The Electric Car Report

I am back home in Hawaii, and over the next few days hope my schedule settles down to normal. I am aware of some lingering technical issues that need to be resolved on the blog (e.g., some of the comments have not been successfully imported from the old blog – but they will be).

I imagine that a fair number of new readers linking in here over the next week or so will be doing so in response to a report on electric cars that was released while I was in New Zealand. I am listed as an advisor on that report. So I want to discuss my role, and ultimately how this exercise has influenced my views on electric cars.

I became acquainted with the author of the report (Clive Matthew-Wilson, editor of the car buyers’ Dog & Lemon Guide) a year ago when he wrote and asked me a few questions. As this report began to develop, I helped with certain aspects of the well to wheels efficiency of the petroleum supply chain, and I went through some of the calculations to check for errors. There are aspects of the report that I really can’t comment on, because I don’t know enough about that particular aspect. For instance, I can’t comment on efficiency losses of electric transmission, or in the drive train of an automobile.

Regular readers know that I have long been enthusiastic about the potential of electric cars. In my view as fossil fuels deplete it is going to be difficult to maintain anywhere close to the level of mobility we enjoy today. There simply is not, in my opinion, a renewable liquid fuel option that can scale up and replace a large fraction of the fossil fuels we use today.

However, renewable liquid fuels for the most part are just captured sunshine (as is oil, natural gas, and coal for that matter), and there are a lot more efficient ways of capturing sunshine than photosynthesis (biomass, however, has the advantage of a built-in storage system). Solar panels offer a way – in principle – to produce as much energy as we use today in the form of oil. (See my essay Replacing Gasoline with Solar Power). So I have always viewed electric cars as our best hope for approaching today’s level of mobility as petroleum supplies decline.

In fact, the summary by the author of the report on the potential benefits of electric cars would look very much like my own:

“1. Electric cars improve the security of vehicle energy supply by avoiding liquid fuels that are often imported from hostile or politically volatile countries and are being discovered at a slower rate than they are being depleted.

2. Electric cars offer much improved air quality in cities.

3. Electric cars offer drastically reduced traffic noise.

4. Electric cars offer less CO2 emissions if the electricity comes from nuclear, hydro, solar, wind or perhaps biomass.

5. Electric cars are sometimes more efficient than petrol or diesel cars.”

However, the report then highlights issues regarding electricity production around the world. For instance:

“1. Globally, most electricity is produced using highly environmentally damaging sources, and much of it is produced from fossil fuels. There is unlikely to be a significant change in the way this majority of electricity is produced in the foreseeable future.

2. Although there are alternative forms of electricity production that cause less harm to the environment than conventional forms, these forms are invariably far more expensive, and are therefore unlikely to be adopted en masse in the near future. Thus, the central premise behind the electric car movement – that electric cars will be powered primarily from ‘green’ sources – is essentially wishful thinking. The car driver generally has no control over how and where the electricity that powers his car is generated. Electric cars do not stop environmental damage: rather, they tend to merely move it out of sight, from the highways to the power plants.”

I think we can broadly agree that a large fraction of our electricity is produced from fossil fuels. The 2nd point will be more contentious. After all, it is the very assumption that electricity will be much greener in the future that leads to the conclusion that the future of transportation could be green and electric.

The Tesla/Lotus Elise comparison is very interesting. The author examined the way electricity is produced today in various countries, and concluded that in 4 of 5 countries, the Tesla would actually be dirtier than the internal combustion Elise because of the amount of electricity for the Tesla that would originate from coal. New Zealand was the one exception in which the Tesla was found to be greener:

“In four of the five countries we surveyed, the Tesla electric car was less efficient and more polluting than its petrol sibling. Only in New Zealand – where the majority of electricity is produced by hydroelectric generation – was the Tesla ‘greener’ than the Elise. However, a New Zealand scientist recently predicted that if the New Zealand car fleet was replaced with electric cars, the country would probably need to build coal power stations to meet the increased demand.”

– but this shows that IF a significant fraction of electricity production is shifted to greener sources, the electric car can be greener than the internal combustion engine.

Ultimately, I think this report provides a good reality check of many assumptions on the future of the electric car. I still think it is true that there is great potential, but you can’t ignore the fact that it is very likely in at least the short term that incremental electricity will not come from renewable sources.