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Why electric cars are a fraud
On supply chain issues and energy returns
I don’t hate the environment. I don’t like to see baby seals clubbed to death or emaciated polar bears on vanishing ice floes awaiting their demise. Not happy about droughts or starvation in the third world &c.
That being said, astonishingly enough, neither do I buy the pre-packaged solutions to the wide array of crises we’re being marketed, of which electrification and the happy, seamless transition to renewables is probably the most glaringly preposterous ones in light of the underlying energy & resource issues. Yet these interconnected solutions effectively affirm various core myths of modern civilization (progress, economic growth, science) and so are probably more or less inevitable themes in our pop-propaganda psychodramas.
Electrification is sold as a way to simply preserve the “normal” order of historically speaking incredible prosperity and an astonishing abundance of free energy, while at the same time protecting us from the climate apocalypse. It’s a heroic narrative with science, industry and technology in leading roles, that serves to remove an existential threat by affirming the symbolic power of our social order. Incredibly attractive.
So the idea is to replace fossil fuels with renewables while maintaining our transportation infrastructure and preserving economic growth.
But this is physically impossible. It would be impossible even with a no-growth endgame and a vastly reduced resource consumption, since fossil fuels are indispensable for the supply chainsg beneath almost every single component within any conceivable electrified global transportation network.
The energy and resource requirements of electrification
Let’s sit back and think about what proposition or electrification really means in detail.
You’re now going to replace all of the energy currently provided to our transportation system (or at the very least an absolute majority of it) with energy sourced from renewables.
At the face of it, this sounds like a reasonable proposition. We’ll just build lots of windmills and solar panels and piece by piece replace our fleet of petrol-fuelled vehicles with EVs. It’s something we can very well imagine happening, with no obvious contradictions or absurdities on the face of it.
But already at this stage, it’s easy to overlook some very important and quite basic issues.
To begin with, energy sources aren’t equal. You can hang your sheets in the sun to dry, and you can fuel your lawnmower with gasoline, but you can’t just switch things up and put sunshine in the gas tank and get the exact same result as with petrol.
Crude oil pumped out of the ground is just a few steps from the end-use of the refined product in a combustion engine. Light sweet crude may still yield something like 30 times the energy you have to invest to get it out of the ground, and while that’s somewhat diminished during the refining and transportation process, most of that yield is actually still present when you fill up your car at the gas station. All in all an incredible windfall that modern civilization just happened to stumble upon.
Renewables, on the other hand, are quite far removed from your EV battery, and at a much lower EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) to begin with. The EROEI of solar power at the site of production (when we consider the entire supply chain of all component parts, maintenance &c) is arguably negative, and at best around 3:1, i.e. you’d be glad to get three times the energy back from the energy you need to invest in the entire chain of production.
And that’s in the form of electricity. Electricity can’t just be… Canned. It has to be distributed over fixed transmission networks, where at least 8% of the energy is lost. There’s also a bit of charge lost from the battery over time, so let’s just round that to 10% of energy wasted.
The transmission networks of course also need to be constructed and maintained, which implies an added energy cost over and above the comparably versatile refined petroleum products. Quite difficult to quantify. Here’s an attempt, yet everything is discussed in terms of nominal costs rather than actual energy expenditures (transport costs land at about $40/MWh, which is somewhere around half of the market price for the consumer). Let’s be very conservative and just say that 35% of the energy involved must be deducted to “pay” for the transmission infrastructure and its maintenance. So we land at about 45% energy lost so far.
EVs are known to be much more efficient than conventional vehicles in terms of utilizing the energy at the end-point, where only about 20% of the energy is lost as opposed to 65% with small combustion engines. Some energy is of course wasted in the transportation and refining of petroleum, but since we’ve been quite conservative in regard to the energy lost in electricity transmission, let’s just put them at par in terms of energy lost here.
So a gasoline-fuelled automobile retains about 45% of the EROEI recovered at the oil well. Let’s say it’s 30:1. Global average is around 20-30. Russian gas is above 70. Saudi Aramco sits at about 33.
