The One Metric That Matters For Electric Cars

Yves here. In Links today, we flagged another concern about electric cars: <a href=”https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/ywajkw/todays-electric-car-batteries-will-be-tomorrows-e-waste-crisis-scientists-warn” rel=”nofollow”>Today’s Electric Car Batteries Will Be Tomorrow’s E-Waste Crisis, Scientists Warn</a>. And how much will the early Jackpot of frequent power outages in California do to dim enthusiasm?

By Leonard S. Hyman, an economist and financial analyst specializing in the energy sector and William I. Tilles, a senior industry advisor and speaker on energy and finance. Originally published at OilPrice

Looking beyond the dramatic headlines—the cliff-hanger nature of Tesla’s financial statements and the Trump administration’s efforts to re-engineer the auto industry—we need to focus on one number that determines when electric vehicles (EVs) will make economic sense. So says a report out of Argonne Laboratories sponsored by the Department of Energy. That number, according to researcher George Crabtree, is the price of the battery (as measured in $ per kwh), which he says has to halve in order to make EVs competitive with conventional cars. Not promising one might think. Well, researchers now believe that battery prices could reach the magic level somewhere between 2022 and 2026.

But, there is more to come. Researchers are working on lithium ion-solid state batteries. These would not only eliminate the unfortunate flammability issue that dogs lithium batteries but also possibly double the milage per charge. Toyota hopes to have such a battery ready in the early 2020s.

Still, what about the potential shortage of minerals required to build the batteries? Crabtree points out that the key to making sure we do not have a lithium shortage is to recycle the batteries. At present we recycle almost 100% of lead acid automotive batteries and less than 5% of lithium batteries. However, figuring out how to recycle the latter economically will require research.

What all this says is that the electric vehicle could emerge from its present position in the United States as a well subsidized status symbol to a commercially competitive vehicle within five years. It looks as if the automobile manufacturers will be ready.

But how about the electricity producers? This requires new modes of power distribution for charging stations as well as an ongoing commitment to fossil-free energy sources. This is not a trifling issue for electricity producers. Electric vehicles could eventually account for 30-40% of US electricity sales. This is huge. But these sales will not be made unless the industry has in place an infrastructure to deliver the power to the right places at the right time.

That brings up the perennial chicken-or-the-egg question. Should we incur the expense and build EV infrastructure hoping demand will eventually follow? Or should we first allow car manufacturers to first build and sell their cars while hoping electric utilities move fast enough to satisfy the demand for EV charging infrastructure?

In real estate for example, developers build roads and lay water pipes rather than tell prospective home buyers to do the job after they have taken possession. Electric utilities have in the past put in necessary infrastructure or made commitments to customers ahead of demand. But this has typically occurred only after receiving the blessing of state utility commission regulators who would permit these new assets to be added to rate base and earn incremental monies for the utility. In that way, the utility recovers its initial, considerable investment. Without the regulator’s blessing, we believe risk adverse utilities will be loath to invest in a seemingly speculative venture, especially when the Federal administration seems so averse to the new technology.

But aside from limitations of batteries, energy density and mineral shortages, the electrification of transportation has the potential to eliminate roughly one quarter of US carbon emissions. This also assumes electric utilities install EV charging infrastructure while continuing to decarbonize base load power generations (which would knock another quarter off carbon emissions). And it now looks as if electricity producers and distributors have little more than five years to get their acts in order. This means that near term utility capital allocation decisions should be reflecting these changes. If not then perhaps another entity will assume responsibility for this aspect of the energy transition.

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107 comments

  1. Slideshow Bob

    It would seem that distributed, renewable electrical generation like solar and wind would mesh very well with EV charging stations across wide countries like Canada the US, Australia etc.

    The $/Kwh equation is also the limitation for fuel cells as a transportation power source. The cost of the platinum in the fuel cell is prohibitively high, plus the amount of Pt in the world is not enough to supply vast numbers of FCEVs. Until somebody invents a cheap catalyst based on copper or aluminum, fuel cells will impractical for all but niche products like satellites.

    Reply
    1. Joe Well

      >>It would seem that distributed, renewable electrical generation like solar and wind would mesh very well with EV charging stations across wide countries like Canada the US, Australia etc.

      But how do you deal with the mismatch of solar energy and cars charging at home at night? Do you think that issue is overblown (e.g., cars could charge while the owner is at work during the day)?

      Reply
      1. ptb

        exactly. and while the solution is not impossible if we relax cost constraints, the statement of the problem is telling.

        Why assume the continuation of the single occupancy suburban car commute?

        Build some damn trains. Make buses not designed just for the poor. That same quarter of carbon emissions can be cut without inventing anything.

        Reply
        1. FreeMarketApologist

          “Make buses not designed just for the poor”

          Maybe we have better-designed buses in NYC – they seem pretty democratic to me. They are clearly designed to assist the handicapped (kneeling buses, voice announcements, etc.), and the not-so-smart (easy to read maps), but I don’t really think that bus manufacturers are specifically designing buses to cater to attributes of the poor, or that any of the current designs actively discourage the wealthy from using them. What do you mean by your statement?

          Reply
          1. deplorado

            From my limited experience with buses in San Jose, CA, inside they feel like being in jail or some kind of unfriendly facility. Bare metal surfaces, few seats, sharp angles, metal floor, metal wire to pull for the next stop, everything is black, stern, designed to wash down with a hose. Everything in them says, dont even think to destroy this property, just shut up and ride. Makes me sick.

            Also, always late, never possible to tell when the next one is coming, often they arrive in pairs, then roughly 1 hr until the next one, stops have no shelter, drivers don’t even drop the ramp for mothers with strollers (that I still can’t believe)… need I go on. They are very obviously meant for poor people who have no other option. Consequently, the riders are almost never pleasantly appearing personalities… a lot of people who talk to themselves, a lot of sullen youth… Not a safe feel to ride in them.

            In contrast, (articulated) city buses in even the provincial cities in Eastern Europe that I have experienced run on LNG, are quiet and new, ARRIVE ON SCHEDULE, schedule is frequent – each 20 min usually, stops have real SHELTER, buses have more seats, even designated areas with latches for baby strollers, people are often seen reading books in them, families, regular everyday people chat and laugh – NOTHING whatsoever to do with the sombre and subtly threatening atmosphere of a San Jose city bus.

            Reply
            1. HotFlash

              HOly MOly, your public transit system sounds like a weapon of class warfare! Ours is far from perfect, but this is what the Toronto Transit Commission looks like: ttc.ca Free WiFi is being installed in the vehicles, as well as USB recharging. Our local millenial press is cranky (as they should be) b/c it is taking soooo looooong to get the entire fleet up to spec! Pixleboards on the subway platforms and at many bus stops tell when the next vehicle is coming, and yes, there is an app for that as well. No smart phone? The bus stops are all numbered and just text that number to the TTC # on the sign and you will get the next arrival time back. No phone at all? schedules are posted on line. BTW, our public libraries have computers that anybody with library card ~= any resident can use.

              Me, I have a dumb phone so just appeal to my fellow waiters in the bus shelter, get the answer pretty quick. Yes, we have bus shelters, they look like this (bunch of miscellaneous bus shelter images).

