Electric Transportation Offers Advantages, But No Free Lunch

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.  




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14 comments on “Electric Transportation Offers Advantages, But No Free Lunch
  1. Tom Konrad says:

    I’m afraid your assumption (2) that EV batteries will continue to have high recycling rates is questionable. Lead batteries are easy to recycle, but lithium batteries are not.


  2. Hi Craig,

    Thanks for all your great work! If the world was filled with minds like yours, we would already have achieved 100% sustainability many years ago!

    Please view my own take on rapidly achieving 100% sustainability, for the sake of the eternal components of our genes, which have survived every generation and every combination and recombination thereof since life first began here. Let’s give them something to feast on, as described at the website above!

    Yours sincerely,

    Mr. Kim Gyr
    Director, Green Millennium

  3. Sorry, websites are not published either. the project is described at http://www.greenmillennium.eu and grows out of the successful efforts that I made to recover from my heart stopping for 10 minutes while my forehead was being sutured under a general anesthetic following a car accident in Kenya in 1980. I staggered, walked and jogged the 3.6 miles home from the first job that I had after the accident 92 times to recover 95% of what I had lost in those 10 minutes, and challenge everyone to do better for the benefit of the components of all of our genes!

  4. I’ve recently run the cost-benefit numbers using a couple of different approaches and learned that the up front cost of electric drive per barrel of avoided future oil consumption is on the order of $190 to $200 per barrel, and that’s before you pay the costs of buying electricity for the batteries.

    Under current economic conditions, I’d classify the benefits of electric drive as psychic rather than economic.

  5. Tim Gard says:

    Craig, I am afraid I have to agree with Tom Konrad. So many times we look at something with jaded glasses, then pronounce our opinion on that perspective. I believe this is what you have done with the simple recycle scheme you speak of with lithium based elements. Then consider the ‘renewable / recyclable’ aspect of lead acid batteries. While recycling lead is certainly less offensive then mining it, it is still an extremely dirty product to recycle. Your argument is, it is no longer horribly horrendous,just horrendous, and that from a renewable point of view is horribly horrendous in my and many other opinions. We need better solutions to energy storage than batteries. What we do now is bad enough. Supporting these dirty practices makes you part of the problem Craig, not part of a solution.

  6. Let’s remember why we need to find alternatives to petroleum. Petroleum is expected to be our first major fuel to become depleted. Much of Earth’s petroleum reserves are outside US and our friends’ territories, and much is controlled by or benefiting people and countries we should prefer not to do business with, not to send our money to. Extracting, refining, transporting and using petroleum causes huges amounts of pollution.

    We use a lot of petroleum despite all this. Main reason is USA, its auto industry and auto-using consumers and businesses began 20th century being the world’s largest producer and exporter of petroleum. 21st century is substantially different. Now we import half of what we now use. We even need to deploy our energy-guzzling and expensive military to secure and protect some oil sources, transportation routes and shipping vessels. So we need alternatives.

    Alternatives need not be perfect, absolutely benign for the environment, one-fuel-for-all-uses, or even everlasting in supply. Petroleum never met these criteria, except “one-fuel-for all” transportation. As we search for and experiment with alternatives, we should go out of our ways to avoid one-fuel-source solutions. We need diversity in our transportation energies as much as we need alternatives to petroleum.

  7. Lithium ion batteries still have at least 70% of the storage capability when they are removed from cars. They will be used in large battery systems to inject power back into the grid in the frequency regulation market and when power needed to add power and can help companies reduce their demand charges. We at Standard Solar are working now on such projects.
    In addition, it takes about 2 kW of PV at your home and at work to fully offset the electricity for a Chevy Volt at up to 30 miles commuting each way. Possible 100% renewable energy commuting with solar PV!!!!!

  8. Glenn Doty says:


    You knew that I would comment here.

    The best data available on total lifetime emissions for various petroleum fuels can be found at:

    This work was extremely thorough from NETL, and it should not be casually discounted because it’s inconvenient.

    What you see here is TOTAL LIFETIME EMISSION of roughly 14 kg-CO2/gallon of gasoline and roughly 15 kg-CO2/gallon of diesel for fuel that was exclusively derived from the Athabasca tar sands projects – that’s the worst fuel we burn.

    The average U.S. fuel is <12 kg-CO2/gallon.

