And May Reveal More About the Hurdles EVs Face Than He Meant
Energy Density Limits EVs
After a fire apparently caused by a Tesla Model S hitting some debris on the road, Tesla CEO jumped into the media fray with a letter addressing the incident. While Musk’s defense of the safety of the Model S, particularly in relation to a gas-fueled car, is well-taken, part of his letter responding to the fire (which was followed by two other fires soon after) also revealed one of the ongoing hurdles faced by electric vehicles. In spite of EVs’ great efficiency, their “fuel” doesn’t approach the density of gasoline. Here’s the key portion of Elon’s letter:
Had a conventional gasoline car encountered the same object on the highway, the result could have been far worse. A typical gasoline car only has a thin metal sheet protecting the underbody, leaving it vulnerable to destruction of the fuel supply lines or fuel tank, which causes a pool of gasoline to form and often burn the entire car to the ground. In contrast, the combustion energy of our battery pack is only about 10% of the energy contained in a gasoline tank and is divided into 16 modules with firewalls in between. As a consequence, the effective combustion potential is only about 1% that of the fuel in a comparable gasoline sedan. [As printed in AutoWeek magazine]
As Musk noted, the combustion energy of the Model S battery pack is only about 10 percent of the energy contained in a typical gasoline tank. But it is not only the combustion energy of a battery pack that is significantly lower than gasoline, but it’s energy density, particularly when looked at on an energy/kg basis. According to a good summary on Science 2.0, gasoline has an energy density of 44 MJ/kg while lithium-ion batteries are about 1/16th of that. In a nutshell, that helps explain why it takes only a few gallons of gasoline to take a car the same distance that would require several hundred pounds of batteries in an electric car.
The Science 2.0 author adds – and I would agree – that the energy density issue does not negate the value of EVs or their technology, it merely points out the challenges of the real world. Of course, Musk can counter that his $80,000+ Model S can take you more than 250 miles, but for those looking at electric cars in the price range of an average car, the real world limit on a charge is closer to 100 miles at best. The energy density issue remains the challenge that battery developers must overcome, along with cost issues, in order to offer an electric car that is a true alternative to today’s efficient gas and diesel cars.
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By Max Baumhefner and Cecilia Springer*
Uncovering a fraud is uniquely satisfying, which is perhaps why news outlets continue to provide electric car deniers with a platform to proclaim they aren’t as green as they appear. But close examination reveals the latest round of skeptics to be lacking in substance. Numerous peer-reviewed articles have reached the same conclusion — from cradle to grave, electric cars are the cleanest vehicles on the road today. And unlike cars that rely on oil, the production of which is only getting dirtier over time, the environmental benefits of electric cars will continue to improve as old coal plants are replaced with cleaner sources and manufacturing becomes more efficient as it scales up to meet growing consumer demand.
“Did you account for the pollution from the electricity it takes to power the vehicles?”
This question has been asked and answered. Using today’s average American electricity mix of natural gas, coal, nuclear, hydro, wind, geothermal, and solar, an electric car emits half the amount of harmful carbon pollution per mile as the average new vehicle. In states with cleaner mixes, such as California, it’s only a quarter as much. To find out how clean your electric car would be today, plug your zip code into the EPA’s “Beyond Tailpipe Emissions Calculator.” Those benefits will only improve as the electric grid becomes cleaner over time.
Before NRDC began advocating for vehicle electrification, we did our own homework, publishing a two-volume report in partnership with the Electric Power Research Institute. The work took almost two years and concluded that a long-term shift to the use of electricity as a transportation fuel provides substantial reductions in carbon pollution and air quality benefits.
It’s essential to take a long view when examining vehicle electrification because the electric grid doesn’t stand still. Since the time we published that report, the EPA has adopted power plant standards for mercury and other air toxics, ozone-forming emissions, fine particulate pollution, soot and coal ash, proposed standards for greenhouse gases from new power plants, and has been directed by the president to adopt greenhouse gas standards for existing plants. Meanwhile, twenty-nine states have adopted renewable energy targets to reduce emissions. Driving on renewable electricity is virtually emissions-free.
