Weekend Musing: Are Electric Cars really Green?

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.


    • Rob

      thanks for posting that link. I *loved it*

      I noticed that Finland was highly represented in that set of engineers. That’s interesting to me as Finland is a nation who does not have their own energy reserves and are quite dependent on buying energy in.

      I suspect this makes them more keen in determining the most cost effective way in which to use it. Its interesting how few big guzzlers you see on the roads over there, and effective their intra city trains are. I commuted from Kouvola to Helsinki for work and had the pleasure of being able to sit in comfortable trains and be effective at doing work while traveling to work.

      I don’t see that much here in South East Queensland, instead I see 4 lanes (often 8) of congestion traveling between Brisbane and the GC … Sydney does not seem much better.

  1. General Disarray

    This analysis was rather simplistic and isn’t up to the usual MB standard. There was nothing new discussed here, it also seems to assume static technology development and no shift to locally generated power.

    A totally electric car at the moment is a not a good option if you’re trying to be “green”, but technology must develop over time. At the moment hybrids provide fantastic opportunity for energy efficiency, farming kinetic energy is an excellent way to gain efficiency as just one example.

    As it stands now I’ve got a solar system here that could easily provide for my travel needs. In 10 to 20 years the technology will be so much better – and more affordable – that most people will have the opportunity to be in the same position as I, for a fraction of the cost.

    If MB is going to post articles like this it would be good if they at least contain some new ideas.

    • Thanks for your opinion GD, which you are fully entitled to – but I hasten to remind you that this is :

      A. a guest post
      B. a “musing” – a thought, opinion etc.

      Hence the title…..and the bit at the start that its from a guest…

    • In conclusion I entirely disagree with your criticism which unlike the article is not supported by facts and analysis.

    • +1 I concur

      I’ll add some brief rationale, but am not going to go through it piece by piece.

      There is no new detailed analysis / facts or figures discussed and seems very one sided, very non MB like

      “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”.”

      Look into “Better Place”. Basically, most people’s cars will be recharging while their *at* work and when they get home, the car wouldn’t start to recharge until after 10pm — this would be utilising the excess energy generated by power stations that isn’t used in the middle of the night (hence night tariffs). This will effectively make better use of the energy already generated by polluting technologies.

      “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 ”

      There is a multitude of new technologies – new power storage tech’s, more efficient drive trains etc. etc.

      “So since its pretty clear that electric cars do rely on electricity generation which produces GHG”

      Typically yes, but not necessarily so. Some of our electricity is already generated by wind / hydro and you can opt-in to what % of renewal energy you want to purchase as a consumer. Solar panels also offer a mechanism for people to generate their own electricity. So yes, electric cars do offer a 100% green solution (in relation to running energy costs).

      You need to realise that electric cars are a step in the evolution of more efficient and environmentally friendly transport. They enable regenerative breaking and can utilise energy derived from 100% renewable energy — where the technology is in it’s infancy, but will continue to improve.

      Looking at the work that a “Better Place” is doing as well… electric cars could provide an important role to help normalise the ebb and flow of electricity demand by using all cars collectively as an additional grid energy store.

      • The Sacked Wiggle

        Out of curiosity how many new power stations would be required to support a 100% fleet of electric cars in this country?

        I was under the impression that new hydro and wind powers schemes were largely ruled out because dams are bad and the NIMBY principle.

        • Sam, using PhilH’s numbers from below at 0.2 kWh/km and an average drive of 15000 km/year, each car’s going to need 3000 kWh/year, or 8.2 kWh/day. For the 16 million vehicles on the road (ABS 2011), this works out to be about 5500MW, so about 10-20 combined cycle gas plants depending on size.

          Need to account for efficiency etc as well, so something more than 10-20 depending on what you want to assume.

    • It asked more questions than giving answers, I wonder what the cost/co2 would be if we were to use uranium power stations or shale gas? What if the could make all the electric cars have a easily removable common battery that could be changed at servos (It may need a forlift to change it) and you paid a modest premium for the full battery, Just a common battery might brings prices down considerably. You could still use this battery all the time when travelling short trips and it would only be changed when on longer trips obviously there would have to be better infrastructure of servos built. What if you could have sort of electric carrying metal tape burried just under the bitumen and it could recharge the car with wireless??? You could have a toll like system in place. I am sure there are more questions and technologies out there, it only needs a forward thinking person with money to make it happen.

  2. Very good post MB..thanks.

    In the mean time until there are better green vehicles tax the big fuel hungry SUV’s like they do in Europe/UK. That at least changes habits.

  3. I think pretty much everybody knows that electric cars are only going to be more efficient when the electrical source is more efficient.

