Electric cars not so green after all?

posted at 2:50 pm on June 13, 2011 by Ed Morrissey

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column for The Week in which I questioned the notion of electric cars being a green option.  My arguments got swift rebuttals from backers of electric cars, but a new study produced in partnership between the British government and the car industry shows just how correct I was.  Not only do electric vehicles produce just as much carbon in their overall cycle as internal-combustion engines, the need to replace the batteries actually makes the less green than current technology (via Jeff Dunetz):

ELECTRIC cars could produce higher emissions over their lifetimes than petrol equivalents because of the energy consumed in making their batteries, a study has found.

An electric car owner would have to drive at least 129,000km before producing a net saving in CO2. Many electric cars will not travel that far in their lifetime because they typically have a range of less than 145km on a single charge and are unsuitable for long trips. Even those driven 160,000km would save only about a tonne of CO2 over their lifetimes. …

The study was commissioned by the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, which is jointly funded by the British government and the car industry. It found that a mid-size electric car would produce 23.1 tonnes of CO2 over its lifetime, compared with 24 tonnes for a similar petrol car. Emissions from manufacturing electric cars are at least 50 per cent higher because batteries are made from materials such as lithium, copper and refined silicon, which require much energy to be processed.

Many electric cars are expected to need a replacement battery after a few years. Once the emissions from producing the second battery are added in, the total CO2 from producing an electric car rises to 12.6 tonnes, compared with 5.6 tonnes for a petrol car. Disposal also produces double the emissions because of the energy consumed in recovering and recycling metals in the battery. The study also took into account carbon emitted to generate the grid electricity consumed.

Battery manufacturing is an energy-intensive process, as is recycling and reclamation.  Normal cars use batteries, of course, but only one per car rather than a bank of batteries.  Moving to all-electric vehicles would mean an explosion of manufacturing, recycling, and disposal, none of which the US or the UK are prepared to handle.

As I also noted two weeks ago, that’s not the only “green” concern in the battery cycle:

Where do we plan to put all of the dead batteries that will necessarily have to be discarded? Some (but not all) components can be recycled, and those elements which must be disposed are not terribly eco-friendly, depending on the kind of batteries made. Lithium ion seems to be the direction most car manufacturers are heading, which poses fewer disposal risks to the environment — but still poses risks in mining and manufacturing, especially to groundwater.

Lithium also poses another blow to the argument for the electric car — its domestic availability. Eighty-five percent of the known reserves are inBolivia, Chile, and China, and lithium is not the only element needed for large-scale production of car battery systems. Large flake graphite is also needed, and China controls 80 percent of the market, along with other “rare earth” elements. Far from ending our dependence on foreign resources, we will merely exchange our dependence from the Middle East to China, which is not exactly an encouraging thought for our future.

Even if we did have these elements in abundance, we would need to mine and drill for them. Those are precisely the activities that environmentalists and short-sighted government policies have been blocking for decades in coal, oil, shale, and natural gas. Besides, “peak lithium” may arrive long before “peak oil,” as the Argonne National Laboratory estimates that we only have enough lithium available to manufacture car batteries through 2050 — less than 40 years from now. A lithium “crunch” could occur by 2017 — which also hardly lends confidence to the reliability of the electric car as a long-term solution.

We would have to do extensive mining somewhere to get the materials necessary to manufacture the batteries, most likely overseas, which makes us more dependent on foreign energy, not less so.  Instead of putting us even further at the mercy of foreign countries for our transportation and energy needs, why not just convert to natural gas?  The technology for natural-gas vehicles has been around for decades, and it burns cleanly while giving drivers a normal range for their cars.  Natural gas is an abundant resource in the US, which would require less work to extract than the metals needed for a massive expansion of battery manufacturing, and would make the US much more self-reliant for energy.  It also requires much less effort to transform into consumer-ready energy than either lithium (which still requires electrical charging and recharging) or gasoline, which requires heavy refining, with its own environmental issues.

If we want the most “green” solution for mass-produced energy in personal transportation, the answer is natural gas, not electric vehicles.  That wouldn’t need overwhelming federal subsidies for decades to give the illusion of competitiveness, either.

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Comment pages: 1 2

The problem we have is that instead of pointing and laughing hysterically the very first time some dim-witted, eco-confused malcontent started whining about the internal-combustion engine (or paper vs. plastic, or freon, or smoking, or leaded gas, or the incandescent bulb,) we committed the cardinal sin of actually smiling politely and listening to their concerns.

