Friday, April 01, 2011

"Electric Cars Should be Called Coal Cars": The Heretic.

I saw a wonderful play at the Royal Court Theatre in London recently: "The Heretic" by Richard Bean. In a nutshell, the plot centres on a female academic, Dr Diane Cassell, who is researching sea-level rise. She finds none at some measurement point in the Maldives, but realises that both land and sea are rising together. Thus, while sea-levels are indeed rising, the islanders are unlikely to be forced from their lands by them. If she publishes her results, the department stands to lose a very lucrative contract from an insurance company and so her Head of Department forbids her to go public which she does, and on national television at that, so getting fired from her job. The Human Resources person is grimly hilarious.

It's a great play, insightfully written and skilfully performed, and raises many themes woven around the veracity of climate change, and the dubious politics of academia. The latter seem to fall increasingly in line with the plot of my novel, University Shambles, intended originally as a black comedy rather than some prescient vision of the future.

In the play, one of her students with utterly green credentials including eating lots of garlic to apparently curb his own bodily greenhouse-gas emissions, refuses to go on a field trip in the university minibus on the grounds that it runs on fossil fuels, preferring instead to cycle forty miles there and forty miles back.

Diane asks him: "In your green future, how would we get fourteen students fifty miles to the North Yorkshire Weather Station?"
He replies: "There should be like an electric car/minibus. Electric cars don't have any emissions."
Diane responds: "Electric cars should be called coal cars. 30% of our energy comes from coal. Electricity is not naturally occurring in nature."

Now this does raise an issue about the "cleanliness" of electricity, which is all the more salient in view of the U.K. government's aim to install thousands of electric charging points around the country for electric cars with the aim to "wean us off imported oil". However, the majority of electricity in the U.K. is generated using power stations fired by coal (28%) and gas (45%), and hence even if a substantial substitution of the present 30 million British oil-fuelled cars by electric vehicles could be made, it would entail the consumption of vast quantities of these other fossil fuels instead to provide the additional electricity for them.

It is claimed in a Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) report on electric cars that they are in any case cleaner because 80 - 90% of the energy put into them in terms of electricity is recovered in terms of useful power at the wheels, to be compared with 20 - 30% in a conventional oil-powered car. Well, that sounds good, but the reality is that only about one third of the energy in the coal or gas actually ends-up as electricity because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the Carnot Cycle limit - the other two thirds being thrown away as heat. Thus the electric car is harvesting in terms of well-to-wheel miles only about 27% of the original fossil fuel energy, so not that much better than the standard car running on petrol or diesel. The difference is merely whether about the same quantity of waste heat energy is thrown away at source or in the vehicle.

The green energy company, Ecotricity refers to electric cars as "wind-cars", to stress that they could run on electricity made from green sources such as wind. Indeed, the U.K. has made the decision to focus on wind-energy to meet its carbon-emissions targets, and plans to build offshore wind-farms on an impressive scale to do the job. It is advised by the Committee on Climate Change that by 2020, 1.7 million electric cars should be on Britain's roads, or just over 5%, which I don't honestly see would make a serious hole in our demand for imported crude oil.

To decarbonize the national grid would require another 30 - 40 GW of green generating power, or "the equivalent of a hundred large offshore wind-farms," according to the chief economist of the CCC. These would need to be large indeed. Assuming a rated capacity per turbine of 5 MW, and a capacity factor (actual output) of 30%, we have 1.5 MW for each. Thus we need around 20,000 - 27,000 turbines to produce 30 - 40 GW of power. So that means 100 wind-farms with 200 - 270 turbines each. If one turbine per day were manufactured, no mean feat given present manufacturing capacity, the process would take 55 - 74 years to complete, with the installation of them as a separate effort. As noted in previous posts, there is the further question of whether there will be sufficient quantities of rare earth elements (REEs) available on the world markets to make the turbine magnets which need about one tonne of neodymium per 4 MW of rated capacity.

Clearly, we have a serious problem in switching from dirty oil cars to green electric cars, which will need to be built themselves. There are many issues of the materials needed per se, and a hybrid car e.g. a Prius needs 1 kg of neodymium for its motor plus 15 kg of Lanthanum for its battery, while a fully electric vehicle will require much more of each. Personal electric cars are still a far better option than personal hydrogen cars for all kinds of reasons, but if governments are serious about introducing electric transportation in place of oil, the creation of electrified mass passenger transport, e.g. trains and trams would be the better way to go.

