Electric cars are a short circuit - long article

Following is an email I received from an Engineer friend. Geographical references are therefore Canadian but otherwise applicable worldwide … :think:

It’s clear from recent events in the Excited States of America that not only are facts irrelevant in the realm of public and political discourse, they may even be harmful to whatever cause you’re trying to promote.

But unlike lawyers, politicians and bureaucrats whose very existence often hinges on ignoring the facts, I — as an engineer and journalist — still feel beholden to them.

So, here are a few facts to consider on the subject of electric cars.

Contrary to what may be at least a common — if not popular — opinion, I don’t hate electric cars. They never did anything to me.

I have often said that an electric motor is an excellent way to power an automobile. We’ve known that an electric car is quiet, quick, simple and durable since before the Baker Electric went out of production in 1914.

It’s what supplies the electricity that’s the problem, and has been since that Baker Electric ran out of juice.

I don’t even hate battery-powered cars. It’s science that hates battery-powered cars.

A friend of mine worked on the EV-1, General Motors’ first shot at a modern battery-powered car. When he left that project, his parting gift from his colleagues was a 75-foot-long extension cord, which I thought was terribly funny.

He also came out of that experience saying that there are three types of liars in this world: liars, damned liars, and battery engineers.

They have been promising us ‘the’ battery breakthrough ever since the demise of that poor old Baker, and we’re not a heck of a lot farther along that road than we were then. Certainly, there’s been nowhere near the progress we’ve seen in petroleum-fuelled cars.

At the moment, the best range a battery-powered car that is even within sight of an affordable price can deliver is 383 kilometres, in the new Chevrolet Bolt EV.

Although, as I said in my preview of that car a couple of months back, what that range might be in Winnipeg in February has not been announced …

Apart from the quietness, there’s nothing about the Bolt that wouldn’t be better if it had a modern Diesel engine in it.

It would triple its range, you could ‘recharge’ that range fully in five minutes, not nine to 60 hours, from a delivery infrastructure that is already in place literally everywhere in the world, and which would not require you (or likely for most urban dwellers, your landlord) to install a multi-thousand dollar Level 2 charging station where you live.

“Yes,” the electric car fanatics cry, “but Diesel is a fossil fuel!” True.

But, depending on where you live in North America, chances are very good so is your electricity, because it is generated by burning something — usually natural gas.

And burning a fossil fuel to power an electric car is nowhere near as efficient as burning that fuel to power the car directly.

That grotesque creature whose name will never sully my column but who managed to lose the election down south yet still gain the presidency, has said he will bring coal back. So, good luck on that front.

I can’t deny electric cars have zero emissions at the tailpipe. But tailpipe emissions have pretty much become last century’s problem.

According to Environment Canada, cars and light vehicles — our personal transportation fleet — are responsible for only 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. As older cars get phased out and newer cars get ever cleaner, that percentage is likely dropping.

So, even if tomorrow morning, all cars in our fleet were magically powered by the sheer force of Elon Musk’s ambition, 88 per cent of the problem would still be here.

Electric cars currently (ho ho …) hover around one per cent share of the market. Let’s assume that the wildest dreams of battery-powered car fans are achieved, and that market share increases tenfold in the next 10 years. That’s 10 per cent of new car sales.

But remember that modern cars often last 10 or more years (both of my Volkswagen Diesels are well over that already). People aren’t going to instantly throw out their perfectly good three-, four-, five- or even 10-year-old car to buy a battery-powered electric car, so it will take another 10 years or so for 10 per cent of our total automotive fleet to be battery-powered.

So, doing the math, 20 years from now, we will have reduced the total automotive contribution to greenhouse gas emissions in our country by one tenth of 12 per cent. i.e.,1.2 per cent. Start planning the parade!

All the costs of installing the recharging infrastructure, not to mention the millions of dollars of taxpayer-funded bribes largely to rich people to buy their third or fourth car to park beside their Escalade, for a 1.2 per cent improvement in our atmosphere?

Hey, I’ve got grandchildren. I want a cleaner atmosphere as much as or more than anybody. Is this the best bang-for-the-buck we can get? Not even close.

The low-hanging fruit is in areas like concrete production, which by some credible estimates is responsible for 30 per cent of CO2 emissions.

How ridiculous then is it that Quebec, which does have hydro power to spare, is giving $8,600 to those rich folks for their electric playtoy, while also giving a $2-billion grant to build a concrete plant in the Gaspe (Quebec) where there is zero demand for concrete? Like I said, politicians and facts.

