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Why EVs May Not be Such a Good Choice After All?

October 26, 2011

The conclusions given at the end of this commentary are somewhat radical and show from a life cycle basis of overall efficiency and carbon dioxide emissions that natural gas fueled vehicles are a better choice than EV (electric vehicles).

The Electric Vehicle (EV) Industry has not taken off as anticipated. Range anxiety, high cost, and the lack of a public and private recharging infrastructure have negatively impacted the consumers’ desire to purchase EV. Currently, the only true roadworthy EVs in the U.S. are the Chevrolet’s Volt (plug-in electric hybrid vehicle) and Nissan’s Leaf (battery power electric). Ford and Toyota entries into the EV market have been pushed back.

Recent news releases state:

“BYD (China based maker of electric cars), has talked frequently in the past about plans to sell vehicles to consumers in the U.S. But now, it’s put those plans on hold.” USA Today (10.25.2011)

“The U.S. has experienced dismal sales of the Volt and Leaf as well, with only 3,895 of the former and 7,199 of the latter sold through the end of September this year.” National Legal and Policy Center (10.25.2011)

“The plug-in market has not yet reached 10,000 sales, well behind what many observers expected.” Hybrid Cars (09.02.2011)

Economic and environmental factors are the primary reasons for considering electric-powered alternatives to vehicles that run on conventional fossil-fuels such as gasoline and diesel. By design, EVs claim to have lower emissions and higher efficiency.

While writing my previous discussion “Just Energy Facts – Source, Consumption and Waste!” another important but rarely discussed fact emerged, which for the most part has been left out of the EV hype.

A quick review of The Energy Flow Chart from the previous discussion will set the stage for this discussion. The chart shows sources of energy – fuels (left side), markets that consume energy (right side) and the end-product of that consumed energy in terms of useable or wasted energy (far right). Electricity generation holds a middle grounds being both a source and consumer of energy (upper center). Electricity is produced from natural gas, coal and nuclear power and used by the industrial, residential and commercial sectors of the U.S. economy.

In summary, the chart shows:
• Petroleum (35%), Natural Gas (23%) and Coal (20%) are the primary sources of energy in the U.S.
• Electricity Generation (35%),  the Transportation Industry (27%) and the Industrial Sector (21%) are the primary consumers of fuels in the U.S.
• 55% of all energy consumed in the U.S. becomes rejected, unproductive or wasted energy.
• Only 40% of the energy consumed in the U.S. is used to perform a service or work.

From an efficiency perspective, energy generation in the U.S economy is highly inefficient and lost, most likely, in the form of heat. Not surprisingly:
• 75% of the fuel consumed by the transportation industry ends up wasted, and
• 68% of the fuel consumed by electricity generation ends up wasted.

To the extent that EVs appear to be slightly more efficient (7% increase) than petroleum-fueled vehicles, from a life cycle basis EVs are still grossly inefficient, i.e., 68% of available energy is wasted during the production of electrons used to power the vehicle. Also, this energy loss does not take into account any wasted energy by the EV itself through the thermal behavior of lithium-ion batteries during charge and discharge cycles. Most likely at the end of the day, the overall efficiency of EVs are at least on par with most conventional vehicles with internal combustion engines (ICE).

Another chart from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory shows “Carbon Emissions” as a function of source and consumption. This chart reveals other concerns not readily publicized by EV manufactures. This chart shows the amount of carbon emissions, in millions of metric tons, generated by the consumption of all energy sources. Similar to the previous chart, sources of energy are shown on the left side, markets that consume energy on the right side and the total carbon emissions from all the energy consumed is given on the far right. Again, electricity generation, top center, holds a middle grounds being both a source and consumer of energy.

It is noted that this chart reflects 2008 data. Current emission levels may be somewhat different today. Nevertheless, the overall trends are considered to be in the same ballpark.

The chart shows (see pie charts below):
• Petroleum (42%), Natural Gas (37%) and Coal (21%) are the only sources of CO2 emissions in the U.S, Chart A1.
• Nuclear, Biomass, Geothermal, Wind, Hydro and Solar do not generate any CO2 emissions.
• Electricity Generation (41%),  theTransportation Industry (33%), and the Industrial Sector (17%) are the primary generators of CO2 emissions in the U.S, Chart A2.