“Did you account for the resources it takes to build the cars?”
Producing an electric car today requires more resources than producing a conventional vehicle, generally due to the large batteries. However, comparing the efficiency of relatively nascent and small scale electric vehicle manufacturing to the efficiency of conventional automobile production, which has benefited from more than a century of learning-by-doing, is misleading. Automakers are racing to save money and materials through recycling and more efficient production. Those who win the race will win the market.
Even with today’s technology, on a lifecycle basis, the electric car is still the cleanest option available. Higher emissions from manufacturing are more than offset by the substantial benefits of driving on electricity. We examined six peer-reviewed academic studies and found that in every case, electric vehicles win by a substantial margin, with estimates ranging from 28 to 53 percent lower crade-to-grave emissions than conventional vehicles today.
Opponents often rely upon the original version of a Norwegian study (Hawkins 2012), which has much higher estimates of emissions associated with the production of electric cars. Those skeptics generally cherry-pick from the original version of that article, and ignore the fact it was corrected post-publication, resulting in its estimate of the comparative emissions benefit rising from 22 percent to 28 percent. In other words, even the source relied upon by skeptics shows a substantial lifecycle advantage for electric cars. The Norwegian study finds the lowest benefit relative to the other articles examined partially because it includes an estimate of emissions associated with the disposal of advanced battery materials that is higher than other studies, which brings us to the next question:
“What about mining and disposing of the materials needed to make the batteries?”
First off, there is no shortage of the materials needed to make advanced vehicle batteries. A recent article in the Journal of Industrial Ecology concludes, “even with a rapid and widespread adoption of electric vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries, lithium resources are sufficient to support demand until at least the end of this century.” Another analysis of the trade constraints associated with the global lithium market came to a similar conclusion, and noted that even a “five-fold increase of lithium price would not impact the price of battery packs.” Furthermore, companies like Simbol Materials are already finding innovative ways to acquire lithium by harvesting materials from the brine of geothermal power plants — no mining required.
Secondly, advanced vehicle batteries are unlikely to be simply thrown away; they’re too valuable. Even once they’re no longer suitable for automotive use, they retain about 80 percent of their capacity and can be re-purposed to provide grid energy storage to facilitate the integration of variable renewable resources, such as wind and solar. Automotive batteries can also be re-purposed to support the electrical grid at the neighborhood level, preventing the need to invest in costly distribution system equipment. Pacific Gas & Electric plans to use money saved through the strategic deployment of used battery packs in neighborhoods throughout Northern and Central California to provide electric car drivers with rebates to reduce the purchase price of new electric cars.
Finally, those batteries that aren’t re-purposed will likely be recycled. Conventional vehicle manufacturing is one of the most efficient industries in the world – around 95 percent of vehicle parts are recycled, reducing the energy needed to make more parts. It is worth noting that conventional lead-acid car batteries are consistently the most recycled product for which the EPA provides data, with a recycling rate of 96 percent. Advanced battery recycling could cut associated emissions in half, according to a 2012 study from researchers at Argonne National Laboratory. Companies are already investing in such technologies.
In summary, a sustained and serious examination of the cradle-to-grave impacts of electric cars reveals they are the cleanest option available today, and that the environmental benefits of vehicle electrification will only increase over time. That’s not only good news for the eco-conscious, but for any consumer interested in driving on a cleaner fuel at a price equivalent to buck-a-gallon gasoline. For more, see Real Oil Independence: Buck-a-Gallon Electricity for Life.
*Cecilia Springer is an associate at Climate Advisers, where she manages projects on transportation and sustainable supply chains.