              So please, please don’t dismiss all public transit b/c the PTB in San Jose clearly want to kill it. While a prison and a 5-star hotel are both ‘shelter’, there is a qualitative difference. I have watched this world for 7 decades and have concluded that if there is a will, there is a way, and, conversely, if (they tell you) there is no way, there is no will. But we can fix that!

              Reply
            2. Danny

              As to the rolling stock and the shelters, that’s what happens when you have lots of vandalism.

              The advent of the magic marker and spay cans, plus lots of social decay, plus importing adults and kids from cultures where graffiti is a political, territorial and gang imperative, and this is what you get; vandal proof and easily maintained surfaces.

              Reply
          2. Kent

            Agreed. The issue with buses is the pure number of them. You need a lot of them to be able to hit bus stops every 15 minutes or so from early morning to late evening. You also need sheltered bus stops. Nobody but the poor are going to stand in the sun in August in Florida while glancing at the menacing thunderstorm on the horizon. And you need sheltered bus stops within a mile or so of everyone.

            But if you get enough of them, people will use them. People don’t because of the above issues.

            Reply
            1. Anarcissie

              The dispersed housing arrangements of much of the US makes it difficult to arrange bus and train routes which anyone will use.

              Reply
            2. xkeyscored

              You’d need a lot of buses and a lot of bus stops. But we already have wall to wall traffic on most roads, and much urban space is dedicated to the supposed needs of cars and their worshippers. Investing in public transport infrastructure would probably cost a lot less, even in crass monetary terms. How does the cost of an SUV compare with the cost of a luxury sheltered bus stop with WiFi, coffee and wotnot, I wonder?

              Reply
          3. ptb

            Oh NYC buses are nice and I have no problem with them. NYC has functional rail service too … 6 incompatible systems last I checked MTA, Metro North, NJTransit, LIRR, Amtrak, PATH. But it is quite different in most of “Main Street USA”.

            Also if you wanted to make buses even better (i.e. not needing to reserve 30 extra minutes of “traffic&delay time” to go anywhere on a busy weekday), you would reduce cars simply to reduce congestion.

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            1. HotFlash

              Our Toronto city council, (bless their cotton socks!) have declared King Street, one of our two east-west routes into the downtown, as a public transit-bike-and-‘authorized vehicle (mostly delivery trucks)’ route. It is pleasant to bike, the streetcars are fast since they don’t have to deal with car traffic, and business deliveries still happen. However, when I bike there, I see a lot of cars still using it, perhaps they are authorized, if not, looks to me like a fine cherry patch that is not being picked. I have asked my city councillor to explain :).

              Reply
            2. ptb

              oh and to actually answer FreeMktApologist, my main issue is (in most of the country) the social stigma of using public transport, when a person is middle class and can afford a car.

              Once this gets locked in, it is easy to view buses as places where you may have to get close to the the unwashed masses (literally, at times). NY has that too, which is proof that it’s really no big deal.

              But overall nationwide, US society rejects mass transit. We require cheap energy to keep what we have been taught to think is an important piece of our dignity, and a great amount of shooting and pollutting results.

              Reply
          4. The Rev Kev

            Here is an anecdote about buses and the wealthy. I was working and skiing back in the 80s in the Swiss alps and something had gone wrong with the lifts one day so that a bus was sent to pick up the stranded skiers like myself. On the bus there was this slim English guy in his 40s who, with a look of bemusement on his face, said to his partner: “You know, this is the first time that I have ever been on a bus!” For him it was just sheer novelty and he had no idea how it was like for most people.

            Reply
        2. Math is Your Friend

          “Why assume the continuation of the single occupancy suburban car commute”

          Because for many people that’s the only model that fits their needs.

          Any government that trys to force them to adopt a personal non-solution won’t last long enough to change anything.

          Reply
          1. HotFlash

            Perhaps they might rethink/rejigger their ‘needs’? Easy access to cars has shaped our landscape. I paraphrase Sir Winston: “We shape our buildings cities and afterwards, our buildings cities shape us,”

            Reply
      2. rd

        A simple solution for partial charging is to build a solar panel into the roof of a car. If it is sitting outside during the day, there might be enough charge to get you home.

        They are working on windows that use non-visible light for solar panels (you can see through them), so commercial buildings could potentially have those installed in a few years, so every building wall could become a giant solar panel. An employee perk would be plugging your vehicle in. In extreme northern climates, shopping centers and parking lots already have plugs at parking spots for block heaters in the winter – the plugs cycle on for just a few minutes per hour, so a similar set up could be done for recharging cars so peak demand can be managed throughout the day.

        “The Current Wars” is focused on the competing Edison DC and Westinghouse AC electrical transmission systems. Westinghouse won out because it was more efficient over long distances allowing things like Niagara Falls to be tapped. We may see a similar paradigm shift if solar and wind mean lots of local generating cells and fewer large distant generation stations.

        Greatly improved public transportation may also decrease the need for cars, but that would currently be un-American in many locations.

        I think in about 10 years the cost structures will improve and the obvious will suddenly become obvious.

        Reply
        1. bob

          The solar panel on the roof thing is a fashion statement. Noting more. A bit of ‘green’ trim.

          A solar panel of that size, under perfect circumstances, direct sunlight all day, might be enough to keep the radio going for a 20 minute trip.

          Reply
          1. rd

            They are improving in efficiency and most commutes are less than 25 miles. They are not THE solution – they are part of the solution. If you could replace the energy for one leg of a commute, that is less that you need to recharge at another time.

            Reply
            1. bob

              It wouldn’t power the car to move at all. How many square feet of space on the top of a car? Probably not even enough for 100W.

              It’s fashion. It doesn’t do anything at all in the scheme of things. It might move the battery 1% in the course of a very sunny day. That’s before the losses that come with charging a battery. So less than 1%. Not even 1 minute.

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          2. Anon

            At my local community college they put PV panel canopies above the parked cars. Shades the cars and creates a huge surface generating electricity. The electricity is made available to electric vehicles below via charging station paraphernalia. The electricity is free, now, but likely to be sold for a fee in the future.

            This is quite viable for auto dominated California and it’s great expanse of surface parking.

            Reply
            1. bob

              Also- Are you trying to claim that the solar panel on the roof is the only thing charging the car?

              I know that’s what a lot of people want to believe. I’d bet over 99% of the electricity going to the cars via the charging station is from the grid, not from the decorative sunroof.

              15 watts a square foot. 50,000kW H battery (small end). Not even a drop in the bucket.

              Reply
                1. bob

                  That would probably sell better.

                  So many of these ‘green’ ideas are purely a fashion statement, aesthetics, and because of that feature, it may very well end up consuming more than it is conserving. Because a car is a huge consumer to begin with.

                  But, everyone wants to believe that they can spend their way to earth friendly. Cause if they can’t…..what?

                  Reply
      3. heresy101

        PG&E addresses EV cars charging during the day:
        TIME PERIODS: Times of the year and times of the day are defined as follows:
        All Year: Peak:4:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. every day including weekends and holidays.
        Partial-Peak: 3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. every day including weekends and holidays.
        Off-Peak: All other hours

        Rates:
        Total Energy Rates ($ per kWh)
        PEAK PART-PEAK OFF-PEAK
        Summer Usage $0.47484 (I) $0.36435 (I) $0.16234 (I)
        Winter Usage $0.34773 (I) $0.33103 (I) $0.16234 (I

        Charging during the morning makes sense.
        https://www.pge.com/tariffs/assets/pdf/tariffbook/ELEC_SCHEDS_EV2%20(Sch).pdf

        All of this is occurring because solar has offset the daytime air conditioning load.

