901. McGraw-Hill)
  • 1974: “The consensus among EV proponents and major battery manufacturers is that a high-energy, high power-density battery – a true breakthrough in electrochemistry – could be accomplished in just 5 years” (Machine Design).
  • 2014 internet search “battery breakthrough” gets 7,710,000 results, including:  Secretive Company Claims Battery Breakthrough, ‘Holy Grail’ of Battery Design Achieved, Stanford breakthrough might triple battery life, A Battery That ‘Breathes’ Could Power Next-Gen Electric Vehicles, 8 Potential EV and Hybrid Battery Breakthroughs.

Lithium-ion batteries appear to be the winner for all-electric cars given Elon Musk’s new $5 billion dollar li-ion battery factory in Nevada. Yet Li-ion batteries have a very short cycling life of 5 to 10 years (depending on how the car is driven), and then they’re at just 70% of initial capacity, which is too low to drive, and if a driver persists despite the degraded performance, eventually the batteries will go down to 50% of capacity, a certain end-of-life for li-ion (ADEME).

So why isn’t there a better battery yet?

The lead-acid battery hasn’t changed much since it was invented in 1859. It’s hard to invent new kinds of batteries or even improve existing ones, because although a battery looks simple, inside it’s a churning chaos of complex electrochemistry as the battery goes between being charged and discharged many times.

Charging and recharging are hard on a battery. Recharging is supposed to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, but over time the metals, liquids, gels, chemicals, and solids inside clog, corrode, crack, crystallize, become impure, leak, and break down.

A battery is like a football player, with increasing injuries and concussions over the season. An ideal battery would be alive, able to self-heal, secrete impurities, and recover from abuse.

The number of elements in the periodic table (118) is limited. Only a few have the best electron properties (like lithium), and others can be ruled out because they’re radioactive (39), rare earth and platinum group metals (23), inert noble gases (6), or should be ruled out: toxic (i.e. cadmium, cobalt, mercury, arsenic), hard to recycle, scarce, or expensive.

There are many properties an ideal Energy Storage device would have:

  1. Small and light-weight to give vehicles a longer range
  2. High energy density like oil (energy stored per unit of weight)
  3. Recharge fast, tolerant of overcharge, undercharging, and over-discharge
  4. Store a lot of energy
  5. High power density, deliver a lot of power quickly
  6. Be rechargeable thousands of times while retaining 80% of their storage capacity
  7. Reliable and robust
  8. A long life, at least 10 years for a vehicle battery
  9. Made from very inexpensive, common, sustainable, recyclable materials
  10. Deliver power for a long time
  11. Won’t explode or catch on fire
  12. Long shelf life for times when not being used
  13. Perform well in low and high temperatures
  14. Able to tolerate vibration, shaking, and shocks
  15. Not use toxic materials during manufacture or in the battery itself
  16. Take very little energy to make from cradle-to-grave
  17. Need minimal to no maintenance

For example, in the real world, these are the priorities for heavy-duty hybrid trucks (NRC 2008):

  1. High Volumetric Energy Density (energy per unit volume)
  2. High Gravimetric Energy Density (energy per unit of weight, Specific Energy)
  3. High Volumetric Power Density (power per unit of volume)
  4. High Gravimetric Power Density (power per unit of weight, Specific Power)
  5. Low purchase cost
  6. Low operating cost
  7. Low recycling cost
  8. Long useful life
  9. Long shelf life
  10. Minimal maintenance
  11. High level of safety in collisions and rollover accidents
  12. High level of safety during charging
  13. Ease of charging method
  14. Minimal charging time
  15. Storable and operable at normal and extreme ambient temperatures
  16. High number of charge-discharge cycles, regardless of the depth of discharge
  17. Minimal environmental concerns during manufacturing, useful life, and recycling or disposal

Pick Any Two

In the real world, you can’t have all of the above. It’s like the sign “Pick any two: Fast (expensive), Cheap (crappy), or Good (slow)”.

So many different properties are demanded that “This is like wanting a car that has the power of a Corvette, the fuel efficiency of a Chevy Malibu, and the price tag of a Chevy Spark. This is hard to do. No one battery delivers both high power and high energy, at least not very well or for very long,” according to Dr. Jud Virden at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (House 114-18 2015).

You always give up something. Battery chemistry is complex. Anode, cathode, electrolyte, and membrane separators materials must all work together. Tweak any one of these materials and the battery might not work anymore. You get higher energy densities from reactive, less stable chemicals that often result in non-rechargeable batteries, are susceptible to impurities, catch on fire, and so on. Storing more energy might lower the voltage, a fast recharge shorten the lifespan.

