J.C. Moore Online
Current Events from a Science Perspective

Posts Tagged ‘electric-cars’

Bits and Pieces: Two Misguided Attacks on Wind Turbines and Electric Cars

Sun ,25/05/2014

There were two op-ed pieces in the May 25, 2014 Tulsa World which were misguided attacks on renewable energy and electric cars.

The first was titled “The Killing Fields”, with the subheading “Perverse federal energy incentive is a threat to birds, bats.” The article was written by Dr. George Fenwick who is the president of the American Bird Conservancy. The article was illustrated by an Associated Press photo which shows cattle standing in front of a windfarm in a drought prone area of Texas. It well illustrated flaws in Dr. Fenwick’s reasoning, he is more concerned about the wind turbines than about a much greater threat to bird populations.

While Dr. Fenwick had some good points in the article about the value of birds and our need to conserve them, the sensationalized article missed the greatest threat to birds. He complained about the federal production tax credit which encourages the development of wind energy, about allowing exception to the Endangered Species Act, and about siting of wind farms in sensitive areas. Wind developers are already avoiding sensitive areas and they have changed the design of wind turbines so they would be less of a threat to birds. He should have been more concerned about the bigger threats to bird populations, which are severe weather and the destruction of habitat, both made worse by global warming. Delaying the construction of wind turbines will certainly lead to more carbon emissions, making global warming more of a problem

Research shows that wind turbines are not among the top 10 human causes of bird mortality – and windfarms are likely saving HPIM2053amany more birds than they are killing. A comprehensive study of bird mortality in Canada found most human-related bird deaths (about 99%) are caused by feral and domestic cats, collisions with buildings and vehicles, and electricity transmission and distribution lines.  A related peer reviewed Canadian study of bird mortality found that less than 0.2% of the population of any bird species is currently affected by mortality or displacement by wind turbine development. They concluded that even though the number of windmills are projected to grow ten times over the next two decades, “population level impacts on bird populations are unlikely, provided that highly sensitive or rare habitats, as well as concentration areas for species at risk, are avoided.”

The fifth IPCC report says that the most important thing we can do to mitigate global warming is to switch to renewable energy as quickly as possible. If Dr. Fenwick’s sensationalized articles about “The Killing Fields” keeps us from developing renewable energy as quickly as possible, then he is working against the birds, and his own, best interest.

The second article, “Driving greener cars won’t save the Earth” by Megan McArdle essentially says efforts are futile to reduce our carbon emissions. She belittles her friend for buying an electric car and goes on that Americans are likely to do nothing significant to reduce our carbon emissions. She well documents all the ways that we waste energy and claims we are unlikely to change. She also points out that getting other countries, particularly China, to to reduce their carbon emissions is also futile. She concluded that if we want to get serious about reducing our carbon emissions then we need to find cheap renewable resources to replace our energy needs, to find a way to take greenhouse gases out of the air, or to keep the planet from warming because of those gasses that we have already put their .

Her last two suggestions show she does not have a good grasp of the scientific issues, but she is certainly right that we need cheap renewable resources. We have already found those in wind and solar, but they are not yet cheaper than fossil fuels because fossil fuels do not pay their external costs. The external costs for fossil fuels do not include health and environmental damage from particulates, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, chromium, mercury, arsenic, and carbon emissions. An EU funded research study, Externalities of Energys ,  found that including externalities would increase the cost of producing electricity from fossil fuels by a factor of 30% for natural gas to about 90% for coal –  if costs to the environment and to human health were included. If we include those  costs, then sustainable energy sources have a big cost advantage. If we wish to be serious, then we need to remove subsidies to fossil fuels, require fossil fuels to pay their external costs, and to  subsidize renewable energy sources at the same level for several decades.

This falls into a long list of defeatist articles, such as that by Robert Bryce, which says that we are not going to be able to do anything about global warming, so why try. Yes, driving greener cars alone won’t save the Earth, but conserving energy, developing renewable energy sources, changing the energy sources we subsidize, and having fossil fuels pay their external costs, will certainly help more than writing articles discouraging us from trying.