All societies have had to put up with such people; we were just the ones stupid enough to give their howls and screeds the validity of listening with a straight face.

CaptFlood on June 13, 2011 at 4:41 PM

Compressed Natural Gas.
Cleaner than gasoline.
No Taxes. (currently)
Easy to modify existing cars to run on gasoline and CNG (~$350).

Many homes and businesses already have Natural Gas at that location. (Requires compressor to fill-up at home, but Gasoline stations could easily purchase pumps.)
Slightly lower power than regular gasoline.

barnone on June 13, 2011 at 3:24 PM

Where did you find that information. All the places I could find were Natural gas only and cost over 3,000. And because of regulations only a few select vehicles were authorized. (I live in an area where the car needs to pass emissions) I know the technology is out for gas/natural gas dual fuel because they use it extensively in some other countries but here it is regulated out of being cost savings.

Corsair on June 13, 2011 at 4:42 PM

I’m sure someone in this thread has pointed this out already, but if an electric car gets its electricity from a coal-burning plant, how green is that?

itsnotaboutme on June 13, 2011 at 4:52 PM

And I still hold that “nudging” the gas tax higher by $5 won’t get people into one of those turkeys. Instead, people will buy a Prius or a Honda Civic.

teke184 on June 13, 2011 at 3:20 PM

I agree that people will buy Hondas and Toyotas over most American cars. And I am not a big fan of General Motors anymore. However, I don’t think that the Volt is a crappy car, its just too expensive. My good friend and neighbor just bought one and he loves it. Over the past two months of commuting between his house, work and his mother’s home, he has used just over ONE gallon of gas. He used to use 12 – 15 gallons PER WEEK driving his Honda Odyssey. Granted his commute profile fits the Volt’s performance envelope, but still that’s a great savings, lets do the math:

15 gal x 52 weeks = 780 gals x $4.00/gal = $3120/year savings x 10 years = $31,200 over the life of the car. His electric bill has gone up about $15/month. So, his monthly savings is $3120 – 180 (electricity cost)- 24 (gasoline costs) for a total savings of about $29000 over the 10 year life of vehicle. Over the 10 year life of the car given the current gas prices, the Volt will cost him about $11000 after sales tax. Not too bad. Granted he has down sized his car a little.

So if you happen to have a commute that fits the profile, its not a horrible deal. Of course, that deal is thanks to “We the People”.

But lets think about this, his cash went to a US company to purchase the car; he never would have purchased an American car! And now most of his transportation outlay will stay within our boarders. This helps our trade deficit, national security, and domestic economy.

Here’s a great link if anyone is interest about the cost analysis of owning a Volt in California.

JeffVader on June 13, 2011 at 4:53 PM

My solution:

1) Drill Here, Drill Now
2) Ride a motorcycle. You can multiply your mileage many times over, vs. driving a 4-wheeled cage, when you don’t need all the seating and/or cargo capacity.

UltimateBob on June 13, 2011 at 4:55 PM

Darn, do I have to get rid of my electric bicycle now? And anyway, I thought the electricity came from green organic volt weeds, not from coal powered plants.

Dhuka on June 13, 2011 at 5:01 PM

Construction and engineering costs absolutely affect cost estimates for production. Those costs need to be amortized and included.

Of course but right now the very best that can be done is a wild guess estimate. Like I said no one’s built one in decades. Besides that the ones operating today were built on a cost plus basis and that ain’t gonna happen again.

Operation costs will not be affected all that much.

How much of your operations cost more than they need to because of speciality regulatory requirements?

If by specialty you mean site specific regulations, then it’s almost none. If you mean industry specific then it’s all of them. The requirements for operators is pretty much the same at any plant in the US, BWR or PWR. You won’t ever get away from that either. Operator requirements are stringent and demanding as is the training. They are compensated very well for that too. You’re always going to need enough operators to staff several shifts and cover for things like illness, vacations, training etc. I don’t see a big change there even with standardized plants.

Depending on the design there may be some savings in the maintenance area since there will, supposedly, be fewer pumps and valves.

How much more expensive is maintenance than it needs to be because of specialty regulatory requirements?

Again if you mean site specific then almost none and if you mean industry specific then almost all of it.

But we have a saying things that work in theory don’t work at (insert name of power plant here).