        Reply
        1. Danny

          This only applies to the customers that were meek and allowed ‘smart meters’ to be put on their service entrance for health, fire, safety, hacking and financial reasons.

          Hundreds of thousands of customers, and entire towns, refused to allow PG&E to switch their meters out. Some paid a couple hundred bucks over a few years at $10 a month, and now pay nothing extra.

          Why?
          http://emfsafetynetwork.org/smart-meters/

          Not only do people with ‘dumb’ meters not get time of use charges, they cannot be turned off remotely by hackers, in utility error, or for auctions of power to highest bidders above what homeowners agree to pay.

          The analog of this is that for electric cars to be truly succesful, they have to use normal 120V or 220v A.C. outlets. Once one gets the special paddle to charge a car installed, they are involving the building department, spending tens of thousands possibly, and are certainly not going to be allowed to keep their ‘dumb’ meter, thus subjecting themself to all the complaints and dangers above.

          Reply
          1. danny

            that were meek and did not prevent ‘smart meters’ to be put on their service entrance for health, fire, safety, hacking and financial reasons.

            That makes more sense…

            Reply
      4. Edward Jones

        Charging at night is a dream come true for utilities. Utilities have underutilized assets sitting idle all night while we sleep. This is the real energy storage mismatch that is never discussed. Utilities will be offering to pay for home charging stations before this over. This matches well with solar and wind providing power during the day and throughout the wind cycle. The supplemental power will always come from a central fossil fuel — gas— plant which will have excess capacity at night.

        Reply
      5. xkeyscored

        re Joe Well, But how do you deal with the mismatch of solar energy and cars charging at home at night?
        Why recharge them at home at night? Many cars are driven into cities during the day, where they are concentrated in small areas, making the provision of recharging facilities easier, precisely when the sun is shining. That would appear to be the obvious time to charge them, assuming we’re going to have them.

        Reply
  2. human

    I’m a break/fix technician who has done maintenance work for three startups who have spent considerable sums installing expensive charging infrastructure; including site work, electrical distribution, transformer cabinets, switching, the customer kiosks, monitoring, payment processing, etc. Each has gone tits up. One charged $1 a minute for a hookup! The installations are becoming overgrown as we speak. I wonder whose money was spent.

    Reply
    1. Brooklin Bridge

      They’ve failed because they charge too much? ($1.00 a minute: Yikes) Or are there other reasons as well such as lack of EV’s, bad placement, etc.?

      Reply
    2. p. fitzsimon

      We have a public charger in our city which is owned by a profit making company. It charges $.33/KWH. or about $1.00/Hr but you park for free. The parking fee for non EVs is $1.00/Hr.

      Reply
  3. Pelham

    I’m still skeptical about EVs. Technology that pulls carbon from the air and converts it into gasoline or diesel at $4 a gallon or less sounds more promising. And here it is:

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2019/10/08/carbon-engineering-taking-co2-right-out-of-the-air-to-make-gasoline/#2092fee113cc

    Also, building a massive power grid that makes every region in the US dependent on power from every other region to leverage wind energy sounds insanely expensive and fragile. Wouldn’t microgrids powered by factory-produced small modular reactors make better sense?

    In any event, it doesn’t appear that American democracy — such as it is — is remotely up to the task at hand at this late stage.

    Reply
    1. ChristopherJ

      A new one for me, David. If they are as superior as stated, one can only ask why the Chinese aren’t moving in this direction. Thank you.

      Reply
    2. Grebo

      Aluminium Sulphur secondaries: Salbage

      Not there yet, and news is absent, but it has EU backing. They estimate 1000 Wh/kg and 60% the price of lithium-ion, which are excellent numbers.

      Reply
  4. Ignacio

    The world of batteries at house/car scales is more dynamic than ever. On lithium recycling woes, it looks it is being addressed and will become an industry by itself as ever increasing numbers approach their end-of-life: Lithium batteries – 1.2m tons ready for recycling by 2030. The article says ‘several dozen companies’ are on it. The lead in this matter is in China with 30 recycling specialists.
    Batteries are also being used in some charging points so they can be charged in the most convenient moment. But this means doubling batteries.
    I believe that Na-Ion batteries aren’t that far from market as new materials in the electrodes are showing promising results.

    Anyway, recycling is a MUST, we cannot afford more heavy metals in our sewage waters!

    Reply
  5. Frank Reed

    As solar/battery technology gets better, people will be removing themselves from the grid altogether. Today in America people live off grid including with an EV (also see Australia). A few years ago, I could generate electricity via subsidized solar cheaper than my utility cost. It will only take a few more years before solar+battery will equal my utility cost and I live in a metro area. In the future, where it makes economical sense to do so many more will disconnect from the grid. I would also argue that people will disconnect from the grid faster than the uptake of electric cars. 2030 will be a much different America than 2020.

    Reply
    1. HotFlash

      I sure hope so! That is my plan here in the big city, and as a promise I planted a tree right under my incoming electric power line.

      Reply
      1. oaf

        Hey!!!…Where have you been!!! (that’s an expression; no need to answer…but had noticed your absence, and mourned…)

        Reply
        1. HotFlash

          Hi oaf, thanks so much for noticing (tiny weepies)! A bit of a rough time since spring, healthwise => dollarwise, but currently, as Five Man Electric Band sang, ‘Thank you … for thinkin’ about me, I’m alive and doin’ fine”,

          xoxox

          HotFlash

          Reply
    2. John k

      Tx utility accepted wholesale bid of $.022/kwhr, including storage earlier this year, and downtrend shows no sign of stopping.
      In Ca some areas with marginal Ag use are are growing solar panels. Local supply is ideal for ev… utilities are desperate for new demand to offset rooftop solar, regulators will work with utilities on infra… granted they had to put a stop to building more not needed gas generators.
      Now that utility demand has crashed when sun shines, Ev users should be paying high prices to charge at night, cheapest on weekends when sun shining.
      At one time I drove 20k/year, $4k/year gas cost. $24k over six years. Wife and I don’t drive much in retirement, still drive our (old, low miles) gas cars, but great this option is becoming more affordable. I dunno about the statement ‘batteries have to drop in half… seems Tesla 3 available for around 45k? Upscale cars start at that or above, and there are subsidies that drop the price further. Plus no gas to buy… Our gov could do more, eg bernies plan, granted not with trump.
      Certainly further advances in batteries will bring the revolution forward.

      Reply
        1. RMO

          The next time my roof needs to be rebuilt it’s getting solar panels. Even ten years ago the cost was low enough that I almost did it then and it’s become less expensive and more efficient since. It certainly worked out well for a friend of mine who installed a fairly big solar array about five years ago. Kia/Hyundai and Chevrolet currently have cars with adequate range for my needs (300 – 400KM) at prices which are within my budget – though the Chevrolet dealers I visited with a friend who wanted an electric car didn’t seem to really want to sell her one. So in another five years or so when it’s time for a new car electric will almost certainly be the best choice.

          They’re only a part of what needs to be done though. Better city planning and investment in good public transit is even more important.

