Come to Ethics Alarms for the mile-wide and inch deep reflections of the ethicist, stay for the enhancement, perspective and enlightening analysis by the readers who know what they are writing about.
Sarah B.’s superb Comment of the Day needs no more introduction, and besides, don’t read me on this topic when you should be reading her.
Here is her COTD on the post,”Electric Cars And The “Following The Science” Lie.”
First, anyone who says “follow the science” has forgotten what science means. Science is a process that states a method for determining the most likely reason for something. Science requires us to observe a phenomenon, hypothesize about the phenomenon, posit a fair test of the hypothesis, complete the test several times with the same inputs, and compare the results of the tests with the observed phenomenon. The better correlated the test with reality, the better the hypothesis and the more likely it is to be true. Conversely, if you cannot replicate your test or your test or your test does not correlate well with reality, it is either time to scrap the test or the hypothesis.
Anthropogenic climate change is not science by the centuries old definition. The tests are mostly unable to be replicated, and the results have been proven false, time and again. To follow the science, it is time to scrap that hypothesis and move on.
Second, I was amazed to see such low requirements for electric cars to validate their “green” existence. Most studies I have read on this subject put the threshold far closer to 100,000 miles before even coming close. The best I have seen before this one puts us nearer to 75,000 miles than 25,000 miles.
Third, this study only deals with the formulation of the battery. If one considers where we are getting the energy, and as other commenters have noted, solar and wind are not nearly so clean as you would like to think. Heck, think of all the chemicals that need to go into making those panels, even though they cannot give us power 24/7/365 like burning fossil fuels. Life cycle analyses on electric cars, considering batteries, electricity, grid concerns, etc tend to push them to obscene mileage, well above expected battery life. In this instance, they are not unlike windmills, with an expected 30 year life and a 37-52 year payback period, sans government intervention.
Fourth, no one bothers, when discussing electric vehicle, to discuss the basic laws of thermodynamics. These laws are just like the laws of gravity, not caring whether or not you like them. They don’t care what is fair. They don’t care what is socially acceptable. They don’t care if they inconvenience some more than others, because if you are too stupid to get on the wrong side of these laws, you will pay the price. So, thermodynamics state that whenever one transforms matter to energy, or energy to another type of energy, or energy to matter, that there will be a loss in total energy. To take a simple example, we get most electricity by burning coal. The rock is in the ground. We have to spend energy to get it out of the ground and pulverized. Now we’ll start into some of the math. Coal is burned. The gas is used to make steam, the steam is used to turn a turbine that makes electricity. The gas is cleaned. This process has a maximum theoretical efficiency of around 45%. Most of the power plants run at about 33% because theoretical efficiency is not anywhere close to real world possiblity. So for every 100 units of energy the coal gives off, you get 33%.
Let’s now get some minor math happening for electric cars. I’m going to skip the big equations and use easily available numbers from reputable sites. For this exercise, we are going to assume that preparing coal for electric generation uses the same amount of energy as preparing gasoline for car consumption, as gasoline and coal are equivalent primary sources, but electricity is not a primary energy source unless you are hooking up your power lines to silk kites. Now, a car that gets gasoline loses 64-75% on inefficiencies and powering auxiliaries. So a car that was given 100 units of power from gasoline gets 25 units of power when all is said and done, with the WORST assumptions on gasoline cars.
For an electric car, I’m going to use the MOST FAVORABLE numbers. Now, an electric car that starts with 100 units of power from coal loses 33% to electric generation, 5% on electric transmission, 89% for charging, and 88% on inefficiencies. (It is assumed by the DOE sources I found that heating and cooling, as well as any auxiliary power usages on an electric motor are not consuming enough power to mean anything, so they are ignored, even though the electricity drain on the battery for those devices has been shown in other studies to be significant.) The electric car, through that math, gives us, in the BEST case scenario, 23.7 units of power. So the best case theoretical scenario of an electric car under performs the worst case scenario of the gasoline powered car.
Fifth, and this is a major problem that no one discusses and people like me keep getting told to shut up. Lithium batteries need cobalt for stability. Nobody really likes batteries that routinely go boom. (I’ll grant Bolts the assumption that we emphasize freak occurrences.) Cobalt mines are worse than any Nike sweatshop ever was on children. Sure, we could mine cobalt humanely, for a huge increase in cost that would take even the cheapest lithium battery out of the average American price range, but we don’t. Are we just ignoring the high human cost here, or can we maim and murder children in far off countries so long as we avoid a completely unproven and damn nearly disproven future climate catastrophe that defies all current data? If we are looking to improve the world for our future, how about not killing that future off? Yes, we want cobalt, yes, we need cobalt. Without these child-killing cobalt mines, our society as we know it would probably come to a screeching halt, EVs or no. However, if we are wanting to expand on EVs, we need more cobalt than ever. If we want to pretend these cars are good for anything, we need to ignore the kids we kill for every car. This does not sound like an environmentally friendly option.
Sixth, what about all these minerals we need for windmills, batteries, solar panels, etc? I once saw a survey that suggested that if we did what our GND folks want, we would totally strip the planet of certain minerals, and still not come close to realizing demand. Yes, many of these minerals are plentiful, but we are talking about 1,000-10,000-100,000 fold increases in mining for some of these minerals. Also, in dealing with resources, we can talk all we want about resource availability, but this comes down to the fossil fuel talk of resources and reserves. In technical terms, a resource is what we can find. A reserve is what we can economically and practically retrieve. Many of the assumptions in the mineral needed for this EV revolution require magical thinking to get resources and reserves to be the same value. Unicorn farts anyone?
Finally, we have the other problems with electric cars. They have battery usage at 300 miles per charge, and a charge time of at least 30 minutes, though depending on if you have the exact right connection for this particular vehicle, you may have upwards of four hours. Remember that most numbers for electric cars are for the 80% charge. The last 20% takes the longest and is most inefficient, so we just don’t talk about that. A good battery really has 300 miles per charge and takes 30 minutes to get to 80%. So you should count out 20% of that mileage or say that it has 270 miles per charge. The studies on these vehicles have shown that the 300 mile/charge is about 100-150 when the temperature drops to below 32F or there is significant wind, etc. In addition, charging stations are not all that common, so if I’m on the BFE stretch that is I-80 Wyoming and I’m low on charge, I’m screwed, as compared to gasoline. You will destroy middle America. I have many more stops. I also can get someone to siphon a gallon of gas, or haul me to the next station where I can buy a gallon of gas, to get my dead car from the side of the road. I’m not sure how you are carrying that 100W of electricity.
And to top all of this off, we have the long term issues of the power grid. The power grid cannot handle a large quantity of electric cars. There have been requests in many municipalities that electric car owners not plug their cars in until off-peak hours due to brown out issues. These cars pull wattage on a more drastic scale than any other common home appliance. When calculating house electrical usage, one of the biggest factors for any home is whether or not there is an EV. This can cause the entire electrical system to have significant reliability, and even health and safety issues, depending on the age of the local grid.
Electrical cars have not one damn thing to do with following science, and even suggesting that we follow science is stupid. The data that is available shows that while EVs can help ameliorate some gasoline costs, they are not good for humanity or the environment in their current configuration.
I have plenty of other thoughts, but I have spent way too much time on this and need to get back to work…