    However that is no reason not to introduce and develop the technology.
    Perhaps with more demand and appropriate pricing the infrastructure required will follow.

    And I will put my hand up for nuclear, i think Aus is the perfect country for it. Techtonically stable, lots of room and backs of fuel.

  4. Diogenes the CynicMEMBER

    Plenty of mish mash analysis there and I disagree with your conclusions.

    Electric cars are expensive currently because they are not yet in mass production. When they are in mass production you can expect much lower prices. The moment the price for an equivalent electric car is close or equal to a petrol powered vehicle I think you will see much greater demand. Electric cars are cheaper to “fill” up, at off peak rates I could fill up a LEAF for $2.50 for half the range of my current ICE, so allowing a double fill upper week it is about 90% cheaper than petrol cars to run $5 versus $65 for my Honda accord. They are cheaper to service as they have far less machinery that requires constant tuning, increase national security (as they do not require oil imports and it helps our current account too) and supposedly can last much longer, that is the electric engine is more efficient and can be run for more kms i.e. 1 million versus 200,000 kilometres. Obviously you would need to replace batteries at some point but the price of these will also fall and may be subject to a far reaching change if a new way of storing energy is developed (ultracapacitors are interesting). So if the unit purchase price is equivalent, it is cheaper to run and service and can last longer than an ICE car then electric cars are demonstrably superior from an ECONOMIC standpoint. They obviously produce less pollution when running (leaving aside your electricity generation arguments for now) and the batteries can be recycled.

    Surely electric cars powered by solar energy and localised energy production via a decentralised grid is the way of the future? I produce nearly 25+kWh per day across the year with my solar array. And if people did use the current grid to charge them then they could always do it off peak (11pm to 7am) when the current centralised grid needs MORE energy consumption, simple timers can suffice for this, heck we use those for retic systems. You also ignore the cost of refining and moving the petrol to the point of distribution in your petrol versus electric (powered by coal stations) that could easily be another 6-7 c per kWh equivalent which swings the argument back in favour of electric cars.

    I am eager to buy an electric car as soon as it is price equivalent to an ICE vehicle, no more going to petrol stations for me! Australia with its many detached households with powered garages, highly urbanised population doing short trips is one of the most suited countries to a high proportion of electric vehicles.

    • So even if the cost of producing renewable electricity is higher that produced from coal – it is still MUCH cheaper than petrol.

    • >I could fill up a LEAF for $2.50 for half the range of my current ICE, so allowing a double fill upper week it is about 90% cheaper than petrol cars to run $5 versus $65 for my Honda accord.

      hmm … well given the LEAF is not like your current car, which I assume to be a Honda accord, is this a fair comparison? Would a 1.3L Daihatsu be a more solid comparison? Will the LEAF only give that range when driven at low speeds (less than 80Km/h) and consume more when driven on the highway? Will you have 2 cars for highway and round town? Will making that other car an electric actually cost you less? Will it result in less C02 release or generate less pollution?

      Don’t confuse my motives with the seeming devils advocate nature of my questions. I would like to see good planning and good informed decisions being made (feeding into that planning). I don’t think the General Public is asking the right questions and directing their pollies with the same pressure that General Electric and General Motors is.

  5. I think the attraction of electric power is that it can be generated in renewable ways. Even if it isn’t now it is possible for the way of generating to be replaced

    Private transport is pretty stupidly wasteful.

    People with a seriously green agenda will always be in favour of much more public transport replacing private.

  6. The problem with the analysis is simply that electricity is produced anyway. If you don’t plug your electric kettle in do you think that they shut down production – no the power is produced anyway and excess production is lost.

    Power is produced in plateaus and to gain maximum efficiency all of the capacity should be utilised, so the argument may or may not be correct for any given grid at any given moment.

    It’s highly unlikely that we will see the complete redundancy of an ICE powered vehicle in our lifetime. Trucks especially need power and long distance capacity to be effective, but some worthwhile energy savings can be had from using electric city vehicles and hybrid vehicles.

    Yes the initial enviromental cost of producing rare earth demanding batteries is high, but it is still ‘paid back” over time and then the unit begins to show savings both economic and enviromental.

    The finite oil reserves will ensure that the cost of oil will rise steeply and alternate sources of energy will be needed, and that will occur much sooner than we realise. Ethanol production will hardly make a dent in demand. Nuclear reactors in vehicles sound a little far fetched, so by default electricity seems a logical choice for extensive development.

    I rather fancy the Tesla.

    • ” If you don’t plug your electric kettle in do you think that they shut down production – no the power is produced anyway and excess production is lost.”