You have to optimize many different things at the same time,” says Venkat Srinivasan, a transportation battery expert at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. “It’s a hard, hard problem” (Service).

Conflicting demands. The main job of a battery is to store energy. Trying to make them discharge a lot of power quickly may be impossible. “If you want high storage, you can’t get high power,” said M. Stanley Whittingham, director of the Northeast Center for Chemical Energy Storage. “People are expecting more than what’s possible.”

Battery testing takes time. Every time a change is made the individual cells, then modules, then overall pack is tested for one cycle and again for 50 cycles for voltage, current, cycle life (number of recharges), Ragone plot (energy and power density), charge and discharge time, self-discharge, safety (heat, vibration, external short circuit, overcharge, forced discharge, etc.) and many other parameters.

Batteries deteriorate.  The more deeply you discharge a battery, the more often you charge/recharge it (cycles), or the car is exposed to below freezing or above 77 degree temperatures, the shorter the life of the battery will be. Even doing nothing shortens battery life: Li-ion batteries lose charge when idle, so an old, unused battery will last less long than a new one.  Tesla engineers expect the power of the car’s battery pack to degrade by as much as 30% in five years (Smil).

Batteries are limited by the physical laws of the universe.  Lithium-ion batteries are getting close to theirs.  According to materials scientist George Crabtree of Argonne National Laboratory, li-ion batteries are approaching their basic electrochemical limits of density of energy they can store. “If you really want electric cars to copete with gasoline, you’re going to need the next generation of batteries.” Rachid Yazami of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore says that this will require finding a new chemical basis for them. Although engineers have achieved a lot with lithium-ion batteries, it hasn’t been enough to charge electric cars very fast, or go 500 miles (Hodson 2015).

Be skeptical of battery breakthroughs. It takes ten years to improve an existing type of battery, and it’s expensive since you need chemists, material scientists, chemical and mechanical engineers, electrochemists, computer and nanotechnology scientists. The United States isn’t training enough engineers to support a large battery industry, and within 5 years, 40% of full-time senior engineering faculty will be eligible for retirement.

Dr. Virden says that “you see all kinds of press releases about a new anode material that’s five times better than anything out there, and it probably is, but when you put that in with an electrolyte and a cathode, and put it together and then try to scale it, all kinds of things don’t work. Materials start to fall apart, the chemistry isn’t well known, there’s side reactions, and usually what that leads to is loss of performance, loss of safety. And we as fundamental scientists don’t understand those basic mechanisms. And we do really undervalue the challenge of scale-up. In every materials process I see, in an experiment in a lab like this big, it works perfectly. Then when you want to make thousands of them-it doesn’t.” (House 114-18).

We need a revolutionary new battery that takes less than 10 years to develop

“We need to leapfrog the engineering of making of batteries,” said Lawrence Berkeley National Lab battery scientist Vince Battaglia. “We’ve got to find the next big thing.”

Dr. Virden testified at a U.S. House hearing that “despite many advances, we still have fundamental gaps in our understanding of the basic processes that influence battery operation, performance, limitations, and failures (House 114-18 2015).

But none of the 10 experts who talked to The Associated Press said they know what that big thing will be yet, or when it will come (Borenstein).

The Department of Energy (DOE) says that incremental improvements won’t electrify cars and energy storage fast enough. Scientists need to understand the laws of battery physics better. To do that, we need to be able to observe what’s going on inside the battery at an atomic scale in femtoseconds (.000000000000001 second), build nanoscale materials/tubes/wires to improve ion flow etc., and write complex models and computer programs that use this data to better predict what might happen every time some aspect of the battery is meddled with to zero in on the best materials to use.

Are you kidding? Laws of Physics? Femtoseconds? Atomic Scale? Nanoscale technology — that doesn’t exist yet?

Extremely energy-dense batteries for autos are impossible because of the laws of Physics and the “Pick any Two” problem

There’s only so much energy you can force into a black box, and it’s a lot less than the energy contained in oil – pound for pound the most energy density a battery could contain is only around 6 percent that of oil. The energy density of oil 500 times higher than a lead-acid battery (House), which is why it takes 1,200 pounds of lead-acid batteries to move a car 50 miles.

