If we really cared about CO2, we’d reduce car size and weight, not make electric cars

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Preface. Since my book “When trucks stop running: Energy and the future of transportation makes the case that it’s trucks that need to be electrified to keep civilization going, since biofuels don’t scale up, natural gas and liquefied coal are finite, hydrogen is a net energy sink from start to end. Only transportation that keeps supply chains going matters, and trucks, rail, and ships nearly all run on diesel. As for why trucks can’t be electrified, in addition to my book, see posts here.

The authors had a rebuttal in the Financial times that accused this article of cherry-picking the data by an “apples-to-oranges comparison, pitting a luxury, high-power electric model against a subcompact, low-power petrol one”.  Although that may be true, I have a rebuttal to their rebuttal after the financial times article below.  I feel like it was a huge waste of my team to read the original paper, because the premises and assumptions are absurd — that batteries will continually improve even they’ve only improved 5-fold over 210 years but need to improve 50-100 fold to match gasoline, that 30 to nearly 100% of electric power will be renewable from 2030 to 2050, the monetary price including subsidies rather than energy costs, and using CO2 as the main criteria by which to judge cars.  And the fact that energy decline from peak fossils will do far more to reduce CO2 than EV ever could. Conventional oil peaked in 2005 (90% of our oil), and any day now the plateau could end and decline begin.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

McGee, P. November 7, 2017. Electric cars’ green image blackens beneath the bonnet. Financial Times.

The humble Mitsubishi Mirage has none of the hallmarks of a futuristic, environmentally friendly car. It is fuelled by petrol, runs on an internal combustion engine and spews exhaust emissions through a tailpipe.

But when the Mirage is assessed for carbon emissions throughout its entire lifecycle — from procuring the components and fuel, to recycling its parts — it can actually be a greener car than a model by Tesla, the US electric vehicle pioneer, in regions with particularly high carbon emissions from electricity.

According to data from the Trancik Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Tesla Model S P100D saloon driven in the US Midwest produces 226 grams of carbon dioxide (or equivalent) per kilometer over its life-cycle — a significant reduction to the 385g for a luxury 7-series BMW. But the Mirage emits even less, at just 192 g.

The MIT data substantiate a study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology last year: “Larger electric vehicles can have higher lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than smaller conventional vehicles.”

The point of such comparisons is not to make the argument for one technology over another, or to undermine the case for “zero-emission” cars. But they do raise a central issue about the industry: are governments and ca rmakers asking the right questions about the next generation of vehicles?

Policymakers are pushing the car industry toward a new era, but neither Europe, America nor China have actually set up the appropriate regulatory apparatus to differentiate among electric vehicles and judge their environmental merits. The idea that some combustion engine cars can be greener than some “zero-emission” electric vehicles simply does not make sense in the current regulatory environment.

From a government standpoint, all electric vehicles are equally green — regardless of whether they are big or small, produced efficiently or with great waste, or powered by electricity generated by solar energy or coal.

Although multiple studies show that electric vehicles to be greener than comparable combustion engine cars, many components of the electric car life-sycle are left out. To capture electric cars’ full environmental impact, regulators need to embrace life-cycle analysis that takes into account car production, including the sourcing of rare earth metals that are part of the battery, plus the electricity that powers it, and the recycling of its components. Life-cycle studies show that the idea of “zero emissions” is misleading. Too much energy is consumed in the manufacturing process of lithium-ion batteries, and to recharge them, for the environmental impact to be nil.

Also, the lack of regulation differentiating between electric vehicles encourages car makers to sell cars with bigger batteries and longer ranges — features that sound great but are at odds with electric vehicles’ green image, given the amount of lithium and cobalt used in the batteries.

However, the problem for makers of electric vehicles is that their efforts to limit emissions in the supply chain can only go so far. The uncomfortable reality is that battery manufacturing plays a bigger role in life-cycle emissions than anything else the car maker does.

A decade ago, this was not such a problem. Researchers could assume electric vehicles were small cars such as the Smart fortwo, which weighs less than a tonne. But Tesla upended these assumptions with the Model S, its roomy saloon which can weigh up to 2,250kg because of a massive battery that powers its impressive range.  These bigger batteries could damage the green credentials of electric vehicles, even if power grids are fueled by less coal and more renewables, given the poor environmental and ethical standards involved in procuring metals such as cobalt, 60 per cent of which comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Tesla has been credited with accelerating a broader shift into battery-powered cars, but one result of its appeal is that average electric vehicle batteries will double from 20 kilowatt hours today to 40 kWh by 2025, according to UK investment bank Liberum. Peter Mock, managing director for Europe at the International Council on Clean Transportation, says many electric vehicles produced today feature a range that is too high, and the trend is towards even bigger batteries.