      That’s not how it works.

      The work that the machines do in burning coal to convert water to steam to drive the generators in the power plant is directly related to the load that users put on the electricity network (including kettles).

      • The Sacked Wiggle

        +1 and when you increase that load by adding a several million electric vehicles to the grid (the end game) you will need to build many new power stations.

  7. 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.

    You have to compare apples to apples. How much energy was expended exploring and drilling for the oil, refining it into petrol/diesel and delivering it to the service station?

    As I understand it the well-to-wheel efficiency (and carbon intensity) of electric vehicles is superior to that of internal combustion vehicles.

    Of course, if the electricity is generated from a low carbon source (natural gas, wind, solar, nuclear) the carbon intensity is vastly superior to that of internal combustion vehicles.

    • lorax – I have a 5KW Solar unit and I converted to led lighting, so I feed more into the grid than I use (yes I get a cheque instead of a bill) so it’s quite possible.

      I believe solar cells are at best 14% efficient so with development all homes and factories could be self sufficient or almost.

      The problem with that is that exact synchronisation of the ac cycle is not possible, and some efficiency is lost. However the real problem is economic – the energy providers will have a massive problem with ver production that they buy but can’t sell, and then insufficient production during what was once “off peak” useage.

      Many problems to work through, but everything is doab;le given the political will, and financial incentives for the utilities to come on board.


      • That’s great Peter, but even your 5kw system would not come close to covering the energy needs of a typical family home on a rainy day in June.

        I also doubt you could recharge your electric vehicle at home with a rooftop PV system … unless you only recharge your car on sunny days between September and May.

        The real problem with rooftop PV is the solar cycle does not match the electricity demand cycle of a typical home.

        • It doesn’t cover the useage on every particular day, but over a period the output exceeds the useage.

          I produce more KW than I use. I don’t propose that as a solution in every case, but greater take up would help, but only if matched by an overhaul of the grid that allows for the changing useage, and right now suppliers are struggling with that.

          Storage is a major problem as well. But all problems have solutions if the incentive is in place.

          • Sure, but if rooftop PV was adopted universally it wouldn’t supply the needs of households, because households peak demand is when the sun doesn’t shine. i.e. early evenings. There has to be some kind of storage or fossil-fuel / nuclear backup.

            Believe me, this is not a reality I’m happy about, but it is the reality.

          • Lorax, household PV would reduce the need for daytime power production over base load – the gas powered turbines can instead spin up in the evening as the solar drops off. I don’t think anyone serious is suggesting that solar would be the cure for all ills but greater take up would certainly be a step forward.

        • The real problem with rooftop PV is the solar cycle does not match the electricity demand cycle of a typical home.

          My dad lives off the grid, but uses most of his power during the evening – not during the day. How? Batteries.

          He is pretty miserly with energy at the best of times, and he has to check the battery levels and the weather forecast for the next day before he decides how much power to use, but basically he gets by without the grid for backup.

          • My guess is your Dad’s electricity usage would be less than 10% of a typical family McMansion.

            I’m not saying its not admirable, and its not achievable, but most people would simply refuse to live on a tight energy budget. I mean, look at the brouhaha over paying a few dollars more a week for electricity!

          • My main point was that storage (whether it be batteries, flywheels, or pumping water back up into dams) can ease the mismatch between power generation and power consumption. There are losses associated with all of these options, but they do succeed in bridging the gap, and there are also losses associated with generating power from fossil fuels as well.

            You’re probably right about the 10%. The fact that his fridge runs on gas and he does his washing at the laundromat in town also help.

            But I honestly think that any realistic energy “solution” will have to involve using less — less energy and less stuff (embedded energy). With proper insulation and ventilation, and intelligent sharing (collaborative consumption), we probably won’t even notice the difference. We might even be happier, with more time interacting with other people and less time spent in front of a screen.

          • One of my family members has a similar setup (off-grid, solar panels, batteries, small gas fridge and gas cooking, solar thermal unit for hot water).

            She doesn’t watch TV but has a laptop she uses a lot, broadband, a stereo and of course lights. I have NEVER known the electricity to run out despite the panels being old and not particularly optimally configured.

            Anyway, I don’t find it too much of a hardship staying there. Obviously it’s not 100% renewable though, with the use of natural gas for cooking/refrigeration.

    • Yes, and another factor that needs to be kept in mind is the inefficiency of the internal combustion motor. After more than an century of development they are still bad. Most of the energy is lost as heat.

      They also require the cars to have complex transmission systems i.e gear box and diffs. The good thing about electric motors is the linear torque curve and the possibility of putting motors closer to the wheels they drive if not directly connected.