Even though an electric vehicle needs only a quarter of the energy a gasoline vehicle needs to deliver the same energy to turn the wheels, this efficiency is more than overcome by the much smaller energy density of a battery compared to the energy density of gasoline.  This can be seen in the much heavier weight and space a battery requires.  For example, the 85 kWh battery in a Tesla Model S weighs 1,500 pounds (Tesla 2014) and the gasoline containing the equivalent energy, about 9 gallons, weighs 54 pounds.  The 1500 pound weight of a Tesla battery is equal to 7 extra passengers, and reduces the acceleration and range that could otherwise be realized (NRC 2015).

Lithium batteries are more powerful, but even so, oil has 120 times the energy density of a lithium battery pack. Increased driving ranges of electric cars have come more from weight reduction, drag reduction, and decreased rolling resistance than improved battery performance.

The amount of energy that can be stored in a battery depends on the potential chemical energy due to their electron properties. The most you could ever get is 6 volts from a Lithium (highest reduction) and Fluorine (highest oxidation).  But for many reasons a lithium-fluoride or fluoride battery is not in sight and may never work out (not rechargeable, unstable, unsafe, inefficient, solvents and electrolytes don’t handle the voltages generated, lithium fluoride crystallizes and doesn’t conduct electricity, etc.).

The DOE has found that lithium-ion batteries are the only chemistry promising enough to use in electric cars. There are “several Li-ion chemistries being investigated… but none offers an ideal combination of energy density, power capability, durability, safety, and cost” (NAS 2013).

Lithium batteries can generate up to 3.8 volts but have to use non-aqueous electrolytes (because water has a 2 volt maximum) which gives a relatively high internal impedance.

They can be unsafe. A thermal runaway in one battery can explode into 932 F degrees and spread to other batteries in the cell or pack.

There are many other problems with all-electric cars

It will take decades or more to replace the existing fleet with electric cars if batteries ever do get cheap and powerful enough.  Even if all 16 million vehicles purchased every year were only electric autos, the U.S. car fleet has 250 million passenger vehicles and would take over 15 years to replace.  But only 120,000 electric cars were sold in 2014. At that rate it would take 133 years.

Electric cars are too expensive. The median household income of a an electric car buyer is $148,158 and $83,166 for a gasoline car. But the U.S. median household income was only $51,939 in 2014. The Tesla Model S tends to be bought by relatively wealthy individuals,  primarily men who have higher incomes, paid cash, and did not seriously consider purchasing another vehicle (NRC 2015).

And the cost of electric cars is expected to be greater than internal combustion engine and hybrid electric autos for the next two decades (NRC 2013).

The average car buyer wants a low-cost, long range vehicle. A car that gets 30 mpg would require a “prohibitively long-to-charge, expensive, heavy, and bulky” 78 kWh battery to go 300 miles, which costs about $35,000 now. Future battery costs are hard to estimate, and right now, some “battery companies sell batteries below cost to gain market share” (NAS 2013). Most new cathode materials are high-cost nickel and cobalt materials.

Rapid charging and discharging can shorten the lifetime of the cell. This is particularly important because the goal of 10 to 15 years of service for automotive applications, the average lifetime of a car. Replacing the battery would be a very expensive repair, even as costs decline (NAS 2013).

It is unclear that consumer demand will be sufficient to sustain the U.S. advanced battery industry. It takes up to $300 million to build one lithium-ion plant to supply batteries for 20,000 to 30,000 plug-in or electric vehicles (NAE 2012).

Almost all electric cars use up to 3.3 pounds of rare-earth elements in interior permanent magnet motors. China currently has a near monopoly on the production of rare-earth materials, which has led DOE to search for technologies that eliminate or reduce rare-earth magnets in motors (NAS 2013).

Natural gas generated electricity is likely to be far more expensive when the fracking boom peaks 2015-2019, and coal generated electricity after coal supplies reach their peak somewhere between now and 2030.

100 million electric cars require ninety 1,000-MWe power plants, transmission, and distribution infrastructure that would cost at least $400 billion dollars. A plant can take years to over a decade to build (NAS 2013).

By the time the electricity reaches a car, it’s lost 50% of the power because the generation plants are only 40% efficient and another 10% is lost in the power plant and over transmission lines, so 11 MWh would be required to generate enough electricity for the average car consuming 4 MWh, which is about 38 mpg — much lower than many gasoline or hybrid cars (Smil).

Two-thirds of the electricity generated comes from fossil fuels (coal 39%, natural gas 27%, and coal power continues to gain market share (Birnbaum)). Six percent of electricity is lost over transmission lines, and power plants are only 40% efficient on average – it would be more efficient for cars to burn natural gas than electricity generated by natural gas. Drought is reducing hydropower across the west, and it will take decades to scale up wind, solar, and other alternative energy resources.