Related Reading.

"Carbon Confusion," by Sylvia Rowley.


Mark said...

Another problem with electric cars,at least here in California, is that we tiered pricing system which people who go over a certain baseline pay higher rates. So people who charge their cars at night, when there is usually a glut of electricity will be paying a premium to their utility companies. Unless that problem is solved that would act as a major deterrent to purchasing electric cars.

Below is a link to an LA Times story that explains this problem better than I can.

energybalance said...

Hi Mark,

yes, I see the problem. Do you think the Federal government might underwrite the cost of implementing electric cars if that were perceived to be in the national interest?

Over here in the UK there seems to be a move to expand and electrify the railway network, which in my opinion is the more realistic means to achieve the movement of passengers on a mass scale rather than trying to keep the idea at least of personalized transport. While nothing has been said officially, I think we can guess that the UK government is pretty smart and well aware that the age of cheap oil is over.

Out of interest there was a big engineering project here in Reading to open the bottleneck that the railway station has become for transport between the east and West of this comparatively small country:



Mark said...


The federal government does offer a tax credit for those who purchase electric vehicles. I believe it can be up to $7500. There are also tax breaks for ethanol producers, compressed natural gas vehicles and propane that is being used for transportation uses.

It appears that that the car culture is too ingrained in the United States to let it just die out. Too many jobs and too much money is involved to give up without a fight. Everybody from the manufacturers of autos and auto parts to the owners of restaurants with drive up windows have too much to lose.

You can bet that this nation will try everything short of putting hamsters on treadmills under the hood to keep us rolling. And who knows, maybe someday we will measure how powerful a car is by how many "hamsters" are under the hood.

energybalance said...

I like the thought of "hamster power" as a measure of car power. But you are right of course about the entrenched nature of the car culture, probably even more over there as public transport is very limited, in my experience.

This is of course down to Ford and the car monopoly, many years ago. I see the price of Brent Crude is $117 today, with Libyan light sweet oil now being exported to e.g. Qatar but practically none to Europe now.

Yes, it's a mess!



Anonymous said...

It all comes down to understanding the difference between two concepts, i.e., the car of the future vs. the future of mobility.
One shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we live in a ponderous world and that everything that moves consumes energy irrelevant of where it comes from.
The focus will above all have to shift to the way cities are designed in order to reduce the distances people and goods have to travel to satisfy consumer needs. Auto industry may come up with a car that saves an extra 5% on fuel ( which would be already a great achievement), but if we reduce by half on average the distance we need to travel every day we get a 50% reduction on consumption.
At some point and time in the near future some country will trail this path for others to follow and this is true innovation. The role electric vehicles will play in the future will likely fall in line with the future of mobility concept rather than anything else.
By the way, here in Portugal the electric car fashion seems to have picked up some steam too. Like many other fantasies it’s always promoted at the expense of the tax payer. Even if doesn’t work out as promised a bunch of wise guys end up making a lot of money.


energybalance said...

Hi Matos,

yes, I agree that the fundamental action is to reduce the extent of transportation per se. This will involve redesigning cities and even beginning to deconstruct the larger of them.

The issue of liquid transportation fuel derived from oil is something more exquisite than an energy crunch. Expanding local activities as far as is possible to reduce the necessity to move people and goods around routinely and electrification of city transport in an integrated system is the way to go.

A city e.g. the size of London (12.5 million) will pose some special problems, but meanwhile the notion of electric cars simply replacing oil-powered cars and maintaining the illusion that the status quo of personalised transport is possible, will prove popular with the public and its governments.


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atx alke said...

This article examines a very important subject that involves electric mobility, namely the need to make really environmentally friendly electric cars, producing the electricity with which they work using alternative energy sources, such as wind or solar. What do you think about this topic?

Adam Hoster said...

Glad to see this post Professor! Thanks for sharing it. I understand the statement by Richard Bean. It's true that electricity is not produced naturally rather it needs coal or something else to produce it but saying honestly, these electric vehicles are truly helpful in reducing the amount of emission of carbon dioxide. For detail info please visit: Smart Car service Bishopville SC. Engineers are yet trying to innovate something new in the auto industry that would be completely emission free. Now the existence of solar cars and hybrid cars are the most successful invention in the auto industry. Anyways, It was nice reading it.

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