Electrical Fairy Tales

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The marketing hype behind new electric vehicles (EVs) such as the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf makes me think of the title of the 1901 children's novel by L. Frank Baum, The Master Key. Promotions and testimonials designate the EV as the "master key" to environmental harmony, evoking the vision of a green economy in which zero-carbon-footprint EVs shuttle us to sustainable clean energy jobs as our dependence on foreign oil is whisked away in the contaminant-free breeze. But it's the novel's subtitle, "An Electrical Fairy Tale, Founded Upon the Mysteries of Electricity and the Optimism of Its Devotees,"that I chiefly have in mind. It exquisitely captures the substance of the unfolding EV hoax.

The optimism of EV devotees is manifested by the expectation that simpleton consumers will see the absence of tailpipe fumes as the absence of emissions and pollution; that EVs are worth their exorbitant cost, particularly if they eliminate our reliance on OPEC; and that, in EV-world, we will all live happily ever after.The support of simpleton politicians guarantees fairy tales.

The scientifically illiterate media (also devotees) never mention the pollution and carbon emissions created at electrical power plants when EV batteries are being charged. Odd that these distant plants are now electrical mysteries, when not that long ago shrill environmentalists frequently reminded us that they were mostly coal- and gas-fired monsters, belching forth devastating fumes as they generate 44.46% and 23.21%, respectively, of our electrical power. Apart from toxic particulates, they release a national average of 1.2 lbs of CO2 for each kWh generated.

The Chevy Volt, to cite one example, can travel 35 miles on its fully charged 16 kWhbattery. Thus, charging the battery by means of the average US power plant creates 19.2 pounds of CO2; in effect, 0.55 pounds of CO2 per mile. The EPA rates the Volt's gas-only fuel economy as 37 mpg. Since a gallon of gasoline produces about 19.6 pounds of CO2 , the Volt produces 0.53 pounds of CO2 per mile. Incredibly, the Volt's carbon footprint is 0.02 pounds per mile larger when powered by its battery — another electrical mystery.

An optimistic devotee might argue that carbon footprints can vary. But an average of 0.55 pounds of CO2 per mile is a long way from clean, and fraudulently far from zero. As to footprint variation: charge an EV in a state such as West Virginia, where coal generates 96% of the electrical energy. There, the Volt will emit 0.95 pounds of CO2 per mile. — almost twice the emission of a gasoline engine.

Wherever you live, if you use your EV for anything much more than occasional errands, battery charging will be a big part of your life. It makes one wonder why charging requirements are trivialized, if mentioned at all — unless it's because of the mysterious nature of electrons. Their activity while the battery charges throughout the night is invisible, as is the charging cost, at least until the utility bill arrives. If you drive an EV, say, 700 miles a month, it must be fully charged at least 21 times each month. In a recent thousand-mile Edmunds road test, the Volt averaged 33 miles on a fully charged battery. In the Northeast, where electricity is 16.09 cents per kilowatt hour, the monthly charging cost would be $54.61; in the Southeast (at 9.57 cents per kilowatt hour), it would be $30.24.

Born of political expediency and founded on bad economics and science, the electric vehicle is a colossal burden for taxpayers, an expensive fantasy for buyers, and a cruel joke on planet savers.

According to the Edmunds review, charging an EV battery by using a standard 120V socket "is like filling a swimming pool with a syringe." Optimistic devotees cite charging times of 12 hours. But charging from 0% to 100% (typical of electric mode only drivers) takes about 20 hours. Edmunds expects that most buyers will need the 240V Level II charging stations, which can complete the charge in less than half the time. They are available for $490, with an additional cost of about $1,500 for home installation — in addition to the $33,000 to $109,000 you paid for your electrified transportation pod. But what's another $2,000 or so when you're saving the planet?

Electrical utilities also anticipate Level II chargers, salivating over the revenues they will produce. But they worry because turning one on is equivalent to adding three homes, all with air conditioning, lights, and laundry running at the same time. Two or three of them running simultaneously in a grid sector is likely to burn out the transformer, blacking out service to the entire sector. Ironically, safety experts want EV manufacturers to add a simulated "vroom" sound alerting pedestrians to the presence of EVs on the street. The added cost of bumper-integrated speakers is a small price to pay for the warning. Presumably, there will be no extra charge for the sound of transformers mysteriously popping as they burn out, alerting sleepers to the presence of EV chargers in the neighborhood.

