Electric Vehicles, a Tailored Myth Towards a Dark Future

dark future

Background

In this article I will walk you in to the future of electric vehicle (and energy to some extend) from now to 2050! Bummer! it is gonna be a bit scary!

Disclaimer: This article does not deny the fact that EVs in general do reduce CO2 emission. The purpose of this article is to show that the reduction may not be as enormous as it is advertised and fed to people’s minds (referring to claims such as zero emission) , as nothing is just black and white, and that there are lucrative businesses aligned with this goal (which is not a bad thing by itself but requires awareness) , and this, comes with a tangible cost! So lets dig in!

Abbreviation list

EV: Electric Vehicle, in this article we specifically refer EV to BEV, Battery [powered] Electric Vehicle

PHEV: Plug in Hybrid Electric Vehicle

LCA: Life Cycle Assessment

ICE : Internal Combustion Engine

REE: Rare Earth Element

Pros and cons of an EV

Lets be clear that there are several benefits with EVs. The list below is just some of the benefits

  1. Very robust and cheap to maintain due to much simpler, lighter motor
  2. Very good torque at low speeds. Electric motors can provide constant torque at low speed which leads to insane acceleration. It is important to understand that McLaren P1 is not hybrid because of environment, but because of acceleration. This can be even said about Volvo XC90 (and all other heavy SUVs). A 2.5-3 tone SUV is already contradictory of being environment friendly even though it is advertised as “environmental friendly”
  3. relatively cheaper fuel in countries with high taxes on petrol

And then it comes the cons:

  1. Expensive
  2. Low range (a Sedan can reach 700 to 1200 Km in one tank, compare it to maximum range of 550km for TESLA model S (longest amongst available EVs)
  3. Unreliable battery capacity on low temperatures, especially important in countries like Norway!
  4. And probably most importantly, charging time, or waiting time per km. Even super fast chargers with ratings such as 150 kWh, (which by the way are very rare in 2020) it takes 40 minutes at best to charge a TESLA model S. 40 minutes for 550 km range VS. 3 minutes for 900km!
  5. Not enough charging station distribution compared to bensin and diesel.

To put number 4 to a fun perspective, with usual single phase home chargers of 4 kwh, it takes one hour to charge your vehicle to drive 20km! Ironically you could take your bike and cycle this 20km during that hour (we will read later that 1kwh charge of an EV in reality gives you 5 km range!) Eventually meaning that with normal home chargers the speed of an EV is not faster than a bike!!!

As you can see, there are many personal reasons to love or hate EVs ! It for example depends how or where you commute, do you have a house where you can charge easily, or do you need to travel long distances. This article does not go further in to pros and cons of EVs for personal reasons, but targets their impact on environment, economy and development.

Is production of EV completely green?

The simple answer is “َAbsolutnly not”!

If you compare the emission of one unit of EV with one unit of ICE vehicle at the tailpipe, EV produces far less CO2 emission (or 0!), however there are few more types of pollution involved in production of each and every unit of EV car, unique to EVs:

  1. Water pollution: One of the side effects of lithium mining is water pollution: the process of mining can affect local water supplies, potentially poisoning communities. Yet chemical leakage is also a major concern when it comes to lithium mining. The lithium carbonate extraction process harms the soil, and can cause air pollution.1 https://lithiumcongress.com/lithium-mining-for-green-electric-cars-is-leaving-a-stain-on-the-planet/#:~:text=One%20of%20the%20side%20effects,and%20can%20cause%20air%20pollution
  2. Rare Earth Element (REE) mining, namely Neodymium, terbium and dysprosium which are used to produce permanent magnet, the heart of each and any EV engine. Mining of REE requires complex and less environmental friendly methods. 2https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/aug/07/china-rare-earth-village-pollution

These are unique to EVs, usual ICE vehicles do not have these pollutions in process of production.

What about pollution of EVs at point of use?

Electricity is 100% clean of any pollutants at the point of use, meaning that electric cars have no tailpipe and emit 0 grams of carbon and 0 grams of any other sort of pollutant.

Even though CO2 emission of an EV at tailpipe is zero, if we look at the whole cycle the generation of electricity that charges the batteries of EVs is not necessarily green.

In order to answer this question we have to find out how the electricity is generated. The steam and coal power generations are the dominant power plants in almost all countries. This is of course changing by introduction of renewable energies such as wind and solar, and the generations are becoming more distributed and localized. This itself is a huge challenge for the future network but we do not talk about it here.

