As the Romans were fond of saying, beware politicians offering panaceas. The latest meta-trend to catch hold of the collective consciousness is the electric vehicle revolution. Unless you’ve been living under a rock or in a proper nuclear quarantine bunker, the age of the internal combustion engine (ICE) or more broadly the age of combustion, is rapidly drawing to a close. Age of Combustion (1775-2020) R.I.P.
The world of tomorrow is here today, so they say. Gone are the noisy internal combustion engines of yesteryear, replaced by the silent effortless humming of the electric fuel cell and battery. Gone are the greenhouse-gas-causing fossil fuels (namely, coal, oil and natural gas) of our forebears, replaced by a limitless supply of clean electricity.
Look no further then the current stock market for evidence supporting the above statements. Tesla, the most recognized electric car company, is now the second largest car company in the world, trailing only Toyota (which makes a mix of electric, hybrid and ICE vehicles), and boasts a market capitalization (stock price multiplied by total shares outstanding) of one hundred fifty-five billion U.S. dollars. Based on this measure, Tesla is larger than Volkswagen, Daimler Chrysler, GM and Ford Motor Company combined.
The broad-scale endorsement of a global transition from ICE vehicle transportation to electric vehicle (EV) transportation is being accelerated by a diverse collection of political and social trends, typically involving some combination of the following:
- Almost universal endorsement of “green” initiatives or mindset by the Hollywood and media elite. This includes the celebratizing of a new generation of climate warriors and the painting of fossil fuels as toxic or dirty. I personally take umbrage with this slandering, as “dirty” is a relative term. As compared to what? Combustion practices of the 1800s and 1900s? Or in comparison to the primary form of work energy prior to the Age of Combustion. . . forced human labor (living in smoky cottages heated by wood or coal)? I and many others respectfully disagree.
- Tax and fiduciary initiatives that subsidize purchase and ownership of electric vehicles or the production of electricityfrom solar or wind technologies.
- Legislative efforts that either ban ICE vehicles in certain congested urban areas (such as Paris) or ban the sale of ICE vehicles outright at some point in the distant future. All of these initiatives have the commonality of taking effect at some point between 2030 and 2050. Call these political procrastination policies, never mind the ethics of passing policies for a future generation where a portion of expected future voters is not old enough to pay taxes or vote in publicly held elections.
- Applying social pressure on quasi-public investment funds to divest from hydrocarbon-related businesses and the sustaining investments to support them. An example of this would be sovereign, pension and retirement wealth funds pulling their money from equities and funds involved in hydrocarbon extraction or processing—for example, the Harvard University Endowment selling all of its ExxonMobil holdings.
- All of the above serve the purpose of re-leveling the playing field in favor of “green” or “clean” energy in place of “dirty” hydrocarbon energy. In other words, accelerating the clean green revolution. . . that is already here according to Wall Street.
INCONVENIENT DETAIL: MORE POLLUTION, NOT LESS
However—and there is always a however—there are a few inconvenient details that politicians and other celebrity types frequently fail to include when heralding our new energy future. The largest of these inconvenient details is the fact that oil, coal and natural gas still supply an overwhelming amount of the useable energy that we consume today. Around 80 percent of the energy used globally is fossil fuel-based and the majority of non-fossil fuel energy is either in the form of nuclear or hydroelectric, both of which come with their own special set of drawbacks.
For reference and understanding see Figure 1, which shows annual energy consumption by source type in both percentage and absolute terms. Absolute energy is measured in quads, short for quadrillion BTUs (a one with fifteen zeros). (A BTU or British Thermal Unit is the amount of energy or heat required to raise one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit.) Coronavirus slowdown aside, total energy consumption globally stands at around 550-575 quads per year, and the average annual energy consumption per person is 0.000000000125 quads per person.
Today, oil remains the largest primary source of energy used globally and deserves special attention as oil’s use is almost exclusively dedicated to transportation and the production of building materials (petrochemicals). Roughly 80-85 percent of oil’s use is in the form of transportation fuels for vehicles (gasoline and diesel engines), trains, tractors, airplanes and marine vessels.
In order to displace oil for electricity in passenger vehicles, the world would need to increase the amount of electricity generated by just over 150 quads per year. Or to put this gargantuan effort in perspective, the world would need to roughly triple its electricity production in order to switch from ICEVs to EVs. This need for a massive increase in electricity generation results in one of the green energy revolution’s true paradoxes: the electricity supply of last resort is overwhelmingly coal, particularly in China and India. Both countries are at the forefront of the vehicle electrification movement, but doing it primarily with coal-produced electricity, which has the net environmental impact of producing more greenhouse gases, not less.