Our taxes pay for a $7,500 credit to entice less optimistic buyers, and huge subsidies to help EV manufacturers stay in business. Lithium battery companies must be salivating as much as electrical utilities. Last year, for example, a Michigan company was awarded $251 million in federal and state stimulus money. Its plant is expected to employ 400 workers, costing taxpayers $625,000 each. And it is owned by a Korean firm. But imagine the graft that American "entrepreneurs" are getting. Companies are also lining up at the trough for EV battery research and development subsidies. Despite over a century of technological advancement, battery performance is economically inadequate for EVs. Maybe battery designers will have better luck in the next 100 years.

President Obama is among the most optimistic of EV devotees. His test drive last July was ominous. Steering a Volt for about 10 feet at about 2 mph appeared to reaffirm his green economy concept and his campaign pledge to put one million EVs on the road by 2015. He is working diligently behind the curtain of political favoritism and crony capitalism to promote the EV as an integral part of his green economy.

But the EV is a hoax. Born of political expediency and founded on bad economics and science, it is a colossal burden for taxpayers, an expensive fantasy for EV buyers (converted, coerced, or bribed), and a cruel joke on planet savers. Everyone will pay higher taxes, EV buyers will pay at least twice the cost of comparable gasoline powered cars, and their electricity bills will, as President Obama has famously said, "necessarily skyrocket." The fact that the EV actually violates the clean-energy justification for its purchase demonstrates the fraudulence of Obama's plan. EVs result in little or no net reduction in pollution or greenhouse gas emissions. This is equally true for a $109,000 Tesla and a $41,000 Volt. And it would be true if there were a $10,000 model.

It would also be true if a million US drivers bought such a car by 2015, or if enough millions more were thereafter coerced to bring us to the day when we could say goodbye to OPEC. The problem is that this would also be the day we would say hello to Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia, the Saudi Arabias of lithium. Will OLEC (the Organization of Lithium Exporters) treat us any better than OPEC has?

President Obama's plan for the EV is unfolding like an electrical fairy tale of unprecedented magnitude. It calls for millions of Americans to buy uncompetitive, exorbitantly priced, high-maintenance EVs that are not meaningfully cleaner than the vehicles they are supposed to replace — all the while paying higher taxes and electricity rates to finance a scheme that, even if wildly successful, would accomplish nothing beyond enriching electrical utilities and battery manufacturers instead of oil companies and refineries and making us dependent on lithium instead of oil.

This plan is a costly, inane indulgence in fantasy. If the curtain were pulled back, it would reveal a fatuous illusionist, feverishly operating the levers of subsidies, tax credits, and regulatory mandates to orchestrate the scam. Did I mention that Baum also wrote The Wizard of Oz? It is an excellent book to read by candlelight, during EV-induced blackouts.




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Comments

Dale

If the only draw back is using power companies that can easly be overcome with other green systems.

chibiabo

Where, oh where, are those Hydrogen powered cars other then in Iceland?

Steve

The EV is given additional favorable treatment when it comes to taxes. Mr. Murphy, you are giving it a pass on road taxes.

As it is, EV's are not paying their fair share of the road taxes to maintain our infrastructure. They get a "pass" by using power off the grid.

Visitor

Mr. Murphy,

Great piece. However, I think you probably underestimated the electrical consumption by the EVs, unless you took into account the inefficiencies in the electrical grid system. The car may require, say, 100 kWh to recharge at the outlet, but the necessary power output at the power plant to get 100 kWh to the outlet would be much higher (say, 150 kWh) due to losses when the electricity travels along the power lines. These inefficiencies are HUGE in some areas of the country. Perhaps you already considered that when formulating your estimates.

Will

Don Muller

1) I agree that EVs are not an environmental plus. You can't move a ton of car and passengers hundreds of miles without a lot of energy. And internal combustion engines have had millions of engineering hours applied to solve the problem. So EVs pollute just like your car, your airplane, and your heating system.

2) One problem with current high profile EVs is that they are trying to fill the role of the conventional IC automobile, a fools errand in product development. This approach forces EVs into applications where they have few advantages.

