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Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has also appeared in The Christian Science…

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Why the Electric Car Will Never Become a Widespread Phenomenon

Many automobile enthusiasts believe that the electric car is the wave of the future that will help save the environment while expanding the availability of private transport to the world's growing middle class. They are likely wrong on both counts.

Not too long ago a dinner guest at a party I attended told me that my concern about the peaking of global oil production was misplaced. Didn't I know that the electric car was already on its way? That a lot of smart people were involved in making it a reality before too long? That the main problem of charging on long trips had already been solved with battery switching stations that could now be deployed?

I registered my skepticism that the electric car would ever become a widespread phenomenon. I cited resource constraints for key metals needed for batteries and the length of time needed to turn over the existing car fleet--around 17 years in the United States, for example. That assumes, of course, that the necessary infrastructure to produce such a fleet is already in place, which it isn't and won't be for some time, if ever.

If the peak in oil production is close by, then that alone would doom the widespread adoption of an electric car fleet since global society could soon be dealing with an immediate oil crisis that wouldn't wait on the slow cycles of new technology adoption. (Some people believe we are already dealing with that crisis and that it began with the 2008 oil price spike which saw crude oil futures vault to $147.)

One can easily cite all the obvious impediments that constrain the widespread adoption of private electric automobiles: the lack of charging infrastructure; the poor performance of electric vehicles for range and acceleration compared to gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles; consumer skepticism about electric vehicles; and the creaking existing electrical infrastructure which would probably need serious expansion to accommodate a worldwide fleet of private electric automobiles. Perhaps all of these problems could be overcome if the world had decades to work on them. But it is doubtful that we have that kind of time.

In addition, there are three issues which rarely get a hearing. First, in the United States, for example, transportation produced 33 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions in 2008. (I was unable to find comparable figures for the world.) If the entire automobile and truck fleet were to be electrified, the amount of carbon dioxide emissions would decline, but not by as much as one might expect.

The problem is that as of 2006 (the latest year for which global figures are available) 66 percent of the world's electricity is generated by conventional fossil-fuel powered plants, according the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The number is 71 percent for the United States, the country with about one quarter of all motor vehicles in the world--about 256 million out of approximately 1 billion.

That means that simply replacing the current gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicle fleet with one running on electricity will not even come close to reducing carbon dioxide emissions from that source by the 80 percent that scientists say is vital to preventing catastrophic climate change. We'll simply be substituting cars powered by gasoline and diesel with ones powered indirectly by coal and natural gas.

Of course, we could greatly increase our deployment of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to accommodate the need for new greenhouse gas-free electricity generation, couldn't we? There are three problems with this view. First, both sources are intermittent, so we will have to maintain a substantial baseload generating capacity using fossil fuels to ensure adequate electricity production when the wind fails and the sun isn't shining.

Second, the scale of deployment would almost be unimaginable. The energy density of windmills and solar panels is at least an order of magnitude lower than that of fossil fuels. The square miles of photovoltaics and the number of windmills needed to generate electricity for an automobile and light truck fleet would imply an enormous footprint for these sources of power. Third, the time to scale up such solutions to the necessary level might be decades. This is the so-called rate-of-conversion problem. It actually takes time to implement alternative energy and infrastructure solutions. The key question is: How much time do we have? The answer appears to be: Not very much!

Let's assume for the moment that climate change can be ignored--a big and dangerous assumption, I know! The next question we must ask then is: Is there enough fossil fuel and nuclear power to run an electric car infrastructure? Several developments should give us pause. First, a recent study suggests that coal production from existing coal fields may peak in 2011. That's not a misprint. Second, even though claims for vast supplies from new shale gas fields are being bandied about, there is reason for caution about natural gas supplies as well. Shale gas reserves are actually much more limited than widely believed; they are costly to produce; and, their extraction will likely be hampered by concerns about water pollution. Recently, the governor of New York ordered a moratorium on shale gas drilling until concerns about groundwater safety could be evaluated. Similar actions from other states seem likely as concerns about water supplies mount, and legislatures paused to think through stricter regulations that will mean slower exploitation of this resource.

As for nuclear power providing the additional electrical capacity we would require, one need only review the history of the civilian nuclear power industry to realize that there is little chance of this happening. The regulatory hurdles to rapid expansion are very large. The amount of uranium left to power the current fleet of uranium-fueled reactors is in doubt. And, the lead times to build nuclear generating plants are measured in decades, not years. Nuclear-generated electricity will likely do no more than maintain its share of electricity production in the decades ahead as plants beyond their service life are decommissioned.