          Reply
    3. bob

      “It will only take a few more years before solar+battery will equal my utility cost and I live in a metro area.”

      It cost around 70k for just the solar panels for a house sized set up. That’s before batteries, which would be required for a truly off-grid application. That also assumes the equipment has a life of over 20 years, which I believe, is really stretching things. How long odes your longest lasting appliance in your house go for?

      “where it makes economical sense to do so many more will disconnect from the grid”

      I doubt it. this ‘economical’ sense is dependent on a lot of assumptions. A few interest rate changes, or life of the equipment lasts 15 instead of 20 years, and all of the ‘economical’ pluses are gone. The real waste of lots of equipment that’s useless is also not a plus.

      The state of the art of ‘solar homes’ is a financing scheme.

      You can’t consume your way to green. Especially individually, which is what you seem to be proposing here. No man, woman or house is an island. Approaching this problem from the sacred
      Individual Solution is a guaranteed loser. A great way for ‘green’ companies to sell lots of stuff, but a loser in any other metric.

      Reply
  6. JohnnySacks

    Their biggest fail is not designing against a very limited number of battery form factors so batteries could become an external item rather than an intrinsic, barely replaceable, component of the model. Do I ask too much? Probably, considering the proven long term benefit of vendor lock-in.

    If one could drive into a station and have a battery (or several) swapped in about as much time as it takes to fill a gas tank, the adaptation hurdle would be much lower. Where do I want to drive, not as a suburban commuter or errand running drone, but to actually extract some enjoyment out of life and auto ownership? A rare day of skiing or a weekend road trip perhaps? Along with several hundred or thousand others who will all need to wait in line for a half hour recharge at the same time? Sorry, non-starter if a fossil fuel alternative is available, and also cheaper.

    Reply
    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Most current electric cars are too big and heavy. Their designs are too similar to the automobiles that run on gasoline — which once looked like horse carriages without horses. Why do electric cars need to compete head-to-head with gasoline vehicles? Fewer gasoline vehicles are being sold, and those that are cater to the tastes of the few who can afford to buy a new automobile, including a new electric car. What does an electric car offer in the existing market besides its ‘cool’ factor?

      I like your idea of external battery packs exchanged as they lose power. If every electric vehicle had two or more battery packs maybe the spares could be left at home to charge from the home’s solar panels during daylight hours — or they could provide some of the battery storage to retain the day’s solar feeds that exceed the GRIDs capacity — a separate solar/wind GRID, closer to where the solar/wind power is generated. But battery packs would mean a different kind of electric vehicle — not an electric car — which requires much less power because it is smaller, lighter, slower, and has shorter range. Of course this would mean further changes in our current way-of-life.

      Reply
      1. JohnnySacks

        Battery swapping is technologically feasible and a very good way to capitalize on excess energy availability at down times, but the corporate world no longer desires compatibility or serviceability for anything.
        Take the cell phone for instance – only good on certain plans where once upon a time a person could go into any store, buy a phone and plug it into that universal wall jack. Now not even the chargers or headphones are compatible, and batteries? Forget that, you can barely buy replacements for an old phone.
        Lucky for us 120 VAC and our wall outlets were built a century ago, otherwise every electric utility would have it’s own standards if created in today’s markets. How about that DC adapter in your car, re-purposed from what was built what, 70 years ago as a cigarette lighter, and still in use today. And the entire worldwide auto industry completely incapable of working together to develop and promote another standard. Yet I pine for a standard EV battery form factor. How utterly naive.

        Reply
      2. Math is Your Friend

        “If every electric vehicle had two or more battery packs maybe the spares could be left at home to charge from the home’s solar panels during daylight hours”

        Battery packs are a major part of the cost, and a major cost of the resource utilization and a major part of an EV’s carbon footprint.

        So, add $20,000 for two more packs, substantially increase carbon footprint, make the materials more expensive, and increase mining for those materials by a factor of 3.

        Then there’s the small matter of swapping battery packs that mass on the order of 1,000 kg (2200 pounds) when you include the structure that holds it together. And the cars must be more complex and heavier to facilitate battery swapping, as the battery will no longer be an integral part of the car’s structure.

        EVs are a bad idea except for specific use cases which arise from specific and varied operational and geographic factors.

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        1. Jeremy Grimm

          “But battery packs would mean a different kind of electric vehicle — not an electric car — which requires much less power because it is smaller, lighter, slower, and has shorter range. Of course this would mean further changes in our current way-of-life.”

          I’ll be more clear. Electric Vehicles cannot be an electric version of cars. They must be smaller, lighter, and perform more “sedately”. Electric battery technology is already far advanced — which means incremental improvements to battery technology are getting smaller and smaller. All together this means electric batteries are near their limits. Obviously doubling $20,000 battery packs weighing 1000 kg is a bad idea. For that matter, one $20,000 battery that weighs 1000 kg strikes me as a bad idea. I think electric ‘cars’ are a bad idea. But so are many features of our current way-of-life.

          Reply
        2. Yves Smith Post author

          Yes, this was the conclusion nearly 30 years ago. They are very well suited to uses where the vehicles run around a set area and can go home and charge at night. Mail trucks are the perfect use case.

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    2. Kent

      Battery replacement is popular for electric motor scooters. You can have one charging at home while you work, or better yet, take the one you have out of your scooter and charge it in the office all day. Americans aren’t big scooter fans though. It’ll be all the rage in Italia.

      Reply
    3. Yves Smith Post author

      This was a concept more than 20 years ago. I looked at a startup.

      You need total standardization of batteries and a huge amount of space per station for the batteries, charging racks, swapping space.

      Reply
      1. xkeyscored

        We already have huge amounts of space dedicated to cars and their support infrastructure. If some of that were repurposed for battery swapping, it would deter car use as well as enable electric scooter use.

        Reply
  7. clonalantibody

    Look also at Manganese Hydrogen batteries – much easier materials to work with than Lithium.

    A manganese–hydrogen battery with potential for grid-scale energy storage

    Batteries including lithium-ion, lead–acid, redox-flow and liquid-metal batteries show promise for grid-scale storage, but they are still far from meeting the grid’s storage needs such as low cost, long cycle life, reliable safety and reasonable energy density for cost and footprint reduction. Here, we report a rechargeable manganese–hydrogen battery, where the cathode is cycled between soluble Mn2+ and solid MnO2 with a two-electron reaction, and the anode is cycled between H2gas and H2O through well-known catalytic reactions of hydrogen evolution and oxidation. This battery chemistry exhibits a discharge voltage of ~1.3 V, a rate capability of 100 mA cm−2 (36 s of discharge) and a lifetime of more than 10,000 cycles without decay. We achieve a gravimetric energy density of ~139 Wh kg−1 (volumetric energy density of ~210 Wh l−1), with the theoretical gravimetric energy density of ~174 Wh kg−1 (volumetric energy density of ~263 Wh l−1) in a 4 M MnSO4electrolyte. The manganese–hydrogen battery involves low-cost abundant materials and has the potential to be scaled up for large-scale energy storage.

    Reply
  8. Synoia

    I’m also concerned about longevity, of the car and the batteries, together with replacement cost for batteries when they are at end of life and the car is not.

