Arguments Against Electric Vehicles Are Running On Empty

Dec 21, 2019

When a few months ago ExxonMobil’s chief executive questioned the value of electric vehicles that are powered mostly by coal, he came up empty. His argument: if such automobiles are juiced by electricity generated by coal, then the net value to the environment is zero and the whole movement is thus a way to make environmentalists feel good. Exxon, of course, is not a disinterested party. But folks who buy into Woods’ outdated line are missing key points. Coal-fired electricity is waning, and now provides just a quarter of the power mix, down from 50% a decade ago. Meanwhile, improvements in battery technology are making EVs ever more efficient and clean.

Ken Silverstein / Senior Contributor / Energy / Forbes / Dec 18, 2019

When a few months ago ExxonMobil’s chief executive questioned the value of electric vehicles that are powered mostly by coal, he came up empty. His argument: if such automobiles are juiced by electricity generated by coal, then the net value to the environment is zero and the whole movement is thus a way to make environmentalists feel good. Exxon, of course, is not a disinterested party. But folks who buy into Woods’ outdated line are missing key points. Coal-fired electricity is waning, and now provides just a quarter of the power mix, down from 50% a decade ago. Meanwhile, improvements in battery technology are making EVs ever more efficient and clean.

Ryan Cornell of Harvard University says that a traditional car using the internal combustion engine (ICE) will emit about 69 metric tons of CO2 over a lifetime, or 150,000 miles. But an electric vehicle (EV) powered 100% by coal will emit 66 metric tons of CO2 over the same time period, he figures. Given that nearly every grid in America hosts a number of fuel sources, that’s a conservative figure.

“The lifecycle EV carbon emissions for a vehicle powered by the 2016 US grid is 30.82 metric tons, while the emissions for an EV powered by 100 percent renewable energy is 6.3 metric tons,” writes Cornell. “An average internal combustion engine vehicle (25.4 miles per gallon) is responsible for 68.38 metric tons of carbon dioxide over its lifetime, while an ICE vehicle with a utopian efficiency of 80 miles per gallon accounts for 25.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide.”

Battery technology is advancing. Wood MacKenzie says that electric batteries will hit an inflection point in 2027 — that place in which price and quality are getting better at an expedited pace. Battery prices, for example, have fallen 87% since 2010, adds Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Such prices are now at $156 a kilowatt/hour. They need to hit $100 to be on par with the internal combustion engine.

In the United States, there are 1 million EVs and it is projected that number will hit nearly 19 million in a decade, says the Edison Electric Institute. About 9.6 million charge ports will be required to support that growth. Meantime, China expects to sell 1.6 million EVs this year while France and Great Britain say that by mid century, those vehicles will dominate their markets.

“Factory costs are falling thanks to improvements in manufacturing equipment and increased energy density at the cathode and cell level,” Logan Goldie-Scot, head of energy storage at Bloomberg New Energy Finance said. “The expansion of existing facilities also offers companies a lower-cost route to expand capacity.”

Today’s lithium-ion batteries are smaller and more energy dense, and can be traced back to the development of laptop computing. Recharging can be done from home and the batteries have a relatively long life, enabling many of today’s EVs to travel at least 90 miles per charge. That’s more than enough for most daily commuters. EV’s are also more efficient, converting 80% of the input to energy. That compares to 30% for the internal combustion engine, says Thor Hinkley, senior program manager at Forth that focuses on e-mobility.

Tesla, Volkswagen, Nissan, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, General Motors, Ford and Toyota are among the car companies selling EVs. The phenomenon is driven by declining battery prices and consumer demand, along with tax incentives.

Colorado, for example, is on its way to passing a zero-emissions standard that will lead to EVs making up 5% of all cars on the road there by 2023. It also offers a $5,000 tax credit on top of the federal tax credit. California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont have similar standards.

The global leader, though, could be China. Tesla is building a giga-factory in Shanghai that will manufacture 500,000 EVs each year. Government officials with whom this reporter spoke on a visit to the country said that China’s EV goals serve several purposes: not only does the nation seek to vastly improve its air quality but also that it expects to produce the best EVs and batteries in the world. At the same time, those sources say that Tesla and others are welcome there — that they create great fanfare and that they provide well-paying positions.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance is predicting 30 million EVs will be sold by 2030, with China making up half of those.

“I hesitate to say that China should be a model because other countries have their strategies,” says one Chinese source. “But China should fully share its experience with others. We have the engineers, the ideas and the knowledge. International free trade should be accelerated to transfer the knowledge and the technology. We will have a better future and especially for low carbon. China is a strong modernized economy. It means China should be the pioneer and a real leader.”

EVs have come a long way, given that a lot of time and money is going into making them. As they make inroads, the established industries with the most to lose will feel threatened, as Exxon’s chief executive is showing. The vehicles are top-of-the line and cleaner than oil-burning cars, even if coal is used. The old arguments are running on empty, given coal’s decline and renewables’ rise.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/kensilverstein/2019/12/18/the-arguments-against-electric-vehicles-are-running-on-empty-especially-as-coal-fades-and-renewables-advance/#64c7838f4d2e