I certainly agree with this, but you’ll need to explain the lack of savings more to me. Just imagine how expensive it would be to maintain the Navy’s sub fleet if every submarine had a different reactor/propulsion plant design.

Apples and oranges. First let me tell you that on a Mw per Mw basis the Navy’s plants cost a lot more to build, operate and maintain than civilian plants. Navy plants have to be standardized because they all go into the same kind of site. They didn’t start out that way. Check out S1W, D1G, A1W,S3G,S5W,S5G check into the Triton’s plant, look up the first Seawolf plant. In the end they went with a more or less standardized design. Naval personnel move from ship to ship with some regularity. Even so they have to requalify evey time they change ships even if they come back to a ship that they’ve previously qualified on. The standardization of their plants makes this simpler. In the civilian world most operators qualify on one plant and then stay there for a long time. Your license is not good on another plant. You must go through the entire licensing process again if you change plants and it will take just as long as it did the first time even with a standardized design. My plant had two units they were, for all intents and purposes identical…except that there were enough differences due to upgrades, uprates and design changes that the NRC would not let the initial licensees on unit 1 operate unit 2 until they had gone through upgraded training and took an NRC monitored differences exam.

blink on June 13, 2011 at 4:37 PM

Oldnuke on June 13, 2011 at 5:02 PM

Is this an average of all nuclear power in the country? I doubt it’s the same for every plant every year. So how is this not a managerial accounting estimate?

blink on June 13, 2011 at 4:40 PM

No, that was a specific cost at a specific time for all two of our nuclear units, the units for the plant that I worked at. It was not an industry average. At the time we were the most cost efficient nuclear producer in the nation. That’s changed over time and I think everybody’s about even now. Cost per megawatt shouldn’t be an estimate, companies may keep it confidential but they know to the penny how much they spend to produce a watt.

Oldnuke on June 13, 2011 at 5:11 PM

ELECTRIC cars could produce higher emissions over their lifetimes than petrol equivalents because of the energy consumed in making their batteries, a study has found.

DUH! What a bunch of complete rejects, society is that they would not already know this, if their only goal was to somehow not be ‘dirty’ by NOT driving a gasoline vehicle.

It’s takes POWER, ENERGY, -JUICE- to run an electric car. You dont plug it in, and the power just magically appear in your electrical sockets. That power has to be generated by something unless you have a cord that reaches the SUN, or a small nuclear reactor in your garage.

If we all used electric cars, there would never be enough electricity to power them all!

tx2654 on June 13, 2011 at 5:18 PM

Duh

Saltysam on June 13, 2011 at 5:26 PM

From a previous post:

15 gal x 52 weeks = 780 gals x $4.00/gal = $3120/year savings x 10 years = $31,200

and

$180 + $24

.
… = $204 * 12 = $2048 yr * 10 years = $20,480
.
Let’s do some math:
.
$15,605 New baseline Honda Civic
$31,200 Fuel costs (10 years)
$46,805
.
$40,280 New Chevy Volt, base retail price (MSRP):
$20,480 Fuel costs (10 years)
$60,760
.
–> $13,955 10-year fuel savings by driving a Honda Civic instead of a Chevy Volt
.
… or about $1395.50 saved per year, by driving a Honda Civic.
.
Now add in the cost (perhaps $5000.00) to change the Volt’s battery pack, most likely at 5 years. Might have to do this twice in 10 years … I wonder if the Volt can be made to run without the battery, and what it will cost to do so … ouch …
.
.
The extra $1395.00 per year to drive the Volt bothers me …
.
The looming battery change …. I can almost feel the mark …
.

Arbalest on June 13, 2011 at 5:29 PM

You never addressed this issue correctly. Would the Navy’s cost to build and operate nuclear reactors and propulsion plants be higher if every reactor and propulsion plant was different?

blink on June 13, 2011 at 5:26 PM

The Navy has different reactor designs just like the civilian reactors. They’re not all identical, not even close. Why do you think they had/have so many different prototypes?

Do you think that the new so called standardized designs will all be identical when built? About the only thing the new standardized reactor designs may, and I stress may, do is speed up the licensing process somewhat. That in itself would be a cost benefit but whether or not it will be a reality is completely unknown…since no one has actually done it yet. My old company seems to be running into just as many roadblocks now as they did back in the 70s, maybe more. One roadblock was GE’s total inability to deliver on their new super whammydyne standardized BWR design. Looks spiffy on paper and in theory but when it comes to putting their name on a contract seems they had some reservations.