  (c) 2014  J.C. Moore

Who Wants to Kill the Electric Car?*

Fri ,13/01/2012

 Who wants to kill the electric car? Apparently, a lot of people do. During the 1920’s, the Milburn electric cars were popular, particularly with the ladies who didn’t like cranking gasoline engines to start them.  In 1928, General Motors bought the Milburn out and it disappeared. In 1996, the EV1 electric cars appeared on roads in California. They were quiet and fast and produced no exhaust fumes. They were manufactured by GM under a mandate to reduce vehicle emissions. Ten years later, these futuristic cars were almost completely gone. A documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car , determined that the batteries were not the problem but that the culprits were mainly oil companies who stood to lose enormous profits if EV sales took off and GM, who didn’t think they would make enough profit from the car. If GM had developed and improved the EV1, they might not have gone bankrupt.

House Of Cards: Much of the damage to the EV1 was done by misinformation directed at politicians, regulatory agencies, and the consumer. The same campaign is being used against the new crop of electric cars. In a Seeking Alpha article, Why The Electric Vehicle House Of Cards Must Fall, John Petersen continues the tactic. First, Mr. Petersen determines the value of an electric car by using an “analysis that starts with a $19,000 gasoline powered vehicle, deducts the costs of unnecessary internal combustion drivetrain components and then adds the incremental costs of necessary electric drivetrain components.” This analysis found a $38,800 cost for an electric vehicle. That cost is not unreasonable but the analysis is something like taking a conventional oven, stripping it, and adding parts to convert it to a microwave. There are many hybrids and electric cars on the market that have an MSRP much less than $38,800, such as the 4 passenger Mitsubishi MiEV which is rated at 112 MPGe and listed at $21,625. The price of the vehicles will certainly come down, as Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu said at the Detroit Auto Show he expects the cost for electric car batteries to drop from a whopping $12,000 in 2008, to $3500 by 2015 and $1500 by 2020. Currently there are waiting lists to purchase many electric cars and hybrids because of high demand, so there is little chance for price negotiations.

The article goes on, “Electric drive proponents are selling a house of cards based on fundamentally flawed assumptions and glittering generalities that have nothing to do with real world economics. Their elegant theories and justifications cannot withstand paper, pencil and a four function calculator.” However, Mr. Petersen bases his economic analysis on his $38,800 cost and a list of subsidies from what he calls an “extraordinary article”, The Real Costs of Alternative Energy by Alex Planes . Fortunately for the future of electric cars, Mr. Planes’ real costs are extraordinarily misleading.

Subsidies: Mr. Planes says, “a clear-headed look at the true costs of energy is something many — including our political leaders — sorely need.” He goes on,“Subsidies are just one of the costs of supporting alternative energy, but are they worth it?” Using U.S. Energy Information Administration data, Mr. Planes calculates the subsidies to energy sources in terms of the dollars per barrel of oil equivalencies. The subsidies he comes up with are coal: $0.39, oil and gas: $0.28, solar: $63, and wind $32.59. Based on his values, he says renewable energy’s costs to the government are “in some cases so high, and the actual energy returns so low, that it hardly seems worth the investment. Solar’s pitiful slice of American power use — less than a single day’s worth of oil consumption — is underwritten by enough taxpayer money to simply buy most of the power outright and provide it to taxpayers for free.” Subsidies are a poor way to estimate “true costs” as they are more indicative of the perceived future value of the resource to society.

True Cost? The reason Mr. Planes article is extraordinarily wrong is that he does not really give you the “true cost” of the use of fossil fuels. The true cost  of a resource includes not only the price but also the cost of cleaning up the environment and disposing of the waste. Fossil fuels dispose of their waste by releasing it into the air which causes damage to the environment and health problems for many Americans. We are in effect subsidizing the fossil fuel industry by the cost of allowing them to freely discharge their wastes into the environment. Any effort to determine the “real cost” of subsidies should include health and environmental costs. Mr. Planes says in the comments section of his article that he perhaps should rewrite his article to include what he calls the external costs. In the meantime, many people are using his incomplete analysis to disparage sustainable energy sources.

