The Electric Vehicle’s Dirty Secrets
By Dennis Dowling
“[I]f we replace all of the UK vehicle fleet with EVs [electric vehicles], assuming they use the most resource-frugal next-generation batteries, we would need the following materials: about twice the annual global production of cobalt; three-quarters of the world’s production [of] lithium carbonate; nearly the entire world production of neodymium; and more than half the world’s production of copper in 2018. . . . And this is just for the UK.” – Michael Kelly, Emeritus Professor of Technology at the University of Cambridge
Factoring Myself In
As a chemical engineer with 32 years of experience working for Exxon Chemical Company, I have always been curious to understand any new technology. And if the government gets involved to support a new technology, I become skeptical of it, if not downright alarmed. Such was the case with the advent of the all-electric vehicle.
I have spent a considerable amount of time conducting research with regard to the cases for and against the electric vehicle. Many of the articles studied are difficult reads, requiring at least a basic knowledge of engineering, often validating their claims by means of mathematical calculations.
For this reason, many people without a strong science background do not bother to spend time trying to comprehend this valuable research. In this article, I seek to make understandable some important facts regarding the environmental issues surrounding electric vehicles versus conventional automobiles.
Efficiency-Claiming and Virtue-Signaling
The earliest articles about electric vehicles extolled their virtue, due to their being so environmentally friendly. In particular, these vehicles were praised for producing less carbon dioxide than conventional gasoline engines. Claims were also made that electric vehicles would cost considerably less to operate than their gasoline-powered counterparts, while freeing the US from reliance on Middle-Eastern oil. We shall explore some of those claims in this article, and along the way we shall discover a few unrecognized facts and unintended consequences of the shift to the new technology.
CO2 Emissions: Electric Versus Gas
Let us first explore the claim that electric vehicles produce less carbon dioxide than the conventional gasoline-driven car. In a side-by-side comparison of the two vehicle types, it is undeniable that, while on the road, the electric car emits no measurable amount of carbon dioxide. The problem with the electric vehicle lies in the source of energy enabling the battery that powers it.
The electric automobile is not driven by magic; its power comes from an electricity-generating power plant. This means that any given electric vehicle is only as clean as the source of the electricity it uses. Today, electricity comes from a number of different types of power plants. The sources of energy provided by these plants include, but are not limited to, the following: hydro-electric, nuclear, coal-fired, gas-turbine, wind-driven, and solar. The inter-linking of electric grids allows a mixture of sources to coexist, somewhat independent of location.
Oil-well fracking has created an abundance of cheap natural gas, and this has driven the price down from $10/MM Btuto less than $3/MM Btu, thereby causing the electric-generation industry to move rapidly to gas-turbine generators, while shutting down the more expensive coal-fired furnaces.
It is worth noting that the result of the enhanced cost-efficiency has been that US carbon dioxide emissions have been reduced by 12% from 2015 to 2018, while the rest of the world’s emissions have increased by 24%. The US has further reduced carbon dioxide emission by another 2.8% in 2019. Most of this reduction has been due to the fact that plants using natural-gas turbines are producing significantly less carbon dioxide than plants that burn coal.
Unfortunately, according to The US Energy Information Administration, there will be little to no further reduction in the burning of coal, due to the increasing need for electric energy through the year 2050. Although electricity production from wind turbines, solar cells, and natural gas will increase, coal will remain America’s marginal producer of electricity for the next 30 years.
Most recent articles refer to a mixture of sources for electrical generation in how their authors calculate the CO2generated by the electric vehicle. Though the mix varies from one article to the next, they all hold in common the finding that there is more carbon dioxide produced per mile by the electric vehicle than by the conventional gasoline-powered car.
It is a seldom-recognized fact that, if we converted all of the passenger cars and small pickup trucks to be all-electric vehicles, we would need to increase our electrical-generation capacity and infrastructure by as much as 50%. The result is that every new electric vehicle requires energy from the marginal supplier of energy, the coal-fired furnace. The other way to view this is that each and every electric vehicle plays a role in delaying the shutdown of America’s coal-fire furnaces.