Oldnuke on June 13, 2011 at 5:47 PM

I can see having these things in a major city (or if you just need it to zip around a small town now and again) and I think it would even be a good idea to have midtowns be all electric or natural gas as much as possible.

But, it takes energy just to get the raw materials (with chemical wastes formed in the meantime), then to manufacture them, then to transport them. Batteries weigh a lot, costing energy just to carry them around, have to be charged from an energy source of some kind from somewhere and contain non-ecofriendly chemicals.

These things have their place but are definitely not a panacea.

Dr. ZhivBlago on June 13, 2011 at 6:16 PM

…But lets think about this, his cash went to a US company to purchase the car; he never would have purchased an American car! And now most of his transportation outlay will stay within our boarders. This helps our trade deficit, national security, and domestic economy.

Here’s a great link if anyone is interest about the cost analysis of owning a Volt in California.

JeffVader on June 13, 2011 at 4:53 PM

That’s a load of BS. If you buy a Japanese car made in the USA without the labor of union goons, the only part of the outlay that leaves the USA is the portion of the profit that the manufacturer decides to take home.

The upside however is that none of that money goes to UAW goons to pass on to democratics and use it to continue the destruction of our country.

slickwillie2001 on June 13, 2011 at 6:27 PM

I know the navy has different reactor designs. I’m asking you how much more expensive it would be for the navy if every submarine had a different reactor.

blink on June 13, 2011 at 5:56 PM

No one can accurately answer a question like that not even if they had a ton of data. Too many variables, just like the estimate that your experts gave you. By the way was that estimate for the standardized BWR plant or the standardized PWR plant?

Oldnuke on June 13, 2011 at 6:59 PM

Your analysis is spot on, Ed. I’ve been preaching LNG for thirty years myself. And eagerly awaiting the next big breakthrough. There will be one. But we can’t plan our entire economy, national security, and mobility around what might happen and when. We must work with what we’ve got today, the tools at hand.

Once we get the Star Trek Teleporter out of R&D maybe the greenies and progressives will be happy. Until then, their unicorn whimsies aren’t getting anyone anywhere very fast.

Robert17 on June 13, 2011 at 7:28 PM

Shortage of lithium for batteries means the leftist will see price of lithium pills go up.

seven on June 13, 2011 at 7:36 PM

Robert17 on June 13, 2011 at 7:28 PM

Nah, the weenies (greenies) will keep that locked up in court cause it might scramble their atoms.

chemman on June 13, 2011 at 8:30 PM

“2) Ride a motorcycle.”
Not a bad idea if you live somewhere warm year round. But have you ever tried to ride in 3″ of snow or when the temp is 10 degrees outside(without wind-chill)? Or how about where people hate motorcycles and try to drive them off the road?(Long Island,NY comes to mind)

Don Carne on June 13, 2011 at 8:39 PM

Shortage of lithium for batteries means the leftist will see price of lithium pills go up.

seven on June 13, 2011 at 7:36 PM

No problem. They can just eat their old car batteries instead of paying to recycle them.

Oldnuke on June 13, 2011 at 8:43 PM

Fair enough, but you do agree that it would be much more expensive for the navy to manage their fleet if every submarine had a different reactor, right?

Of course. Expense is the biggest reason that our Navy no longer has any nuclear powered DLG(N)s or Cruisers.

Btw, I think a financial analyst could estimate this if they had a “ton of data.” It’s what financial analysts do.

Of course they could anyone can make an estimate on any thing. But if the estimate is made with insufficient or incorrect data then it’s a question of worth. That was my point. There is no way anyone could accurately estimate how much would be saved by standardized plants when the designs on those plants haven’t even been finalized yet, much less approved. The Federal licensing process hasn’t been finalized either and every state has different regulations and permits. That 33% you originally posted as possible savings could just as easily be replaced with 55%, 27%, 14 1/2% or -42% and be just as accurate.

By the way was that estimate for the standardized BWR plant or the standardized PWR plant?

I don’t know.

And neither did the people who gave you that 33% savings number.

blink on June 13, 2011 at 8:52 PM

Oldnuke on June 13, 2011 at 9:25 PM

F***in’ batteries, how do they work?

holygoat on June 13, 2011 at 11:08 PM

$180 + $24

.
… = $204 * 12 = $2048 yr * 10 years = $20,480
.

