Electric Vehicles -- The Myths and the Reality

Electric vehicles (EVs) are again being touted as the "silver bullet" panacea solution to the problem to power America's transportation system.  Among the advantages claimed by EV proponents are home refueling, zero-emissions, quick acceleration, appealing body styles, no noise etc. Are these promises valid? If so, are they enough to propel the rapid growth of EVs in the US. Consider the following 10 claims about the economics, performance and other benefits of EVs and compare them to reality:


Myth 1:  Electric Vehicles are Zero Emissions

Reality:  It is true that, at the tailpipe, electric vehicles produce almost no emissions. But electric vehicles are NOT zero pollution vehicles - they are "elsewhere" pollution vehicles. The vehicles and electricity don't fall from the sky. Producing the vehicles, producing the electricity to power them and disposing of the batteries when they need to be replaced produce a substantial amount of pollution. A 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences found that, in terms of well-to-wheels, electric vehicles produce about 20 percent greater emission than conventional fuel vehicles in part because of the higher emission associated with their manufacturer and battery production (Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use). The American Chemical Society recently published a white paper titled "Environmental Implication of Electric Vehicles in China." Among the white paper's conclusions is that implementing an EV strategy in China will increase national CO2, SO2 and NOX emissions. Specifically, the paper states that EVs in China could double NOx emissions and increase SO2 emissions by 3-10 times because EVs will be plugging into a lump of coal for decades to come.

Myth 2:  Electricity Eventually Will Come From Renewables

Reality:  The key word here is "eventually" - and even that is more hope than reality. Currently, 48 percent of America's electricity is produced from coal.  Less than 10 percent comes from renewables (and 70 percent of that is dam-produced hydropower which is not expected to grow significantly). Unfortunately, for electric vehicle proponents, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that, by 2035, coal's percentage of the electricity production will drop by only � of 1 percent - to 47.5 percent.  Meanwhile, renewable are projected to remain below 15 percent. The majority of electricity to power electric vehicles will be derived from fossil fuels well into the 21st century.

Myth 3:  The Economics of EVs is Will Improve Greatly

Reality: This is unlikely.  Consider the following:


Current EV economics are dreadful. The culprit is the on-board electric batteries. For example, the Nissan Leaf, an electric car that will go on sale in the fall of 2010, is priced at $33,000. This basically is a $16,500 subcompact car that costs double that thanks to a battery estimated to cost $16,500. The eStar, an electric truck being developed by Navistar, will sell for $150,000 because it will tote a battery that costs at least $75,000.


Future vehicles costs will come down, but not nearly enough. Low cost batteries would revolutionize the economics of electric vehicles. Are lower cost batteries coming? Yes. Are low cost batteries coming? No. The US federal government has had an electric vehicle program since the Energy Research & Development Administration (the predecessor of the Department of Energy) was formed in 1975. The holy grail was a battery that was light, reliable, durable, quick charging and cheap. Untold billions of dollars have been spent over the past 35 years on lowering the cost of batteries by the U.S. government, private industry and foreign investments. In 2010, the US government alone committed $2.4 billion in stimulus funding to promote electric vehicles. Progress certainly has been made. However, in order for electric vehicles to be economically competitive with today's gasoline vehicle, the cost of the current (advanced) batteries must come down by at least 10 times. Ford Motor Company's Director of global electrification, Nancy Gioia, says that the current cost of around $850 per kilowatt hour of high tech battery storage needs to be $28 per kWh. And at $28 she says that is still "darn expensive." Toyota officials testified before Congress last year and stated that current cost of lithium ion batteries (the current hope of electric vehicle advocates) is "approximately $1200 per KWH for a complete pack including instrumentation and ventilation systems" and "efficiencies in scale alone will not create major cost reductions in the near term. Significant reductions in cost will require major technological breakthroughs." Could that happen tomorrow? Yes.  Is it probably? No.


The batteries must be replaced. Batteries won't last the life of the vehicles, so they must periodically be replaced. As mentioned, the current cost of the batteries on the new Nissan Leaf is $16,000. Even if battery cost can be halved in the next decade, that's still a capital cost of $8,000 each time the batteries must be replaced.


EVs owners won't drive enough. The fuel cost for EVs is quite low compared to conventional vehicles. So the more an EV owners drive, the more they save. The problem is that they won't be driven much per day. EVs have limited driving range before they must be re-charged for several hours. That lends itself to commuter cars - i.e., cars that are used to drive to work, park all day, and they then are driven home.  The average commute in the US is 29 miles (round trip). That means that these commuter-EV will travel under 8,000 miles per year. That's nowhere near enough to recover the added capital expense.


Myth 4:  The weight Penalty of EVs is Will Improve Greatly

Reality:  Probably not.  Batteries just don't hold enough energy. A lithium-ion battery, at its best, packs 110 watt-hours of energy per pound. Gasoline, on the other hand, has 6,000 watt-hours per pound. Now, a gasoline motor is inefficient, losing about 85 percent of the fuel's energy--losing it to the transmission, during idling and as waste heat. Electric motors waste just 10 percent. However, that still leaves gasoline with a 9-to-1 weight advantage. As discussed above, there has been decades of research done on batteries. Progress has been made, but it has been incremental

Myth 5:  The Driving Range of EVs is Will Improve Greatly

Reality:  Maybe, but not likely.  The driving range of electric vehicles is limited by how much electricity is stored on board which, in turn, is limited by the batteries. Driving range can be increase by adding batteries but, as discussed above, batteries are expensive and add weight. They also are big and bulky, which is a problem with small cars (which are all the EVs currently on the horizon). A second option is to increase the amount of energy stored per battery. However, as already has been discussed, the breakthrough needed hasn't been achieved d despite billions of dollars of research. An addition problem is accessories such as the heater, air conditioner, radio, etc. In a conventional vehicle, the energy demands from these accessories are not an issue.  For an EV, it is. In an EV, all these are powered by electricity from the batteries which reduces the amount of electricity needed to power the vehicle. The weather also affects EVs driving range. Batteries perform less than ideally in extreme hot and cold weather. For example, the advertised electricity driving range of the Chevy Volt is 40 MPG. In early 2010, GM's Bob Lutz said he only got 28 miles range on his Volt's battery when he drove it in the winter in Detroit. It is not surprising that EVs are mostly demonstrated in Southern California that has a temperate climate.