  8. Interesting economic analysis from a purely contemporaneous point of view, but what of peak oil? If (when) the stuff actually runs out with no viable large scale replacement, then none of that present day analysis amounts to much.

    You omitted to mention that Diesel originally designed his engines to run on peanut oil, and saw sustainable, renewable fuels as the future way back in the 1900s.

    The only like-for-like replacement for petrol appears to be in the area of oilgae research (or ‘green oil’), where they believe certain algae spp. probably created the world’s oil reserves in the first place (and converted the earth’s atmosphere from high CO2 to high O2 and enabled life as we know it today) — only the challenge is to speed up several million years worth of massive global algal growth to grow and harvest it cost-effectively in the here and now, most probably by GM methods. It’s perfectly carbon-neutral too, and freshly harvested oilgae products are purer and contain less contaminants than conventional oil from the ground. GM-modified diesel-exuding cyanobacteria are also a possibility.

    ‘Who Killed the Electric Car?’ pointed out a couple of things. 1) Yes, as one auto executive pointed out, an electric car only has a longer tailpipe to the coal power station, but 2) auto cos are reluctant to build all-electric vehicles over hybrids because hybrids still have their noisy, hot, dirty, oily, polluting and complicated petrol engines which are prone to breaking down and need lots of after-market servicing and repair. Hence their supply chain would start hurting if they developed all-electric cars as a lot of mechanics would be out of a job. Electric cars don’t even need a gearbox, as torquey electric motors can provide a continual power band across all speeds. That’s two complex and costly systems immediately gone. (And what of the aftercosts of all that maintenance and repair and pollution — has Pellicle factored that into the calculated cost of electric vs petrol? Not to mention much quieter streets with no revheads.)

    Pellicle should also be worried about his long list of pollutants also — SO2, NO2, lead, particulate crap, etc etc as we are breathing the stuff in all the time. It’s a bit like looking at the filthy soot-covered buildings (and lungs) of the early Industrial Revolution and sighing and saying it’s all necessary in the interests of progress.

    There are also new developments in battery technology — claims they are working on new Li-polymer batteries that carry ten times the charge and charge at ten times the rate — there is still scope for breakthroughs in that area.

    Regarding sources of electrical recharging — how about wind, solar PV, solar thermal, geothermal, tides, and yes, even 4th generation uranium nuclear and proposed thorium nuclear generators.

    (I still remain a fan of oilgae possibilities, but R&D is still slow and unconvincing in this area while we are at the brink of the precipice. And back to the noisy, complicated, hot engines…)

  9. I believe the US is phasing out corn ethanol subsidies so fortunately that’s one pseudo-green white elephant we can forget.

    • The Sacked Wiggle

      Having lived near the corn belt in the USA that would surprise me. The farm lobby is pretty powerful in the mid west and this is an election year. I’ll believe it when it happens.

  10. If electric cars were charged at night, then it would be quite feasible for them to have close to no CO2 footprint. This is because base load power station may be used heavily in the day and evenings but at night they can’t be shut off and the power is simply wasted. If electric cars could simply be charged at night then this wated power would be used.

    I find arguments against electric cars funny. People above have already mentioned battery developments that could give ranges greater than petrol cars yet people I know (not saying the author) still laugh about running out of petrol in 20kms… The equal CO2 power station argument is another cheap shot which is false whichever way you look at it.

    I think that just peak oil alone and the general fact that a lot of petrol money goes to regimes which piss all over the most basic human rights is a good enough reason to move away from petrol.

  11. OK, I can log in finally.

    I’m glad to see that my musing has generated discussion and disagreement. This is exactly how we move forward (rather than by just holding our views close to our chest).

    I would like to remind any readers that this article was quite short and thus by nature not exhaustive.

    I am not against the idea of electric cars at all, but its not a panacea in itself. For instance if I charge my car at home on my solar panel when do I drive it to work? Charging batteries to then charge my car will require greater investment in batteries and will result in greater losses.

    I personally support bicycle transport in cities and public transport. So to me Cars are not ideal for the majority of our miles. When I lived in Brisbane I rode from Annerley to Mt Gravatt for work (and later from Annerley to New Farm) This saved me some 10,000Km of fuel consumption every day, and compared to driving into the country (to go camping for instance) operated my car at its least efficient.

    Coal is burned all the time to keep a power reserve (which is not stored and is wasted) to enable the system to cope with ‘sudden loads’. This fact is something that is not widely understood, or even recognised. Solving this issue will not be simple in a complex power consuming world.