Since EVs are “fueled” by electrons produced by Electricity Generation, from a life cycle perspective EVs “DO” contribute to CO2 emissions. True the transportation industry is the second highest producer of CO2 emissions, but it seems, unit by unit, more CO2 is potentially generated by Electricity Generation than Transportation. This hypothesis needs further validation.

“Natural gas is the cleanest of all the fossil fuels, as evidenced in the Environmental Protection Agency’s data comparisons studies. Composed primarily of methane, the main products of the combustion of natural gas are carbon dioxide and water vapor. Coal and oil are composed of much more complex molecules, with a higher carbon ratio and higher nitrogen and sulfur contents. This means that when combusted, coal and oil release higher levels of harmful emissions, including a higher ratio of carbon emissions, nitrogen oxides (NOx), and sulfur dioxide (SO2). Coal and fuel oil also release ash particles into the environment, substances that do not burn but instead are carried into the atmosphere and contribute to pollution. The combustion of natural gas, on the other hand, releases very small amounts of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, virtually no ash or particulate matter, and lower levels of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other reactive hydrocarbons.” Reference

In closing, taking into consideration both life cycle efficiency and CO2 emissions, natural gas appears to be a better candidate than EVs to replace petroleum / diesel fueled vehicles, at least for the near-future. In comparison to gasoline and diesel fuel, natural gas is relatively inexpensive. Like EV owners who save money by not using petroleum based fuels, the natural gas vehicle owner will also incur a cost saving. Additionally, energy independence and a cleaner environment can be more readily achieved by converting the vast number of gasoline and diesel fueled vehicles to run on natural gas. Economic benefits result from the abundance of natural gas reserves in the U.S.

Just like the solar industry which is dominated by low-cost Chinese solar panels, it will not be too surprising to see Chinese manufactures the predominate supplier of lithium-ion batteries for the EV industry.

The cost of retrofitting vehicles to run on natural gas is significantly lower than purchasing new EVs. As gas prices continue to climb, payback from the cost of conversion is just a few years. Almost every gasoline and diesel fueled vehicle can run on

Though in its infancy, the natural gas infrastructure (nat gas refueling stations) is growing in the U.S. At an average cost of $1 million per natural gas fueling station, a $10 billion investment (public and/or private) will result in 50 nat gas fueling stations for each of the 200 largest cities in the U.S. From New York City to Wako Texas jobs will be created. Developers, civil engineers, architects, city land planners, builders, owner operators and maintenance crews will be put to work throughout our country. A Win-Win for U.S.A!

Now, only if EVs could be directly powered by nuclear, solar or wind!

22 Comments leave one →
  1. October 26, 2011 10:20 AM

    thank you for identifying the “devil” or evil in “our” Energy System
    here with your posting.
    The whole discussion about Electricity (smart grid)
    and Transportation (E-Vehicles) has to be focused on two points:
    The high (combustion) losses in the conversation from coal to electricity
    and the high combustion losses in transforming fossil fuels into kinetic energy.
    One is happing in the power plants the other in the cars.
    When we change these two major processes,
    as they are man made and not at all given by nature,
    everything else will follow and be easy.
    Thank you for guiding our thoughts, dear Barry…

  2. Anonymous permalink
    October 26, 2011 11:39 AM

    Barry – as always, I appreciate your efforts in bringing attention to how the sausage is made with respect to energy. That being said, our company Green Mountain Energy (shameless plug) provides 100% green electricity programs to match up with the EV solutions provided by our sister company eVgo. This ensures that EV’s are charged using clean, renewable sources of energy. While I understand that there is no direct flow of electrons from source to user (the grid does not work the same as cable television, after all) the commitment to purchase the supply from renewable sources increases the overall contribution of clean energy to the grid. Matching EV owners with green electricity solutions ameliorates the carbon impact of the electricity generation component.

  3. October 27, 2011 8:05 PM

    If I wrote this today, would add water, H2O to the closing line. Water provides hydrogen, which is an energy carrier.

    Now, only if EVs could be directly powered by water, nuclear, solar or wind!

  4. Anonymous permalink
    October 28, 2011 10:33 AM

    There is a big difference in CO2 emissions from different types of natural gas powered vehicles. CNG is around 25% but GTLs are basically equivalent to petroleum fuels. And after-market conversions for CNG in the US are not cheap — $10K in the US compared to $2500 in Singapore, for example.