Myth 6: No New Power Plants Will be Needed Since EVs Will Charge at Night Using Excess Nighttime Generation Capacity

Reality:  Nonsense. Proponents of EVs argue that EVs will charge at night using excess nighttime generation capacity - thus, eliminating the need for more power plants.  If this were true, there wouldn't be massive effort underway today to plan for a national network of public re-charging stations. Some electric vehicles will charge overnight. But a great many will charge at work during the day - adding to the need to build more power plants. As discussed above, most will be fossil fuel powered.

Myth 7:  The efficiency benefits of electricity over internal combustion engines will continue to increase

Reality:  Maybe. One of the implicit assumptions made by EVs advocates is that today's internal combustion engine vehicle essentially will stay the same. That simply is not going to happen.  Significant changes are coming to the internal combustion engine, such as replacing cam shafts and crank shafts with electronics and hydraulics. Over the past 30 years engineers have focused mostly on how to get more power out of the internal combustion engine. The race to meet tighter fuel economy standards and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions means that the engineers now are focusing their attention on these objectives. Internal combustion engine vehicles are going to get cleaner and more fuel efficient -- 50, 60, 70 miles per gallon or more.  The energy efficiency gap between the internal combustion engine vehicles and EVs may not expand much. It may even narrow.

Myth 8:  EVs Will Make America More Energy Independent

Reality:  Yes and no.  Petroleum is only a small percentage of the fuels used to produce electricity, so more EVs means less petroleum imports. However:


Current batteries need substantial quantities of precious and rare metals and other materials that America doesn't produce domestically: The EV industry is working diligently on advanced battery technology such as nickel-metal hydride, lithium-ion, and aluminum-air. Unfortunately, these battery technologies require metals, elements and other materials that we do not have in the US. Therefore, we will be increasingly dependent on other countries for these materials. Some of most important of these countries are problematic for America. Take "Rare earth metals," for example. Rare earth metals consist of 17 elements with names like dysprosium and Lanthanum. They all are increasingly used in today's critical technologies, such as superconductors, optical fiber communications and batteries. About 97 per cent of the rare earth metals in use today are produced in China. Lithium is another potential problem.  Lithium, an alkali metal found in salt flats and clay deposits, may be the material that will make widespread use of EVs possible. Lithium batteries for cars, phones and computers could give the metal more strategic value than oil in the 21st century. Nearly half the world's lithium is located in Bolivia - whose government is antagonistic to the US.  Afghanistan is also emerging as a possible major source of lithium. Although the future stability of Afghanistan is unclear.


The batteries (or at least the technology) will have to be imported: Despite the billions of dollars spent on battery technology by the US government, advanced battery manufacturing currently is dominated by China, Japan and South Korea, together accounting for 98 percent of the market in 2009. While Japan's share of the market will remain significant in the near term, that the country's dominance is fading away. Japanese manufacturers controlled 55 percent of global advanced battery production last year, down from 78 percent in 2002. Meanwhile, China's share rose to 25 percent in 2009 from 11 percent in 2002. Experts expect that China will dominate the market for vehicle batteries and battery technology. In fact, since they control many of the materials needed to produce advanced batteries (see above), if China chooses to do so, they restrict the export of these materials and only export the batteries themselves.


Myth 9: Electricity Will Be a Good Power Source for Heavier Duty Vehicle

Reality:  Maybe never. The weight, cost and size of the batteries makes this highly unlikely without dramatic breakthroughs in battery technology. It takes a lot of energy to move big trucks and buses. The vehicle's weight plus the cargo translates into vehicles like Class 8 (18-wheeler) and trash trucks getting only six miles per diesel gallon. The number of weight and size of the batteries needed to move these vehicles any distance at all would make electric versions of these vehicles totally impractical.  And the cost would make them totally uneconomic. The Navistar eStar is a Class 2/3 light truck, and its batteries cost $75,000!

Myth 10:  EVs will make up 10 percent of the New Vehicles Purchased by 2020.

Reality:  For all the reasons stated already, this is very, very unlikely. What has been demonstrated repeatedly over the years is that most of the American public will not accept EVs if they are much more expensive or too much less utilitarian. In 1990, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) enacted its Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate. It required that 2 percent of the state's vehicles must be zero emissions by 1998 and 10 percent by 2003.  CARB has had to keep moving these deadlines because the market has just not been there. Yes � there are the early adopters and an affluent, environmentally driven segment of the population that will buy EVs once available. But these don't even come close to 10 percent of the population. According to forecasts by both CSM Worldwide and J.D. Power & Associates (experts in the automotive field), pure-electric vehicles will total only about 400,000 units worldwide by 2015. This is equal to only a 0.5 percent share of the market. And this is worldwide. There is little chance the EVs will be anything but a niche technology by 2010!