A guest post from reader and commenter “Pellicle” on the Electric Car. MacroBusiness welcomes interesting submissions on economic and related topics, subject to edit and less than 1500 words. Please use the “Contact” item on the menu above for your submissions.
Lately it seems that with increasing frequency the idea of Electric cars comes up in the popular media and it would seem to be a “good idea”. Somehow the idea is conveyed that petrol powered cars are a thing of the past and that the future is electric, in fact its really the other way around. Electric cars were more popular at the end of the Ninteenth Century and it wasn’t until the early Twentieth century that advances in internal combustion engines finally led to the public moving away from electric vehicles and across to those powered by internal combustion engines. Back in the late Ninteenth Century it was electric vehicles which captured the public attention and held all the prestige. Records such as breaking the 100km/h barrier (Camille Jenatzy on April 29, 1899) were held by electric powered cars.
A wonderful historical vignette comes from Wikipedia:
Electric cars found popularity among well-heeled customers who used them as city cars, where their limited range proved to be even less of a disadvantage.
While basic electric cars cost under $1,000 (in 1900 dollars, roughly $26,000 today), most early electric vehicles were massive, ornate carriages designed for the upper-class customers that made them popular. They featured luxurious interiors, replete with expensive materials, and averaged $3,000 by 1900 (roughly $79,000 today). Sales of electric cars peaked in 1912.
Which is almost how things are again today, but I’ll get back to that in a moment.
By the mid twentieth century internal combustion engined cars had developed and advanced to the point where there were less and less advantages to electric cars and increases in speeds, range and the speed of refuling the car left almost no reasons to chose an electric over an internal combustion engine. Ultimately the reasons for the demise of the Electric car were economic in nature.
In the years of the twentieth century there were a few revivals of interest in Electric cars, with reasons ranging from the fuel shortages to that of clean air. In the twenty first century it seems there is currently a revival of interest in the electric car with “Hybrid cars” appearing on the market and even fully electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf.
So what has changed to bring the electric car back into public attention? Is it the compelling economic argument for them? Perhaps its something more complex like a shift in technology that has brought new advantages to the Electric car. I’d like to think so, but sadly I think that its more about government objectives and slightly biased (perhaps even one-eyed or even misrepresentative) information about these cars. Actually I wonder if its even information so much as spin.
The public is at the moment grappling with the problems of changes to our environment and understanding which of these are human created and which are not. While in the past we have focused on pollutants in the air such as S0x, NOx, Particulates, toxic metals (lead, copper, mercury), CFC’s, Radioactive materials and even fine soot we now focus our attention on only one waste product of industry and that is C02. Setting aside for a moment any discussion about is or is not CO2 a problem, lets examine if Electric Cars actually do much to help us reduce C02.
Electric Cars are often marketed as having “zero green house gas emissions”. This is rather slanted because of course generating the electricty that the car consumes is most likely going to generate some greenhouse gases. Particularly in Australia most of our electrical energy comes from coal it is just like saying “I don’t kill animals, but I buy meat”.
So since its pretty clear that electric cars do rely on electricity generation which produces GHG (and hands up here who’s keen on Nuclear) it would make sense for an economically minded person to examine just how much they use.
Thermodynamic efficiency: this is the measure how efficient a system is in capturing that energy liberated by burning something into energy we can use (like the turning of the engine crank to move a car forwards). Internal Combustion Engines (ICE) operate at efficiencies that range from about 28% through to about 40%. This means that for every 100kW of energy in fuel we get about 30 or so kW at the engine. As it happens the average efficiency of a well managed power station which burns coal for its energy is also about that 30%.
So straight up it would look rather like both the ICE Car and the Electric Car would generate about the same amount of C02.
But there is a little more to it than that.
You see when you buy 40L of fuel at the fuel station, and put that into your your car, your car has 40L of fuel to use to convert into driving the car. When you generate power at the station, you have to move it to your home, you may lose as much as 50% of that energy in the transmission of that electricity. Further when you put 1kW of energy into charging a battery you will not get 1kW of energy back out of it. Depending on the battery technology you’ll get between 70% (NiCAD) 80% (LiION) and up to 99% with Li-Polymer.
So, just looking at some basic electrical engineering and physics it would be seem that if your goal was reduction of CO2 then you wouldn’t want to get an Electric Car because it may use as much as double an equivalent ICE Car.
The more detail that you examine this in, the worse it seems to get. For instance just the other day on the radio the representatives for Energex were calling on people to reduce their power consumption so as to ease the burden on our electrical infrastructure :
Our message for today and the next couple of days with the heat continuing is for people to take it easy particularly during those peak times of 4pm to 8pm when generally everyone goes home from work and turns the air conditioning on, cooks their dinner and turns the television on.
So if more people started turning to Electric Cars it would be even worse, as it would become “everyone goes home from work, plugs in their car to recharge and turns the air conditioning on, cooks their dinner and turns the television on”.
While these infrastructure problems are solvable (with more money), the problems of thermodynamic efficiency (how much you burn for how far you go) still points to the Electric Car as being inferior. To make matters worse, people at places like Toyota keep doing things to improve ICE cars, with the next version of the Prius car perhaps reaching 45% efficiency. Which makes it even further ahead in the reduction of CO2.
Ok, do you remember back when I discussed the electric car being mainly the popular choice among the wealthy? Well a quick look at the basic dollars view of economical analysis suggests that “bang for buck” you pay about 3 times for an electric vehicle as you do for an equivalent ICE. For instance the Holden (GM) Volt recently arrived on Australian shores from the USA and is set to be selling for $59,990 plus on-road costs, dealer delivery charges and Government stamp duty. Meanwhile the ICE version of that car is currently sold at $21,990 drive-away. Yet you don’t seem to be getting much more in the way of transport and certainly not much better outcome for the environment.
So it isn’t easy being “green” … even more so when you find out that the thing marketed to you as the “green choice” that has “zero green house gas emissions” actually doesn’t and worse, produces more.
You have to ask yourself what Julius Sumner Miller always asked – “why is it so?”
Perhaps part of the answer is to not believe what the sales people tell you, be cautious of government picking winners and (most importantly) examine the facts yourself. As Thomas Tusser once wrote:
A foole and his monie be soone at debate, which after with sorrow repents him too late.