A Truer Cost: It is difficult to come up with an exact value for the “real subsidies” to the fossil fuel industry, but it is possible to estimate their magnitude. Top economists such as Britain’s Nicholas Stern, using the results from formal economic models, estimates that if we don’t limit our carbon emissions, the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever. If a wider range of risks and impacts is taken into account, the estimates of damage could rise to 20% of GDP or more in the future, and we would run the additional risk of an environmental catastrophe.

Using 5% of the US GDP for 2010 would give an environmental cost of $727 billion. The American Lung Association estimates that the EPA’s proposed guidelines for particulates could prevent 38,000 heart attacks and premature deaths, 1.5 million cases of acute bronchitis and aggravated asthma, and 2.7 million days of missed work or school. They estimate the economic benefits associated with reduced exposure to soot to reach as much as $281 billion annually. Those two add up to about $1.01 trillion, and when divided by the 13541 million barrels of oil equivalent given in Mr. Planes article for coal, gas and oil together amounts to an additional subsidy of $73.9 per barrel of oil equivalent. The subsidies to wind and solar electric energy do not look so bad if you actually use fossil fuels: $74, solar: $63, and wind: $32.59. The calculations do not include all the environmental and health costs, but they do give an idea of how much we are subsidizing the fossil fuel industries by ignoring the damage to people’s health and the environment. Then there is the added risk of an environmental catastrophe.

 Disclosures: In an apparent effort to be evenhanded, as required by Motley Fool, Mr. Planes then concludes, “Wind and solar power have their drawbacks, but continue to make notable improvements year after year. However, neither option can yet provide the clean, constant, and convenient power the world demands. Natural gas offers the best opportunity for the near term. It’s plentiful, well-developed, and efficient, and will take on greater importance as dirtier hydrocarbons lose market share. ” Mr. Planes then offers you a free analysis of an “exciting opportunity to play the natural gas boom, by investing in a small company turning our oil-guzzling vehicle fleet into clean-burning natural gas machines.” He disclosed that he holds no stock in natural gas vehicles, but he may not be disclosing a bias against renewable energy. He refers to one of Robert Bryce’s books in his paper and his analysis sounds much like those in Mr. Bryce’s “Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green Energy’ and the Real Fuels of the Future”. In Mr. Bryce’s  5 Myths about Green Energy, he attacks green energy using false comparisons, misquotes, scientific inaccuracies, and the omission of pertinent facts. It is not surprising that  Mr. Bryce is not a fan of green energy as he is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, which receives large donations from the Koch Foundation and Exxon/Mobile.

 Mr. Petersen, using Mr. Plane’s analysis, finds, “The law of economic gravity cannot be ignored and will not be mocked. Shiny new electric vehicles from General Motors, Ford Nissan, Toyota, Tesla Motors and a host of privately held wannabe’s like Fisker Motors and Koda are doomed to catastrophic failure. Their component suppliers will fare no better. There is no amount of political or wishful thinking that can change the inevitable outcome.” When Mr. Petersen was asked about the omission of health and environmental costs in a comment on his article, he replied he was only interested in “hard authoritative numbers.”

 Obscenity? Mr. Petersen goes on, “The ultimate obscenity is that a conversion from gasoline drive to electric drive will not reduce the total amount of energy used in transportation. It merely shifts the energy burden from lightly subsidized oil and gas to more heavily subsidized energy from coal, nuclear and renewables.”  Not really. The amount of energy used would be reduced even if using electricity from traditional coal fired power plants to charge the electric vehicle. Coal-fired power plants have a thermodynamic efficiency of about 30%. Electric motors are now about 90% efficient in converting electric energy to work and when considering friction, power line transmission losses, energy lost when the batteries are charged, and the energy gained by regenerative braking, the overall efficiency of using coal to run electric cars comes out around 20%. Internal combustion engines have a thermodynamic efficiency of about 15% but drive train losses reduce that to an overall efficiency around 10%. These efficiencies are reasonable as a  paper by Stanford University  comparing “source to wheel efficiencies” rated the electric Tesla at 1.145 km/MJ of and the gasoline powered Honda Civic at 0.515 km/MJ. At current prices, that figures out to about 5 cents/mile for the Tesla and about 12 cents/mile for the Honda.