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The average electric vehicle sold today offers a range of less than 250km, according to EV Volumes, a data provider. But the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance announced plans in September to create 12 electric vehicles with at least 600km of range by 2022.

“For 90% of the vehicles it just doesn’t make sense to have such a big battery,” Mr Mock says. “Maybe it’s useful now in the transition phase . . . But rationally it doesn’t make sense. Most of us drive less than 100 km a day.”

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 Regulators should take weight into account by taxing heavier vehicles and creating incentives for smaller models in both electric and traditional vehicles.

Mr Meilhan points out that petrol-engine cars weighing just 500kg — such as the French Ligier microcar or some popular “kei cars” in Japan — emit less lifecycle emissions than a mid-sized electric vehicle even when driven in France, where carbon-free nuclear power generates three-quarters of electricity.

“If we really cared about CO2,” he adds, “we’d reduce car size and weight.”

My rebuttal of the authors rebuttal in the FT (can be found here).

The original paper is here.  Miotti, M., et al. 2016. Personal Vehicles Evaluated against Climate Change Mitigation Targets. Environ. Sci. Technol 50:10795-10804.

What a waste of time.  This paper evaluates fossiled versus EV using the wrong evaluation criteria.

  • Vehicle cost shouldn’t be in a scientific study of energy efficiency.
  • Only energy use per mile and energy used over the life cycle.
  • Nor should EV subsidies be used in the cost, the Republicans or next financial crash will end or lower them.

Secondly, the paper assumes that the electric grid will continually use more renewable power.  But since conventional oil, the master resource that makes all others possible, including solar and wind contraptions over their entire life cycles, peaked in global production in 2005, the electric grid cannot long outlast declining fossil fuels, and their life expectancy is only 20 years (wind turbines) to 30 years (solar). So even if we doubled and doubled and doubled the solar and wind generation of today, we’d have to stop making these contraptions at some point of oil decline – oil will be rationed to agriculture and other essential services, like heavy-duty trucks of all kinds, since they can’t run on electricity (see posts here).  And they aren’t doubling every year as you’ll see below, in fact at current rates of increase they won’t even be 10% of generation by 2030, and likely less since the best, most profitable sites are already taken (NREL 2013).

Solar and wind contribute a tiny fraction of electricity. So far in 2017, solar provided 0.95%, in 2016, 0.7 %, 2015 0.48%, 2014 0.38%, 2013 0.27%, and so on. In all cases the difference in increases was from one-tenth of 1% to a quarter of 1%. Not the doubling required.  But these low percentages belie the fact that for half of the year solar (fall and winter) the percent declines by half those months (see posts here). Most of the U.S. has very little solar power, even though it’s subsidized, because they are too far north.  Solar power is highly skewed:  California has 60% of solar generation, Arizona 24% (see post here). It can’t grow much more, the best spots are already built out. Sure, there are a lot of sunny places left, but it costs tens of millions to build the transmission lines to them (EIA 2017). And that cost isn’t ever included in the cost of solar electricity or solar plant construction. It is a huge free subsidy and substantially lowers the true cost of solar and wind electricity.

Wind contributed more than solar, but still a trivial amount of overall electricity generation: 1.9% in 2014, 2.0% in 2015, 2.5% in 2016, and 2.6% so far in 2017 (through August) (EIA 2017).  But the best sites for wind are already built out as well.  Wind is also highly seasonal, doesn’t blow at commercial scales across most of America in the summer, and never at commercial scale year-round in the South East (see posts here).  We are far from having a national grid, so you’ll need a horse or bicycle to get your groceries half of the year just about anywhere you live.

Another consequence of peak oil the study doesn’t acknowledge is that declining oil (coal, and natural gas) will reduce CO2 far more than EVs ever could.

Just at it is absurd to assume the grid will be 30% renewable power by 2030, it is also absurd to assume that batteries will grow more and more energy dense.  The energy density of batteries has only increased 5-fold over the past 210 years, but need to be 50-100 times more energy dense to come close to matching gasoline. That means that batteries will always be too heavy for diesel vehicles, and too expensive for 90% of consumers. The reason it is so damned hard to make batteries more energy dense are here and here.

Worse yet, comparisons are made on the basis of vehicle costs, with the assumption that EV costs will grow lower over time. Ridiculous! We’ve reached nearly all limits to growth, and lithium is certainly finite (lots of it but mostly embedded in minerals for which the chemical and/or heat energy is too high). Vehicle cost shouldn’t be in a scientific study of energy efficiency. Only energy use per mile and the energy used over the life cycle to make and operate the car, from mining to recycling.  And especially not subsidies, the Republicans or next financial crash will end or lower them.

