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Saturday, August 12

Electric Vehicles: Shifting problems rather than solving them

Where to begin? Start with two articles from Oilprice.com that taken together amount to saying you might want to think twice if you think driving electric vehicles will save the planet:

Electric Vehicles No Threat To Oil Prices Anytime Soon

[Here I'm skipping over a lot of other important information to get to the following bullet points]:
• Are EV’s really green? There has been much written about this subject but it doesn’t make headlines. You have to hunt for it. In an article in wired.com on March of 2016 the writer questioned whether or not Tesla was really environmentally friendly. 
If you recharge with coal-fired electricity, the emissions are higher than burning gasoline. The vehicles must be lighter to extend battery life so they require a lot of high performance metals, which is hardly environmentally benign to produce (more on lithium later).
A researcher [quoted in the Wired article] wrote, “…the greenhouse gas emissions footprint of electric vehicles can be pretty high on the front end, as they’re being built. We’re shifting pollution, and in the process we’re hoping that it doesn’t have the environmental impact”. 
Then there’s the safe disposal of the battery after it dies and the local landfill is not the place. In June the Montreal Economic Institute released a report that claimed subsidizing EVs was “an inefficient way to reduce CO2 emissions”. 
A spokesman said, “It’s just a waste. Not only do these programs costs taxpayers a fortune, but they also have little effect on GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions”. 
The study claimed current subsidies in Quebec and Ontario, driven by lofty public government ambitions to grow EV use significantly, cost taxpayers Cdn$523 per tonne of reduced carbon emissions in Ontario and Cdn$288 in Quebec. The cap and trade system Ontario is adopting, mirroring that in California, taxes carbon at Cdn$18 per tonne. Alberta’s new carbon tax, which the NDP are selling as a first step in saving the planet from climate change, is Cdn$20.
• Beware of looming electricity and lithium shortages. When Bloomberg did its analysis [see first part of article] it predicted, “Electricity consumption from EVs will grow to 1,800 terawatt-hours in 2040, or 5 percent of global power demand, from 6 terawatt-hours in 2016”. 
This is a staggering 3,000 percent increase. 
Where will it come from? Better not be coal or possibly even natural gas. At a conference held April 3 in Calgary sponsored by ARC Energy Research Institute (AERI) a representative of Bruce Power, the Ontario nuclear electricity generator, said to economically reduce carbon emissions, recharging EVs only made sense at night, not during peak load hours. If everybody drove their EVs to work and tried to plug in at the office it would overload the system. 

Meanwhile, there is speculation whether the world has enough lithium to build all the batteries skyrocketing EV growth would ensure.
One analyst has predicted lithium shortages as soon as 2023 and have already delayed Tesla’s output. 
The solution, which is not all bad for the oil industry, is dual fuel whereby the battery is smaller, the lithium required per vehicle is lower, and mobility is augmented by a smaller ICE using good old-fashioned gasoline.
On to the other Oilprice article --

Electric Car Boom On Hold As Key Ingredient Vanishes
The rise of clean energy is creating a supply crunch for a little-known resource - COBALT.
Largely ignored, there hasn’t been any exploration of cobalt in years. That’s because it’s typically found alongside industrial metals like copper and nickel, neither of which has experienced strong demand over the last few years.
Demand for cobalt is soaring.
It is a lesser-known yet essential component of electric vehicle batteries. And for the first time in history, the world’s supply isn’t keeping up with demand. 
Additionally, today’s consumers and investors are increasingly socially conscious. Companies like Apple(NASDAQ:AAPL) are under increasing pressure to source materials from conflict-free jurisdictions. The current challenge is that there are very few cobalt producers working in ethical jurisdictions – in fact, 50 percent of cobalt is currently sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country with an appalling record of both mining practices and human rights.
The article, which is "sponsored," points out that there is a cobalt belt in Idaho, which when ramped up should help ease the shortage, but that's not really the point. From a Guardian article, Tesla's batteries may be harder on the environment than you think
Lithium-ion batteries just won’t store the amount of energy required to be as useful as Musk promises, says [energy storage expert Tom Milnes]: “Personally I think the Tesla factory producing hundreds of thousands more lithium-ion batteries is really short sighted because those batteries are just never going to hold the amount of energy we need them to.”
But even as Tesla’s batteries promise to reduce tailpipe emissions, more direct environmental concerns surround the current boom in lithium-ion batteries. As hundreds of thousands more of these batteries hit the market, the problems that come with lithium mining, battery lifecycles and recycling loom large.
In a 2013 report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment program concluded that batteries using nickel and cobalt, like lithium-ion batteries, have the “highest potential for environmental impacts”. It cited negative consequences like mining, global warming, environmental pollution and human health impacts.
Even if the EPA's concerns are overblown about cobalt mining/use for batteries, and this being the EPA under the Obama regime they could have been, the allover point is that the electric car industry is not the promised land, if protection of the environment is a major goal. As the Wired article quoted by Oilprice noted, the EV industry is "shifting pollution."

If the other major goal of converting to EVs is ceasing dependence on fossil fuels, in addition to shifting a problem this is also the Shoot Yourself in the Foot models of business and government subsidies, as the first Oilprice article I quoted spells out in the bulleted points I skipped over.

The bottom line is that fracking now keeps the traditional oil extraction producers in a pretty low price range. If the producers try to raise the oil price by greatly limiting supply, this allows the frackers to ramp up production to fill the supply gap. This quickly drives the oil price down again.

The oil price seesaw is now the new normal in the oil production industry, and the consumer is the beneficiary.  

So the bottom line is that it makes no sense to tax the public to death to subsidize the EV industry if people want to drive cars they wrongly assume will save the planet from frying.  