The additional energy demand from 100 million PEVs in 2050 is about 286 billion kWh which would require new generating capacity of ninety 1,000 MW plants costing $360 billion, plus another $40 billion for high-voltage transmission and other additions (NAS 2013).

An even larger problem is recharge time. Unless batteries can be developed that can be recharged in 10 minutes or less, cars will be limited largely to local travel in an urban or suburban environment (NAS 2013). Long distance travel would require at least as many charging stations as gas stations (120,000).

Level 1 charging takes too long, level 2 chargers add to overall purchase costs.  Level 1 is the basic amount delivered at home.  A Tesla model S85 kWh battery that was fully discharged would take more than 61 hours to recharge, a 21 kWh Nissan Leaf battery over 17 hours.  So the total cost of electric cars should also include the cost of level 2 chargers, not just the cost itself (NRC 2015).

Fast charging is expensive, with level 3 chargers running $15,000 to $60,000.  At a recharging station, a $15,000 level 3 charger would return a profit of about $60 per year and the electricity cost higher than gasoline (Hillebrand 2012). Level 3 fast charging is bad for batteries, requires expensive infrastructure, and is likely to use peak-load electricity with higher cost, lower efficiency, and higher GHG emissions.

Battery swapping has many problems: battery packs would need to be standardized, an expensive inventory of different types and sizes of battery packs would need to be kept, the swapping station needs to start charging right away during daytime peak electricity, batteries deteriorate over time, customers won’t like older batteries not knowing how far they can go on them, and seasonal travel could empty swapping stations of batteries.

Argonne National Laboratory looked at the economics of Battery swapping  (Hillebrand 2012), which would require standardized batteries and enough light-duty vehicles to justify the infrastructure. They assumed that a current EV Battery Pack costs $12,000 to replace (a figure they considered  wildly optimistic). They assumed a $12,000 x 5% annual return on investment = $600, 3 year battery life means amortizing cost is $4000, and annual Return for each pack must surpass $4600 per year. They concluded that to make a profit in battery swapping, each car would have to drive 1300 miles per day per battery pack!  And therefore, an EV Battery is 20 times too expensive for the swap mode.

Lack of domestic supply base. To be competitive in electrified vehicles, the United States also requires a domestic supply base of key materials and components such as special motors, transmissions, brakes, chargers, conductive materials, foils, electrolytes, and so on, most of which come from China, Japan, or Europe. The supply chain adds significant costs to making batteries, but it’s not easy to shift production to America because electric and hybrid car sales are too few, and each auto maker has its own specifications (NAE 2012).

The embodied energy (oiliness, EROEI) of batteries is enormous.

Ecological damage. Mining and the toxic chemicals used to make and with batteries pollute water and soil, harm health, and wildlife.

The energy required to charge them (Smil)

An electric version of a car typical of today’s typical American vehicle (a composite of passenger cars, SUVs, vans, and light trucks) would require at least 150 Wh/km; and the distance of 20,000 km driven annually by an average vehicle would translate to 3 MWh of electricity consumption. In 2010, the United States had about 245 million passenger cars, SUVs, vans, and light trucks; hence, an all-electric fleet would call for a theoretical minimum of about 750 TWh/year. This approximation allows for the rather heroic assumption that all-electric vehicles could be routinely used for long journeys, including one-way commutes of more than 100 km. And the theoretical total of 3 MWh/car (or 750 TWh/year) needs several adjustments to make it more realistic. The charging and recharging cycle of the Li-ion batteries is about 85 percent efficient, 32 and about 10 percent must be subtracted for self-discharge losses; consequently, the actual need would be close to 4 MWh/car, or about 980 TWh of electricity per year. This is a very conservative calculation, as the overall demand of a midsize electric vehicle would be more likely around 300 Wh/km or 6 MW/year. But even this conservative total would be equivalent to roughly 25% of the U.S. electricity generation in 2008, and the country’s utilities needed 15 years (1993–2008) to add this amount of new production.

The average source-to-outlet efficiency of U.S. electricity generation is about 40 percent and, adding 10 percent for internal power plant consumption and transmission losses, this means that 11 MWh (nearly 40 GJ) of primary energy would be needed to generate electricity for a car with an average annual consumption of about 4 MWh.