EIA. Monthly Energy Review. November 2017. U.S. Energy Information Administration Office of Energy Statistics U.S. Department of Energy. https://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly/pdf/mer.pdf

NREL. 2013. Beyond renewable portfolio standards: An assessment of regional supply and demand conditions affecting the future of renewable energy in the west. Golden: National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

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13 Responses to If we really cared about CO2, we’d reduce car size and weight, not make electric cars

  1. GM says:

    And yet the Mitsubishi Mirage is still absolutely massive compared to small cars of the past…

    I’ve repeatedly been struck by how much bigger cars have become when I’ve happened to make a direct comparison. As a classic example, the 1959 Mini Mark I had a wheelbase of ~2000 mm, was 3000 mm long and 1400 mm wide, and weighed 600 kg. Today’s Mini has a wheel base of ~2500 mm, is 3600 mm long and ~1700 mm wide, and weighs 1200 kg.

    Yes, the peak of car length was in the early 1970s, and we don’t see 6-meter long land yachts today, but what has been lost in terms of length has been more the compensated in the other two dimensions, and cars have absolutely ballooned in width and height, and accordingly, in weight too. As a result, a 1972 Cadillac Series 75, the peak of the excess of the 1950s, 60s and 1970s, weighed about the same as what its functional replacement today, the Escalade, weighs. And also about the same as a Tesla Model X…

    And average everyday cars from back then used to frequently have a base weight less than 1000kg, today that’s almost unheard of.

  2. Goran says:

    Dear EnergySkeptic Readers,

    There is a hopeful development in China: Electric Microcars.

    https://s.taobao.com/search?q=%E7%94%B5%E5%8A%A8%E6%B1%BD%E8%BD%A6&type=p&tmhkh5=&spm=a21wu.241046-global.a2227oh.d100&from=sea_1_suggest&catId=100&cps=yes&ppath=122216930%3A15919119

    80 km/h, max weight 500 kg, 10-20 kW.

    These vehicles are based on electric scooter technology and have a customer price of 2000-3000 USD.

    Unfortunately they are not legal (market blocking lobby!) in The Netherlands where I live…

    Kind regards,
    Goran

    • energyskeptic says:

      The best solution of all is for people to use electric bikes to commute and run errands, not cars. It would be better to do this now, before oil declines to stretch it out, but eventually people will have no choice but electric bikes. Just as fossil fuels are finite, so are lithium, cobalt, and other minerals used in batteries. They need to be smaller as well, at some point even a scooter will be too expensive in energy and monetary cost.

      • Goran says:

        Hello EnergySkeptic,

        Of course you are right. Lower weight is always better.
        Both my wife and I have electric bikes for most of our transportation needs.
        We also have a Winther Dolphin XL bike trailer that we used for our boys when they were small, and now we use it for groceries etc.
        Perfect for 1-15 km activities.

        However, for the 15-50 km activities, we now use a VW diesel car, which is completely unsustainable. For these activities that we still do quite frequently, I would prefer to use an electric microcar.

        Thanks for your writing and sharing of your perspective!

        • energyskeptic says:

          Yes, too bad that cars are so needed for many activities. Wish that everyone car-shared. Guess they will at some point of oil decline, as well as fill up the car with other people to get groceries and other errands to share either the high price or their ration coupons.

      • Y. Roy says:

        Thanks for another good post.

        I’ve done a lot of winter biking and it’s not for the faint of heart. Living in a small town makes it even harder. There are so many layers of unsustainability just at the local level much will have to be rethought.

        • energyskeptic says:

          I rode my bike in the winter in the 60s and 70s and now when I visit mom and dad in the Chicago area. I had a wide-tire low bike in college so I could use my feet to slow down, though not many hills to worry about. As long as you don’t brake on the ice you’re okay! I didn’t buy a car until I was 25, and had to own one to get a good job.

          • Y. Roy says:

            Actually, all this moaning and groaning about not being able to bike in winter will just end when people have no alternatives. I’m reminded of my great aunt who had to use dogs and a sleigh in the prairries to get to school as a kid. I bought studded bike tires and ice is not really an issue anymore.

  3. Karl Kolchak says:

    If we REALLY cared we’d outlaw personal vehicle ownership altogether and ensure everybody had access to reliable public transportation.

    • energyskeptic says:

      Or shared cars. We partly have less public transport because our cities are much less densely populated than in Europe and Asia, though that’s partly due to cars! At any rate, I think that personal cars and suburbia will be seen as the biggest waste of energy and resources in world history, and hasten the end of fossil-fueled civilization.

  4. Mike Anderson says:

    The MIT scientists cited in the FT article say the article is misleading. Here’s their response:

    Reality is that most EVs emit less CO2 than petrol cars over their lifetimes

    https://www.ft.com/content/d14b6c8a-c61e-11e7-b2bb-322b2cb39656

    “Sir, We are dismayed by how your Big Read article “Green driving’s dirty secret” (November 9) turns the fundamental conclusions of our research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on their head, giving the public a misleading perspective on electric vehicles.”

