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Author's Note: This article is an expanded and annotated version of a quarterly opinion column I wrote for the Fall 2013 issue of Batteries International Magazine.

Over the last five years I've learned that it's impossible to write an article that touches on the electric vehicle sector without drawing reams of nonsensical comments extolling the virtues of EVs charged by solar panels. The emotional and ideological links between EV and PV are stronger than most religious dogma because even salvation can't hold a candle to a free lunch story. The logical link, on the other hand, is high sophistry because every thinking adult knows there is no free lunch.

The inescapable, unpleasant and immensely inconvenient truths are simple:

  • Squeaky clean green electrons from solar panels don't care whether they power an EV or a toaster oven. The virtue of green electrons, or the quantum of green if you will, arises from their creation. Once green electrons exist on the supply side of the equation, their use is irrelevant.
  • Electrons must be used or stored the instant they're created. So while EV and PV may work for vampires, they're a logistical nightmare for normal people drive their cars during the day and charge them from the grid during off-peak hours when demand and prices are lower.
  • While PV sales skyrocketed as status conscious consumers bought cute solar panels for their homes, the 794 GWh of electricity US solar systems generated in July is barely 2/10 of 1% of the 393,753 GWh of electricity the US consumed in July. PV is subsidy-distorted symbolism that contributes nothing to an electric grid where transmission and distribution losses average 7% nationwide.
  • On a planet with 7 billion inhabitants, every barrel of avoided oil use and every ton of avoided coal use in wealthy countries will simply increase supplies in poorer countries where another human being who has to choose between freezing in the dark or increasing his carbon footprint will pick his comfort over somebody else's climate concerns.

It is true that EVs are cleaner than gasoline powered vehicles on a well-to-wheels basis during the use phase. It is equally true that they're almost twice as dirty to manufacture. That means the emissions advantages on a lifecycle basis are a cruel hoax and EV hucksters who build multi-billion dollar market capitalizations by selling half-truths to credulous consumers, stockholders, politicians and regulators are, for lack of a more polite term, liars.

What ever happened to respect for full and fair disclosure of all material facts; the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Is it reasonable or responsible for a company to trumpet the green virtue of its products without disclosing the festering gangrene in its supply chain and component manufacturing processes?

This graph from a recent presentation on Volkswagen s Integrated Fuel and Powertrain Strategy (OTCQX:VLKAY) is the clearest presentation I've ever seen. The red arrows represent manufacturing phase emissions to build a car and the blue extensions represent use phase emissions to drive that car. The only thing that's missing from the graph is a third set of extensions for end-of-life emissions.


(Click to enlarge)

By the time a US consumer accounts for all manufacturing and use phase emissions, a compact EV like the Nissan Leaf (OTCPK:NSANY) has a paltry 6.7% advantage over a comparable car with a gasoline engine. The Leaf is dirtier than a diesel, dirtier than CNG and LPG and dirtier than a hybrid. The hierarchy of filth is the same for a compact PHEV like the Chevy Volt (GM).

The insignificant advantages of compact EVs and PHEVs disappear in a cloud of smoke if your tastes run to the rubenesque Model S from Tesla Motors (TSLA), high performance eco-bling that packs 300 miles of fair weather flat road range into a luxury sedan that weighs as much as a Hummer H3 and generates at least twice the manufacturing phase emissions of a Leaf or Volt thanks to a grotesquely over-sized battery pack.

The basic problem with green energy schemes is that schemers focus on a single tile in the energy and emissions mosaic without ever considering the entire picture. They're like doctors who treat symptoms without diagnosing the underlying disease. They invariably offer panacea solutions that don't help and usually make a bad situation worse.

To help thoughtful readers who want to understand the interplay between EV and PV, I'll use a simplified desert island example like most of us discovered in freshman economics.

Basic Scenario. Imagine a sun-drenched island that produces its electricity from oil-fired power plants and uses gasoline for its transportation needs. About 75% of the island's total energy consumption is in the form of electricity and the other 25% is gasoline. Like most industrialized countries, the island's electric demand during daylight hours is twice its demand during off-peak hours. To keep the calculations simple, I'll assume the island uses 200 units of electricity from petroleum during the day, 100 units of electricity from petroleum at night, and another 100 units of gasoline from petroleum for transportation. That gives us a total petroleum demand of 400 units a day.

Alternative One. First let's put an EV in every garage without changing the power mix. That choice will eliminate the use of gasoline in transportation but increase the use of petroleum in electricity production for transportation by a like amount. While there's room to quibble over the relative efficiency of power plants and automobile engines, it's basically a zero sum game. The island will still use 400 units of energy a day and it will all come from petroleum. The only things that will change are the location of the emissions and the energy delivery method.

