The False Start of Electric Cars

I have noticed that there is considerable optimism in some quarters about the future of electric cars, and many people are pointing to Norway as a sign that the internal combustion engine may be on the way out:

Norway may seem like an odd place for electric cars to thrive, but the 1,493 Tesla Model S new registrations last month set a new single-model sales record. That’s more than sales of the two next-best selling models, the Volkswagen Golf and Nissan Leaf, combined. In fact, so far this year, the Tesla Model S is the best-selling car in a cold country that has quickly warmed to electric vehicles.

Only when you look a bit closer you find the underlying reason as to why Norwegians have taken to the Tesla in such numbers:

Unlike many European countries, where electric cars carry a huge price premium, there is no import tax or 25% VAT tax on [electric vehicles] in Norway. 

And that reason is the government has, through taxation (particularly import taxes, which are a function of horsepower), made the price of ordinary cars artificially high. From Wikipedia:

As an example, by early 2013 the price of the top selling Nissan Leaf is 240,690 krone (around US$42,500) while the purchase price of the 1.3-lt Volkswagen Golf is 238,000 Krone (about US$42,000).[9] Electric vehicles are also exempt from the annual road tax, all public parking fees, and toll payments, as well as being able to use bus lanes.

Plus what gets left out of the purchasing figures in Norway is how many of these cars are bought by government departments for whom image is more important than value for money.

Personally, I am of the belief that the uptake of electric vehicles in Norway doesn’t tell us anything about the future viability of electric cars.  When you look at the development of the motorcar in the US between the wars, the boom was driven by an overwhelming desire of individuals to move around freely and independently, and the car companies rushed to meet that demand whilst the oil companies competed with one another to build the infrastructure to support it.  I can’t think of anything further from this situation than a government taxing the hell out of something and shoving a population in the direction of their chosen product.  Would Norwegians be buying Teslas if ordinary cars were reasonably priced?  According to this Reuter’s article, Norway’s electric cars require an annual public subsidy of up to $8,200.  This is the future?

What we have here is a government picking a winner, and this rarely ends well.  The underlying assumption is that everyone driving electric cars is a desirable end, and I’m not convinced this has been proven.  Norway registered about 11,000 electrical vehicles in 2013, which might make Oslo’s air a bit cleaner and the streets quieter, but is in no way indicative of what might arise should even half of Norway’s 5m inhabitants eventually switch to electric cars.  11,000 electric cars quietly charging themselves off the grid at night won’t make much difference, but 2.5m of them?  You’re going to need a lot more power stations to cope with that sort of demand, and although Norway currently produces around 96% of its electricity using hydroelectric power it is far from certain that they would not need conventional power stations to meet the increased requirements.  In any case, it is somewhat unlikely that other countries, should they choose to emulate Norway in this regard, would be able to meet the increased demands using renewable energy sources.

In fact, the whole drive to use electric cars seems at odds with campaigns by Green organisations and politicians who are constantly nagging us to save negligible amounts of energy by unplugging phone chargers and not using TVs on standby mode.  I think when most people talk of electric cars, they think charging them is simply a matter of plugging them into a grid which is already in place, and I suppose this is true while their numbers remain small.  But an increase in just one order of magnitude – let alone two or three – is going to require a complete overhaul of the electricity generation infrastructure in a manner which is going to render unplugging phone chargers even more negligible than it is now.

Just where is this additional power going to come from?  Wind is a non-starter, suffering from the same physical limitations the Dutch faced on their windmills a couple of hundred years ago.  Tidal sounds great, except it is mind-bogglingly expensive to construct and maintain, and wrecks the local environment. Wave power suffers from the difficulty of converting uneven, irregular reciprocal motion into rotary motion and the fact that any wave powerful enough to be of any use is likely to have a big brother in the vicinity which will destroy any device used to harness its power.  Solar has potential, but the technology is likely a few decades away yet.  In 40+ years time I can envisage an efficient system whereby solar power is used to generate energy which is stored in cells, and converted to electricity in cars which is then used to power a motor.  But even with huge leaps in solar technology I don’t think we’ll ever be in a situation where:

Solar > electricity > battery > motor

is an improvement over:

Petrol > engine

either in terms of efficiency or overall effect on the global environment.  Not even close.  As I say, perhaps this might work:

Solar > energy cell > electricity> motor

with the energy cells being instantly replaceable, but until then I think this whole electric car concept is dead in the water.

