Preface. 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. But could batteries be improved enough to use in trucks, or even cars? This post makes the case that the obstacles are overwhelming, and that this idea of divesting from fossil fuels is nonsense. We aren’t even close to replacing fossils with batteries and other alternative energies.
This is truly a large topic, not a soundbite. I can’t possibly explain everything there is to know in this one post. If you want to understand the full depth and range of the problem, read the related articles below.
P.S. Because I live in Northern California, the cost of electricity is roughly double the national average. In January of 2021, disappointly, it costs slightly more to drive our Toyota Prius Prime on the battery than on gasoline. This is despite the fact that gasoline costs $3/gallon and up here. It takes about 6.7 to 6.8 kWh to fully charge the drained Prius battery, which is good for 30 miles of driving. So, at the current electricity rate of 28 cents/kWH here, we pay $1.90 to charge the 30-mile battery. At 55 mpg it costs $1.77 to go 30 miles when paying $3.25/gallon for gas. Of course, that may change. Global oil production peaked in 2018, including fracked natural gas and oil, so natural gas (and oil) prices will go up, driving electricity prices even higher, especially since the electric grid can’t stay up without it. Plus wind and solar costs will go up, since they depend on oil, coal, and/or natural gas for every single step of their life cycle. The U.S. has only four four LNG import terminals and few LNG ships. Scaling up would take decades. By then global NG production will have peaked. Meanwhile the U.S. has been building EXPORT LNG terminals and is the third largest natural gas exporter in the world. Doh! Political and economic leaders bought all the hype and thought we had a century of oil independence from fracking (though we never did, even at the height of fracking we still imported about half of our oil). And here are 24 more problems with electric cars.
Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com author of “Life After Fossil Fuels: A Reality Check of Alternative Energy, 2021, Springer; “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report
- Making the most energy dense battery from the palette of the periodic table
- Hydrogen, the Homeopathic energy crisis remedy
- Diesel is finite. Trucks are the bedrock of civilization. So where are the battery electric trucks?
- Just 16,000 catenary trucks would use 1% of California’s electricity generation, all vehicles 2.5 times more power than available
- All Electric Trucks. Probably not going to happen. Ever. Why not?
- Hybrid electric trucks are very different from HEV cars
- Electric truck range is less in cold weather
- Utility scale energy storage batteries limited by materials and few locations for pumped hydro, compressed air
- Roger Andrews: California public utilities vote no on energy storage
- Electric Grid Energy Storage
- Would Tesla, li-ion batteries, SolarCity or SpaceX exist without $4.9 billion in government subsidies?
- Electric vehicle overview
- What is the life span of a vehicle Lithium-ion Battery?
- EPA LCA study lithium-ion battery environmental impact, energy used, recycling issues
- Bloomberg News: Tesla’s new battery doesn’t work that well with solar
- Renewable Energy can’t supply more than 30% of electricity without revolutionary battery breakthrough
- Revolutionary understanding of physics needed to improve batteries – don’t hold your breath
- American Physical Society: has the Battery Bubble Burst?
- Batteries are made of rare, declining, and imported minerals
- Battery energy density too low to power cars
- Notes from “The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World” by Steve LeVine
- Why aren’t there Battery Powered Airplanes?
- Given the laws of physics, can the Tesla Semi really go 500 miles, and what will the price be?
Who Killed the Electric Car & Truck?
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. Sorry to ruin the suspense so quickly, guess I’ll never be a mystery writer.
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.
So is an electric car:
- 1911: The New York Times declares that the electric car “has long been recognized as the ideal solution” because it “is cleaner and quieter” and “much more economical.”(NYT 1911)
- 1915: The Washington Post writes that “prices on electric cars will continue to drop until they are within reach of the average family.”(WP 1915)
- 1959: The New York Times reports that the “Old electric may be the car of tomorrow.” The story said that electric cars were making a comeback because “gasoline is expensive today, principally because it is so heavily taxed, while electricity is far cheaper” than it was back in the 1920s (Ingraham 1959)
- 1967: The Los Angeles Times says that American Motors Corporation is on the verge of producing an electric car, the Amitron, to be powered by lithium batteries capable of holding 330 watt-hours per kilogram. (That’s more than two times as much as the energy density of modern lithium-ion batteries.) Backers of the Amitron said, “We don’t see a major obstacle in technology. It’s just a matter of time.” (Thomas 1967)
- 1979: The Washington Post reports that General Motors has found “a breakthrough in batteries” that “now makes electric cars commercially practical.” The new zinc-nickel oxide batteries will provide the “100-mile range that General Motors executives believe is necessary to successfully sell electric vehicles to the public.”(Knight, J. September 26, 1979. GM Unveils electric car, New battery. Washington Post, D7.
- 1980: In an opinion piece, the Washington Post avers that “practical electric cars can be built in the near future.” By 2000, the average family would own cars, predicted the Post, “tailored for the purpose for which they are most often used.” It went on to say that “in this new kind of car fleet, the electric vehicle could pay a big role—especially as delivery trucks and two-passenger urban commuter cars. With an aggressive production effort, they might save 1 million barrels of oil a day by the turn of the century.” (WP 1980)
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).