    Although if the 12 year time frame bandied about to reverse climate change is to be implemented, I suggest car and planes become banned on 1/1/2020, militaries around the world have to operate without fossil feul (marching is fine)l, and we focus on not traveling, walking,buses and trains.

    Reply
  9. HotFlash

    EV are electric cars. How long did it take before computers stopped looking like typewriters? We are still thinking in old terms, thinking backwards. Ironically, we could learn a lot by looking even further backwards.

    When the vehicle weighs 10x the payload, that’s pretty stupid design, unless you are launching a satelite. Simply electrifying cars-as-we-know-them (a stupid contraption, only possible because of absurdly cheap energy, as Ilargi points out today) is not the way to solve the problem. We need to rethink the whole transportation universe. What do we need to transport and where and *especially* why? then solve that situation by situation. Want to go skiing? Trains are the way to go and is safer than driving on snowy roads when you are tired after a day out of doors. Bicycles are excellent, efficient means of transporting people and small loads over short distances, and in my perpetually gridlocked city, faster than either cars or public transit, at least for trips up to 10km. Too much work, or bad knees? Ebikes are pretty efficient use of electricity and the batteries are smaller. For freight delivery, trains, and small trucks. Oh, and reduce freight miles by cutting out frivolous products and developing local industries for the necessary ones. My mind boggles when I see 18-wheelers hurtling down the highway carrying potato chips.

    “But how will I get my groceries?” Our bedroom suburbs and pretty well any neighbourhood built after 1950 are functionally food deserts. You really do need a car to get groceries, to school, to work, to get anything. We will have to bring shops and schools and work closer to where we live, in these neighbourhoods. In my 150yr old neighbourhood, each corner has one or more old corner stores. Many still serve as commercial establishments — hairdresser, yoga studio, pet groomer, and of course, coffee shop, although many have been converted to residential. When this neighbourhood was built, there was no electricity, the streetcar was horse-drawn, the lighting was gas, the refrigerator was an icebox and you bought your groceries daily, either from the corner store or from the shops on main street (butcher, baker, druggist, millinery). The milkman delivered daily, the veg man would come around once or twice a week with horse and cart. Oh, and the shops all delivered! Usually a boy, often on a bicycle. So, small shops in residential neighbourhoods, in easy walking or biking distance.

    “How does stuff get to these little stores?” The big grocery stores of the mid-20th C used to advertise ‘carload sales’ of oh, say, bananas or such, because they came by train, in a freight car. The current incarnation of my nearby chainstore still has its rail siding, although they don’t use it anymore. The grapes-for-wine merchant up the road still uses his, though, for his carloads of grapes in the fall. You actually walk into the freight car to select your crates of grapes. Many items would still come by truck, of course, but perhaps a central drop-off point (IOW, a small warehouse) where big trucks or trains could leave their goods for distribution to neighbourhood stores by smaller Etrucks, cargo bikes, little red wagons, shanksmare or even horses.

    Many of these wheels we don’t have to reinvent, we just have to look back a few decades to see how our grandparents and great-grand parents lived.

    Reply
    1. d

      I suspect that the tourism industry would die, if we switched to trains or buses. Today most of us that get paid vacation days, don’t have a lot to spare with traveling to an back home,if it takes several days to reach your destination. While that may or may not be a good thing. Thats just one part of travel. If one needed to go say Vancouver, Canada, from Texas, you will likely be unable take that trip. Course as local transportation, buses and trains work, if they are done they are Europe, we u fortunately don’t do it that way, course maybe that is the difference in geography, for example it is possible to walk across nuisenburg germany, than say Los Angeles.

      Reply
      1. HotFlash

        Shrug. To each her own, and plenty of good vacation fun close to home, say I. OTOH, my across-the-street neighbours regularly fly to Europe for their vacations, which consist of (wait for it…) cycling trips through France, Italy, and most recently, Spain. Next on their to-do list are Baja and China.

        I am not keen on buses myself, I get pacey, same on planes. Now trains, or even boats, give you room to take a little walk. Fun fact: did you know that Cecilia Bartoli will *not* fly, when she comes to North America (which is rarely) she comes from Italy on a boat and is vanned around to her concert dates while the band flies. Well, now you know.

        No reason why trains couldn’t be as luxurious as cruise ships or resorts. Way more fun and more relaxing than staring at three lanes of highway, with another three over the median, and sleeping in identically monotonous m/hotels when you have to stop for the night. Trains could be real fast, like the bullet trains, or real nice, like the old CP Rail, or just plain pretty damned interesting, like the Agawa Canyon train tour, or one of these five. Back in the day, Canadian Pacific Railway’s president, William Cornelius Van Horne, concluded, “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists,” and so Canadian and other railway companies built these fabulous hotels. The food, service, and ambience at the hotels became the stuff of legend, and the food, service, and ambience on the trains was the same high quality. Some of the hotels, like the Empress in Vancouver, are still pretty hot shit. The trains today, not so much, but that could all be changed.

        Reply
      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        Well .. . we could adopt the European practice of making vacation times last long enough to be able to take the train and still have time at the destination.

        Reply
  10. arielle

    In upstate NY, a homeowner may install solar panels, but they are sized by the utility company to NOT PRODUCE EXCESS, and you are required to feed back the home-generated electricity into the grid, and then draw down from same grid. There is no way to get OFF-GRID.

    Reply
    1. Brooklin Bridge

      Are you sure of that? A quick query (duckduckgo.com) with the text: Going off the grid in upstate NY brings back a ton of responses which, by just skimming, suggest that you can indeed go off the grid completely. Perhaps the constraints you mention apply only if you use a dual system.

      Reply
  11. Darius

    So not interested in electric vehicles. They will do nothing about America’s decadent and destructive commitment to suburban sprawl. America made a conscious decision once to disinvest in cities and invest in paving over the countryside to create automobile utopia. It can now disinvest in the suburbs, which depend on massive subsidies anyway, and invest in cities and public transportation. Cars offer nothing but the illusion of independence and the facade of status.

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Please tell me where all those people in the suburbs who have jobs in nearby cities or in the suburbs themselves are supposed to go.

      Please tell me how it is energy efficient to build massive new infrastructure. Hint: cost of building new dwellings is >10 years the energy cost of operating a current not-energy-efficient one.

      Reply
  12. Phacops

    So, I wonder what will be created as the new national sacrifice areas when resource extraction ramps up for all these EVs? Of course urban/suburban dwellers won’t have to live with that when it’s out of sight; out of mind. According to them it will be us rural hicks who will be blessed with the damage. The hype reminds me of nuclear in the 1950s where electricity will be too cheap to meter.

    Meanwhile, by not having children I can burn rendered baby seals in a 5 mpg bulgemobile and do less damage than parents greenwashing their lives with EV use.

    Reply
  13. Roy G

    Imo, electrification is a good component to transportation, but more so for buses and mass transit. All buses in China are now electric, and that is a big component in their drastic reduction in air pollution. EVs are also good for smaller vehicles (bikes, scooters, etc.) which are usable is some locales, but not, for instance, in Southern California, where everything was designed for high-speed auto traffic.

    My belief is that the EV / Autonomous driving craze is being pushed so hard because it is the logical endpoint for late stage capitalism. In other words, it’s the best they can offer. However, it pales in comparison to what a non-market driven approach to transportation could do for this country.