So, what can we do about transportation? The quickest way to reduce liquid fuel consumption and thus carbon dioxide emissions in transportation would be to implement ride-sharing programs based on successful pilot programs around the world. This would mean allowing people to use their private cars as essentially part-time cabs. The advantage is that it reduces traffic, fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions NOW--not at some unspecified date in the future. The technical issues have already been worked out. It is the cultural ones which are the sticking points.

Second, we should in my view electrify public transportation to the extent possible. This would protect this part of our transportation infrastructure from sudden fuel shocks. And, it should be possible to do this with only a fraction of the outlays needed to make private electric cars available. In addition, public transportation should be vastly expanded with an eye toward new ways of configuring public transport that require significantly less energy, meet consumer expectations more readily, and can be cheaply and modularly constructed.


If the public had been able to foresee that the private automobile would lead to the despoilation of huge swaths of prime farmland to build roads and highways; the emptying out of many of America's and the world's cities into suburban sprawl; high blood levels of lead in children (from leaded gasoline which is now outlawed); a sedentary lifestyle that would contribute to an obesity epidemic that reaches down into children younger than 10; a nightmarish number of people killed and maimed on roadways each year; air pollution that regularly threatens human health; climate change through the production of greenhouse gases; and dependence on a fuel supply--petroleum--that has led to several wars and which regularly undergoes huge price swings; if they had known all that, would the public have agreed to allow the private automobile to become the dominant form of transportation in the so-called developed world?

It's time to let go of the car culture so we can rid ourselves of its myriad ill effects. And, it is time to let go of the electric car fetish that is merely an extension of that ruinous car culture.