Even in the realm of transportation, if we were to use those billions of taxpayer dollars to build roundabouts at every conceivable location, instantly we’d save way more fuel and reduce pollution faster than electric cars ever could. And, save thousands of lives and billions of dollars on hospital and car repair bills at the same time.

So, the facts are that battery-powered cars’ impact on our atmosphere is effectively a non-issue.

There are other environmental facts to consider. Where do the batteries come from? Most car batteries today and in the foreseeable future are based on such benign elements as nickel and lithium.

Much of our nickel still comes from the Sudbury region, where it is mined using Diesel-powered equipment. It is shipped by Diesel-powered trains to the west coast, loaded onto bunker-C-fuelled tankers, and shipped to China, where it is loaded back on to Diesel-powered trains and sent to the battery factories.

The finished batteries go back onto Diesel-powered trains to China’s east coast, are loaded onto bunker-C-fuelled tankers and shipped back to North America, where they once again are loaded onto Diesel-powered trains and shipped to the car assembly plants. So, that’s nice and clean.

Lithium? Hello, Galaxy Note 7 …

We’ve had a lot of fun over the last few decades with OPEC — the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. Wait ’til they form OLEC — the Organization of Lithium Exporting Countries, which if it existed would currently consist of Bolivia and China, with Russia applying for membership. Oh, goody — let’s stake our future on those bastions of freedom and liberal democracy.

The next environmental issue we will have to deal with is when a car’s battery is done, what do we do with it? In the Bolt for example, that’s 450 kilograms of toxic sludge.

There are lots of opinions on how long electric car batteries will last, but nobody knows for sure because they haven’t been around long enough.

The company with the most experience is Toyota with their hybrids. They say essentially that the battery lasts ‘the life of the car,’ which is another way of saying ‘when the battery is done, so is the car.’ That’s not quite true, because there are many instances of Priuses getting new batteries.

The lifespan and the warranty seem to be in the 10-year/320,000-km region, again less than my VWs have gone, and the replacement cost is in the low thousands of dollars. So, for a car that old, not likely to be a viable option, although for young year-wise but high-mileage applications like taxis, it might work.

And that’s for a hybrid, where the battery doesn’t do all the heavy lifting. In a pure electric, who knows?

We do know that battery lifespan depends on how many charge cycles it goes through, and at what temperature.

All pure battery-electric cars are set up so they never charge fully nor discharge fully, because either extreme shortens battery life considerably.

Again, Chevrolet’s Bolt EV offers a clue as to lifespan, with an eight-year, 160,000-km warranty on its battery.

To me, that doesn’t seem very long, mileage-wise especially, but that’s all they’re going to cover you for. After that, you’re on your own.

But the larger problem for society — what happens to all those toxic chemicals when the battery IS done?

We know how to recycle every milligram of a conventional car, and presumably somebody will come up with solutions and facilities for batteries, too. But we don’t have them yet, certainly not in the volume we’re going to need if electrics do become a big part of our fleet. Which they won’t; jus’ sayin’ …

Another topic electric car fans don’t seem to want to talk about — where is the electricity going to come from? Do you have any idea how much petroleum is burned by our transportation fleet daily? It’s got to be in the hundreds of thousands of barrels.

Yet, I remind you it still only contributes 12 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions. Where is that much ‘replacement’ electricity going to come from? Nuclear is the cleanest option. But after Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, how many new reactors are going to be built in your back yard? And electricity doesn’t travel well, so they would have to be near population centres.

B.C., Quebec and a few other places in North America have cheap hydro power. How many more multi-thousand hectare tracts of most likely aboriginal land are going to be flooded to build more of those?

People driving Teslas today probably have a house big enough and are wealthy enough to install solar panels on their roofs. What about the huge percentage of Canadians who live in apartment buildings? Where are their solar panels going to go?

There will never be enough windmills to make up the difference. And even if we do generate that electricity, how do we get it to the people?

A few Christmases ago, we found out how robust Toronto’s electricity distribution infrastructure is; an ice storm shut the city down for a week.

Let’s plug 500,000 cars into that every night and see what happens. The city burns to the ground, is what happens.

What’s more, and as previously noted, an electric cars business model depends on governments bribing potential customers with your and my tax dollars. That’s $14,000 in Ontario, which I think is the highest bribe in North America, mostly going to wealthy people who can afford any car they want? For, as noted above, approximately zero societal benefit? Why isn’t there rioting in the streets? Not to mention encouraging electric car purchase with these bribes, then having amongst the highest electricity prices anywhere? Better reread Adam Smith, Premier Wynne.