The ultimate conclusion is this: The emissions created by electric vehicles are not, generally speaking, derived from mixed sources of electrical generation, but are derived almost exclusively from coal-fired plants. On this basis, if one were to include the 30,000 pounds of CO2 emitted in the making of an electric vehicle versus the 14,000 pounds of CO2 produced during the manufacture of a conventional car, the electric vehicle production of CO2 comes clearly into focus as being 8 ounces per mile more than its conventional-car counterpart over the nominal 50,000 miles of battery life. (This does not include the CO2 produced during the mining, manufacture, and construction necessary to expand the electric grid to accommodate the ongoing charging of electric vehicles.)
There seems to be no mention anywhere in the research of the fact that coal plants might eventually be shut down altogether – eliminating all their SO2 and NOX emissions – if no electric vehicles were on the roads.
Operating Costs: What Is the Real Price of Making an Electric Vehicle Run?
One of the early claims about the electric vehicle was that such a vehicle was cheaper to operate. But the world has changed dramatically with the advent of the fracking of shale deposits, and there have been researchers who have more recently analyzed the costs of operating an electric vehicle versus a conventional car.
Of particular note is Stanislav Jakuba, a specialist in alternative power sources and engine technology who lectures and consults in Connecticut. Mr. Jakuba has produced detailed estimates during the period of high oil prices which have concluded the operating costs of electric vehicles versus conventional cars in such an economy are about the same. However, Jakuba’s more recent analysis – with the price of gasoline having dropped from about $3.50 per gallon to around $1.75 – has revealed that with today’s cheaper gasoline prices it costs, on average, twice as much per mile to operate an electric vehicle.
It should be recognized that a significant portion of the operating cost of a conventional vehicle included in these cost analyses is the impact of state and federal taxes on the cost of every gallon of gasoline: $0.324 in Texas; $0.5415 in Connecticut; $0.6152 in New York; $0.771 in Pennsylvania; and $0.8187 in California. Electric vehicles have thus far avoided these taxes to support highway infrastructure.
It is unlikely that federal and state governments would be willing to give up this source of tax revenue, if one day electric vehicles were to outnumber gas vehicles; given such a situation, governments would most likely opt to tax people’s electric bills for the same purpose. This would mean that owners of gasoline-driven vehicles would end up being double-taxed, forcing them to subsidize the owners of electric vehicles even more. However, most people would likely never notice these add-ons to their utility bills, once the electric companies increased their billing amounts to pay for the massive expansion of the electric grid and the building of thousands of electric-vehicle charging stations.
Another issue to contemplate is the purchase price of the vehicle itself. Federal subsidies exist in the form of a tax credit of $7,500, and 13 states allow electric car makers to bank environmental credits, to be purchased by conventional car manufacturers that wish to sell vehicles in those states. An interesting example of this is contained in Tesla’s Second Quarter 2020 financial statement.
The bottom line is that Tesla has made $104 million dollars. But looking under the hood, so to speak, reveals the sale to other car companies, by Tesla, of $428 million environmental credits which come at no cost to Tesla. This transfer of wealth to Tesla by other car companies would, necessarily, be passed on to consumers whenever they might choose to purchase a conventional vehicle. The upshot of all this is that the average car buyer is subsidizing the more affluent individual who can afford to purchase a Tesla.
Do Electric Cars Represent the Future of America?
A further claim being made is that all future vehicles should be electric. But, even if this were possible, such an outcome would be patently undesirable. Michael Kelly, Emeritus Professor of Technology at the University of Cambridge, states that “if we replace all of the UK vehicle fleet with EVs [electric vehicles], assuming they use the most resource-frugal next-generation batteries, we would need the following materials: about twice the annual global production of cobalt; three quarters of the world’s production [of] lithium carbonate; nearly the entire world production of neodymium; and more than half the world’s production of copper in 2018. . . . And this is just for the UK.”
The neodymium mentioned by Michael Kelly is one of the 17 rare-earth metals used in the manufacture of electronics and many other devices. The deposits worldwide of these rare earths with a concentration high enough to mine are limited in number. Rare earth metals are utilized in every major technology today: cell phones, laptop computers, wind turbines, electric cars, medical devices – even defense technology, such as fighter jets and guided-missile systems. Rare earths are to be found in virtually every modern vehicle and aircraft and are indispensable to 5G networks.
