A reader writes in:
Craig, I’m reading your book and really like the point made about gas being double dirty and double inefficient because of the refining process. I just think that the conversation then should also look at the double / extra cost and pollution that the batteries represent. Thoughts?
Here’s the way I would look at that:
1) Batteries are more closely analogous to the gas tank than they are to the gas itself. I.e, they’re the place in which the energy is stored, and they are only minutely consumed as the electro-chemical energy is converted to kinetic energy to power the vehicle, and then recharged from an external source.
2) Car batteries are the single most recycled item on the planet, and that will certainly continue to be the case with electric transportation. Even if that were to change suddenly, there are (by the quick calcs I just did) 2210 cubic miles of lithium in the top 100 meters of the Earth’s crust, or about 10^13 pounds, sufficient to build lithium-ion batteries for hundreds of billions of electric vehicles.
3) Personally, I think zinc-air is on its way, and zinc is more than four times as abundant in the Earth’s crust as lithium.
4) Having said all this, to your point, there is most certainly an ecological impact of anything we do in terms of energy generation and transportation (other than walking/bicycling). Even energy efficiency normally comes at a cost in terms of insulation, installation equipment, etc. As I often say: There is no free lunch. Yet, just as the trade-off in installing insulation in our buildings is a no-brainer, the overall “well-to-wheels” comparison between gasoline-powered vehicles and electric transportation is favorable to the latter, and will continue to improve as we bring on more renewables. Here is the piece I normally recommend to those wishing to know more on the subject: Sherry Boschert’s “The Cleanest Cars: Well-to-Wheels Emissions Comparison.”
I suppose one could say that the only exception to the “no free lunch” rule is conservation. We all need simply to use less energy.
But is energy conservation a popular position? Not exactly. For international readers who may not follow our recent history, we had a U.S. president who presented this message in his first term in the late 1970s. He lost his bid for re-election by a margin of 49 to 489 electoral votes — almost exactly 1 to 10. Taking you back another century, our General Custer didn’t fare much worse at the Little Bighorn.