One of the reasons I’ve been interested in electric cars for the past few years is that it is without doubt a perfect example of a disruptive technology. It’s disrupting things, some of them clearly for the good but some of them making our lives and understanding of the world we live in yet more complex.
Knowing next to nothing about the intricacies of American bureaucracy, a recent article in Forbes Magazine (http://blogs.forbes.com/warrenmeyer/2010/11/24/the-epas-electric-vehicle-mileage-fraud/) leaves me unable to comment about certain aspects of the piece, however the overall thrust deserves a right good drubbing.
I read through as carefully as I could, taking in the complex figures in order to try to be in a position where, if I was going to criticize it, I could do so from the most informed position I could hold.
I don’t have a degree in mechanical engineering from Princeton University, or an MBA from the Harvard Business school so I am running to catch up, and I happily admit can’t run that fast.
The writer, Warren Meyer, does have both those things and is also a climate change denier, a pro oil lobbyist and a clever Obama critic (as opposed to an ill informed reactionary one.)
I have no problem with any of that, his article appears in a well known, reputable publication and they are quite transparent about him, his little biog is to the right of the article tells us all.
His question about how you compare a vehicle which runs off fossil fuel and one which runs off electricity stored in batteries is valid and important. It’s really bloody complicated, it does my head in.
However, I feel fairly confident in assuming that he is coming to this argument fresh, it’s not something he's been thinking about for years. I get the impression that many people, particularly in America, have only just woken up to the fact that there are legitimate, mass produced, attractive electric vehicles soon coming on to the market that could make a serious impact.
This has resulted in a lot of people suddenly waking up one morning and going, ‘hey, wait a minute, this is all Obama lies!’ and diving into the argument with their own prejudices flailing behind them like an unbuttoned coat.
Mr Meyer’s theories are not surprisingly based on profoundly twisted, skewed logic which utterly ignore very large factors.
This all stems from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sticker which has been assigned to the shortly to be released Nissan Leaf. The sticker gives the Leaf the bizarre rating of 99 mpg. Bizarre because as we all know the Leaf doesn’t use gallons, however I am assuming the train of thought is that the general public are used to mpg labels, so this is the nearest they could get to giving an idea of how much energy the car uses.
This is where the disruptive part of the technology comes in. Disruptive technology, telephones, radio, television, the internet and now, electric cars, have all caused great upset. They create large opposition when they first emerge, they challenge powerful existing structures, dislodged powerful influential people who didn’t want to be dislodged
Mr Meyer is, I believe, correct when he states you can’t compare apples to oranges, electric cars work in a completely different way to internal combustion powered cars, they use the energy in completely different ways and no one can agree a common standard as to how to compare them.
He tries to use the analogy of an electrician fitting a new fridge in a fourth floor apartment, one has the fridge delivered to the door (his electric energy used to power the car), the other is left on the street (his fossil energy used to fuel his fossil car).
The electrician who fits the fridge which has been delivered to the 4th floor is clearly going to get the job done faster, the other poor guy is struggling up the stairs for hours. To fully understand this analogy you have to know that an American fridge is a big mother, a metal box the size of a European hatchback.
It is a bizarre analogy, no, I’ll go further, it’s rubbish.
A more accurate analogy would be that one fridge was made in the basement of the apartment (the electric energy used in the electric car) and then hoiked up the stairs, while the other was a fridge made in the middle east, loaded onto a ship, carted to the United States, trucked across the country, lifted by massive crane to the window of the apartment and swung indoors.
He tries to explain it by saying that the EPA’s electric car mpg denies the amount of energy, time, effort C02 output etc has gone into making the electricity at the power plant, while the mpg of a fossil car.. what, acknowledges how much energy is used before the refined fuel gets to the pump at the gas/petrol station?
No, it doesn’t, it never has. When you see a sticker saying 40 mpg on a new car, that is how far what you pay for out of the pump will take you. Not how many gallons were used in the process for you to get that gallon.
At very best, a small economy fossil car is doing more like 10 or 15 mpg in real terms, if you measure the amount of thick, barely usable crude that we are now having to steam out of the ground in a manic, last ditch attempt to feed our addiction.
Oh yes, something else I learned recently, the meaning of the term ‘sweet crude.’ That is the oil mans dream fix, sweet crude is thin, brown crude oil that is easier and cheaper to refine than the heavy crude we are now left with. The stuff gushing into the Gulf of Mexico this year was sweet crude, hence the need to drill in water a mile deep.
We’re not going to run out of oil next month or next year, but we are running out of sweet crude, which means that what ever figures have existed to describe the amount of energy needed to produce one gallon of gasoline need to be jigged fairly comprehensively upward. Refining heavy, black tar oil is very much more energy intensive, it costs much more to get it out of the ground.
Oil extractors are literally pumping high pressure steam down the shaft to try and thin the oil so they can pump it to the surface, this thick sludge then needs to be processed further to remove the water before the refining process even starts.
But lets ignore that, let’s keep our heads buried in the tar sands. This is now the key argument, the droning rant of the pro oil lobby is to go on and on add nauseam about where the electricity comes from, a drone which of course they plan will drown out the plaintive cry of ‘where does the gasoline come from?’
Or even, ‘How much electricity is used in gasoline refinement,’ or even, ‘how much oil is used in shipping this heavy substance half way around the world.’ These figures are not released, I have tried to find out for years what the true cost of a gallon of refined petrol is, even really clever people who’s name starts with professor say it’s very hard to estimate. Guess what, the oil corporations don’t want us to know.
It also ignores the fact that all these arguments are tedious and pointless. It won’t really matter at the end of this century how clean an electric car is, or how dirty a fossil one is.
If we haven’t made the push to fundamentally change the way we generate our power, the way we create and use our energy, we are stuffed. It’s important to point out this isn’t the rant of an old hippy Armageddon doom-sayer.
It’s the opinion of corporations in the energy field, scientists who work for them, scientists in universities, governments, more or less everyone outside the pro oil lobby. Fossil fuels are finite, they are going to get prohibitively expensive. We have to do something whether we like it or not. Getting bitchy and moody about how much more efficient an electric drive train is than a fossil burning piston engine is nothing but a rear guard action by the oil corporations.
Here’s one last point. I know I have demonized oil corporations in generalized swipes, but I also know they are made up largely of intelligent individuals working in hostile environments, earning a living. However, due to their understanding of our energy needs, of massive infrastructure, of power generation, transportation, efficiencies of production and distribution, they are in the most critical position of being able to do something about this problem.
Imagine if you read that instead of endlessly sniping away at alternatives to fossil fuel use, they directly funded research into battery development, electric motor and drive train development, renewable energy development how different your opinion of these corporations would be. Imagine if you went into your local supermarket and there was a rapid charge installation with the logo of BP on the front. Imagine if next to it was a solar or geo thermal installation which generated the power, or even a 100 meter wind turbine with BP slapped on the mast. Sure there would be cynics, ‘yeah, it’s just corporate marketing,’ but I believe most people would be quietly impressed.