    Noone has mentioned the issues of battery technology and things like Lithium is now something like $25,000 an ounce. Lithium is at present one of the core elements needed in the production of high efficiency batteries

    Burning coal is actually producing low grade nuclear waste (little known, but well established in the scientific areas http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=coal-ash-is-more-radioactive-than-nuclear-waste) so those against nuclear should also be wary of coal

    Nuclear is about the most expensive power per kW/h unless you cut corners and impact on safety. Anyone here wish for a holiday in Fukushima right now? Do you trust politicans and our “system” to ensure that risk management is properly undertaken when faced with the pressure to reduce costs?

    there is of course much much more, and to do the discussion justice it all needs to be thought of.

    I’m going to the beach now … see ya 🙂

    • adelaide_economist

      Hi pellicle

      I thought your analysis actually provided a novel insight into, dare I say it, the economics of electric vehicles.

      I disagree with many of the commenters on a variety of issues, particularly with some views on how the electricity market works in Australia.

      I personally think people overstate how much power is ‘wasted’ by base load power generation in the context of electric cars. Unless all electric car charging happens off-peak, there is no to little wasted power. In South Australia, for example, you can compare the realtime electricity demand (from AEMO) with our base load generators to see there is in fact a fairly nice match. Much of the rest of our power is generated by gas fired generators which can (and do) ‘spin up’ and ‘spin down’ much, much faster than coal base load.

      I don’t have a problem at all with solar power, I think it’s great and many of the ‘problems’ with it increasing cost are unfairly shunted onto network distribution and transmission costs needed to power the proliferation of air conditioning (essentially) rather than any costs associated with feed in tariffs etc.

      I don’t think it’s a solution to talk about storage issues etc being overcome anytime soon because even if an ideal ‘storage’ for industrial level users of electricity were invented today it would not be ubiquitious and affordable anytime soon.

      All that said, I think it’s good to get some of the issues out there for further discussion.

    • Noone has mentioned the issues of battery technology and things like Lithium is now something like $25,000 an ounce.

      Which is almost certain to spur investment into cheaper alternatives.

      A few years back, when interest in solar PV started to pick up, the price of processed silicon for manufacturing solar panels went through the roof, and there were serious shortages. The (predictable) consequence was for the producers of processed silicon to ramp up production dramatically. (I was indirectly involved in this as a translator.) Once the new production came online, the – again predictable – consequence was for prices to plummet, bringing the prices of solar cells down with them, to the point where PV solar is expected to reach price parity with coal within a few years — estimates vary, but this will be a gamechanger.

      Of course, silicon is a super-abundant element, and so production is mainly constrained by infrastructure (and energy) rather than resource supply. Lithium supplies are a lot more limited (enough for 2 billion Nissan Leafs, according to Wikipedia), and so we might not see exactly the same kind of story repeated, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the same kinds of interactions between demand and supply lead to a similar price curve. As others have commented, there is still a lot of room for efficiency improvement, and lithium is not the only game in town, so high prices might spur investment in alternatives.

      I’ve also been involved with translations for swap-and-go battery technology, which also has a lot of potential to be a game changer for range extension, convenience, and better alignment between charging times and the availability of intermittent supplies of renewable energy.

      Despite these comments, I’m not really a car person either. I’d like to see a lot less cars on the road, through better public transport, better cycling options, car pooling, car sharing, etc. But at the same time I’d also like to see an increasing proportion of the cars that are on the road powered by electric motors. Not because I think EVs will make a massive contribution to reducing emissions on their own, but because I think the enabling effects of having a large, distributed power storage network will – with the help of intelligent pricing and truly smart meters – help shift the “balance of power” away from fossil fuels and towards renewables.

    • There’s a few things. Lithium is not rare – far from it. SQM produces lithium in tonnages not ounces. It definitely isn’t more expensive than Gold. I don’t have the lithium price on the top of my head but Sqm recently announced they were reducing its pricing. A quick google search showed Tru group quoting lithium carbonate prices at US4300 a tonne. Besides the fact that a lot of the weight in the battery isn’t lithium anyway – there’s always the anode, elecrolyte, battery separators and packaging that all add to the weight of the battery. What matters currently is the Wh/Kg rating of batteries. Even with centralised power distribution electric cars normally beat ICEs after most costs are considered. The problem really is range and that is something that we can work upon.

      we forget that the ICE has had 100 years more of investment in infrastructure, R&D, production and development. Think about all the service stations that have sprung up, the refineries, etc. Imagine trying to set that up for the electric car network.

