Plug-In Vehicles: Unconscionable Waste and Pollution Masquerading as Conservation

by: John Petersen

For eighteen months I've been blogging about the energy storage sector and discussing the current and potential markets for batteries and other manufactured energy storage devices. A recurring theme that I've discussed many times is the unrecognized but undeniable truth that while plug-in vehicles masquerade as conservation measures at an individual level, they're incredibly wasteful at a societal level. The conclusion is counter-intuitive and my articles on the subject invariably draw heated criticism from self-anointed defenders of the faith. Their arguments, however, do not change the inescapable truth that plug-in vehicles are one of the most wasteful concepts ever foisted on gullible government officials and an unsuspecting public.

Today I'm going to do my level best to simplify the numbers and expose the plug-in fraud for what it is. If you want to delve into more detail, you should visit my article archive at Seeking Alpha.

On December 31, 2009 Forbes published an opinion piece titled System Overload that questioned whether the lithium-ion battery industry was overbuilding global manufacturing capacity. The third paragraph said:

"By 2015 the new factories will have the global capacity to produce 36 million kilowatt-hours of battery capacity, enough to supply 15 million hybrid vehicles, or 1.5 million fully electric cars, says Deutsche Bank."

The article then went on to question whether there would be buyers for all those vehicles. I firmly believe that every battery manufacturer that brings an automotive battery to market within the next few years will have more demand than it can satisfy. That being said, there is no denying the fact that fully electric cars and plug-in hybrids are unconscionably wasteful.

In America, the average car owner drives about 12,000 miles per year. To power a car for that distance, he'll need about 400 gallons of gasoline for a conventional internal combustion engine; 240 gallons of gasoline for a Prius class HEV; and no gasoline for a fully electric vehicle. The eco-religious among us are beside themselves with glee over the appealing but patently absurd idea that fully electric vehicles are the best way to slash dependence on oil imports and protect mother earth. The numbers tell an entirely different story.

If we stick with the Deutsche Bank numbers quoted in the Forbes article, 1.5 million fully electric cars would save 600 million gallons of gasoline per year. That's a very impressive number until you realize that 15 million Prius class HEVs without plugs would save approximately 2.4 billion gallons of gasoline per year. In my book, the difference of 1.8 billion gallons of gasoline per year is subsidized waste on a massive scale.

While the gasoline consumption comparisons are miserable, the CO2 emission comparisons are nothing short of tragic.

Each gallon of gasoline used in an internal combustion engine releases 20.35 pounds of CO2. While fully electric vehicles are cleaner, they're not CO2 free because the power plants that generate the electricity release a national average of 9.68 pounds of CO2 per gallon of gasoline equivalent. Returning to the Deutsche Bank numbers, 1.5 million fully electric cars would cut annual CO2 emissions by 2.9 million tons, another very impressive number. In comparison, 15 million Prius class HEVs without plugs would slash annual CO2 emissions by a whopping 24.4 million tons. In my book, the difference of 21.5 million tons of CO2 emissions per year is subsidized pollution on a monumental scale.

The final nail in the coffin comes from purchase price comparisons. Toyota's (NYSE:TM) base sticker price for a 2010 Prius is $22,400. In comparison the base sticker price for the planned GM Volt will be about $40,000. While Federal tax credits of $7,500 are expected to reduce the end-user cost of the Volt to $32,500, it will still cost the consumer $10,000 more than a Prius. The last time I checked, a $10,000 purchase price difference is important to the average consumer, particularly when study after study reports that the Volt is not expected to pay for the price difference in fuel savings.

On a micro-scale, fully electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids are feel good eco-bling for the emotionally committed and the mathematically challenged. On a macro-scale they use more gasoline, emit more CO2 and are more expensive than established HEV technology. At this point I have to wonder, does anybody in Washington DC have a calculator?

I'm a lawyer, a battery guy and a policy geek. I know that six billion people on our planet would like to have a piece of the lifestyle that 600 million of us have and take for granted. I also know that as a result of the information technology revolution, about half of the 6 billion have access to electronic data and understand for the first time in history that there is more to life than subsistence. Even if we assume that they will only become consumers at 5% to 10% of purchasing power parity, the increased pressure on water, food, energy and every commodity you can imagine will be immense beyond imagining. The big challenge will be creating enough room at the table so that we can avoid the unthinkable consequences of inaction.

I love HEV technology because it minimizes waste of both gasoline and other natural resources. I'd love it even more if it were tied to a compressed natural gas fuel system that would eliminate dependence on imported oil, but that's a different discussion. I'm also a big fan of micro- and mild-hybrid technologies that use less robust electric motors and simpler batteries from companies like Johnson Controls (JCI), Exide Technologies (XIDE) and Axion Power International (AXPW.OB) to reduce waste for drivers who can't afford to upgrade to a Prius class HEV. I am offended by the P.T. Barnum class hucksters at Ener1 (HEV), A123 Systems (AONE), BYD Company (BYDDF.PK) and others that use the false promise of fully-electric vehicles to maintain bloated market capitalizations and lead investors down a garden path that will almost certainly end in massive losses once the market understands the true costs and illusory benefits.

Disclosure: Author is a former director of Axion Power International (AXPW.OB) and has a substantial long position in its stock. He also holds a small long position Exide Technologies (XIDE).