How EV impacts electricity shape in advanced countries

Introduction of EVs, depending on the infrastructure of a country, can cause a huge load to the grid, and can lead to unbalance between generation and consumption. To illustrate it more, lets give a simple example. Charging a small EV with only 30 kwh battery ( Nissan Leaf for example) is equivalent to two 1.5 kW vacuum cleaners working none stop for 10 hours. Now imagine that 2 out of 5 neighbours charge their vehicles in the whole country! That is a possible scenario for Germany. It is forecasted that by 2050, 40% of vehicles will be electric in Germany. This is equivalent to 20 GW power. Interesting enough, being fourth strongest economy and one of the most advanced and industrialised countries in terms of electricity, production and technology, this only means 5% more demand. But the distribution of the consumption is the real challenge, where most cars will want to charge the cars in the evening. Researches show peak loads increasing by about 23%. 3https://www.researchgate.net/publication/282631985_The_shape_of_future_electricity_demand_Exploring_load_curves_in_2050s_Germany_and_Britain
Then it comes this question. How to save energy in off peak and use it in peak? One answer is to use battery storage stations as part of ancillary services. This in turn means much more battery pollution and battery recycling challenges. Another possible solution is by developing smart electricity pricing under smart grids scheme. Depending on the demand the price of electricity is adjusted in minute basis. This in turn only limits the end user and put them in economic pressure. We discuss this a bit later here and in detail in another article.

Now lets go to Sweden, another advanced country, but this time electrification means something else. It is forecasted that by 2050 the electric demand can rise up to 200 TWh (from around 150 TWh today). The major contributer to this steep increase is the electrification, and this gap is not going to be filled by wind and solar plant 4https://www.iva.se/globalassets/rapporter/vagval-el/201705-iva-vagvalel-framtidens-elproduktion-english-c.pdf, simply because the most optimistic potential production for wind and solar is far less than the gap (and the hydro is almost at its full potential too). Additionally, the fear that green parties induce about the nuclear technology hinders any further development there. Actually, there are plans to shut down more and more nuclear power plants in near future. The only hope left is on biofuels, which based on some, should not be considered as renewable energy at all. 5http://www.globalbioenergy.org/uploads/media/0710_Ortega_et_al_-_Are_biofuels_renewable_energy_sources.pdf

TIPS: For those who are looking for investment in Nordic, biofuel companies are the go! That is because many politicians have some shares in biofuel companies!! An example is “Maria Wetterstrand” a former spokesman of green party in parliament,  who led the government’s investigation into biofuel , while she was also a board member and major shareholder of a company that is developing biofuel, Cortus Energy. The investigation proposed mandatory biofuel inclusion in all flights to/from Sweden. 6https://www.nyteknik.se/miljo/utredde-bioflygbransle-nu-anklagas-maria-wetterstrand-for-jav-6950567

Effect of EV on developing countries

The above examples and challenges are related to advanced countries. The situation is far worse, and thus much simpler to understand in developing countries. For these countries, penetration of so many electric cars requires extensive planning and investment starting today. Then it comes economy. A coal power generation is the cheap option, which is usually the way to go for underdeveloped countries. Figure 1 clearly shows the real CO2 emission of an electric car for 1 km driving.

Fig. 1 Electric cars’ carbon emissions can be three times greater in places with coal dominated generation than in those with low carbon power Courtesy to  shrinkthatfootprint.com 

As a reference for comparison, a Kia Ceed 1.6 produces 119g CO2 per km, and Ford Focus 1.5 (2017) emits only 99g CO2 per km. It is not any more like 60s or 70s. The efficiency of petrol engines have been improved drastically and the exhaust catalyst filters get better and better. We should think about this evolution before judging too soon about their pollution in future.

Of course, to be fair, we should also consider the amount of CO2 emitted to produce and transport a petrol per litre, a data that the author does not have. So we need to do the calculation in another way.

Please note that in figure 1, 60 to 65 g of CO2 emission is related to EV manufacturing. It also includes grid losses. In order to have a more comparable results , we need to take away the manufacturing emission and emissions related to losses, so lets run a simple math!

(1) Based on 7https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=74&t=11#:~:text=In%202018%2C%20total%20U.S.%20electricity,of%20CO2%20emissions%20per%20kWh. ” In 2018, total U.S. electricity generation by the electric power industry of 4.17 trillion kilowatthours (kWh) from all energy sources resulted in the emission of 1.87 billion metric tons—2.06 billion short tons—of carbon dioxide (CO2). This equaled about 0.450 kg of CO2 emissions per kWh “

(2) It is generally a good and close to reality assumption that each kwh can take you 4.5 to 6 km. It of course depends on the weight, temperature, driving pasterns, technology, and most importantly, battery age. The older the battery, the higher internal resistance and higher losses, which means that the range of EV diminishes over time. So lets assume 1kwh= 5km range for a 5 year old battery (if we assume that average age a battery is 10 years).

From (1) and (2) we can see that in USA, in 2018, for each kilometer driven by an EV, 90 g CO2 was emitted. This is not far less than petrol Ford focus emission (99 g per km).