    Reply
    1. HotFlash

      I think there is a place for autonomous vehicles. For instance, a car that could take itself back to its parking space after dropping you and your groceries off at the door and come again when called would be really cool, and would involve a minimum of scenarii that require real decision-making by the AV. It just toddles down to the end of the circular drive, down the ramp and stows itself in its own stall, reverse when called, then you drive it. If, say, you lived in a highrise, or a neighbourhood with a common parking space, it could be fairly simple. Even simpler, at least for the car, would be if there was a pool of shared cars that everyone in the condo/hirise/neighbourhood had access to, all of which knew where their home stall was, and all of which were in contact with one another. With a little smart designing to keep pedestrians and cyclists safe, it could be pretty fool-proof.

      Right now, Toronto does this sort of thing with Bikeshare (city-owned dockable bikes) and Autoshare (private company, but many models of cars/trucks accessible to members on an as-needed basis). In my view, this is the way it’s gonna be, and Big Auto (which we owe *nothing* to) will just have to lump it.

      Reply
  14. steven

    It isn’t just the internal combustion engine (ICE) powered personally owned vehicle (POV) that doesn’t make sense in an overcrowded, resource depleted world. It is the whole concept of a transportation system based on POVs. That said lets concentrate on the technologies that will help us live with the past century of mistakes.
    • There is another metric that matters: what it costs to swap out traction batteries. If you are driving a five year old EV that’s worth say $5000 and it costs $5k to replace the traction battery you aren’t going to do it. This effectively kills the used car market for EVs.
    • It would be great / wonderful / fabulous if we could completely rid the world of CO2 spewing POVs. But that ain’t going to happen for far too long to save the world from hitting the Jackpot. Even if the cost of batteries could be brought down to Hyman’s target metric there is still the matter of infrastructure. EV zealots with their black and white perceptions of the world are apparently unwilling to settle for anything short of their ideas of perfection. They may be willing to wait hours to find a vacant charger then hours more to charge. But the rest of us aren’t.

    And it isn’t really necessary if more attention is paid to the GM Volt-like range extension technology. GM did its research during the design phase of the Volt. The 2013 I drive has a range of about 40 miles before it needs to fire up its gas powered range extender. For most of us that is more than enough to eliminate most of the fossil fuels we burn for transportation. The infrastructure is already in place if you need it. I don’t know how the weights compare but I’m guessing hauling around that heavy range extender is not much worse that hauling around a big heavy battery you most of the time will not need.

    Reply
    1. steven

      JohnnySacks’s swappable battery technology would rectify the used car market problem. But like the Volt and range extension technology automakers don’t seem to be interested in promoting technology that doesn’t make them as much money as possible.

      Anyway logically they are separate problems. If it costs as much to install a new battery as it does to make it, it won’t matter if the price of batteries falls 50%.

      Reply
    2. C0RT

      If my $15k EV was worth $20k after the battery replacement, and it had years of life still, why wouldn’t I opt to replace the battery?

      Isn’t that a factor of an educated marketplace?

      Reply
  15. pricklyone

    Alittle sidenote/peeve:
    Until 2018, I had never encountered, in reference to automobiles, the use of the diminutive “MERC”
    to denote Mercedes. Through my lifetime, it was always used for the Mercury brand (at; least in USA).
    A perusal of the trade mags seems to bear this out.
    Jarring to those of us who remember the former meaning.

    Reply
    1. Janie

      We visited friends near Bristol, England, in the early nineties. They referred to their (old) Mercedes as “the merc”.

      Reply
  16. d

    Many stories also skip the fact that electricity usage is down. Mostly cause we have gotten pretty good at lowering our individual use. But some of that is to lower our electric bills, some of which spiked because of ‘freeing’ of utils from regulation, only it seems that has backfired

    Reply
  17. Linden S.

    I am curious where the statistic about EVs potentially using “30-40%” of the grid comes from. I have been looking for estimates of how much extra electricity generation would be needed if all vehicles were made electric, but it’s a hard number to find. I have found some single state studies that seemed.to.suggest 30-50% extra power compared to today’s generation, but it is not a straightforward question since EVs can charge off peak and potentially be used as grid batteries. The question of heavy duty vehicles seems to be a whole different thing, maybe just requiring non-fossil fuels and not possible on batteries.

    Reply
    1. fajensen

      One can buy electric trucks now. Electric cargo bikes are hugely popular for personal transport needs.

      Premiere for Volvo Trucks’ first all-electric truck

      One reason is Space, there is not a lot of places to park cars in a European city. Cities like Amsterdam will totally ban fossil vehicles by 2030, another is that the ‘Euro 6’ emission standards for cars are coming for the trucks and busses also; in Germany and Italy the towns have wide amounts of self-governance so they can and do enforce stricter standards than the national governments.

      The problem with extrapolating anything from the US case is that the US has a mix of mostly dilapidated infrastructure for ‘the masses’ and very good ones for ‘the elites’, the entire country is almost split into 3’rd world and 1’st world parts along many boundaries. Mathematically, one can’t find the slope (differentiate) across discontinuities so one can’t really build a good linear model that encompass the whole. This of course never stops anyone :).

      As long as one remains inside the 1’st world bubble, like, say Silicon Valley, everything looks just fine and perfectly possible; the problems rapidly emerges when a situation require ‘uplifting’ systems that bisects the 1’st and 3’rd world – oh, like public transport and the electrical grid – then the ‘1’st world resident experts’ will always find that too expensive and impossible somehow. Which is quite the pathetic show for a country that pulled off Apollo and many other great things.

      Reply
    2. xkeyscored

      estimates of how much extra electricity generation would be needed if all vehicles were made electric
      This article, Is America’s Power Grid Ready for Electric Cars?, should help, though it doesn’t seem to come up with a single number as such.
      And this article, NREL Finds Future EV Charging Demand Will Require Coordination Between Utilities & Car Owners, claims that “Muratori used statistical data from the US Department of Energy’s Residential Energy Consumption Survey. He concluded that the grid as presently constituted could handle the needs of electric cars so long as they represented less than 25% of the total number of cars on the road in a given area and were charged with Level 1 equipment. But adding Level 2 chargers to the mix rapidly made significant upgrades to the grid essential.

      Reply
      1. Linden S.

        Yes! The CityLab article is what I have been looking for — thank you! So about 30% extra energy, give or take. Notable that this does NOT include heavy trucks, which I have to assume could close to double extra energy requirements if they were electrified (or if their synthetic fuel was made from electricity).

        Reply
  18. Alex Cox

    Rather than add my 10c (which I’ve done ad nauseam on this subject) I just want to say thank you to NC for an interesting article and a truly outstanding comments section!

    Reply
  19. rjs

    re: “And how much will the early Jackpot of frequent power outages in California do to dim enthusiasm?”

    i don’t know about California, but during some power outages here in Ohio it has also been impossible to buy gasoline because the gas pumps would not run…& last winter, the snow plows could not get out of the city garage because the heavy garage doors can’t be moved without that power either…so you shut down the grid things are crazy for gas powered vehicles too, not just EVs

    Reply
  20. Tyronius

    The entire premise of this article is silly and wrong headed. What holds electric cars back from mainstream acceptance is not the cost of the cars themselves- they’re already competitive. It’s the subsidies afforded to conventional cars, from tax breaks on the cars themselves to massive subsidies on the fuel they run on. In any level playing field scenario, electric vehicles simply crush fossil fuel powered cars, hands down.