    Now, if you assume that a vehicle gets 35 mpg of gasoline, then that vehicle is only emitting 340-400 g-CO2/mile. That's irrefutable fact.

    If an EV, on the other hand, gets 0.34 kWh/mile First you must factor in line losses (~8% national average), and charging losses (~10% for slow-charge, ~20% for fast charge). So now the power company must generate at least 0.41 kWh/mile for the EV. If the power company is a coal power company (as will be the case for EV's charged overnight, then the CO2 emissions will be 1.1 kg/kWh, or ~450 g-CO2/mile.

    That seems roughly even, comparing the EV to an ICE… However, gasoline and diesel have extremely low sulfur and metal contaminates – as required by EPA regulations. Coal and natural gas, on the other hand, have far greater sulfur, metalide, halide, and other harmful emissions. So it's possible that an EV running on natural gas might see a lower overall CO2 emission than a Prius, but you'd also see roughly 100X the sulfur dioxide emissions for the EV in that case. For an EV powered by coal, the CO2, would be greater, the SO2 would be 100's fold, and the metalide (mercury, cadmium, lead, and other toxins) would be 10,000,000X, while radioactive isotope emissions would be 100,000,000X, and fly ash (the greatest contributor to lung issues in America) are infinitely greater.

    The EV's absolutely and unquestionably pollute more per mile than an ICE. Period.

    On a strictly CO2 basis, all reasonably plausible cases would see EV's polluting more than a small, efficient ICE or any hybrid vehicle.

  9. arlene says:

    It has likely not been heard from a researcher – good enough, lets move on to something else. There will of course be continuous improvement in existing batteries and continual probing for new possibilities not yet embraced.

    The inherent genius of diversity is partly due to the fringe elements that don’t know when to call it a day. I don’t believe for a second that our society will reorganize into the modern villages required for certain forms of sustainable living to work. However, that doesn’t mean I decry those who extol the virtues of such living and continue to look for ways that it might occur.

    Batteries are imperfect in so many ways. “Simple” economics assures us that burning and digging the world to death is the only practical viewpoint. Doesn’t matter. We still need to pursue that higher plateau.

  10. Frank Eggers says:

    There are applications where electric vehicles should have replaced fuel-burning vehicles years ago, but they have not. We should immediately push for replacement of fuel burning vehicles in those applications.

    At many airports, large fuel-burning busses are used to move people around the airport. These vehicles typically make trips which are only a fraction of a mile long. They spend most of their time loading and unloading passengers during which time they could be recharged. Also, they always travel at low speeds. They could easily be replaced by electric vehicles.

    The University of New Mexico hospital uses gasoline vehicles to transport patients from parking garages to the hospital and clinics. They never exceed about five miles per hour and travel only a very few miles daily. Also, much of their time is spent waiting for passengers. They could easily be replaced by electric vehicles.

    These and similar applications account for only a tiny percentage of vehicle transportation. However, they do burn fuel unnecessarily. Even more important, because they do carry hundreds of thousands of passengers per year, they would make more people aware of electric vehicles and accelerate the acceptance of electric vehicles if they were replaced by electric vehicles.

  11. Craig Shields says:

    Yes indeed, Glenn Doty (and John Petersen) I knew you’d both comment, and I appreciate it. Here’s my response: http://2greenenergy.com/oil-carries-externalities/19499/.

  12. Nick C says:


    Another source for support for electric vehicles I like to quote is “Why a hydrogen economy doesn’t make sense” by Prof Ulf Bossel, a fuel cell expert who prefers EVs to HFCVs.
    One interesting articles of his can be found here http://www.physorg.com/news85074285.html

    I have also done some interesting calculations on the land required to support different clean transport technologies as follows:

    EVs+Solar CPV vs ICEVs+2nd gen Biofuels

    I think an interesting comparison between these technologies is the relative amount of land required to support these.

    Assuming a typical annual mileage of 10,000 miles per year

    a) ICEV running on bio-ethanol (petrol substitute) produced from sugar-beet (UK scenario) would require about 7,000 sq-m of arable land for biofuel production.
    b) ICEV with fuel consumption of ~45mpg and running on 2nd generation bio-diesel would require about 2,000 sq-m of arable land for biofuel production.
    c) EV e.g. Tesla Roadster (230 miles/tank) using ~240Wh/mile running on solar electricity produced using Concentrating PV (CPV) located in a sunny desert such as the Sahara or Nevada, would require about ~2.5sq-m of panels or ~10 sq-m of desert land for electricity production.