      ICEs can be more efficient but even they are more efficient when they are centralised, can run in their sweet spot and use cheaper fuel souces (like ship diesel engines that rev really slowly). Large diesels are a lot more efficient than small car/truck diesels. Even after transmission losses which can be mitigated anyway there is still an advantage.

      And i disagree that we can’t get rid of trucks. Electric locomotives are vastly superior for freight than diesel ones hence Europe’s adoption of them in the most mountainous terrain. I think we as a country need to consider the merits of rail freight vs truck freight and a big investment into our rail networks.

      The car isn’t going anywhere. the cat is out of the bag so to speak. Public transport is better in a green sense if run off electricity but the utility we get out of our cars and the design of our cities means cars will be here for a long while. Many people will pay double per week to drive to work rather than using public transport. And a lot of recreational travel for people is not suited to public transport (i.e in more decentralised cities with low densities).

  12. I don’t this post is up to the standards set by the majority of MB.

    1. Calculations (granted they were back of the envelope) by some energy analysts I know in Victoria pointed to petrol vehicles emitting far more CO2 than equivalent EV ones running on juice from the Latrobe Valley’s finest brown coal. (It being the dirtiest source of base load electricity in the country) To suggest that MB readers, even super green ones, aren’t aware that EVs cause CO2 emissions is a little insulting.

    2. If you really want to have a go at EVs look at this excellent link that Rumplestatskin provided last year:


    A very convincing argument that batteries are way too expensive, won’t be coming down in cost soon, and aren’t improving in efficiency. If you develop a cheap, efficient battery you’ve got your silver bullet, but until then…

    A realistic and relevant post might be on the inevitable rise of 2-4 cylinder diesel cars in Australia in the next 15 years? Less sexy and divisive, but you could tie it in with the viability of the local industry and whether it should makes a decent small car like a Corolla or continue with stupid, stupid tanks like the Ford Explorer modeled on the Canyonero:

  13. I’m happy to put my hand up for nuclear power. More than happy to also live near one. It’s a terrible shame about the politics around this issue. Safe reactor designs with 0% chance of meltdown using thorium (that cannot be enriched for weapons) are available. It is a real shame this is a hot button issue that cannot be discussed rationally.

    • I used to have an open mind about nuclear, but I was less than 200 km away when the Fukushima reactors blew up, and I’m now very, very skeptical.

      I followed the Fukushima crisis in great detail, reading both Japanese and English news sources. There were many seemingly well-informed and rational arguments claiming that this, that or the other could never happen, but which were subsequently overtaken by events.

      Human beings are always the weakest link in the chain, and I am skeptical of society’s ability to safely manage radioactive waste over the necessary time frames.

      However, for precisely this reason, I am supportive of further research into fast breeder reactors that can burn spent fuel from conventional reactors, and producing waste with a half-life measured in hundreds of years rather than tens of thousands of years. Not because I think we need* the energy, but because it is possibly the most responsible thing to do with existing waste.

      * “Need” is a far more subjective term that most people realize. I’ve lived off the grid for several months with just two small solar panels and a handful of batteries, and was quite happy. More is not always better.

      • The Fukushima reactors were a 40 year old design that was overtaken by a catastrophic earthquake and (more damaging) tsunami which caused three levels (iirc) of safety systems to fail. The only human frailties in that crisis were the mismanagement of the response and clean-up.

        The point Gavin was making was about thorium reactors – something MB covered in the aftermath of Fukushima. These are safer designs by far and produce waste which degrades within a human lifetime. I’m skeptical about fast breeders, but each to his own and may the best technology win.

        • When I say “very, very skeptical” I mean just that. Not “irrevocably opposed” just “need a helluva lot of convincing”.

          There is evidence to suggest that the earthquake alone was enough to rupture the pipes, with radiation spikes even before the tsunami arrived. But the real lesson from Fukushima is not the vulnerability of nuclear reactors to seismic events but the inescapability of Murphy’s Law – what can go wrong, will go wrong. And when you are dealing with something as toxic as radioactive fuel/waste, then all plans and designs need to be scrutinized with the utmost care.

          I am open to being persuaded, but at this stage both thorium reactors and fast breeders are still vapourware, and I am dubious about the wisdom of relying on unproven technology to solve the either the energy crisis or the climate crisis.

          Better, IMO, to scale back our energy aspirations to the point where they can be met by proven renewable technologies, at least until such time as alternatives (such as possibly thorium) prove themselves at commercial scale.

  14. “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.”

    Typical electricity transmission and distribution losses are around 7%, not 50%.