To generate one million BTUs from coal produces about 225 pounds of carbon dioxide. By comparison, generating one million BTUs from gasoline or diesel produces only 160 pounds of carbon dioxide (about 30 percent less) and natural gas generates only 110 pounds of carbon dioxide or about 45 percent less CO2 emissions. As EVs become more widespread, we can expect more pollution, not less.
INCONVENIENT DETAIL: THE COST
Electric vehicles are expensive. They cost 25-40 percent more to manufacture, primarily because the engine of an electric vehicle requires different materials than an internal combustion engine. Those materials are subject to their own laws of supply and demand and the natural constraints of supply and demand. Any large-scale increase in EV production will eventually slam into this economic reality.
First the numbers: although estimates can be a bit fuzzy given the source material, particularly from the developing world, the estimate for the total size of the global vehicle fleet stands at an estimated 1.4 billion vehicles or one vehicle per every 5.5 inhabitants. The U.S., by comparison, is roughly one vehicle per every 1.8 inhabitants. By comparison, the total number of pure electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles on the road today stands at just over 8.5 million or about 0.6 percent of the vehicle fleet population. If you used media attention and stories as your only source for estimating the size of the global electric vehicle fleet, most people would logically assume that EVs comprise at least half of the global vehicle fleet—just look at Tesla’s stock market valuation!
Aside from the relative size of the vehicle populations (ICE versus EV), the next inconvenient reality is the vehicle-to-vehicle cost comparison. The ICE vehicle is typically 20-30 percent cheaper in the initial purchase but does cost 5-10 percent more in terms of annual maintenance and fuel costs (depending on the price of oil). See Figure 2 for a 2015 comparison by the consulting firm Arthur Little.
With tax incentives and rebates, the cost of electric vehicles has fallen substantially in the past five years, with the average cost difference between an ICE vehicle and EV closer to 15-20 percent over a ten- to twenty-year life of the vehicle in net present value terms, using a standard discount rate. For the time being, however, the fact remains that EVs cost more to purchase and run.
INCONVENIENT FACT: COBALT
The next inconvenient reality has to do with the material composition of an EV engine versus an internal combustion (IC) engine. An electric vehicle uses about three times more copper than an IC engine and substantially more nickel and cobalt than a traditional internal combustion engine forged of machine steel.
Nickel and cobalt are the key elements used in the cathode chemistry of most electric vehicle batteries today. The typical electric vehicle uses about five kilograms of cobalt (ten to eleven pounds). (Ironically, the other major industrial use for cobalt is in the production of catalysts to remove sulfur from crude oil during the oil refining process.)
Total annual consumption of cobalt today is roughly 265 million metric tonnes, with batteries making up about half the total global cobalt demand. Each 10 percent conversion of the global vehicle fleet will require 700 million metric tonnes of cobalt or a tripling of total global cobalt production. Converting half of the global vehicle fleet to EV would require the globe to produce fifteen times more cobalt than it does today.
Therein lies the real problem: a massive increase in the production of electric vehicles is going to run into a major supply crunch, both in terms of the type of electricity produced and the amount of cobalt mined. We’ll need to burn a lot more fossil fuel to produce all the electricity we’ll need for the “clean” electric car.
Cobalt mining is particularly worrisome in that some 65 percent or two-thirds of the world’s mined cobalt supply comes from one place, the Democratic Republic of Congo in sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the cobalt for electric cars comes from what are euphemistically referred to as artisanal mines. Don’t kid yourself—this is code for a child in a mud pit guarded by an overseer (usually a teenager) with an automatic rifle.
Here is the reality for politicians and celebrities who have already decided that the age of the green clean electric vehicle is here. The global supply chain and energy infrastructure are nowhere ready or prepared to handle the paper electric revolution.
LITHIUM TO THE RESCUE?
That being said, it doesn’t mean that the noble vision of a cleaner and healthier planet. The most exciting development is new technologies that shift the battery chemistry away from nickel and cobalt to more abundant lithium. But many of these emerging technologies are five to ten years away from being fully commercial.
The type of technological and energy infrastructure revolution required to support the much-touted green energy revolution is unfortunately twenty-five to thirty years away. Even that is probably a bit on the optimistic side as it assumes a relatively stable political and financial environment. As the last three months taught us, despite an extended period of peace and prosperity, uncertainty is always lurking around every corner, door knob or hand rail, as the case may be.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2020