  Using sustainable energy sources to charge the batteries would be the ideal case as the “energy source to wheel” efficiency would be 60 to 80% and the carbon emissions would be greatly reduced.  There would be a substantial savings in energy and carbon emissions even if using electric cars charged using coal-fired power plants. Electric vehicles have the added advantage that the infrastructure to charge the batteries is already in place. The electric car does not seem to be built on such a house of cards as Mr. Petersen’s article suggests.

An article titled Investors See Climate Opportunity to Make Money, Create Jobs, reports 450 large institutional investors who control more than $20 trillion worldwide, agree “climate change is a risk to avoid and also an opportunity to make a good return on investments.” It reports “Global clean-energy investments reached $260 billion in 2011, some five times more than the $50 billion in 2005.” Our energy needs will best be served by a mixture of traditional and alternate energy sources and we should not let pessimistic analyses keep us from investing in and developing the alternate sources.

* Revised to include a more recent Stern Report on 01/22/2012.

 (c) 2012 J.C. Moore


Robert Bryce's "Myths about Green Energy"

Thu ,13/05/2010

“Our energy needs will best be served by a mixture of traditional and alternate energy sources and we should not let Mr. Bryce’s opinions keep us from developing the alternate sources.”

Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, has written a number of entertaining books and articles about the energy industry. However, his latest book, “Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future” (1) is an attack on “Green Energy”. It is not surprising that he is not a fan of green energy as the Manhattan Institute receives large donations from the Koch Foundation and Exxon/Mobile. That may not mean he is biased, but Mr. Bryce’s latest article “5 Myths about Green Energy” (2) would make one wonder. He uses false comparisons, misquotes, scientific inaccuracies, and the omission of pertinent facts to try to make his case. Most myths are based on a small element of truth, but what Mr. Bryce claims as “myths” are mostly true and he has had to stretch to find reasons they are myths. You can judge. His five myths are:

Myth 1. Solar and wind power are the greenest of them all. Actually, they are. If you trace the energy back to its source, you will find that all fossil fuel energy originally came from the sun’s energy. Photosynthetic green plants formed fossil fuels by converting CO2 to carbon compounds  and oxygen over many millions of years and it is stored beneath the Earth. Wind energy and hydroelectric energy come from the Sun as well and using solar energy directly cuts out carbon as the middleman. That avoids many of the problems we have today with diminishing supplies and environmental damage from fossil fuel use.

Mr. Bryce criticizes solar and wind power for the “huge amounts of land to deliver relatively small amounts of energy”. It seems a stretch when he compares the watts/area of wind farms with that of a gas well. What is the area of a gas well? And, what would he make of the Gulf oil spill that has produced no energy but covers an area the size of New Jersey? Mr. Bryce also says “Because the wind doesn’t always blow, utilities must use gas- or coal-fired generators to offset wind’s unreliability. The result is minimal — or no — carbon dioxide reduction.” Actually, no one is denying the need for back-up sources but surely the alternate energy placed on the grid reduces the need for an equivalent amount of energy from fossil fuels.

Trying to make his point, Mr. Bryce goes on “Denmark, the poster child for wind energy boosters, more than doubled its production of wind energy between 1999 and 2007. Yet data from Energinet.dk, the operator of Denmark’s natural gas and electricity grids, show that carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation in 2007 were at about the same level as they were back in 1990 before the country began its frenzied construction of turbines.” Wrong. The truth is that Energinet.dk’s 2007 Environmental Report says that from 1990 to 2007, CO2 emissions in Denmark were not flat but had an overall reduction of 23% . For comparison, the US’s CO2 emissions rose by 19% during that time.