One reason people are so keen on electric cars is because they cost less to fuel. But if electricity were $0.10 per kWh, to fill up a 53 kWh Tesla battery takes about 4 hours and costs $5.30. 30 days times $5.30 is $159. I can fill up my gas tank in a few minutes for under $40. I drive about 15 miles a day and can go 400 miles per fill up, so I only get gas about once a month. I’d have to drive 60 miles a day to run the cost up to $159. If your electricity costs less than ten cents, it won’t always. Shale gas is a one-time-only temporary boom that probably ends around 2020. Got a dinkier battery than the Tesla but go 80 miles or less at most? Most people won’t consider buying an electric car until they go 200 miles or more.
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:
- Small and light-weight to give vehicles a longer range
- High energy density like oil (energy stored per unit of weight)
- Recharge fast, tolerant of overcharge, undercharging, and over-discharge
- Store a lot of energy
- High power density, deliver a lot of power quickly
- Be rechargeable thousands of times while retaining 80% of their storage capacity
- Reliable and robust
- A long life, at least 10 years for a vehicle battery
- Made from very inexpensive, common, sustainable, recyclable materials
- Deliver power for a long time
- Won’t explode or catch on fire
- Long shelf life for times when not being used
- Perform well in low and high temperatures
- Able to tolerate vibration, shaking, and shocks
- Not use toxic materials during manufacture or in the battery itself
- Take very little energy to make from cradle-to-grave
- Need minimal to no maintenance
For example, in the real world, these are the priorities for heavy-duty hybrid trucks (NRC 2008):
- High Volumetric Energy Density (energy per unit volume)
- High Gravimetric Energy Density (energy per unit of weight, Specific Energy)
- High Volumetric Power Density (power per unit of volume)
- High Gravimetric Power Density (power per unit of weight, Specific Power)
- Low purchase cost
- Low operating cost
- Low recycling cost
- Long useful life
- Long shelf life
- Minimal maintenance
- High level of safety in collisions and rollover accidents
- High level of safety during charging
- Ease of charging method
- Minimal charging time
- Storable and operable at normal and extreme ambient temperatures
- High number of charge-discharge cycles, regardless of the depth of discharge
- 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.
Battery development takes money. One issue now is that there are so many technologies, from foam, to flow, to exotic chemistry batteries that there’s no one clearly superior battery to attract more funding and research. It takes $500 million to set up a small manufacturing line and all the research required to make a product, according to Gerd Ceder, a professor of materials science at the University of California, Berkeley. Automakers test new battery systems out for years before deciding which one to buy. Start-ups simply can’t invest $500 million in manufacturing if they only have $5 million in funding a year. It’s also hard for them to make anything better than lithium-ion batteries, which have had incremental improvements since the 1970s (Martin 2016).
Crossing the valley of death from prototype to commercial success. When a battery maker finally manages to bring their technology to market, they may still fail, like Leyden Energy and A123 Systems as their cash needs grew too large and demand failed to meet expectations (Martin 2016).
Why spend the money to invent a better battery? The largest battery makers, Samsung, LG, and Panasonic, are not so interested in the risky development of a different kind of battery, they perfer the safer route of making gradual improvements in the batteries they’re already making (Martin 2016).
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).
Breakthroughs may depend on an extremely rare elements like Tellurium (Lavars 2020), one of the least common elements on Earth (USGS 2014). Most rocks contain an average of about 3 parts per billion tellurium, making it rarer than the rare earth elements. It is a byproduct of copper mining and as high-grade copper ores decrease and copper mines shut down, that would constrain tellurium recovery. Regardless, there isn’t enough left to scale up to electric cars or utility scale energy storage, and it is already being used in the solar and other industries.
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 theoretically 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.
The performance of batteries has to be improved 100-fold or more to make them light enough for trucks and cars. The cost is always touted as the main factor, but a battery weighing 10 tons that only cost a dollar is not going to move a truck, period. Energy, not money is what matters.
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 when gasoline prices began to drop in 2014, people stopped buying EVs and started buying gas guzzlers again.
Autos aren’t the game-changer for the climate or saving energy that they’re claimed to be. They account for just 20% of the oil wrung out of a barrel, trucks, ships, manufacturing, rail, airplanes, and buildings use the other 80%.
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). Given the demand for lithium, cobalt, graphite and nickel in the future, prices for raw materials are more likely to up than down. Lithium supply has to double every four to five years to meet demand and similar magnitudes for the others. The ability to pass these costs on to customers is limited (Mining 2020).
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 when you add in the energy loss to provide electricity to the car (proponents say electric cars are more efficient because they leave this out of the equation). Drought is reducing hydropower across the west, where most of the hydropower is, 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. The energy to make Tesla’s lithium ion energy batteries is also huge, substantially subtracting from the energy returned on invested (Batto 2017).
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
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
Source: Hillebrand 2012, page 24
Other articles about batteries that I’ve come across since I wrote this post:
2016-08-29. Why We Still Don’t Have Better Batteries. Startups with novel chemistries tend to falter before they reach full production. MIT Technology Review.
Batto, A. B. 2017. The ecological challenges of Tesla’s Gigafactory and the Model 3. AmosBatto.wordpress.com
Birnbaum, M. November 23, 2015. Electric cars and the coal that runs them. Washington Post.
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.
Lavars N. 2020. Rare metalloid quadruples lifespan of lithium-sulfur batteries. Newatlas.
Martin, R. 2016. Why we still don’t have better batteries. Startups with novel chemistries tend to falter before they reach full production. MIT Technology Review.
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