    This is mainly due to high efficiency of CPV (~40%) and also of EVs (~80% tank (battery) to wheel).

    To me this makes adoption of EV a priority and a no-brainer once battery technology becomes competitive. In respect of which I did some calculations on the manufacturer’s data given for the Zn-Air batteries referred to in 2GE’s website storage section and based on their figures we are not too far away for this goal.

    John Petersen – O.K. The economics may be a bit off at the moment but if cars were still the same price as they were when the first ones were made we wouldn’t have this problem because only a handful of people could afford them, we are concerned about the future and I personally don’t think that cheap transport in exchange for destroying the planet is a valid argument regardless of economics

  13. I think there must be an all of the above solution to our transportation problems. To address the pollution problems of EVs I think the simplest solution would be to have each car come with a second battery pack which can remain home to be charged by PV panels and windturbines at the home during the day. Some kind of simple pallet jack or other kind of system could be used to change the battery pack. I can think of several methods right off the top of my head. A battery pack of about 13kWh should provide a range of about 40 miles assuming no regenerative braking is used. 18 PV panels of 220 watts should easily cover this amount. I could easily fit 36 panels on my house so I could actually run my house and charge a battery also.
    I think spark ignition internal combustion engine hybrids would be the best vehicles for this purpose. These engines could burn gaseous fuels like CNG, propane or hydrogen as well as liquid fuels like gasoline and ethanol all in the same engine with little modification. It would not matter which gaseous fuel is used and it could be any or all available fuels as computers could make the adjustment as they currently do with flexfuel vehicles. These conversion kits already exist as an add on to standard gasoline engines and are very simple and relatively inexpensive. These vehicles could use electric power for their initial range of maybe 40 miles. Most commutes are within that range. If that is exceeded a small multifuel engine driving a generator to charge the batteries could run first off of the gaseous system for perhaps another 40 miles and then off the liquid fuel system if required. Since liquid fueling infrastructure already exists, range at this point for this vehicle is nearly unlimited. Since many homes already have natural gas running to them or have propane, filling the gaseous tanks of these vehicles could also occur at home thus requiring no additional infrastructure.
    I kind of like the Picken’s plan idea sort of with some modifications. His plan is to mount up as many windturbines as possible to generate electricity to replace the power currently generated by natural gas and then convert long haul trucks to run on natural gas to save oil.
    As many windturbines as possible to replace fossil fuel usage is a great start. A new robust and efficient grid to transport this energy is also needed with an energy storage arrangement such as pumped storage hydroelectric system perhaps created on the tops of the mountains in West Virginia that they have removed to mine for coal. Distributed generation from panels on every viable rooftop would then be able to help more.
    Changing the diesel vehicles to run on natural gas is a waste. These vehicles should run on straight vegetable oil as this conversion is much simpler and less expensive and the current fueling infrastructure can continue to be used as is. Since long haul trucks, farm equipment, construction equipment and trains all run for extended periods of time. They are particularly well suited to run on straight vegetable oil eliminating the need to convert it to biodiesel thus saving a step and the associated energy. This oil could be virgin oil from soy, which produces about 40 gallons/acre, or another crop that produces more per acre than soy and also from reclaimed deep fryer oil. A typical McDonalds for example has at least 3 fryers each holding about 7 gallons each. They are required to change this oil 2 times a week in my area so that means 42 gallons a week of waste vegetable oil per resturant. You can count resturants and run the math from there to see how much that would help.
    Passenger vehicles should run on electricity and natural gas not burned in power plants due to the windturbines as outlined above due to the residential infrastructure.
    Implementing all of these ideas would cut the pollution factor of EVs by a great deal and possibly, at some point in the future, completely.
    As if this is not enough I actually have more but my computer is whining about rebooting to install updates and it is late so I have to go.

  14. Tim Gard says:

    We can very easily put oil out of the formula with the renewable sciences we have at our fingertips today. But as long as the average citizen is willing to pump gasoline into their cars, or coal into a steam electric plant, the big companies will continue to sell their product. Any business man worth his salt can see that. The only way things will change is if the American people stand shoulder to shoulder and demand a change. Then, and only then, will our scientists with wind power or whatever, be able to move things forward. If you are not part of the solution then you are part of the problem …

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