  5. October 28, 2011 3:50 PM

    What you have to look at as a ROI, based on the cost differential between Gasoline and Natural Gas. I developed a SW package that takes into consideration all variables including but not limited to cost of conversion and mpg, miles driven each year, at mid $3.00 / gallon of gasoline, the payback is a few years. As gasoline prices increase, payback is even more. Also, because of competition, the cost of conversion is coming down. Major cost reductions will occur with changes in tank design and manufacturing methods, Similar to overseas costs.


  6. October 29, 2011 10:29 AM

    great you recognize the use of EV as a poor way forward .
    I am always surprised that few people make the calculation in energy terms, as the financial way is to incorporate all the subsidies and grants that have been awrded to all aspects of the new technology and thus making it finaially competitive , but does nothing in the reduction of embedded carbon and energy.
    The calculation should always be done in embedded energy term to make any real sense

  7. Juan Martínez permalink
    October 30, 2011 9:10 AM

    Very interesting post. I’d add however, that nuclear with no CO2 emissions produces a high risk waste (CO2 is also waste) which is difficult and expensive to handle, moreover it is the most dangerous and catastrophic waste. Therefore, regardless the emissions and efficiency, nuclear (apart of more expensive than they say) should always be quoted together with its waste, otherwise when it is mentioned besides wind, solar and hydro people may think that it is renewable, which is not, and harmless, which is absolutely not.

    Up to now, the effects of nuclear are much more visible and devastating than CO2.

  8. November 3, 2011 4:54 PM

    If you take a big step back and look at the big picture, EVs are the only viable option – possibly with algae based bio-fuels as an alternative.
    1) the world needs a long term solution – all carbon fuels are out. We are not going to transition to a stopgap technology that works for one part of the planet for a decade or so.
    2) EVs are far more efficient at taking any form of electricity and turning it into work. Batteries and motors are > 90% efficient.
    3) since all carbon fuels and nuclear are on the way out in the next 2-3 decades the only pragmatic options are renewable energies such as wind, hydro and solar – all will produce grid or distributed generation (PV on building) electricity that can charge EV batteries. Yes, we will need storage for grid power, NaS batteries and such will likely solve this issue.

  9. November 3, 2011 7:12 PM


    You fail to understand the data and facts. You missed the point. Do you have any idea the size of algea farms to support the applications you have in mind. Anyway will not argue the point. Nevertheless, you missed the big picture. Get a text book and read the history of renewable energy. Also, goole Matsunga.

    The ultimate fuel is hydrogen. For vehicles its a fuel cell. Sure electricity is produced without any carbon based materials, Reforming of CH4 provides hydrogen, But the elegant solution is H2O to H20.No grid, no emissions only hydrogen and oxygen. If that is not the big picture, than tell me what is?


  10. November 3, 2011 9:44 PM

    What does a Japanese lord have to do with EVs or H? – and I happen to know quite a bit about RE.

    Hydrogen by all measures is far off in the future – I cannot see how it could develop with what we know today. The infrastructure investments of storing, delivering, and transporting H are non existent. Making H is very energy intensive (creating the gas and then compressing it). H had it’s day in the sun, Honda and BMW tried as best as possible to make it work for years and finally killed further development. Now both are building EVs.
    It is not “elegant” in any business way whatsoever: highly flammable, hard to store, difficult to seal, huge investments, large energy costs…. Fuel cells are expensive and due to the cost of raw materials, not something that can be fixed with economies of scale.
    Only a chemist would say it is elegant, naturally the exhaust is water, and there is plenty of water…. H is just not pragmatic.

    By any measure the EV is on its way and here to stay. Every major car manufacturer is developing, or has developed, an EV or hybrid. They have committed to production quotas for the next decade or so (% of fleet to be EV). The infrastructure to deliver the energy for EVs exists today, possibly a small expansion of the grid (known technology) will be required. Distributed generation with solar and wind allows every one to create the energy they will later consume in the EV (net metering); this is very empowering to the individual. In the southern states ~12 PV modules will provide the energy it takes to run an EV every day for 40 miles. With a smart grid an EV can buy and sell energy, possibly earing you money by the end of the month, imagine that, a car that provides an income to you.
    The EV technology is on a rapid cost reduction path thanks to the early adopters, and much money is being invested in battery technology to make even larger cost reductions (new battery chemistry). EVs are viable today, cost per mile is better than any alternative today.