Those numbers above are for the full year….204/yr and 12/yr. Did you not read my post…..1 gal for ONE MONTH OF DRIVING. I doubled that number for my calculations…..

So it seems YOU need to redo YOUR math!

JeffVader on June 14, 2011 at 2:09 AM

ah … I mean I multiplied that 1 gal by 6 for 1 gal every 2 months, times $4.00 gal which equals $24/year.

JeffVader on June 14, 2011 at 2:12 AM

…..Honda Civic is more expensive than a Volt over 10 years…..

First let me again clarify, it is $204 per year for the gasoline and electricity to run the Volt. That is assuming his monthly averages hold steady going forward. It is $15/month electric bill increase and 0.5 gallons/month of gasoline.

So the 10 year fuel cost for the Volt is about $2040 TOTAL FOR ALL TEN YEARS!

Okay are we good?

40,280 New Chevy Volt, base retail price (MSRP):

This is true, however, like it or not, buyers do receive a $7500 tax credit. So that drops the price to about $32,780. (See GMs Volt price here )

So lets revisit your math:

$40,280 New Chevy Volt, base retail price (MSRP):
$20,480 Fuel costs (10 years)
$60,760

…but using the correct numbers…
$32780 for the Volt.
+$2040 for 10 years of fuel
=$34,820 TOTAL

LOOKS CHEAPER THAN YOUR $46,805 CIVIC

From your math:

$15,605 New baseline Honda Civic
$31,200 Fuel costs (10 years)
$46,805

Now add in the cost (perhaps $5000.00) to change the Volt’s battery pack, most likely at 5 years. Might have to do this twice in 10 years … I wonder if the Volt can be made to run without the battery, and what it will cost to do so … ouch …
.

Umm, I agree the battery is a risk, but it would be 8 years at the earliest, as that is when the standard warranty runs out. That said, the designed life expectancy of the battery is, according to GM, IS greater than the vehicle’s life expectancy. ( I know that does sound a little vague!)

Now, let me reiterate that I think it is better for the American economy that both the money for the vehicle and the money for the fuel stays here. It reduces our trade deficit, increases our tax base and keeps some jobs here.

Just my opinion.
.

JeffVader on June 14, 2011 at 2:42 AM

The looming battery change …. I can almost feel the mark …
.

Arbalest on June 13, 2011 at 5:29 PM

…AND…the looming prospect of a very expensive battery change will assure that the resale value of the VOLT and all Volt-like cars quickly plummets to zero before they are even 5 years old!!!

The lack of upgradability has also not been factored in. Safety problems, newer battery technologies, the prospect of regulations which affect battery disposal, and the lack of supporting infrastructure for aftermarket items, repairs, etc. will quickly make these government-designed toys very poor investments.

landlines on June 14, 2011 at 12:58 PM

First, let’s look at the $7500 tax credit; it’s money out of someone’s pocket.
.
$34,820
$ 7,500
$42,320 The minimum, intellectually honest cost of a Chevy Volt (and best case, a few hundred cheaper per year).
.
.
Next, the fuel cost:

“So, his monthly savings is $3120 – 180 (electricity cost)- 24 (gasoline costs)”

.
Emphasis mine
.
Your number certainly looks like a monthly number.
.
.
But let’s step back a sentence.

“His electric bill has gone up about $15/month”

.
This number, from the preceeding sentence, is identified as a monthly number. Anyone believe it?
.
Run your AC unit for a month, check the change in your electricity bill …
.
Admittedly, a home AC unit (1/2 hp … maybe 2hp?) runs for much more time than a car (50hp), but then factor in the POWER CONSUMPTION, specifically the power consummed by a 2hp ac unit compared to the power consumed to charge the battery in the Volt.
.
$15/month looks like a bullshit number. $180/month looks like a much more reasonable figure.
.
$60,760 looks like a much more accurate figure …
.

Arbalest on June 14, 2011 at 2:24 PM

Here’s another analysis:

8 year old Civic value: around $9000

8 year old Volt value: $0 because any buyer assumes they will have to buy a new battery.

If you keep your cars a long time, you get a lot of savings from 8 – 12 years provided you do basic maintenance. That will not be true for a Volt.

Over50 on June 14, 2011 at 6:09 PM

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