2. Going green will reduce our dependence on imports from unsavory regimes. You would think this would be about importing 70% of our oil from the Middle East – but it’s not. It is about importing rare earth metals needed for green technology from China. Mr. Bryce does not mention that we now import the metals anyway and that reducing our use of these as catalysts in the fossil fuel industry would more than make up for increased use in green technology. Also, perhaps, we should not consider our biggest creditor “unsavory”.

3. A green American economy will create green American jobs. It’s true, as Mr. Bryce claims, that many of the manufacturing jobs for solar panels and windmills have gone abroad because of high labor costs in the US. However, for many years, the US did not have a sound energy policy and certainly did not promote the development of green energy. If the US had subsidized the production of alternate energy sources at even a fraction of what it subsidized the fossil fuel production, many of the green jobs would have stayed at home. Still, some manufacturing is done here and the installation, maintenance, and the business end of green energy cannot be outsourced.

Mr. Bryce also brings up the fact that the use of ethanol fuel only created 27,000 jobs rather than the 136,000 jobs a lobbying group predicted. A lobbyist’s claim is a strange standard to measure by and he neglects that ethanol was necessary to replace the lead and MTBE as antiknock compounds in gasoline.

4. Electric cars will substantially reduce demand for oil. While admitting that the electric car “has long been recognized as the ideal” because it “is cleaner and quieter” and “much more economical” Mr. Bryce criticize them because” the same unreliability of electric car batteries that flummoxed Thomas Edison persists today”. Mr. Bryce does not seem to realize that there have been a few improvements to batteries since Edison, such as the lithium ion battery he mentions in the article. He claims another problem is that “the GAO reported that about 40 percent of consumers do not have access to an outlet, near their vehicle at home”. Eh? Is there a serious shortage of electricians or extension cords?

He also claims that electric cars are sidelined “by physics and math”. One of Bryce’s best is “Gasoline contains about 80 times as much energy, by weight, as the best lithium-ion battery.” He neglects to say that you can use gasoline just once while the battery can be recharged hundred of times. Besides, a battery is just a storage device – one that can convert energy to work much more efficiently than an internal combustion engine.

He does say, “Sure, the electric motor is more efficient than the internal combustion engine. ” Isn’t efficiency what it is about? The internal combustion engine is about 10% efficient at converting heat to work. A fossil fueled power plant, including transmission losses, is about 25% efficient, and electric motors are about 90% efficient. Considering that, electric cars are over twice as efficient in converting fuel to work. If alternate energy sources are used to produce the electricity, we reduce our demand for oil even more.

5. The United States lags behind other rich countries in going green. Mr. Bryce says “Over the past three decades, the United States has improved its energy efficiency as much as or more than other developed countries” …” except Switzerland and Denmark, and the United States achieved it without participating in the Kyoto Protocol or creating an emissions trading system like the one employed in Europe.” He compares the reduction in CO2 emitted per dollar of GDP as a basis for this claim. He does not mention that we have much further to go. The US has 6% of the world’s population but uses over 30% of the world’s energy.

Mr. Bryce writes as if  our fossil fuel supplies will last forever and as if there are no environmental problems with their use.  His plan for alternate energy is:  “The United States will continue going green by simply allowing engineers and entrepreneurs to do what they do best: make products that are faster, cheaper and more efficient than the ones they made the year before.” I could almost agree with that if we subsidize all energy sources at the same level and charge each source fairly for pollution it produces. Our energy needs will best be served by a mixture of traditional and alternate energy sources and we should not let Mr. Bryce’s opinions keep us from developing the alternate sources.

1) Bryce, Robert, “Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future,” PublicAffairs (2010)
3) http://www.energinet.dk/NR/rdonlyres/EC3E484D-08D5-4179-9D85-7B9A9DBD3E08/0/Environmentalreport2008.pdf

(c) 2010 J.C. Moore