This would translate to 2 MJ for every kilometer of travel, a performance equivalent to about 38 mpg (6.25 L/100 km)—a rate much lower than that offered by scores of new pure gasoline-engine car models, and inferior to advanced hybrid drive designs

The latest European report on electric cars—appropriately entitled How to Avoid an Electric Shock—offers analogical conclusions. A complete shift to electric vehicles would require a 15% increase in the European Union’s electricity consumption, and electric cars would not reduce CO2 emissions unless all that new electricity came from renewable sources.

Inherently low load factors of wind or solar generation, typically around 25 percent, mean that adding nearly 1 PWh of renewable electricity generation would require installing about 450 GW in wind turbines and PV cells, an equivalent of nearly half of the total U.S. capability in 2007.

The National Research Council found that for electric vehicles to become mainstream, significant battery breakthroughs are required to lower cost, longer driving range, less refueling time, and improved safety. Battery life is not known for the first generation of PEVs.. Hybrid car batteries with performance degradation are hardly noticed since the gasoline combustion engine kicks in, but with a PEV, there is no hiding reduced performance. If this happens in less than the 15 year lifespan of a vehicle, that will be a problem. PEV vehicles already cost thousands more than an ICE vehicle. Their batteries have a limited warranty of 5-8 years. A Nissan Leaf battery replacement is $5,500 which Nissan admits to selling at a loss (NAS 2015).

Cold weather increases energy consumption

cold weather increases energy consumption

 Source: Argonne National Laboratory

On a cold day an electric car consumes its stored electric energy quickly because of the extra electricity needed to heat the car.  For example, the range of a Nissan Leaf is 84 miles on the EPA test cycle, but if the owner drives 90% of the time over 70 mph and lives in a cold climate, the range could be as low as 50 miles (NRC 2015).

Going Electric doesn’t necessarily reduce CO2

electric battery higher ghg not less many states


Source: Hillebrand 2012, page 24

Related Articles

EPA LCA study lithium-ion battery environmental impact, energy used, recycling issues

In March 2016, Tesla discontinued their 10-Kilowatt-Hour Powerwall Home Battery. Compared to all the hoopla in the media when the home battery was released, new about its demise is stunningly quiet.  According to Greentechmedia, the battery failed because the 10-kwh battery could only provide 500 cycles at a cost of $3,500–far too expensive, and even more expensive when you add in the cost of the inverter and other system costs. Lead-acid batteries can last 1,000 cycles and cost half as much, plus state-of-the-art backup generators sell for $5,000 or less and last many times longer.

Dr. Virden said that the inverter was about $4,500 – so it would cost $8,000 for about “7 kilowatt hours. That’s not going to take you off-grid. Our estimates to go off-grid in a home, you’re spending $15,000 to $20,000 or more, so it’s still expensive” (House 114-18).


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Borenstein, S. Jan 22, 2013. What holds energy tech back? The infernal battery. Associated Press.

Hillebrand, D. October 8, 2012. Advanced Vehicle Technologies; Outlook for Electrics, Internal Combustion, and Alternate Fuels. Argonne National Laboratory.

Hiscox, G. 1901. Horseless Vehicles, Automobiles, Motor Cycles. Norman Henley & Co.

Hodson, H. Jully 25, 2015. Power to the people. NewScientist.

House, Kurt Zenz. 20 Jan 2009. The limits of energy storage technology. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

House 114-18. May 1, 015. Innovations in battery storage for renewable energy. U.S. House of Representatives.   88 pages.

NAE. 2012. National Academy of Engineering. Building the U.S. Battery Industry for Electric Drive Vehicles: Summary of a Symposium. National Research Council

NAS 2013. National Academy of Sciences. Transitions to Alternative Vehicles and Fuels. Committee on Transitions to Alternative Vehicles and Fuels; Board on Energy and Environmental Systems; Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences; National Research Council

NAS. 2015. Cost, effectiveness and deployment of fuel economy tech for Light-Duty vehicles.   National Academy of Sciences. 613 pages.

NRC. 2008. Review of the 21st Century Truck Partnership. National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences.

NRC. 2013. Overcoming Barriers to Electric-Vehicle Deployment, Interim Report. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

NRC. 2015. Overcoming Barriers to Deployment of Plug-in Electric Vehicles. National  Research Council, National Academies Press.

Service, R. 24 Jun 2011. Getting there. Better Batteries. Science Vol 332 1494-96.

Smil, V. 2010. Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Policy Debate. AEI Press.

Tesla. 2014. “Increasing Energy Density Means Increasing Range.”

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