The advantages of EVs are:

a) They can be refueled practically anywhere, whenever they are parked, unlike gas or diesel engines. Your car is probably parked 20 hours a day. Why not have it on a charge? It's not like 115VAC charging is complex and expensive. Convert parking meters to chargers, for example, or put hookups in parking lots. In Canada, the capability already exists to keep engines from freezing. Charging whenever stopped is a concept we are familiar with when using our laptops and cellphones.

It is wrong to chase after the long distance capability of IC engines, which electric vehicles will probably never catch. There is already a solution for this, why do it? Emphasize changing anywhere, all the time, whenever you are not in motion. The infrastructure is pretty much there.

b) Other than the battery, and eventually tires, EVs are truly zero maintenance. No oil, no filters, no Midas Muffler stops, no catalytic converters, no plugs, brakes (regenerative braking means that conventional brakes are hardly used and last forever). Require about as much maintenance as your washing machine.

And every three years, a better battery can be purchased - just like your cell phone and laptop. The EV concepts that are trying to force a battery to last the life of the car are following the paradigm of the current IC automobile, which doesn't seem appropriate in a world where battery technology improves every year. The Volt battery is tremendously expensive, and 5 years from now, it will be pretty obsolete. Why not half the cost, and change it in a few years for a better one?

c) The EV is truly flex fuel. Coal, nuclear, solar, corn - whatever can run a generator. If we wanted to move away from oil to natural gas, we could. Perhaps not radically, but a family with a gas car and EV could adapt their habits based on changing circumstances and apply market pressure to both energy providers.

d) The EV should be viewed like the original VW - as a second car for putting around town. The EV would be very handy for families that already have an SUV or minivan for long trips or more hauling capability. As a basic daily transport appliance, the EV works just fine.

Face it, the VW bug was laughable against the paradigm established by the 50s Detroit auto. No carpet, no fuel gauge, no oil filter, cramped and slow. Who would buy this thing? But it was hugely successful, one of the most successful cars in history, as a second car. That's where the EV should start. Not as a high end prestige car like the Volt or Leaf.

But GM (or Nissan or Honda) would never produce such a thing. The have a type of vehicle they know how to produce, and they are trying to force the EV to adhere to their vision. Their business model does not support selling $10,000 cars.

An EV that is cheap, basic, and reliable will have to come come from outside, like the VW did. From someone who has no market share now, and as such, nothing to lose. And like the VW situation, there will be some carcasses along the way, of products that didn't get it quite right (Fiat, Simca, Datsun).

So I agree that the Volt concept is forced, and depends on a premise of green that does not stand scrutiny. But it is the wrong concept. It attempts to beat IC autos at their own game, rather than emphasizing the strengths of the EV vehicle. The EV, as a second, very basic no maintenance, putt around vehicle, is where it belongs. Not for everyone, maybe only for a few million in the US, more in Europe where gas is more expensive. But for a startup, that is a worth going after.

Oh, and you forgot road taxes - EVs will eventually have to pay those too. So the refueling cost will have to go up if they become as popular as Obama stated.

Marver

But I'd appreciate some sources on the numbers; thanks!

Paul

One thing the electric vehicle advocates seem to overlook is that for some individuals and families, EVs are literally almost impossible to utilize. I live in a third floor walk-up apartment, and there is no way I could charge an EV or set up a charging station. None. No matter how much the green types might wish it to be otherwise, EVs are simply out of the question for some of us.

Sally

Good article thank you. I had never considered how electric vehicles would be yet another drain on our already taxed power grids. It's bad enough being reprimanded or prevented from using air conditioning in a 100 degree summer afternoon, but to have a brownout affect your ability to charge your car so you can get to work would be even worse.

I've owned a Prius for 6 years. Only to save money on gas, not to save the environment. And it has worked well for me, as I get 40 miles to the gallon vs. the 20 I could have expected from an alternative car I would have paid the same amount of money for. Priuses are insanely popular in California and I believe it is for the same reason I got one, a market solution to a consumer need.

Until electric vehicles, or some other automotive technology, find a way to make things cheaper and better for consumers they won't be successful.

Leftist utopian fantasies never work and they usually have the opposite effect of their stated intentions.

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