The F-35 Fighter Jet contains half a ton of rare earth metals. (These rare earths are expensive, as well as rare, with gadolinium oxide considered cheap at $160,000 per kilogram – which equals about $72,727 per pound.) Areas of major importance, harboring many of these untapped resources, are environmentally protected; and the purification process to render these rare earths usable is an extremely difficult process resulting in a large amount of toxic waste production. One has to move 250 tons of earth to make one Tesla battery. If all of this environmental disruption were not bad enough, China owns or controls between 80% and 95% of the world supply.
The US has one active mine for rare earths in California and two other identified deposits – one in West Texas and one in Alaska, which makes getting into the business of making electric vehicles not only risky but expensive. China, which engages in price controls, has bankrupted one company, Molycorp, by increasing availability and dropping prices, after Molycorp had already borrowed money and was doing business.
California: A Classic Case Study of Unintended Consequences
As we have moved forward in the quest to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we have encountered many unintended consequences. California provides a classic case study. Anyone following the news may be aware that California has legally mandated a carbon-neutral policy for the state. All passenger cars and light trucks sold in California, after the year of 2035, must have zero emissions. By 2045, all vehicles, including medium- and heavy-duty trucks – even garbage trucks – must have no emissions whatsoever. As part of this plan, electric companies in the state must produce 100% clean energy, which, in essence, means that only wind and solar power are to be permitted.
Enactment of this plan has been an interesting study of the unintended consequences that occur when the government’s central planners dictate how the economy should run. Electric providers in California (principally Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison) have been instructed to complete their transition to wind and solar energy by 2045. When these electric companies requested that Sacramento allow an increase in electric rates, in order to provide funding for the new facilities being required by the State of California, the companies were denied permission for any increase at all. Left with no other options, the companies had to cut costs, in order to be able to afford to build the windmills and solar farms being mandated.
The first of these cuts came by reducing maintenance for their power lines; this basically meant that the old power lines, transmission towers, and transformer substations would continue to operate, even as they deteriorated. Furthermore, all clearing of brush and debris from beneath major power lines was terminated. Major forest fires ensued, due to failing electric lines falling onto flammable debris that was never cleared from under the lines. Also, California has refused to remove dead trees and dry brush; failed to allow controlled burns; and neglected the thinning of forests (per the recommendations of the Forestry Service for the last 40 years) – all due to the demands of environmentalists – with the result that these forests have become veritable tinderboxes, just waiting to be ignited.
In 2020, California wildfires created 125% more carbon dioxide than California produces from all other sources. Gavin Newson can claim all he wants that these fires were started by “climate change” – perhaps in an attempt to ward off criminal or civil suits against government actors – but it has become blatantly obvious that it is the policies of the state that have been responsible for bringing about these calamities. There can be no justifiable excuse for California’s failure to act as a caring custodian of nature.
To add insult to injury, the electric companies have had to shutter and dismantle their gas-turbine generating facilities, in order to transfer their operating budgets to wind turbines and solar cells. The result is that the state no longer has enough electric production capacity to provide for its requirements during peak periods of power consumption (especially when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine).
California must now routinely purchase electricity from surrounding states, which is hypocritical, since it means that CO2 production in those states would have to rise. Or do California policy-makers believe that the CO2 emissions in other states somehow fail to harm the environment as much as California’s own emissions? And are Californians supposed to believe that the emissions of California’s neighbors somehow manage to stop at the border, leaving California totally unaffected?
Ironically, the twofold truth is this: 1) that California produces less than 1% of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions (half of which is from power plants and transportation vehicles); and 2) that complete carbon neutrality in these areas would have little or no impact upon the pattern of CO2 emissions worldwide.
Dennis Dowling is a chemical engineer by training, with BS and MS degrees from Texas A&M. An employee of Exxon Chemical Company for 32 years, he performed a variety of roles within the Baytown, Texas, Chemical Plant – from Design Engineer to Operations and Maintenance Manager – and within the Baytown Olefins plant working as Engineering and Maintenance Manager. Along the way, Dennis worked two stints in the Exxon Chemical Headquarters coordinating the North American Olefins Operations as well as serving as Senior Business Planner in the Olefins Division. For several years, Dennis worked on the redesign and implementation of Exxon Chemical’s key business processes around the globe.