Listen, if you want to spend your own money buying an electric car and pretend you are saving the planet, fill yer boots. Likewise, if you want to spend your own money buying a Porsche and pretend you’re driving on the Nurburgring on your way to work. Just don’t expect me to be happy with the government using my taxes to help you fulfil either fantasy. When any battery-powered car can compete on a level playing field without tax-funded bribes, give me a call.

So, as it stands, battery-powered electric cars have zero chance of ever becoming more than small fraction of our fleet. For urban delivery vehicles which have predetermined routes and which can plugged in easily overnight, sure. Car-sharing services? Maybe. Both, of course, remain limited by how much electricity can be delivered safely and economically to their charging stations.

Dieter Zetsche, head of Daimler Benz, said recently that he sees Mercedes-Benz eventually becoming as much as 25 per cent electric. Last time I looked, when the score in a basketball game was 75-25, the team with 25 was losing big time.

Like I said, at best, battery-powered electric cars will never be but a small percentage of our fleet.

Now, there is a technological solution that will achieve the environmental, transportation and economic goals we all share.

It’s hydrogen fuel cells. That’s a topic for another day.

But the technology and the infrastructure are both closer than most people think. It’s the only feasible long-term solution.

And the more time and resources we waste on stopgap short-circuits like battery-powered electric cars, the farther we are from achieving those goals.

Can’t we just get on with it?

Good read. Thanks for posting.

Other than his dig on Trump I would have to agree with him. And do not even get me started on government subsidies.

Randy Goodling
CCOA #95

Yes, the problem to overcome is the energy source. Until we have a replacement source that holds the same amount of energy as a gallon of gas and is portable and compacted. We will continue to use petroleum.

Those electric cars are actually worse for the environment but let’s not quibble with the tree huggers.

Good read. I had a Tesla for a couple years. Wonderful car. But you can’t deny his logic.
So… Hydrogen?

Hydrogen is an incredibly expensive way to use coal (in the form of electricity) and natural gas (used to turn massive amounts of electricity into a tiny amount of hydrogen). It essentially triples the operating expense with 100 times the hassle and is much more dangerous than any other form of vehicular power. So it fails on multiple levels, making it perfect for pouring billions of your hard earned dollars into.

Good read, like many other articles similar to it that I’ve read before. Quite the ‘house of cards’ the ever increasing industrialized world has been, is, and perhaps always will be. Could just let AI take over and we will all be living in the Matrix :wink: (solves the battery problem)
As to the Hydrogen note…it has it’s merits, but there isn’t any one thing that can be the answer.
A number of years back I built my woodgas powered truck. That works to, and don’t let the word “wood” hinder your perception of it. Burnable gas can be produced through all kinds of feedstock, (crop residue, septic waste, wood) and the list goes on. Anything that is carbon based can work, Wayne Keith down in Alabama who has driven his Dodge Dakotas thousands of miles on wood has proved with the help of Auburn that all of the above will work. Can even get a few miles out of a dead cat he says.
Anyway, my point is, I learned it’s not an easy process, can be dangerous, and can add to operating expenses. It’s basically the same as hydrogen, adding in a little methane, and Carbon monoxide. Also learned it’s not ‘stand alone’ as the fuel production for the process still needs to come from somewhere involving who knows how many other forms of energy production.
Maybe I am an idiot, but if you really want to get me going environmental impacts and on global warming…how come no one ever brings up how many microwaves we are shooting around our atmosphere for all our tech stuff (which I utilize also). Let’s see my cup of coffee in my microwave for 1 minute does what??? How many flocks of birds have been recorded just falling out of the sky and no one knows why. Bee’s communication have been altered, etc.
I have heard a older German doctor bring it up once in a webinar my wife was listening to on Lyme Disease something that she has been actively naturally getting her self better from.
I’ll stop now :slight_smile:

All we need to do is to combine carbon from the CO2 output of power plants with hydrogen obtained from waste water (sewage treatment plant effluent) to create synthetic hydrocarbons. To power the whole thing we can use off peak negatively priced electricity. In the process we create fuel of higher value than electricity. Think of it as storing grapes as wine. Wine is worth more than grapes. We are currently energy hunter-gatherers. When we start making our own fuel we become energy farmers.

From a business stand point the cost of raw materials is mostly less than $0. They will pay you to sequester carbon from CO2, and of course the electricity is also negatively priced. Even the treated effluent is the cheapest water source and it solves the problem of pharmaceutical contamination.