    Petrol contains approximately 10 kW/l of energy. Therefore, a 40 litre tank of petrol contains approximately 400kWh of energy, and assuming this is a small car, will power the vehicle approximately 600km, giving an energy usage of approximately 0.7 kWh/km. It also requires energy to refine crude oil to produce petrol, but I don’t have any figures at hand for that, so I’ll ignore it.

    There are not many fully-electric vehicles on the market, but the Mitsubishi i-MiEV (also sold by Peugeot and Citroen) has a battery capacity of 16kWh, which is equivalent to 1.6l of pterol. The energy required at the power station to fully charge the car, assuming 80% efficiency for the car’s Li-ion battery and 7% transmission losses, is around 21.5 kWh. This supposedly propels the vehicle about 100km, giving an energy usage of around 0.2 kWh/km.

    Now, is this comparing apples with apples? Not really, but it’s closer than you might think. A typical small car engine delivers around 70kW/120Nm and the i-Miev electric motor delivers 47kW/180Nm. The electric car is smaller and lighter, but not by all that much. Li-ion batteries also self-discharge over time; but then again, petrol loses energy over time, as well.

    Lastly, the internal combustion engine is currently very close to its maximum theoretical efficiency. However, battery technology still has a way to go before it hits its limits.

    • >Typical electricity transmission and distribution losses are around 7%, not 50%

      Phil, can you find any reference to support that? Thermal efficiency (the amount of chemical energy contained in what you burn vs the amount of electricity generated at the station is about as I quoted above. I assume you are quoting the figure from Wikipedia of : “Transmitting electricity at high voltage reduces the fraction of energy lost to resistance, which averages around 7%.”

      but this is not the measure of overall loss between power station and home, it is in discussion of the section of loss in transmission lines, compared to the loss of transmitting it at a lower voltage. The power is generated at the station at a much lower voltage than it is transmitted. It requires a step up process to shift it up in voltage to 400,000V then at different locations is stepped down to other various voltages.

      I know it requires some exposure to electrical engineering and better research than just wikipedia, as much of this information just simply isn’t on the net as its proprietary.

    • “… a cost of 10.2 Billion” — that number is meaningless without a time frame.
      Are we talking additional upgrade costs? Or does this figure include the substantial upgrades that are already scheduled.
      Does the report take into account the mitigating effect of network storage and off-peak recharging discussed elsewhere in the comments?

      I know, I could just read the article in the Oz, but I’m hoping you won’t force me to do that 😉

  15. hmm, $10 bn is the cost of just one part of the last stimulus. The $900 per head tax handout cost $10 bn. The FHOB cost $10 bn. The BER cost $10bn. The NBN is going to cost $40bn — and then maybe we won’t have to drive as far since we’ll be telecommuting and videoconferencing with all the new bandwidth…

    Some random stuff:

    Here’s an interesting cycling solution that is low cost, weather-proof, safe in traffic, high speed, low maintenance, stable on 3 wheels, good exercise, fabulous engineering, etc:


    They’re such a good idea the guy can’t even get them into production.

    Here’s the promise of ‘Same-size lithium ion battery, 10 x the storage, 10 x the charge speed’:


    And note that Afghanistan has about $1 trillion worth of lithium yet to be dug up.

    And I don’t think there are any commercial scale thorium power plants in existence at all yet, they are still experimental and have scaling difficulties. One expert says they effectively can’t even work. Others say they have other difficulties that make them less safe. ( http://www.simplyinfo.org/?p=3101 , http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jun/23/thorium-nuclear-uranium) But on the other hand, this guy likes them:


    • “And note that Afghanistan has about $1 trillion worth of lithium yet to be dug up.”

      My my, what a coincidence. 🙂

      Thanks for the links too. I love my gadgets.

  16. While Hybrids have a place electric cars are simply crap technology.
    Batteries are too heavy, Take to long to charge and produce toxic problems during disposal.
    Electric motors have poor torque characteristics, making the unsuitable for trying too accelerate.

    A much more suitable short trip vehicle is a compressed air powered car, Extremely fast to fill, Fantastic torque, and is already in use in forklifts and places like india. Much cheaper to make as well.

  17. Firstly, great discussion point. Perfect over dinner after a glass of wine. To address a couple of points…

    Energy source:

    “hands up here who’s keen on Nuclear”

    Well, mine is up for starters. Nuke is safer, cleaner, more reliable and with a longer pipeline of usable fuel.


    “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. ”

    Yes, but how did that fuel get to the fuel station? In big petrol consuming trucks. You cannot count distribution costs of the electricity and ignore that of petrol.

    Load balancing:

    “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”.”