By. Kurt Cobb

Source: Resource Insights

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  • Anonymous on January 08 2011 said:
    Surprised you missed the biggest point of them all. Battery technology is currently based on lithium which is a rare earth element. The key word here is rare. There is no way we can replace every car with a large lithium battery. Furthermore these lithium batteries are essentially disposable with a limited life-span much smaller than that of a fuel based engine. Anyone with a laptop knows that battery performance will decrease with time and external conditions such as temperature. The widespread adoption of the electric car is unfortunately doomed to fail on these points alone.
  • Anonymous on January 08 2011 said:
    There are so many problems with this post. I have the energy to hit only a few.First, lithium supply is not a problem. Even in the US we have vast amounts and, in the very worst case, could extract all we need from seawater without adding prohibitively to the cost of batteries. Plus lithium is not consummed and can be recycled.The average life of a US auto is 13.3 years. Approximately 50% of all US driving is done with cars five years old or newer. We can create significant switch to electricity quickly.EVs are perfect for charging with intermittent sources such as solar and wind. Cars spend 90% of their time parked which means that most of the fleet can charge when there is extra power on the grid.CO2 will not be controlled by one silver bullet but killed by a thousand cuts. Moving most of the personal transportation fleet to electricity is one giant slash.Out of space....
  • Anonymous on January 08 2011 said:
    Let me throw in another reason why we are headed to a world of EVs.As soon as production levels hit the 500,000 to 1,000,000 level (which should happen in the next two years) EVs should become as affordable as ICEVs.The cost of driving an EV per mile using average grid priced electricity is the equivalent of driving a 50MPG Prius burning $1.50/gallon gas. Know any place where you can buy gas for under two bucks?
  • Anonymous on January 08 2011 said:
    Einy -Current lithium batteries for EVs are rated at 100,000 miles. And at that point they are not 'used up', they will have simply degraded to where the EV range will have dropped to 80% of new.After dropping to 80% those batteries will be valuable to utility companies for grid storage. And after many years serving peak-shifting and smoothing roles they will be recycled and the lithium reused.The "rare" in rare-earth mineral does not mean what you think it does. Look it up.
  • Anonymous on January 08 2011 said:
    "square miles of PVs/# windmills enormous footprint the time to scale up might be decades."It would take only a tiny percentage of our area for all the solar panels. Existing rooftops would be more than adequate.Take a look at this map...http://i.imgur.com/j9wrB.jpgThat little green rectangle on the US portion represents the area we would need to supply 100% of America's electricity with solar. (Which we won't do. We'll use a cocktail of wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, tidal, etc.)
  • Anonymous on January 08 2011 said:
    pt 2And that very small rectangle is based on yesterday's solar panels. Efficiency is constantly increasing which further decreases the area needed.The actual footprint of wind turbines would be roughly the size of Manhattan were we to power the US by wind alone. Don't forget that over 90% of the land used by a wind farm is still available for crops, grazing or wildlife.Wind farms are installed, start to finish in two years, even less than one year. Rooftop solar is installed in days, large arrays in weeks to months.
  • Anonymous on January 08 2011 said:
    The solution is so easy I could kick myself for not thinking of it sooner:Designate a part of the US with the land area of Manhattan as our official renewable energy generation reservation.Then, make sure the wind always blows steady at 20 mph, and the sun always shines at high noon -- just over the reservation, mind you.Then, outlaw all coal, gas, nuclear, and other non-sanctioned forms of power generation.Et voila! It will be heaven -- or utopia for us atheists. Why, shucks, I certainly did think of that all by myself . . . . ;-)
  • Anonymous on January 08 2011 said:
    Infrastructure is not a problem it is a blessing. EV is the answer for most peoples needs for travel. Nobody has ever said you do not have a choice and nobody should take a better choice away from citizens who care about our future. Thanks, Bob Wallace for more great info.
  • Anonymous on January 09 2011 said:
    Knowing what I think I know about the supply of uranium and thorium, and the flexibility of nuclear reactors, I have to reject the opinion of the author. Obtaining a great deal more electricity is going to be necessary, and of course possible. This does NOT mean that other eneergy options should be neglected - on the contrary, they are more important than ever.The interesting thing is that so-called experts are standing around with their hands on their hips, and puzzled looks on their faces, while the Chinese are moving ahead faster than ever with nuclear and electricity and probably everything else. Let me put it this way, if our 'thinkers' have decided to turn off their brains, just watch what the Chinese are doing. They've got the look!
  • Anonymous on January 10 2011 said:
    Electric utility capacity is vastly underutilized at night when most electric vehicle drivers plug in their cars. In fact, at this time there is actually a huge amount of idle electrical capacity that is not being used that could be utilized by electric cars. Most power plants cannot be shut down so precious electricity that could be used to power our transportation sector is literally being wasted. Please remember that electricity is always domestically produced. The US imports 70% of its oil. We're witnessing the greatest transfer of wealth in human history.
  • Anonymous on January 10 2011 said:
    Alfonso, when you talk to your career counselor you might want to tell them to steer you away from both engineering and comedy. You display talent in neither area. ;-) There's an overlooked aspect in the 'electricity for EVs' concern.It takes considerable amounts of energy to extract, process and distribute oil. It might well be that if we simply took the electricity and natural gas we now use to pump, crack and ship oil we could power our EVs and simply leave the sequestered carbon in the ground.Based on one set of numbers which I've found there are approximately 30 miles of EV driving in a the electricity and natural gas (converted to electricity) in a single gallon of gas.
  • Anonymous on January 10 2011 said:
    I'm confused. The author suggests that because 66% of our power comes from fossil fuel, that switching to electric vehicles would not reduce emissions. Could it be that he's unaware of the basics of electric drivetrains? That they're 85% efficient including charging losses, compared to 20-25% efficient for a gasoline engine? As a result, even if you charged it entirely from fossil fuels, an EV would be cleaner for the simple reason that they make vastly more efficient use of the energy you feed them (and that centralized coal/nat. gas plants are considerably more efficient than automobile engines, and transmission losses average only 6.5%)How does an article overlooking these basic facts get past an editor? Why did the author think himself qualified to write on the topic when he's apparently ignorant of something so crucial to the discussion, and understood by any first year engineering major?
  • Anonymous on January 10 2011 said:
    Yet another example of short sighted opinions from well educated idiots. Exactly the reason the world has nose dived into the worst recession in 80 years... all the short term thinkers are STILL waiting for electric cars that have no "fueling charge"... They forget the $20,000 to $50,000 the average car driver will spend on gas over 10 years... all they see is the initial price tag. PREDICTION: Gas will increase to $5 to 7 per gallon by 2010 because of oil investor's greed. FACT: all along the way short minded educated morons will come up with reasons to stay addicted to oil. OUR GOALS: 1. Electric cars in showrooms, 2. get smart people to switch from paying $20,000 to $50,000 to OPEC to buying batteries. 3. Get these cars charging from garage top solar and 4. Introduce coming technologies that will make EVs go 1000 miles per charge and eventually REQUIRE NO EFFORTS WITH AUTOMATIC RECHARGING SYSTEMS BUILT INTO THE CAR. ...Or we can follow this "smart short sighted thinker"?
  • Anonymous on January 10 2011 said:
    My interest in electric cars is energy availability not cost.I believe that electricity will be available one way or the other until the last dog is hung so to speak. During the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo had I had an electric car I would have quitely driven to and from work and attended to my affairs while all the rest of you were standing in line at the nearest gas station. If things got really bad I would install a gentran natural gas electric generator at my house or solar panels on my roof to trickle charge my car. Mileage would be reduced but transportation would still be possible.There is more than one way to skin a cat so to speak.Multiple sources of energy not just one. In diversity lies security.
  • Anonymous on January 10 2011 said:
    The author missed one important point. The desire for personal transportation did not start with the car! The car is just the current form.Americans have something in their blood that requires some form of personal transportation. Good mass transit will get us to and from, but will not satisfy what ever it is that requires personal transportation. And like it or not, it seems that since WWII, America has given that desire to the rest of the world.I do not see that changing. So we must come up with a way to satisfy all of our needs.
  • Anonymous on January 10 2011 said:
    The author is wrong about the shortage of raw materials for EV batteries, the area required to harvest renewable energy and the lack of infrastructure to recharge EVs.Lithium is as abundant as lead in the earth's crust. It is abundant enough in sea water that it could be to harvested at a viable cost if we ever needed to - which we won't. With 10% efficient solar cells, 200,000 square miles of equatorial desert, would provide all the world's energy needs. According to a Jan. 2007 PNNL report, there is enough capacity in the current US grid to recharge 73% of the light duty vehicles fleet - cars, vans, SUVs and pickups. Make that 100% after LED lighting makes its expected market inroads.
  • Anonymous on January 10 2011 said:
    It is Square Wave's opinion that Peak Oil is now an observation not a prediction having occured in spring 2005. I am a real fan of public transportation but it ain't happening yet in America.Oil depletion will occur more rapidly than the build out of a truely realistic public transportation structure in this country. If you need to travel and not sit in lines at your gas station the electric car will be the bridge for those who can afford it. Only a few big cities have true public transportation systems while the rest of the country, especially the suburbs, will have a rough road ahead.
  • Anonymous on January 11 2011 said:
    Einy and BW,You've both got the rare earth argument bungled. Lithium is NOT a rare earth element. Check wikipedia. Lithium is so common that the USA almost stopped mining for a while, prefering to use cheaper lithium from Chilean dry lake beds. That's changing.The correct argument is that there's a shortage of "rare earth" elements used for fixed magnet electric motors in EVs and China has most of them. This argument is false for two reasons:1. The largest deposit of "rare earth" elements is likely still untapped in Greenland. There is a significant "rare earth" mine in CA that is now starting up again. (It closed down because the Chinese were producing this stuff more cheaply.)2. You can use AC motors to build EVs and these do not require "rare earth" materials. Some manufactures are.
  • Anonymous on January 12 2011 said:
    Opinions are fine things. They need to be based on facts though, which is a step the author has ommitted.In addition to the numerous valid points made by other posts here, and to take one blatently false example showing the author's total want of knowledge about the subjects he pronounces upon, most of the growth of world energy demand is outside of the OECD.It takes 52 months there to build a new nuclear reactor, from the first shovel of dirt to power on, and planning is also swift.Lengthy delays in authorisation and build in the US are due to ill-informed Luddites, not the technology.Powering the whole of the light vehicle fleet in the US would take only around 100GW, about the same as the present US nuclear fleet, and about a fifth of average US electricity output, or a tenth of total capacity which includes plants only used for peaking power.
  • Anonymous on January 12 2011 said:
    The author has beeen schooled by these comments. Thank god. Even my layman's understanding of the subject recognized a massive defficiency in the accuracy of the material being presented. This was nothing more than an opinion piece laced with cherry picked data, which supported the predetermined narrative.
  • Anonymous on January 13 2011 said:
    FYI, here are few facts according to US government data.Coal power plant generates 950gram per kw/hrNG power plant generates 600gram per kw/hrAs of September 2010,  49% is coal, 24.2% natural gas  power plant and weight  is 625g per kw/hr or 1.26lb per Kw/hrEV  consumes 275 - 350 watts per miles with the avg passenger 1gallon gasoline of gasoline produce = 19-21 lb of CO2Average EV cars will produce 0.38 lb CO2 per mileGasoline car with 15mpg will produce 1.33 lb of CO2 per mileGasilne cars with 35mpg car will produce 0.56lb of CO2 per mileGasilne cars with 50mpg car will produce 0.4lb of CO2 per mileLight the car weighs, it gets better mileageBetter mileage car will produce lot less CO2 and reduce oil consumption.   
  • Anonymous on January 13 2011 said:
    Never is a long time.I tired to do some research on the author, and all I could find is that he writes a lot of bloga, and has published a book. Nothing on his background or qualifications. So this article is merely his opinion. And it also appears that his opinions are based on opinions not facts.What puzzles me is that he blogs about peak oil. EVs are one of the solutions for dealing with peak oil, yet he says that they won't become mainstream. And his supporting "facts" are not actually facts, but misinformation.Mr. Kurt Cobb, if you want to be taken seriously and not be lumped into the same pool as climate deniers and such, research your facts before posting articles.
  • Anonymous on January 13 2011 said:
    It only takes one word to end reading this article. Magic word "acceleration". An electric vehicle will smoke any internal combustion engine. Another physics point train engine run by electric motor.
  • Anonymous on January 14 2011 said:
    Just my two bit since I've been associated with a company in the Solar Thermal business.The idea of Solar Energy being available for "only" daylight hours at most is being tackled with the help of storing and reusing energy through molten salts.As someone said, there are many ways to skin a cat. In my own opinion adequate availability of electricity via alternative methods is not going to be a problem in a decade from now (maybe a little longer), thanks to the Chinese constantly bringing down costs. Maybe Food and Water might be bigger problems, especially with populations in Asia exploding as we can see. Of course, jobs will be another problem!Was an eye-opener to me that "rare" didn't mean scarce! :)
  • Anonymous on January 14 2011 said:
    Telos: Great post !We really should be subsidizing any vehicle that gets over 50mpg (or a real 50 MPGe). Not just electric, or ethanol, or That would do the most to help every issue - peak oil, CO2, importing too much energy, pollution, , ,
  • Anonymous on January 18 2011 said:
    I hope global warming hits the upper midwest, I can't wait to wear shorts in the winter!:D BTW you sound like you are going to have a stroke thinking about doomsday... In the end we haven't run out of kerosene yet, and no one was preserving that for our generation. BTW cars are made of oil and when the day comes that other resources become less expensive than oil we will then be using those. People are crafty individuals, you just have to believe in the individual and not the collective. The collective will just dictate, thus driving up the cost of living, resulting in many more poor people. But, if we have learned anything from the greenies we are far too over-populated, so I am sure you are okay if we sacrifice a few people(mostly minorities living in third world countries) for the good of the collective.
  • Anonymous on January 19 2011 said:
    The article has too many opinions and distorted data presented as fact. The main thing that Mr. Cobb forgets is that people are most highly motivated by needs and wants. If people decide to replace oil for any reason(s) (such as scarcity or global warming or politics or price, etc.) then history shows that they can ramp up the learning curve pretty quickly. Pundits like Mr. Cobb said that we couldn't land a man on the Moon or shouldn't retaliate against the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. Please do your homework, Mr. Cobb, and don't assume that the rest of us are as lazy as you appear to be.
  • Anonymous on February 06 2011 said:
    One obvious error in this article: large turbines like those used to generate electrical power are much more efficient than the small combustion engines we put in cars. If you burn fossil fuels in power generating stations to generate the power you need to run your electric cars, you use much less fuel even if your replacement of fossil-fuel cars with electric cars is one for one.
  • Anonymous on February 08 2011 said:
    Kurt, the paragraph in your piece beginning with "As for nuclear..."´is completely and totally and definitely wrong, I am glad to say. When I look at my new energy economics book I think..."Thanks to people being so wrong about something so easy, this book should do even better than my previous books."
  • Anonymous on May 18 2011 said:
    Unless the whole world turns into a massive electric grid like bumper cars, I doubt we will start seeing the electric revolution. Even if that happens I'm sure the industry will find ways to rip us off, hell they will just have a unified alliance with the electric company so we can be screwed sideways at home or at work. :D :D :D :D :D :D :D :D :D :D

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