    Reply
    1. Tom Pfotzer

      It’s the subsidies afforded to conventional cars, from tax breaks on the cars themselves to massive subsidies on the fuel they run on. In any level playing field scenario, electric vehicles simply crush fossil fuel powered cars, hands down.

      Please keep repeating this. Vital point.

      Reply
    2. cnchal

      I think you are blowing smoke.

      My neighbor, a true blue electric car aficionado just bought a BMW I3 that was sitting on the lot for two years. Then after buying it, finding out the rear windows don’t roll down and the off gasses from the interior are so strong his wife get’s sick in it.

      To me, it looks like a clown car, but that’s besides the point. This winter should reveal more pitfalls, so interesting times in my neighborhood. The next time I see him we will talk about tires for it. At least he is putting his money where his mouth is, so I give him credit for that.

      I am sticking with my great condition 15 to 20 year old gas powered cars, that cost a few thousand to buy, I can maintain myself, run great, are fun to drive and won’t be in the scrapyard shortly, unlike the latest and greatest, whether gas or electric, when the array of buried sensors go wonky and the things are more expensive to fix than replace. Talk about collossal waste and burning up resources for no good reason.

      Reply
  21. JeffK

    …”That brings up the perennial chicken-or-the-egg question. Should we incur the expense and build EV infrastructure hoping demand will eventually follow? Or should we first allow car manufacturers to first build and sell their cars while hoping electric utilities move fast enough to satisfy the demand for EV charging infrastructure?”…

    First: Who exactly is the “we”? Ford, GM, Dodge, Toyota, and Nissan have been pushing ridiculously oversized pickup trucks for the past decade to a burgeoning market of bearded hyper-masculine men/tradesmen/farmers/sportsmen/explorers…or just urban apartment dwellers who fancy themselves as one of those guys, and need to purchase the compensating appearance of belonging to that group. The automakers have both tapped into that market and helped built it. Pickup trucks are their biggest seller. Owning the giganto-pickup truck is a baked-in part of rural culture. Its hard for me to see the major automakers doing a change-up, building a market of energy conscious bros shredding up the back roads in their 1200 pound smart cars. So I wouldn’t rely on the the supply side to take the EV vehicle initiative (although there is evidence to the contrary) so long as fuel is cheap and subsidized, and there are insecure men who need to appear big and strong.

    Reply
  22. guurst

    Normally car tires wear out at about 60000 km’s, with EV’s it is 30000 km’s. See for instance https://solarchargeddriving.com/2018/08/26/premature-tire-wear-appears-to-be-biggest-maintenance-issue-for-electric-cars/ EV’s are a lot heavier than normal cars, capable to accelerate from 0 to 100 km/hr in 4 seconds = only a saint would resist to put the pedal to the metal. Result: excessive road- & tire wear and much more microplastic pollution. Lovely….

    Reply
    1. cnchal

      The author makes two interesting comments / observations.

      1 – the type of replacement tire can have a big impact on range, and the wrong tire can affect range substantially

      2 – quick acceleration from the torquey electric motors. This could be problematic in a mix of traffic, where one type of car accelerates slowly and another quickly. I can forsee accidents happening where someone new to an electric car rear ends the car in front or runs a laggardly pedestrian over from the surprise acceleration.

      I saw a Tesla X, it must have had the ‘ludicrous speed option’ accelerate from about 70 mph to 100 mph in what seemed like two seconds and slew back and forth across several lanes of traffic, treating other cars as moving pylons. Very amusing to watch from behind.

      Reply
  23. Tom Pfotzer

    Just got done re-looking at the hydrogen fuel cycle state-of-the-art. It’s moved ahead a lot of squares in the last decade.

    The cycle is:
    gen electricity, pref non-fossil
    use electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Oxygen discarded into atmosphere
    compress and squeaky-clean the hydrogen, and store it in tanks
    move the liquefied (or very densely compressed) hydrogen to usage site (truck, fuel station, etc.)
    Combine hydrogen from tank with oxygen from atmosphere in a fuel cell to produce electricity and water vapor. Fuel cell can power stationary or vehicular loads (motors, lights, whatever).

    And around we go. Efficiency (energy in .vs. recoverable energy out) is compromised at the electroysis, compression, delivery, and fuel-cell steps because each of those generates some or a lot of heat (up to 40% of input energy lost as heat per step!)

    If the heat could be recovered (many ways to do this) efficiencies jump from 50-60% all the way up to 80 or even 90%.

    In the north, co-locating electroysis near hydro plant or solar array and a greenhouse or apartment block (village with central heating) might be a great economic move for a small village near a railroad line in a remote part of Canada or U.S. west. Ship out the hydrogen fuel, and the tomatoes and lettuce via rail, workers get free household AC and heating. Run the trains on hydrogen. Lot of carbon that didn’t happen.

    There are some neat projects going these days, and the cycle components have really come a long way (regulatory conformance, safety, simplicity, reliability, cost…you name it).

    The hydrogen fuel, if you’ve not already considered this, is a non-moving-part battery. High energy density, lots of charge-discharge cycles. Common materials. Stainless steel, some graphite-and-plastic plates for the fuel cell, and the rest is wiring / control system kit common to any auto or household electrical system.

    Reply
  24. Downunderer

    I’ve seen lots of discussion about hydrogen power for vehicles, but of course it all relates to hydrogen as a way to store and transport the electrical power needed to pull it out of water as efficiently as possible. And ignores some very serious safety issues and their unavoidable impact on the cost of using it safely. But I want nothing to do with that effort or any outcomes it might produce, based on my professional experience as a chemist plus a bit of proofreading I got sent quite a few years ago. Safety is a very serious issue, but neither hydrogen’s danger nor the cost of the supply chain needed to get it safely from its generation into a vehicle, and out again as nice harmless water vapor seem to get discussed. But I can report some too-seldom-mentioned facts about how dangerous hydrogen is to keep around, move around, and to handle.

    The one time when the fire department and an ambulance were urgently called to the pharma research lab where I once worked was a hydrogen blast/fire out in the semi-underground bunker labs used for the more dangerous reactions. These were experienced professional chemists who *still* managed to go bang and get burned. That’s for several reasons that all act together to make it something I don’t want to go near. Hydrogen has some unusual properties, which require extra expensive and troublesome handling for safety’s sake. Like –

    1. Hydrogen, being the smallest atom there is, produces the smallest molecules (H2) of any gas, so it leaks through openings in tanks or pipes that easily hold onto (say) any far larger molecule, like the simple hydrocarbons: methane, ethane, propane, butane, etc.

    2. The speed of hydrogen leakage is not only due to its size, but it’s lightness (which is why the Hindenburg got filled with it: the most lift). The lightness of those H2 molecules means that at any given temperature they buzz around in the available space far faster than heavier ones. That means they hit the container walls (or the small gaps in the containment) many times more each second than any other gas would, by a large factor. Most existing equipment (even balloons) would leak hydrogen even faster than helium, which most of us know sneaks right out of ordinary balloons that hold air just fine.