Alternative Two. Now let's assume that instead of switching to EVs, the island decides to add PV systems to every home and office so that squeaky-clean green electrons from the sun drive utility demand to zero for three hours in the late morning and three hours in the early afternoon. That choice will reduce the island's dependence on oil-fired electric power by one-third and reduce its total consumption of energy from petroleum to 300 units a day.

Alternative Three. Now, to make things really fun, lets put PV on every roof and an EV in every garage. The solar panels will reduce oil consumption for six hours a day. When the island's happy residents get home from work and plug-in their EVs for their nightly charge, oil use will skyrocket as power plants increase output to accommodate the charging load from all those EVs. So while solar panels reduce oil consumption during the day, the new off-peak demand for EV charging will take the island's 24-hour oil consumption back 300 units a day.

Alternative Four. As the final step, let's install ubiquitous charging infrastructure so that every EV can charge while the sun shines. In that case the solar panels that could have reduced dependence on oil-fired electric plants contribute nothing because they're dedicated to EV charging. The island will still consume 300 units of petroleum energy per day. Until the island's installed PV capacity is increased to a point where it covers all daytime energy demand and all EV charging demand, talk of EVs charged by the sun is meaningless blather.

The following table summarizes the 24-hour energy balance for the island under each of these scenarios:

Basic

EV

PV

PV

PV, EV and

Scenario

no PV

no EV

and EV

Charging

Morning daylight

100

100

50

50

100

Afternoon daylight

100

100

50

50

100

Evening dark

50

100

50

100

50

Night dark

50

100

50

100

50

24 hour transportation

100

-0-

100

-0-

-0-

Societal oil consumption

400

400

300

300

300

When you think about the numbers, it's obvious that PV can make the island marginally cleaner by reducing the amount oil utilities would normally burn during the six-hours a day when the sun shines strong enough generate power. It's equally obvious that oil use outside the six-hour window will remain unchanged unless you add EVs to the transportation mix. As soon as you add EVs to the mix, fuel consumption in power plants rises on a gallon for gallon basis to offset reduced fuel consumption in transportation.

While the numbers in the table are ugly, they're nowhere near as appalling as they would be if I could find a simple way to include increased off-island manufacturing stage emissions for EVs and even higher off-island emissions for recycling EV batteries and components. When you consider the entire mosaic, there is nothing clean or green about plug-in electric drive. It's the great lie of our age; unconscionable waste and pollution masquerading as conservation.

Whether we like it or not, there are no panacea energy solutions. Solar panels and wind turbines can help if residents of wealthy countries are willing to accept Balkanized power grids or invest enough in stationary energy storage to mitigate the intermittency of renewables. EVs simply hide the pollution by moving it to someplace less obvious.

EVs are fuel substitution devices that have no impact on total societal energy consumption.

If you embrace the preposterous argument that a combination of EVs and solar panels is beneficial, you must also accept the vulgar reality that green electrons used in EVs can't be used to make air conditioning, lighting, appliances, office equipment and other electrical devices cleaner.

Compact EVs are not significantly cleaner than internal combustion vehicles on a lifecycle basis and they start life with a massive carbon debt that takes years to amortize. In the extreme case of a Tesla Model S, the average consumer will never amortize the carbon debt accumulated during the manufacturing phase. Instead of reducing total emissions, EVs simply dump the filth over the fence into somebody else's back yard so that a self-absorbed polluter who doesn't understand the consequences of his actions can feel virtuous while his neighbors subsidize his wasteful decisions.

Taxing Peter to buy Paul s new car is unfair. Taxing Peter to buy Paul's filthy new car is an abomination.

In July of this year, after long-term EV advocate Ozzie Zehner came to grips with the appalling life-cycle emissions aspects of electric drive and published a scathing analysis titled Unclean at any Speed in the IEEE Spectrum, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk promised to respond on the CO2 emissions issue and explain how 1+1 =3. While his tweets have gone missing, some of us are waiting with bated breath for an honest and comprehensive analysis from Mr. Musk that includes:

  • Manufacturing phase emissions;
  • Use phase emissions; and
  • End of life recycling emissions.

Market bubbles are dangerous. Market bubbles based on half-truths are worse. Abraham Lincoln was right when he cautioned, "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time."


(Click to enlarge)

Courtesy Batteries International Magazine and Jan Daraz

Source: EVs, Solar Panels And Free Lunch Sophistries