    Yes, this is a problem with our current primitive electricity infrastructure. And it is a problem that is easily solved. Plugging your car when you get home at 7pm needn’t be a problem if it doesn’t start charging until later that night (think cheap off-peak). Off-peak is even cheaper with nuke, because nuke runs best as a stable base power flow. So we leverage the storage capacity of electricity to even out consumption. In fact, there’s no reason why your house can’t do this too. Imagine a stack of batteries somewhere in your house that charges whenever it’s cheap, and supplies as you need it.

    Cost of vehicles:

    “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.”

    True… for the moment. That will reverse when the production facilities have tooled over to focus on electric cars and the majority are buying electric cars. This is simple price reduction over the product adoption life-cycle

    What you didn’t mention:

    Air quality. Even coal sourced electricity-powered cars moves the particulate emissions away from cities where it does less harm to the majority of people.

    • What you didn’t mention: Air quality.

      ah, yes. I was thinking that exact point but in my writing for got to include it again. Thanks for raising that one as its a good point.

      Stuff can be cleaned out of coal generators more easily than out of car exhausts.

      However displacement does not remove its effects, such as acid rain.

      I note that Delhi has gone great leaps and bounds in air quality by mandating LPG in their taxi fleet.

      its a little early for a glass of wine, but it has been a boisterous and thought provoking “dinner table” discussion in my view too


  18. Rob JM
    January 22, 2012 at 8:10 am

    While Hybrids have a place electric cars are simply crap technology.
    Batteries are too heavy, Take to long to charge and produce toxic problems during disposal.
    Electric motors have poor torque characteristics, making the unsuitable for trying too accelerate.

    A lot of that is untrue, or possibly about to become untrue. As noted slightly earlier, hybrid cars seem to mostly serve to keep auto cos’ supply chain and after market servicing in business as the cost of servicing complex IC engines and gearboxes is high, plus the spare parts trade has a huge markup. If you watch ‘Who Killed the Electric Car’, one of the mechanics who serviced the trial electric cars pointed out you only had to top up the windscreen washer fluid on a service visit and that was it, and they were also incredibly clean to work with. This was one of the reasons given as to why auto cos were keen to crush the prototypes as soon as they could, after the Californian legislation was changed.

    The people who had obtained leases on the trial cars were incredibly sad to see them reclaimed for crushing, and even held rallies to get their cars back, where they pointed out that for the totality of vehicle use, this car only suited 90% of the people 90% of the time, so it clearly had to go. The auto execs kept insisting people wanted to go on thousand mile journeys daily or similar.

    Batteries are admittedly quite heavy and take too long to recharge — hence the rapid exchange idea — but there are now dozens of articles citing new anode/cathode technology that promises 10x capacity at 10x speed coming soon. Further, hybrids are actually worse than all-electric in this regard because they are cramped and add an extra 80kg or so between having electric motors, batteries and a midget IC engine and even gearbox all thrown in — it makes more sense to have just the electric motor and battery by itself.

    I don’t know where you got the ‘poor torque characteristics of electic motors’ idea from, they have excellent torque characteristics, in fact, it’s IC engines that have poor characteristics, hence the need for a complicated, expensive multi-stage gearbox to keep the power band in the sweet spot — consequently electric cars don’t need a shifting gearbox, saving a lot of expense, complexity, and potential breakdowns. The Tesla salespeople while demonstrating the car like to ask the potential customer to reach forward and adjust the radio, and at the same time they put their foot on the accelerator — the G forces are such that the person cannot actually reach the radio! Torque is good at all speeds, top speed is good, no gearbox required, etc etc.

  19. The point in question here is really cheap, co2 minimal energy generation. If that can be mastered, which I think it will be using CSP’s (the massive desserts of australia will suddenly become the most valuable part) then petrol becomes irrelevant.

  20. Jumping jack flash

    Very interesting article and I agree with a lot of it.

    The arguments always end up with the same conclusion: “once new technology becomes available the world will be saved” when discussing any kind of green technology…

    The answer to all the “new technology”? Oh that’s always, “throw more money around”.

    Well I have one for you: cold fusion.

    Just put one of those cold fusion reactors in every EV and problem solved.

    And if you don’t like that, what about room temperature superconductors? That would result in lossless electricity transmission no matter what amazing new schemes were developed to generate it.

    The arguments for and against funding research into cold fusion and room temperature superconductors can easily be ported across to the efficient battery, and efficient green energy crowd, and the solutions are remarkably the same: throw more money around.

    So why not waste money on a real solution rather than developing fancier and more expensive lipstick to put on the pig?

    • I liked the “Mr Fusion” energy solution pioneered on that Delorean in the mid 80’s. Could run up to 88MPa on recycled household waste like bananna peels.