    3. Hydrogen has what’s called a negative Joule-Thompson coefficient, which means that when compressed hydrogen goes to a less compressed state (as in a leak), it gets hotter, rather than cooling off like almost every other gas does. Hot enough to self-ignite. That’s what happened to those chemists, due to a small leak that they didn’t notice in time because –

    4. Hydrogen has no smell to warn of a leak, and

    5. Self-ignited leaking hydrogen burns with an invisible flame. At least until it ignites something that burns more dramatically.

    6. Hydrogen, being lighter than air, will tend to move up to the ceiling and puddle there until something else happens . . . and among all hazardous gases it has one of the widest concentration ranges of its mixtures with air that are explosive.

    7. Back when the whole idea of hydrogen-powered cars was first being discussed many years ago, proponents were pooh-poohing these dangers, but in the job that I then held I proofread the English of a couple of papers freshly translated from Japanese that described the best design for the hydrogen equivalent of a gas (petrol) station. They both assumed that there would be a leak and an explosion sooner or later, and included special ceiling designs and concrete blast-diversion structures to protect the neighbors.

    8. Politics wasn’t the same back then, though, so nobody discussed what a marvelous terrorist target a hydrogen station – or even a hydrogen-powered car – would be. Anyone who remembers the bangs produced by hydrogen-filled balloons in a high school chem class will appreciate the potential destructiveness of the amount of hydrogen carried around in a car that relies on it for power.

    9. So I suppose it’s no surprise that neither these safety issues nor the cost of the hardware needed to deal with the risks get brought into hydrogen-car discussions. How much extra weight would need to be carried around just to protect against hydrogen leakage after an accident? And how much to prevent the tampering that would make the car a literal (though non-radioactive) hydrogen bomb?

    Reply
  25. Lamar Ovray

    Wikipedia on hydrogen safety:

    “Hydrogen collects under roofs and overhangs, where it forms an explosion hazard; any building that contains a potential source of hydrogen should have good ventilation, strong ignition suppression systems for all electric devices, and preferably be designed to have a roof that can be safely blown away from the rest of the structure in an explosion.

    Boy, I can’t wait to get a hydrogen powered car! Might need some garage mods…

    Reply
  26. Tom Pfotzer

    Downunderer:

    First, thanks very much for posting that excellent piece on safety. I was hoping someone would raise these issues, and I agree with each of the points you made. Let me offer some of the assessments I made about these valid, appropriate objections.

    a. Fuels are dangerous. All of them. They are high concentrations of energy, and they are generally designed to ignite easily. Gasoline stations are actually better “terrorist” targets, because hydrogen stations can generate hydrogen on-demand, and don’t have to store as much fuel in one place.

    b. Stainless steel tanks and stainless steel distribution lines can and are manufactured to sufficient tolerance and inspection as to effectively contain hydrogen. Think of all the industrial processes which currently use hydrogen – including a good bit of the petrochem industry – and don’t seem to blow up on a regular basis. This seems to be a well-managed problem.

    c. The problem of hydrogen “pooling” in the ceiling is a great reason to insure adequate and continous ventilation of any space that might contain hydrogen, and those vents need to intake near the highest point of the containment. This same principle applies to the storage of lead-acid batteries, which emit hydrogen during their charging cycle. When is the last time you heard of someone’s solar system battery box exploding?

    d. The negative Joule-Thompson coefficient is a new-to-me concept. I’ll have to think about this one. My immediate reaction is that there must be some threshold flow-rate or aperture geometry, like a venturi, necessary to maximize the expansion in order for a leak to self-ignite, otherwise all leaks would self-ignite, and they don’t seem to. I need to ask around some to see what the dynamics of this are.

    e. Propane has no smell; it has to be doped in order to smell it. Propane also, in a properly tuned combustion, has very little color. Some, but not much. In a well-lit room, it’s almost invisible. And yet, we are able to cope with propane. Doping (adding in some innocuous molecules that humans can smell) is problematic for hydrogen, as we have to consider their effect on the fuel cell in the downstream reactions.

    I’m currently thinking that these issues can be managed, and managed well. I plan to continue researching this hydrogen fuel cycle, as it has many, many great advantages, and I expect people like you and I to raise, debate, and possibly resolve the main risks attendant with the hydrogen fuel cycle.

    It bears stating that as a fallback position, there are fuel-cells that can use methanol, and methanol can by synthesized from carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Each of which are readily available from electrolyzing water, and taking CO2 out of the air.

    But the general notion of taking readily available inputs from water and air, using renewable energy to make a fuel, and returning those input elements to the air once the fuel is used — and nothing else, no contaminants — this notion is a winner. We must prosecute this idea all the way to completion.

    If hydrogen freaks you out, and I see that it does, then maybe, DownUnderer, you’d consider using your considerable chemistry talents to help develop an alternative fuel cycle that achieves the same results without the attendant risks as the hydrogen fuel cycle.

    Reply
  27. Jack Parsons

    Electric car batteries don’t need to be recycled, they need to be re-used! Once they’re too inefficient for propelling a car, they are still quite effective for stationary purposes. Also, they’re large and heavy and can be bolted down somewhere for theft avoidance.

    As to a solar panel on the top- current e-cars suffer from a problem where they need a separate old-school lead-acid battery to keep all the electronics functioning. If a Tesla is stored without a trickle charger for the lead-acid, it will eventually destroy the lithium battery. A solar panel on the top would keep more cars from failing when stored outside but not used. You only need a trickle charge, but you really need that trickle charge to keep from bricking your car.

    Reply
  28. Downunderer

    Good points, Tom Pfotzer.

    I would be all for hydrogen as a stationary save-up-the-energy device for large power generation installations, like power dams or geothermal, because it is so much easier to build adequate hardware for the whole process (especially storage), without worrying about needing to carry its weight around, or the potential for violent collisions or the blunders of second-rate mechanics. And there would naturally be 24-hour automated monitoring. That would be super-clean and efficient, and a great way to keep running at optimum design speed right through times of low demand, with the hydrogen energy available at peak times. Savings all around!

    And I like your thought about methanol (its fuel cell is news to me). Even though inflammable, it doesn’t present anything remotely like the escape, fire, and explosion hazards of hydrogen, or even gasoline. With its ability to mix with water and also to dissolve some oilier things, you might even trickle a bit into the windshield wash solution and maybe avoid spraying the countryside with the mystery (or dishwashing) surfactants usually added to the water there.

    But though my aging brain can’t supply the key names, I still recall Ford’s decades-ago treatment of the hazards of ordinary gasoline in a not-sufficiently-secure tank. Their executives and legal staff apparently devoted careful consideration to the deaths caused and the likelihood that Ford would end up liable for more dollars than building better tanks would cost. Now that so many big corporations are even more powerful than back then, and care even less about anything beyond their quarterly profits, I’m less inclined than ever to take my chances on a mobile device powered by hydrogen.

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  29. Downunderer

    To continue – This isn’t the decades-ago fatally defective Ford fuel tank issue, so in one sense it is irrelevant to the hydrogen fuel question. But it is a clear demonstration of today’s megacorp attitudes towards customer safety vs. profits, even when many lives are seriously at risk.

    I just ran across it this morning, and it seemed a very relevant and up-to-date example involving the safety of known-to-be-dangerous products, so I’d say it’s well worth a read.

    https://www.propublica.org/article/i-will-never-let-boeing-forget-her-737-max

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