Volkswagen's electric microbus: Much virtue-signaling, little virtue

Electric vehicles are coming from Volkswagen.  Hate to disappoint, but if you love the environment, this is a step backward.

Recently, an amendment to a green energy bill in the House was defeated.  It would have required the secretary of commerce to certify that federally funded buses and charging stations do not contain minerals mined or processed by children.  The Democrat majority said such an amendment was not necessary since the U.S. already has trade agreements prohibiting child labor.  Ah, but not with the Congo or Zimbabwe.  Clever.

Why is this important?  The U.S. has produced zero cobalt in the past 40 years.  Without cobalt, there would be no electric car batteries, and half of the world's supply of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where some 40,000 kiddies dig for cobalt by hand.  Here's a CBS News article on it, and here's another from ABC News Australia.  They toil under appalling conditions for 12 hours per day, earning something between $1 and $2 per day.  Is that a living wage, even in the Congo?

And where does the lithium for car batteries come from?  Mostly the high deserts of Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia, which hold 75% of the world's lithium deposits.  Water is pumped underground, where it dissolves the lithium, then pumped to the surface to evaporate so the salts can be scooped up.  Here's a brief overview.  It takes 500,000 gallons of water to extract one ton of lithium.  A Tesla Model S contains nearly 140 lb of lithium.  Who would otherwise use the water evaporated for lithium extraction?  Subsistence farmers, mostly indigenous people.  Who cares?  Their sacrifice allows richer, older American males to do their bit to save the planet.  Demographics of Tesla-owners can be found here.

  1. Richer: For the Model 3, average household income is $128,140 per year.  For comparison, the median household income in the United States in 2017 was $61,372.  (I know, median is not the same as average, but it's safe to say the vast majority of Americans cannot afford a Tesla.)  And 55% of Tesla Model 3 owners live in the wealthiest 10% of ZIP codes in the United States.
  2. Older: "Our data shows that the median age of a Tesla Model 3 owner is 46 years old.  That compares to 38 for the US population."
  3. Male: Owners of the Model 3 are 84% male.  Yes, 84%!

Then there are the rare earth elements, without which there would be no green technology: no solar panels, no windmills, no lithium batteries, etc.  Despite their name, rare earths are well dispersed in the earth's crust.  But they are not very concentrated, and refining them usually leaves behind radioactive waste, including uranium and thorium.  There is a market for uranium but not thorium, making it expensive to dispose of.  So where are rare earths mined and refined?  There is a single rare earth mine in the U.S., in eastern California.  It is now owned by the Chinese, and its ore is refined in China.  In fact, rare earths overwhelmingly come from China, which has the most global reserves of rare earth elements (42 percent) and produces around 89 percent of global output.  So that takes care of the problem of disposing of the waste!  But don't worry — those activities take place in Inner Mongolia and Tibet, so it's not a problem, right?

Oh, and China, which processes most of the world's minerals, uses child labor, particularly in Tibet and northwestern China.  How much?  No one knows, but China assures us it's working really, really hard to eliminate it.  The Chinese have even passed laws against it!

The VW ID.4 looks like an updated microbus.  Volkswagen apparently believes that the vehicle has a California vibe, as the ad shows a surfer approaching his green ride above the slogan "It's OK to say 'groovy' again."  One has to ask where California will get the electricity to charge them.  Right now, the California grid is strained, and rolling blackouts have hit various parts of the state numerous times over the last year.  California has grossly unbalanced its power sources with an overreliance on "green" energy from solar and wind power.  Unfortunately, neither produces when the state needs it most because both are notoriously unreliable (unavailable) and often produce power when the state doesn't need it, forcing the utilities to pay Arizona to take power in the winter and spring.  California is planning to shut down a nuclear reactor that produces electricity for 3 million homes.  As of now, there is no backup power plan to keep the entire state powered all the time.  California can't even keep the lights on now, so how are these people going to charge all of these cars when the sun goes down?  Dirty fossil fuels from expensive-to-run backup gas turbines?  Or even more solar power, with batteries from San Diego to San Francisco using megatons of lithium at a staggering cost?  The normal ratepayers will take an enormous hit as California virtue-signals its green bona fides.  But who cares about the hoi polloi?

Henry Percy is the nom de guerre of a writer in Arizona.  He may be reached at saler.50d[at]

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