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posted on 17 November 2017

Projections For Adoption Of EVs Are Too Aggressive

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One day the world will travel by electric vehicle. There is no doubt. The benefits of having fewer working parts and a non-combustible fuel are apparent. However, when I see predictions on the adoption rate I chuckle to myself because few have done the actual math.

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I often like to say that, even though we have had email for more than 30 years, I still get flyers and mail delivered by regular post. I joke that if we cannot get rid of the mail person in 3 decades how will we change over 240 million cars in the US alone in a similar time period?

People like to compare EVs to cameras or cellphones or the drop in coal usage, but these are apples to oranges comparisons. Phones are cheap than cars and the average car owner keeps his car for 7 years. Do you know anyone besides your mom or dad who keeps a phone for 7 years? Coal was just a switch to natural gas, it wasn’t a new type of power plant. They were just retrofitted. If the cars could be retrofitted it would be quicker than my estimate (which follows). And cameras, same as the cellphone, is a cheap item that is easily, even casually, replaced.

Currently in the USA there are 240 million registered vehicles. About 500 thousand of them are hybrid or electric. That works to about 0.2%. That is a small number and I know you have to start somewhere but that means 99.8% of vehicles in the USA are internal combustion engines (ICE).

But let us now look at the math:

  • A Tesla currently requires about 20 kilowatt*hrs to run for 60 miles. No doubt this will improve but that is the current requirement.
  • Americans drive 3.2 trillion miles per year. Dividing 3.2 trillion by 60 (miles) and then multiplying by 20 (kWh) it equals 1,066,666,666,666 kWh’s.
  • Assuming every power plant in the USA runs 360 days a year at 24 hrs a day that works out to 123 million kilowatts.
  • The USA currently produces 4,079 Terawatt*hrs. Using the same assumption that each power plant runs 360 days a year at 24 hours per day, this equals 0.472 Terawatts.
  • Converting 123 million kilowatts to terawatts gives you 0.12 terawatts. If all miles in the US were driven by Tesla’s it would currently require 25% of all electricity produced in the USA.

Clearly sequestering 25% of the electricity will cause the cost of electricity to increase and would require an infrastructure build out. It would require more solar and wind, but those also require metals that are mined and transmission lines.

Will you allow a rare earth element mine to open in your neighbourhood when you learn that the processing creates toxic radioactive sludge held in tailings ponds? Will you allow a transmission line to run over your house?

Transmission lines will become the new pipelines.

What about the metals?

In a Tesla there is 55 pounds of copper wiring. For 240 million cars that works out to 13,200,000,000 lbs of copper. Annual global copper supply is 44,880,000,000 lbs. To build enough EVs to replace the American ICE fleet you would require 29% of the world’s annual copper supply. I know that the fleet will not be built in a single year, but there are 1.2 billion cars on the planet or 950 million outside of the USA. Obviously the price of copper will increase. How interested are you in having a copper mine in your state park or neighbourhood?

It is estimated that 785,000 tonnes of lithium will be required by 2025. This estimate is not including replacing the entire US fleet of ICE’s but 20%. Currently the globe produces 227,000 tonnes of lithium annually. A 20% replacement of the American auto fleet would require 345% of annual lithium production. Obviously the price of lithium is on its way up. Once again, I am sure that operating a lithium mine in your state park or backyard is okay with you?

What is often missed in this conversation is that EVs require a boom in mining. Big dirty open pit mines - the kind of mines environmentalists do not like. These are the kind of mines that take decades to permit. Will we be approving the Pebble Mine in Alaska, America’s largest undeveloped copper mine? Environmentalists are worried about the impact on the salmon population.

I have not even included the rare earth elements required for wind, solar and the magnets in EVs. According to MIT (google it), 1 tonne of REE mining and processing creates 1 tonne of radioactive toxic waste that sits in tailings ponds. 90% of REE mining happens in Inner Mongolia where the children who live around the mine (google it) are showing elevated rates of cancer. Will you be allowing a REE mine to open in your state park?

These questions have not be discussed by “futurists" or the inventors of the technology because their goal is to sell a dream and not discuss the difficulties of making it a reality.

One day the world will run on batteries, but that day is further off than you think.

This article was adapted from a post at Economisms, 14 November 2017.

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