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(By John Addison). It is a buyer’s market for those developing large wind, solar, bioenergy, biofuel, and other renewable energy projects. In 2009, land is less expensive , equipment cost less, deliveries are faster, and warranties longer. It is a buyer’s market if you have cash, yet it continues to be a difficult time to secure debt financing. This message was consistent from the majority attending the FRA Renewable Energy Finance and Investment Summit this week. I chaired the renewable fuels track and had a chance to talk with a number of developers and financers of renewable energy and fuels.
Demand for renewable energy is at a record high as U.S. utilities in about 30 states struggle to meet RPS (renewable Portfolio Standards). These utilities want to sign PPA (Power Purchase Agreements) for 5 to 20 years of wind power, solar, bioenergy, geothermal, and other renewable production. In the future, to meet targets these utilities may need to directly develop, own, and operate these RE plants. Many would need PUC (public utility commission) approval to make this part of their business model.
RE has been a historic opportunity for developers who would take projects through 3 to five years of analysis, regulatory approvals, securing equity and debt financing, buying equipment, program management, and operating the plant. Now, few investors and lenders have the appetite for risk, as projects such as ethanol plants have gone bankrupt.
Credit worthiness of developers, utilities and end users are scrutinized. For example, major public real estate owners of buildings, hotels, and shopping centers that want MW of solar cannot get the RE because their corporation or REIT has a sub-prime debt rating.
Risk is intensified as redundant regulation and NIMBY (not in my backyard) opposition can delay installation of high-voltage lines for 7 to 10 years from wind or solar farm to major cities that need more electricity. Even billionaire Boone Pickens was unwilling to tie-up money for that period of time.
New high-voltage lines can be done. Prairie Wind went from zero to a transmitting 345kV line in less than 3 years. It is now optimistic about completing a 110 mile 765kV transmission system in Kansas. Prairie Wind Transmission is a joint venture of Westar Energy and Electric Transmission America — a joint venture of American Electric Power and MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company. ITC Great Plains and Prairie Wind Transmission are authorized to build different segments of the Kansas V-Plan.
Although large-scale RE development in 2009 is beyond the financing capabilities of most entrepreneurs, it is an opportunity for major public companies with investment-grade bond ratings such as FPL Energy, GE Energy, Iberdrola Renovables, and EDF Energy Nouvelles. Wall Street analysts are forecasting record 2009 and 2010 earnings for Iberdrola and EDF.
Smaller wind and solar developers find that new developments are possible, though more difficult. Utilities are standardizing RFPs and making conditions more reasonable. Private equity money is available if investors can be convinced of high returns and low risk. David Perlman, Managing Director with investment banker Fieldstone Private Capital Group, reports that, “Liquidity is returning, but with fewer banks than before economic crisis, smaller lending commitments, shorter maturities, and club deals rather than syndications. Bankers might offer construction terms and an operating loan of no more than five years for developments that show little risk.
The ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) has helped and hurt. More federal bureaucracy and slower release of money is reported. New wind and solar deals are more likely to use ITC than PTC. The cash flow for an ITC is sooner and more predictable. For many projects, the new Treasury Department Grant is even more favorable than ITC. Tax-exempt bonds are another avenue for financing RE projects reported John M. May, Managing Director of investment banker Stern Brothers. He identifies bioenergy and biofuel from solid waste are good targets for tax-exempt bonds.
Wind and solar developments are difficult. Biofuel debt financing is next to impossible according to conference participants. Bankrupt corn ethanol plants are being sold for pennies on the dollar, with Valero’s purchase of VeraSun assets being a prime example. Clean Fleet Ethanol Report. Cellulosic plants and algal fuel pilots are moving forward for those who have received equity investments in the tens and hundreds of millions, and do not require bank financing, including Abengoa, Enerkem, Mascoma, Poet, Sapphire, and Synthetic Genomics to name a few.
The demand is growing for renewable energy and fuels. The rewards are significant for the patient investor who can moderate risk with a portfolio of RE projects at various stages of approval. In 2009, the year of the Great Recession, cash is king.