    • energyskeptic says:

      Mike, here is my rebuttal, which I’ve added to my post. You’ll need to go back to my article to see the links under the word “here”.

      My rebuttal of the authors rebuttal in the FT

      The original paper is here. Miotti, M., et al. 2016. Personal Vehicles Evaluated against Climate Change Mitigation Targets. Environ. Sci. Technol 50:10795-10804.

      What a waste of time. This paper evaluates fossiled versus EV using the wrong evaluation criteria.

      Vehicle cost shouldn’t be in a scientific study of energy efficiency.
      Only energy use per mile and energy used over the life cycle.
      Nor should EV subsidies be used in the cost, the Republicans or next financial crash will end or lower them.

      Secondly, the paper assumes that the electric grid will continually use more renewable power. But since conventional oil, the master resource that makes all others possible, including solar and wind contraptions over their entire life cycles, peaked in global production in 2005, the electric grid cannot long outlast declining fossil fuels, and their life expectancy is only 20 years (wind turbines) to 30 years (solar). So even if we doubled and doubled and doubled the solar and wind generation of today, we’d have to stop making these contraptions at some point of oil decline – oil will be rationed to agriculture and other essential services, like heavy-duty trucks of all kinds, since they can’t run on electricity (see posts here). And they aren’t doubling every year as you’ll see below, in fact at current rates of increase they won’t even be 10% of generation by 2030, and likely less since the best, most profitable sites are already taken (NREL 2013).

      Solar and wind contribute a tiny fraction of electricity. So far in 2017, solar provided 0.95%, in 2016, 0.7 %, 2015 0.48%, 2014 0.38%, 2013 0.27%, and so on. In all cases the difference in increases was from one-tenth of 1% to a quarter of 1%. Not the doubling required. But these low percentages belie the fact that for half of the year solar (fall and winter) the percent declines by half those months (see posts here). Most of the U.S. has very little solar power, even though it’s subsidized, because they are too far north. Solar power is highly skewed: California has 60% of solar generation, Arizona 24% (see post here). It can’t grow much more, the best spots are already built out. Sure, there are a lot of sunny places left, but it costs tens of millions to build the transmission lines to them (EIA 2017). And that cost isn’t ever included in the cost of solar electricity or solar plant construction. It is a huge free subsidy and substantially lowers the true cost of solar and wind electricity.

      Wind contributed more than solar, but still a trivial amount of overall electricity generation: 1.9% in 2014, 2.0% in 2015, 2.5% in 2016, and 2.6% so far in 2017 (through August) (EIA 2017). But the best sites for wind are already built out as well. Wind is also highly seasonal, doesn’t blow at commercial scales across most of America in the summer, and never at commercial scale year-round in the South East (see posts here). We are far from having a national grid, so you’ll need a horse or bicycle to get your groceries half of the year just about anywhere you live.

      Another consequence of peak oil the study doesn’t acknowledge is that declining oil (coal, and natural gas) will reduce CO2 far more than EVs ever could.

      Just at it is absurd to assume the grid will be 30% renewable power by 2030, it is also absurd to assume that batteries will grow more and more energy dense. The energy density of batteries has only increased 5-fold over the past 210 years, but need to be 50-100 times more energy dense to come close to matching gasoline. That means that batteries will always be too heavy for diesel vehicles, and too expensive for 90% of consumers. The reason it is so damned hard to make batteries more energy dense are here and here.

      Worse yet, comparisons are made on the basis of vehicle costs, with the assumption that EV costs will grow lower over time. Ridiculous! We’ve reached nearly all limits to growth, and lithium is certainly finite (lots of it but mostly embedded in minerals for which the chemical and/or heat energy is too high). Vehicle cost shouldn’t be in a scientific study of energy efficiency. Only energy use per mile and the energy used over the life cycle to make and operate the car, from mining to recycling. And especially not subsidies, the Republicans or next financial crash will end or lower them.

      EIA. Monthly Energy Review. November 2017. U.S. Energy Information Administration Office of Energy Statistics U.S. Department of Energy. https://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly/pdf/mer.pdf

      NREL. 2013. Beyond renewable portfolio standards: An assessment of regional supply and demand conditions affecting the future of renewable energy in the west. Golden: National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

  5. jim says:

    It’s the economy, Stupid.
    It’s the weight, Stupid!

    Sadly, these low weight 2-seater, cross between a motor bike and a mini-car just go nowhere past the prototypes. Toyota’s 2013 concept…

    http://www.autoconcept-reviews.com/cars_reviews/toyota/toyota-iroad-personal-mobility-vehicle-concept-2013/cars_reviews-toyota-iroad-personal-mobility-vehicle-concept-2013.html

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