As to another argument for electric vehicles -- reducing dependence on OPEC oil -- the dependence is being greatly reduced anyhow through myriad means, a trend that has been snowballing in this century. Everything from rapid advances in industrial-use robots to new petroleum oil extraction technologies and improved exploration methods mean that OPEC no longer has the oil market cornered.  

Another argument for EVs is that they eliminate the air pollution that goes with oil-fueled vehicles. There are problems with the argument, as Energy Storage News notes:
... electric vehicles are not truly “zero-emission”. Firstly, their fuel source is not currently pollution free. Secondly, today’s vehicle technologies still produce non-tailpipe emissions.
Electric vehicles are fueled by power plants. In the UK (and the vast majority of the world), these power plants produce air pollution including particulate matter and nitrogen oxides.
While EVs could shift pollution away from urban sources (i.e. vehicles) to rural ones (i.e. power plants), pollution would still be released into the air.
However, as McKerracher highlighted, this will be less of a problem as the power sector becomes increasingly cleaner.
But, even with 100% pollution free electricity, current electric vehicle technologies still would not be “zero emission” ...
So again a problem is being shifted -- in this case from the city to the countryside -- rather than solved.  

Given all the above, perhaps the strongest argument in this era for EVs is that oil is headed for a price range that makes it hard for major oil-exporting governments to base their economies on petroleum sales.  

Yet the people making the most heated argument at this time for EVs are thinking in the direst terms regarding CO2 and 'global warming.'  They claim that at all costs, CO2 emissions must be drastically reduced as fast as possible; substituting EVs for fossil-based vehicle fuels is the only way they see to do this. That is the argument of Robertscribbler (George Monbiot just attacked a key solution to climate change; August 4, the Guardian). He considers Monbiot's recommendation to reduce the number of cars in operation to be a hopelessly impractical solution. 

I think it's impractical to assume that EVs can replace fossil-fueled vehicles at the speed Robertscribbler wants.  

And why expend all the (fossil-based) energy to crank out billions of electrical vehicles before the wrinkles in the technology have been ironed out? And then spend yet more energy to decommission EVs that are rendered obsolete by solutions to the biggest problems with EVs?

The observation is so obvious I think it's being ignored by people because they are focused on speed: We need these electric vehicles 'yesterday' or the globe is going to fry. 

Well if that's true, then the globe is most definitely going to fry because again, there is no way to quickly supplant any more than a fraction of fossil-fueled vehicles.

Meanwhile, the push for electric vehicles arose before a big lifestyle shift became evident. Perching Tree, an investor risk analysis service, summarizes the shift as one of the factors in the imminent 'sunsetting' of the petroleum industry:  
a) A Shift in Millennial’s Preferences – Buying a house and car has become less enticing to the millennials who like to live in urban and denser areas serviced by city transits, city mini-markets and ride sharing services. A generational shift is occurring in the buying and spending preferences of millennials at a time when half to one third of family budgets are spent on housing and transportation. While some people are choosing against ownership of bigger detached houses and cars, there are others who are forced by economic circumstances to stay with their parents.
To add to the woes, more and more millennials are choosing to be single forever, impacting the population growth rate. Either way, the common usage of single family homes and vehicles (ride shares) is indirectly leading to more yield from these assets.
There are social problems that accompany these structural changes; however, for now, they are contributing to reduced demand for fossil fuels, and this trend is not abating.
From that point of view, which is amply on display to anyone who spends time in a city such as Washington, D.C., George Monbiot's ideas aren't impractical; they are right on time. Despite the best attempts of agencies who think up car advertisements, many Millennials who are attracted to city life don't want a car; they want more and better public transportation and more bike lanes -- as Monbiot suggests. They do not want the numerous hassles that go with maintaining and driving a car; above all they want an end to gridlock in the cities where they live and work -- a view shared by many older/retired city residents.

The baseline is that today's young people were born and raised in a car society and so don't automatically see car ownership as a status symbol, as their parents and grandparents did.

The greatest problem right now with the car society in the cityscape is administrations not doing enough to solve gridlock and not providing better public transportation. Granted, several governments (in Washington, D.C. for example) were blindsided by rapid increases in city populations, which made everything from housing to street traffic into a nightmare for officials -- and taxpayers. But everything has been turned upside down; instead of heading for suburbia as soon as they can afford it, now many city dwellers want to stay put. Yet they don't want to suffer from problems that have perennially plagued cities; they want the problems solved. 

A part of sought-after improvements is dispensing with as many cars as possible by swapping them out for more, and more efficient, public transportation.

So there is plenty that can be done to cut down emissions from cars just by eliminating many of them. Those such as Robertscribbler who plead that it's not enough -- it's not an Either-Or situation.  However, it's counterproductive to use electric vehicles to shift problems around instead of solving them. I think those who argue that it does make sense in order to save the planet have been stampeded.

I will end by quoting Monbiot's closing argument:
Electric cars solve only part of the problem. They occupy less air, but just as much road and parking space. The resources required to manufacture them – and the volume of mines and ports and processing plants that wreck rare habitats around the world – might even intensify.
While the total carbon emissions and air pollution caused by electric cars will be lower than those the fossil system produces, electricity use will have to rise. If you are among those who support electric cars but oppose nuclear power, you may have to reconsider one of your positions.
So let’s explore some pollution solutions that change this ridiculous system, rather than extending it indefinitely.
Why not – through shifting road space from cars to bicycles in the form of safe cycle lanes – aim to make cycling the main form of urban transport? Why not launch a scrappage scheme that trades cars for public transport tokens? Why not implement the ingenious plan proposed by the economist Alan Storkey for an upgraded intercity coach service that’s as fast and convenient as private transport, but uses a fraction of the road space?
 In other sectors, progress is marked by reducing the volume of a system while enhancing its utility. Why does the same principle not apply to transport?

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