Electric Cars not Ready for Showtime
It seems that no one can ever do quite enough to satisfy the demands of professional complainers. Not even Elon Musk, world-famous promoter of electric vehicles. He was met rudely by protesters at the grand opening of his Tesla assembly plant, just outside Berlin, during recent ceremonies: "...it [the plant] has faced opposition and some environmental activists blocked the factory’s entrance while displaying banners flagging its high water use…”
All said and done, it should become clear to various parties that the newer generation of electric vehicles is no better, environmentally speaking, than late-model automobiles powered by the much-maligned internal combustion engine. The goal of saving the Earth from ungrounded fears of “climate disruption” attending CO2 emissions pales in contrast to the massive disruptions by a transportation system whose dependence on EVs that will trigger dreaded brownouts.
Modern EVs share inherent shortcomings with their dowdy ancestors. I recall my father pointing out a relic black Baker electric (made circa 1910–14) as it trundled down our street. It resembled a hearse more than a car. Obviously, 2022 Teslas far outperform the Baker, but both the Baker in its own time and today’s nifty Teslas require lengthy recharging when the batteries run low. More about that detail a little later.
Here’s another sobering thought for EV prospects in northerly climes. There is no waste heat from onboard fuel combustion to warm the car’s interior. Both warm and cool air must come from a heat pump operated parasitically with current drawn from the battery pack, whose stored energy is intended primarily for vehicle propulsion. Diverting power to accessories decreases the driving range below its advertised value, and substantially during very cold or very hot weather.
Industry contenders (Tesla, GM, Toyota, and others) are in the latter stages of sorting through the best combinations of energy storage (the battery system) and prime mover (the electric motor).
Electric motors in primitive form go back to the early 19th century. Pioneers like Faraday, Tesla, and Edison contributed to their development. By the late 19th century, the DC (direct current) motor had evolved sufficiently for use in automobiles. Trolley cars, buses, and subway trains also ran with DC motors when the Big Apple was young.
With the advent of AC (alternating current), its inventor, Serbian-born Nicola Tesla, enabled practical AC induction motors that power most commercial applications today. But today’s highly competitive automotive playing field leaves the outcome for dominance (AC or DC) far from settled.
At issue are scarce materials needed in the construction of both the lithium-ion batteries and several versions of high-performance motors to power EVs. Lithium, nickel, cobalt, copper, and rare-earth metals (lanthanum, neodymium, and other elements) lead the list of key components in batteries and motors. Serious supply problems ahead promise to keep consumer prices sky-high.
And to no one’s surprise, China cornered about 90% of lithium reserves and dominates the market. Automakers are scrambling for other sources amid turmoil in other international arenas.
Mining lithium and other strategic metals incur environmental costs such that strictly enforced regulations in the United States force most mining and processing of lithium offshore. But in Third World countries, extracting these exotic minerals often leaves behind improperly disposed of dross containing toxic waste. Out of sight, out of mind, right, greens?
It is mistaken to assume electric vehicles leave behind no environmental footprint, either in their construction or operation. The electricity needed for charging comes from the grid fed by coal-fired, nuclear, and hydro-plants, far more than from wind farms or solar panels atop roofs.
Those pushing for a rapid transition to an all-electric fleet suffer myopia that may come back to bite them, sooner than later.
The favored cars of the future are not ready for prime time in 2022, despite what the President recently said. And in many more ways than proponents are willing to acknowledge.
What’s to come? Factors yet to emerge will help buyers decide whether the evolving EV, a conventional model, or a hybrid presents the intelligent choice. There are several things to consider: investment cost, operating costs, convenience, reliability, and safety. There is no obvious choice based solely on what’s good for the environment, despite the widely advertised opinions of EV advocates.
Stubborn safety issues persist with electrics, centering on potential fire hazards inherent in lithium batteries. In February, a freighter loaded with high-end EVs sank in the Atlantic after a fire swept through its cargo (4,000 Porches, Lamborghinis, Bentleys, etc.), many equipped with lithium-ion batteries. The ship capsized and sank, having sustained irreparable damage. It’s not clear whether the fire originated within a battery, but once ignited, it quickly spread through the EVs onboard.
Hastening the transition to electrics will further expose hazards within the existing technology. Manufacturers may be tempted to shorten recharging times to entice buyers but would put the driving public at greater risk. Minimizing fire hazards translates into delays drivers will experience whenever venturing beyond the normal range, requiring the next recharge.
Newsmax compares the costs of owning and operating an EV with a comparable SUV. It reached the conclusion that combined costs of purchasing the new vehicles (with EV subsidy) and subsequent operating expenses favor a conventional model by more than $13,000 over a six-year period. The figure doesn’t account for increases in electricity rates that may accompany the enormous increase in power demand with 50 million EVs taking to the highways. Rates applicable to charging stations away from home would be higher.
“Be not the first by whom the new are tried, nor yet the last to lay the old aside.” Sage advice from 18th-century poet Alexander Pope to an EV buyer in 2022.
William D. Balgord, Ph.D. (geochemistry) heads Environmental & Resources Technology, Inc. in Middleton, WI. E&RT conducted studies on auto exhaust emissions and vehicle fuel economy for the US Department of Transportation. He is a Contributing Writer with the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.
Image: Baker Electric