Figure 2. caricature from nebrod018 https://en.1jux.net/598475

So we can see that in countries with high power generation emission the priority should be towards investments on greener energy sectors. From coal to more expensive but greener gas turbines, solar (most of these countries, ironically, are located in sunshine latitudes!) , wind, biofuel, and most effectively, hydro power plants if possible. There is really little to no help using EVs in those countries before improving power generation emission.

A Dark Future

Hopefully by now, the readers have realized that the article does not criticise the electrification by itself. Electrification is the way to future. But as the technology is not yet matured enough when it comes to battery or hydrogen energy storage, it should not be pushed too soon and too fast. The main issue arises with the combination of increased demand due to electrification, and loss of reliable energy generations to wind and solar. That is why the complexity and dynamics of the problems a head cannot only be seen from EVs point of view. The problem should be seen from all perspectives. The table below shows challenges and solutions. From author’s point of view the weight of challenges are far heavier than the possible solutions.

ChallengesSolutions
1. Huge increase in electricity demand
a) due to electrification (i.e. heating)
b) due to electric vehicle penetration
1. high efficient motors
2. More unreliable power generation
such as solar and wind
2. biofuel
3. Decommissioning nuclear (i.e. in Germany, Sweden, etc) 3. Steep Increase in electricity price
4. Decarbonisation of generation by CO2 Pricing4. a)Move towards renewables >>leads to challenge 2
b) Move towards gas power generation (if available)
5. Decarbonisation of industries by CO2 Pricing electrification >> leads to challenge 1

From above, we can see that depending on the industry size and its capabilities, advanced countries will face complex problems with electrification of the transportation. The solution they take to tackle these problems requires fundamental changes to infrastructure in the next 30 years. Add that to the fact that wind and solar energy are unpredictable and you will face a grid with serious stability challenges. In such conditions furious minute-base electric prices under smart grid schemes will be introduced. This will put more pressure and stress to end customers pocket in addition to higher taxes needed for major infrastructure change. The increase in electricity price (either due to carbon pricing, or market demand, or both) has an avalanche effect and it reflects back again as increased price for all electro- intensive industries which will be felt by end customers as increased price in all sectors. A study shows that just introducing new CO2 pricing under EU ETS can lead to cost price increase of up to 5% in the fertilizer industry , and up to 35% in Iron and steel industry 8https://www.cedelft.eu/en/publications/2232/effects-of-co2-pricing-in-industry-co2-cuts-cost-price-increases-and-carbon-leakage

I will write about above in more details in future.

But what to do

Global warming is not a hoax, and the role of human in that is not deniable. It is also not deniable that some part of this is due to human activity, namely CO2 emission which results in green house effect, further increasing earth temperature in cycle. The challenges ahead require fundamental change in our way of thinking and life pattern, most importantly not to fall in to simple solution proposals for complex problems.

Psychological Changes

From above, the need for change is obvious. The consumerism is a big reason to global warming. If we change our life style just a bit towards consuming less, without being paranoid, it will have a huge effect on CO2 reduction. This is especially true for U.S. where consumerism is even a merit . When it comes to vehicle industry, this means not to change our car every second year for example or not buying huge SUVs if we do not need to, and try to use public transport or bikes if we can.
Additionally, governments can have a big impact on this by right CO2 taxation.

Technological directions

Instead of forcing citizens to buy electric vehicles, something that is happening in EU Europe by taxations, parking privileges, driving zone, it is more important to focus on these technologies meanwhile the EV technology is getting more mature:

  1. Heavier investment in nuclear fusion technology
  2. Maintain, expand and improve nuclear fission power plants
  3. Heavier investment in nuclear batteries instead of batteries for smaller sectors. An example can be Kilopower reactor project by NASA *
  4. Encourage local generation of electricity by wind and solar, but prevent decentralisation of electricity production**
  5. Closing down coal generations, and replacing them with gas if possible
  6. Using HVDC lines to transmit energy from less pollutant sources far away, like hydro. Something that is happening in China, Brazil and India
  7. Use of hybrid cars ***

* Nuclear batteries have been around for many years, i.e. in submarines and war ships. They can provide years of operation without any charge, albeit with less energy density /kg compared to Li batteries. They can be quite safe, but the fears left from Chernobyl and other nuclear disasters have been toys in to hand of green movements to scare people away from this technology.

** With introduction of sustainables, and more uneven load shapes due to electrification from one region to another, it is necessary that transmission lines are capable for the task.

*** A hybrid car usually utilizes both electric engine and a small battery and ICE. This combination gives the best of two worlds, without affecting the comfort. One great feature a hybrid car has is the brake regeneration, returning the energy of the brake back to battery, saving a lot of energy in cities and improving CO2 and petrol economy.

The awareness is the first step which comes with the knowledge. I hope that this article can trigger some to read and to think critically.

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