Aside from the economics, the enormous appeal of the motor car is its flexibility, a large part of which it is its near-permanent availability.  The electric car, as currently envisaged, does away with this as it is unavailable for several hours while it charges.  Unless one can predict exactly when the car will be used and for how long then it won’t be much use, and although in theory this sounds ideal for regular commuting the shortcomings of such a system quickly become clear.

Even those who use their cars mainly for commuting also use them for unplanned or irregular trips, e.g. at weekends or in emergencies.  The non-availability of an expensive asset will become an issue to even the most organised of citizens, and some might even keep an ordinary car as a spare.  And supposing you hit traffic on the way to work?  You can switch off the car and conserve your battery, but let’s hope you don’t live anywhere too hot or too cold (like Norway!) otherwise it’s not going to be very comfortable.  One of the beauties of the internal combustion engine is the waste heat means even the crappest of crap cars is warm; people don’t realise how damned cold a car would be without the engine pumping out heat, and to generate the equivalent amount of heat from a battery will eat into the range considerably.  According to this calculator driving with an outside temperature of 21°C with no heater gives you a range of 283 miles; drop the temperature to zero and put the heater on and you’re at 234 miles, a reduction of 17% (and 27% with the smaller 60kWh battery).  And that’s for a new car, that reduction will increase only as the battery and heating elements start to wear.  You could find yourself thinking you’ve got enough juice to get to where you want to, and then hit traffic and find your destination is outside your range.  The advantage of the internal combustion engine is that they burn little fuel when the vehicle is stationary yet keep you warm with no additional fuel cost.

The limited range isn’t actually the issue, as petrol cars also have a limited range.  The problem is the charging time, which renders the vehicle unavailable for several hours.  If you run low on petrol, you spend 5 minutes filling up and you’re on your way again.  Anyone who relies on an electric car to complete a journey within 20-30% of the maximum range is going to have to be very well organised – which most people aren’t, particularly when it comes to travelling by car – and have luck on their side as well.  The whole concept on which the current breed of electric cars is based will collapse as soon as there are more than a handful of stories of people being caught out miles from home – children in the back, howling – and having to wait at a charging station for hours before being able to continue the journey start to appear on the internet.  Until electric cars can overcome this issue, perhaps by using instantly replaceable energy cells instead of recharging, I don’t think they’re going to make even a dent in the supremacy of the internal combustion engine.

Whatever the Norwegians think they’re doing, game-changing it ain’t.  I give it a year or two before we start seeing news reports of electric cars found abandoned by their owners between Bergen and Stavanger due to a flat battery and a desire to sleep somewhere warm that night.

Kyoto Reprinted

What with the whole climate change thing still rumbling on, with several bloggers wading in with their thoughts on Kyoto, etc. as part of a discussion on the Euston Manifesto, I’m going to do a lazy blogger’s trick and recycle a post of mine from my old blog.  This post lays out clearly my own opposition to the Kyoto Protocol and the reasons behind it, and it got a fair bit of attention, especially from the US, when I first posted it a year or so ago.  So, I post it again just to voice my opinions once more, and to refer to it from this blog in future if necessary.

I think the overall aim to cut carbon dioxide emissions is a good one, as the consequences of continuing to pump millions of tons of it into the atmosphere each year may be dire. May be dire. This aim is probably achievable, but in order to do so a rational response is required. And this is where my objections to the Kyoto Protocol comes in.