So you retain an EROEI of 13.5:1 in the conventional car. The EV, using an energy source with an EROEI at 3:1, will retain 1.35:1.
Why is this important? Well, it increases the de facto energy expenditure needed to replace petroleum in the transportation infrastructure by a factor of 10.
So let’s say you have 90 units of energy in the transport sector provided by petroleum, and 10 units provided by solar power. To expand solar power to fully replace those 90 units of petroleum energy, you’d assume it would simply have to add 80 units of energy.
But since the EROEI is so much lower, in reality, you have to add 800 units of energy.
Just think about this for a second. This line of reasoning doesn’t involve any of the equally important data on such things as scarce rare-earth minerals or the energy involved in producing and maintaining EVs and the myriad supply chains involved in that hot mess, but charitably assumes that these are non-issues. It just regards the relative efficiency of the energy sources.
Let’s be even more charitable.
If we were to assume a ludicrously high EROEI of renewables, and set it at above 10:1 as some of the accounts of wind power does, and drop the EROEI of petroleum to just 20:1 (which is probably the actual average), you still have to add two units of energy for every petroleum-derived one you intend to replace with renewables.
Why is this a problem? This is why:
Look at the chart. Everything is basically fossil fuels. Renewables apart from hydropower land at 5,7% at the very highest. Hydro can’t really be expanded very much, and isn’t feasible in most locations, so we have a fraction of about 5,7% of the energy mix from renewables that can theoretically be expanded. And let’s say (counterfactually) that we can do this with super-efficient wind power which actually pays for itself by a factor of 10.
Since the transport sector uses about 25% of the total available energy, this means that even by the most optimistically wild-eyed accounts, we have to expand renewable energy production almost ten times over to simply cover the energy shortfall in the transport sector. This is quite a tall order. At an average growth of 2,5% per year (of the consumption of renewables) in a growing economy, it’s not at all obvious how we’re going to reach an actual 1000% increase.
And before you raise any objections based in the exponential function, let’s just agree that there’s no real mechanism for exponential growth here. This isn’t interest rates on nominal currencies. An average 4% increase in wheat production during the last decade will face hard physical limits before it actually goes astronomical.
In reality, of course, the actual EROEI of renewables is much lower than 10:1. This is not least since the actual production and the supporting infrastructure implicitly operates on the freely available energy derived from petroleum. While you can get to an EROEI for solar photovoltaic of 5:1 if you simply use revenue after costs as shorthand for actual energy gained, the simple fact is that petroleum is intimately involved in every last aspect of each and every supply chain behind the final product.
A wind power station has thousands of distinct specialized parts, supplied from all over the globe. It needs gaskets, seals and lubricants. Its component parts presupposes mining, smelting, specialized machinery and thousands of subsidiary supply chains and experts all working in concert, which must also be taken into account for a realistic picture of the resource and energy use involved, and which obviously cannot readily be shifted over to renewable frameworks.
And how are you going to renewably mine the lithium for the EVs, and what’s the added energy expenditure per unit compared to combustion vehicles? How are you going to circumvent intermittency with the storage of electrical energy, how much is lost, and what are the added resource and energy costs? Go full nuclear all you like, a combustion engine can in principle be constructed locally, a modern EV inevitably rests upon several global supply chains.
“I, Pencil: My Family Tree” provides a sobering illustration of all the processes involved in a vastly simpler object.
Most people tend to think of energy supply entirely in terms of nominal prices. If driving the EV costs less per mile than a regular automobile, that’s the end of the discussion. Then it’s just assumed that the EV is both more efficient and economic, as well as being environmentally friendly, and doesn’t have to involve the terrible wars over resources that oil, and oil alone, for some occult reason, tends to provoke.
Electrification is a pipe dream. Converting just the transportation sector to renewables while maintaining the growth economy is utter insanity. Yet it’s almost the only narrative of the near future that we’re being offered.
The actual “solutions” to our energy and resource conundrum pushed on us are bound to be much more prosaic than the flying hydrogen-fuelled locomotive of Back to the Future.
And probably far less fun.