    Biofuels are the secondary fuel we will need for heavy equipment, ships, trains, trucks, and airplanes. Algae based fuels are carbon neutral, and if developed in large scale can become cost effective, this is clear to the DOD and DOE, and now the military is committed to transitioning to sustainable biofuels, which naturally will attract more industry investments and cost reductions. Last I heard algae based production in a few of the western states of the USA would not take unreasonable amounts of land. I visited the AzCATI lab recently and saw a beaker of “Arizona Crude”, it is very exciting.

    Very important to note here is the clear fact that both EV and Bio-fuels will run on existing technology today, and not require infrastructure changes. A Boeing 767 will fly on biofuel. My house can charge an EV today. This is the big picture; we make two changes, EV and biofuel, and we are set for decades to come. When and if we invent fusion, then maybe we have other options…

    Here are some documentaries I suggest everyone watch on this topic, nowhere is H mentioned as a viable solution.
    “Crude the incredible journey of oil” “Crude Awakening” “Fuel” – plenty of educated scientists and experts seem to voice the points I make above.

  11. November 4, 2011 4:43 AM

    Totally agree that Hydrogen is the real alternative energy for the future , Imagine a roof on your house covered with solar hydrogen cells, where rain water collected would pass through the cell and be converted to hydrogen and this is then compressed into tanks in the car or house to provide electricity , gas for heating cooking and fuel for vehicles.

    A total energy solution that is local and with minimal transport losses.

    One problem we have is we do not have a commercial direct sun to hydrogen converting cell and there also storage problems.

  12. November 4, 2011 4:47 AM

    An idea for you to consider

  13. November 4, 2011 10:46 PM

    the reason there is no such device (solar to hydrogen thingy) is that there are better alternatives – PV and EV…

  14. November 4, 2011 10:47 PM

    Here is a really good reason EVs will be the solution, read from someone that has one:

  15. November 5, 2011 4:47 AM

    point taken but they are so subsidised by governments and big buisness nothing else stands a chance.

  16. November 5, 2011 4:50 AM

    cant open due to malware

  17. November 5, 2011 9:30 AM

    I believe in the near future people will use EVs for commuting and plug into an outlet in the parking lot to recharge with power from PV collectors on the roof of the place they work or located on top of sunshades that collect rainwater and sunlight right over the vehicles that are parked underneath. Of course they can also recharge at night at home if need be due to long commuting distances. Employers who have roof tops will install PV systems for the PR that they will enjoy as well as benefitting their employees. LBlevins (at)

  18. November 5, 2011 11:07 AM

    Good idea , but not Not when all the FIT tariffs are cut to realistic levels?

  19. November 5, 2011 7:12 PM

    it is a good link…

  20. November 12, 2011 11:59 AM

    I realize that fossil fuels attract lots of subsidies also , but this is what distorts the market so much , and its so important that energy stands on a similar footing , otherwise we find ourselves generating energy that is more damaging to the environment than the existing fuels, quite often we are busy fools without realizing it!
    The distortion of the market is beyond belief, and already I hear that all the onshore wind turbines in Holland will be taken down before the end of their useful life, sold to the third world to be rebuilt and new offshore turbines erected, without really maximizing the ROI from the older turbines? Who is paying for this ? no doubt, the taxpayer and consumer as usual!

  21. November 12, 2011 1:24 PM

    all fuels have subsidies, and subsidies are good when used properly by responsible governments; it is the way the government can move the citizens in the sustainable direction. Laws and subsidies are the tools for a functioning government, this will remain as long as we have governments. Renewable portfolio standards and EV, wind, and solar incentives are taking us off a dead end of fossil fuels. Oil starts wars, natural gas destroys the environment (i.e. fracking, and CO2), coal and nuclear are self evident as destructive dead ends. There are no easy solutions anymore, so yes, there will be mistakes, the real question is what is really sustainable. For me EVs and solar seem to be the obvious choice based on ability to scale and availability of “fuel” – the sun never sends a bill.

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