Firstly, the US has not signed up to it, and we all know why: because Bush ripped it up in favour of getting a 2% increase in the value of Dick Cheney’s Halliburton stocks. Or something. Actually, in a democracy such as the US, it is not possible to browbeat a president into doing something which is deeply unpopoular with the general population. In tin-pot countries such as Azerbaijan, Congo, Djibouti, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Russia, and Syria, the president can ratify anything he likes, because if he bothers with elections at all, they are mere formalities which simply prove that the incumbent should be in office for life. In short, if the world wants the US to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, they are going to have to make a decent case and sell it to the general population of the United States. (In Europe this has not been necessary, as thanks to the EU, sweeping decisions are made at a lofty and detached level guarded by a phalanx of bureaucratic jargon and overpaid consultants, meaning there is no longer a requirement to gain approval from the ignorant masses.) And in so far as the world has tried to sell Kyoto to the US population, they have failed miserably. Beyond repeating the mantra that the US is the “biggest polluter” and is responsible for the impending armageddon – and hence they must sacrifice their standard of living for the good of mankind – not the world, the UN, or anybody else has made a case at all. When the Yanks question the presented evidence, be it of the problem itself or the suitability of the Kyoto Protocol to address it, they are met not with reasoned argument but by howls of derision, insult, and abuse. This tactic of trying to browbeat the American public into sacrificing anything, as history would have told them, has not worked despite four years of the world’s great and good trying.

To the average Yank, and to a great many other people (including myself), the Kyoto Protocol looks as though it has been craftily developed by political parties wishing to hobble the US economy. Until such time that somebody steps forward and persuades them that this is not the case, the Yanks are not going to budge – and nor should they. This became evident when the US tried to incorporate a carbon trading system into the Protocol, which would enable them to purchase carbon dioxide allowances from those (usually poorer) countries with a surplus. A thoroughly sensible suggestion, one would have thought; the poor countries make money, the US is given an incentive to reduce its pollution, and the level of emissions is to some degree controlled. But No! cried the great and the good of the world. That would not do at all. Sneaky Yanks typically trying to buy their way out of their commitments! No, they must incorporate their commitments at home, thus hobbling their economy in return for little demonstrable benefit.

As the US is a highly developed country with a huge population, it is little surprise that they are the ones who produce the greatest amount of greenhouse gases, and hence would be most affected by the proposals. So one would have thought that any outside body wanting to persuade them to cut down on their emissions would have considered that perhaps they will be a little reluctant to do so, and a strong case would have to be made. And that is where the rest of the world has failed. The failure of the US to sign up to what is clearly a flawed agreement is not that of the Bush administration (especially when considering that the US senate rejected the Kyoto Protocol by 95-0 in 1997, when Clinton was president), but that of the people who tasked themselves with trying to get them to do it in the first place. As French winemakers are finding out, selling something requires more than hurling abuse at your sales target and bullying them into submission. That the UN, EU, and a gaggle of tin-pot dictators cannot sell an idea should surprise nobody.

Incidentally, when people refer to the US as “the world’s biggest polluter”, it raises some interesting questions. Firstly, how accurate is the data coming from countries like Russia and China? Are we to believe that the respective governments are open and honest about their emissions, in the same way that they used to be open and honest about their economy, political freedoms, etc.? Personally, I wouldn’t trust what the Putin government told me for one second. And secondly, the term “world’s biggest polluter” is somewhat misleading in itself. It may be the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but the two are not the same. In effect, the statement lumps together all kinds of pollution and fails to recognise that some kinds of pollution are worse than others. It is like referring to a town which is plagued by shoplifting as having the highest crime rate, when a town nearby is plagued with murders, albeit but of fewer number than that of shoplifters in the first town. Thirdly, does anyone honestly believe the likes of Russia is going to implement the carbon cutting measures, and truthfully report its emissions figures?

Even at this early stage, this UN plan is likely to go the way of the Oil-for-Food program in terms of effectiveness, transparency, and lining the pockets of despots, bureaucrats, and a select number of western politicians.