Once you have hydrogen and carbon you can easily, using currently available technology, make any hydrocarbon from CH4 (methane) to long chains like C8H18 iso-octane also know as gasoline. These fuels burn incredibly cleanly since there is no residual sulfur or other contaminants found in petroleum derived fuels.

On day one you have about 3 billion vehicles that can use the fuel and a distribution system already in place to deliver it.

On a related subject, yesterday I was told of an acquaintance who decided to drive his 3 year old Tesla from San Antonio to Dallas. Starting with a full charge he still had to make two 2 hour stops to recharge. So a 4 hour trip became an 8 hour trip.

Don’t see why. We took our Tesla to Alabama and back (300 miles round trip) on one charge. Meaning… no stops.
I just checked and it’s less than that to Dallas from San Antonio. So no reason for them to have to stop at all.

Also. The super chargers take less than 40 minutes to charge up fully. And it’s free.

I goggled Tesla range and I get lots of stories like this one:

On Friday afternoon I jumped in our long-term 2013 Tesla Model S and headed home for the weekend. The car was fully charged and its instrument cluster told me it was packing 251 miles of range.

I never plugged it in over the weekend, and on Monday morning the Tesla and I arrived back at Edmunds HQ after 87.6 miles of driving. At this point the car’s instrument cluster was telling me it was packing only 65 miles of range, so my 88 miles of driving used 186 miles worth of battery range.

Hmmmmm. Admittedly I’m no hypermiler and all of the 88 miles were in the city, but at that rate the car’s true range is in the neighborhood of 120 miles.

Scott Oldham, Editor in Chief @ 1,901 miles

Yeah. I’m not saying they’re perfect. And mileage obviously does vary.
But we had 4 of us and it was a warm summer day. No radio. AC on the whole time.
We made it back with 2 miles to spare.

All highway. No traffic.

That was a good read, thanks for posting! How true that most don’t really think through the true impact of their choices. I liked the bit about how much diesel is burned in order to produce lithium batteries.

I like to think that my choice to keep driving and maintaining decades-old cars is a lot more environmentally friendly than buying something new. Never mind that I can’t afford it anyway :laughing:

^^THIS is the real solution. Why re-engineer cars and fueling methods when we have a perfectly capable tranportation and fuel system in place. We simply need to figure out how to deal with the waste products from our current system. The nice thing about this solution? It isn’t biased: it will utilize CO2 produced by anything, not just from cars.

I am always amazed at how little response I get when I spell this out. Is it that people don’t understand the concept, or am I just doing a poor job of explaining it?

XR7G428 Do you have any links or other information on the process and technology needed to produce these Synthetic Hydrocarbons? I would be interested in reading more about it. I assume initial start up cost would be extreme but the oil companies spend billions on new plants and upgrades every year so why not this? You could also sell the “Carbon Credits” for all the CO2 you recapture.

A good place to start is Green Freedom. This was developed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory. (Home of the Manhattan Project) Keep in mind that since Los Alamos is dedicated to developing nuclear applications they recommend using nuclear power. At the time it was written negative power pricing on the grid was very uncommon, typically only occurring in the pacific northwest from hydro over production.

What you really want to focus on here is the very highly efficient electrolysis process for breaking out the carbon that actually produces about a third of the hydrogen needed as a by product.

At the time they also envisioned stripping the CO2 out of the atmosphere. This made sense because the nuclear plants would not be located close to sources of concentrated CO2 like coal or gas fired power plants. Obtaining the CO2 from a concentrated source reduces the cost tremendously. You have to process more than a million cubic feet of air to obtain something less than 350 cubic feet of CO2. Before catalytic treatment, the exhaust from a coil oil or gas fired plant contains a high concentration of CO which is actually easier to use than CO2.

Co-locating a fuel plant next to an existing power plant makes great sense as the grid and water supplies are already on site. It may also make sense to use water (the other main component of power plant exhaust) in the process. This would also provide reduction in sulfur being released to the atmosphere.
GreenFreedom.pdf (1.8 MB)

Dr. F. David Doty developed several patents that apply to the reforming processes needed to drive the process. His company Doty Energy does a very good job of explaining the process.


Dr. Doty has been primarily focused on licensing his patents which creates a chicken and egg problem. The patents don’t really have value until they are being used in production. Production can’t begin with out the license. He is not a young man so his horizon comes into play.

The one thing that really hits home is this quote:

“There is sufficient potential off-peak wind energy and point-source CO2 in the U.S. to make twice as much liquid fuels as we currently consume, while also meeting our other energy needs.”

Thanks, i’ll check out both sites. I’m familiar with some of the other work at Los Alamo.