The Cruel Realities of EV Range

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John Petersen

An English proverb teaches us to hope for the best but plan for the worst. With the imminent introduction of a variety of plug-in vehicles that will begin hitting showroom floors in the next few months, the phobia du jour is range anxiety, an entirely rational terror that an EV will get you to your destination in eco-chic style but only get you home with the help of a tow-truck. Sadly, most people who extol the virtues of electric drive are incurable optimists that have little or no regard for the risks inherent in complex systems and the widely variable needs of individuals. The quick and dirty overview is that every plug-in owner will have to cope with range degradation before the new car smell fades and his problems will only get worse as time passes.

Nissan Motors (NSANY.PK) will soon start delivering its battery powered Leaf, the world’s first production EV. The Leaf will get its power from a 24 kWh lithium-ion battery pack and Nissan’s advertising campaign focuses on a showroom floor range of 100 miles. While they include the usual throw-away warnings that “Range will vary with driving habits, conditions, weather and battery age,” they haven’t been entirely forthcoming with the inconvenient truth that battery packs start to degrade with the first charging cycle and the process never stops.

The following graph comes from a recent National Renewable Energy Laboratory study that examined the long-term effect of local weather conditions on power degradation in lithium-ion battery packs. This particular graph has an upward slope because it’s showing the percentage of power loss over 15 years. To show expected vehicle performance, the curve would need to be inverted. While the study’s authors warned that their results were optimistic because they didn’t include battery degradation from the heat buildup that happens whenever a car is parked in the sun, most potential buyers will find the optimistic numbers shocking enough.

9.2.10 Climate.png

In Minneapolis, an EV-100 will be an EV-90 after one year and an EV-80 after five. In Phoenix it will be an EV-80 after one year and an EV-60 after five. These are not minor differences to people that need dependable transportation to and from work, particularly if they plan for the worst when they make a buying decision.

Other major range penalties that potential buyers must consider include:

  • Cold weather penalties of 10% to 20%.  While heat increases the rate of battery degradation, the widely reported experience of Mini-e drivers has shown that cold weather is a killer. If you live someplace where your dog’s water bowl occasionally freezes over, you need to plan on an occasional 10% range reduction, but if your dog’s water bowl frequently freezes solid it’s better to plan on a 20% reduction.
  • Hilly terrain penalties of 5% to 10%. Hilly terrain is one of those things that most drivers don’t consider because logic dictates that the energy used to climb a hill will be recovered on the downhill. In reality the energy used in climbing is far greater than the energy recovered coasting downhill. While this reality isn’t important to drivers, cyclists quickly learn that 500 feet of elevation gain increases the energy expended on a 60-mile ride by about 5%. While cars have better aerodynamics than bicycles, hills are never free and the downhill wheee! is never fair payback for the uphill grind.
  • Stop and go traffic penalties of 30% to 50%. Of all the factors that impact EV range, stop and go traffic is the biggest offender. According to Nissan, the Leaf’s range will fall by 40% in 15 mph stop-and-go-traffic at low temperatures and by 50% in 6 mph stop-and-go-traffic at moderate temperatures.

When you put it all together, a three-year old EV-100 will probably act like an EV-50 on a frosty winter’s day in Minneapolis. While a foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds, I think consumers will tend to be very cautious when it comes to choosing between dependable transportation and an eco-chic image.

The simple solution, of course, will be bigger, better and cheaper battery packs. According to popular media and specious political promises, that wondrous day is just around the corner. While I suppose anything is possible, I find it hard to ignore 30 years of hands-on experience with R&D companies and H.L. Mencken’s warning that “A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier.”

In August Greentech Media reported that battery prices were plummeting, Project Better Place would pay $400 per kWh for lithium-ion battery packs with a 2012 delivery date and IBM has plans to demonstrate a prototype lithium-air battery pack within two years. The ecstasy was palpable, but wholly irrational.

Better Place has based its business model on leasing batteries as a service instead of selling them as a product and even a modest level of success will give it buying power comparable to a first tier automaker. Better Place is planning on massive government support and at least in the U.S., the subsidies could exceed its capital costs for a time. Under those circumstances Better Place doesn’t need to sweat minor details like battery quality, service life and pack degradation because it can simply discard problem packs that were bought with somebody else’s money and continue to collect rental charges with little or no capital investment. It should be a hell of a party until the governments get a clue and take away the punchbowl. The hangover, however, may be painful.

As we leave our pleasant dreams of a Better Place and awaken in the real world, the dynamic changes rapidly. Consumers need warranties to protect their investment and companies that write warranties need to cover their costs. While Tesla Motors (TSLA) has been able to get away with three-year battery pack warranties for its roadster, real automakers will have to provide eight to ten year warranties and eventually earn a normal profit on vehicle sales. So even if they start with a battery pack that costs $400 per kWh at the battery factory, the fully loaded cost to consumers with an eight to ten year warranty and a normal markup will be closer to the $750 per kWh Nissan has ascribed to the battery pack in the Leaf.

In a May 2009 report for the DOE, TIAX LLC pegged the current cost of commodity grade 18650 lithium-ion cells at $200 to $250 per kWh, which resulted in pack costs of $400 to $700 per kWh. Despite the happy talk about economies of scale, large format batteries are a good deal more complex than a giant economy-sized box of laundry detergent. While the cost of large-format automotive grade cells may eventually approach the cost of small-format commodity cells, they’re not likely to get any cheaper without intervention from the commodity price fairy. By the time you
add in warranty costs and automaker’s profits, end user battery costs of $400 or even $500 per kWh are a little more than pipe dream unless lithium-air or molten salt technologies make lithium-ion batteries and the factories that make them obsolete.

We’ve all seen the “hope for the best” stories about how electricity for an EV will cost the equivalent of $1.20 per gallon of gasoline. Those stories, however, assume that like butterflies batteries are free. An optimistic “hope for the best” total cost of ownership scenario looks something like this.

9.15.10 Hope.png

A more rational “plan for the worst” total cost of ownership scenario looks more like this.

9.15.10 Plan.png

I have little or no patience with battery manufacturers, automakers, politicians, journalists and quasi-religious EVangelists who create unreasonable expectations based on hopeful scenarios instead of reasonable expectations based on likely scenarios. A Nissan Leaf may get 4 miles of range per kWh of battery capacity on a sunny afternoon in Florida, but it will be lucky to get half that on a winter morning in Chicago.

EV buyers who pay a filet mignon price and end up eating pork tartar will not be happy. Their lawyers, on the other hand, will be tickled pink.

If the EV and battery industries want to avoid interminable litigation and untold reputation damage they need to get honest with their stockholders and customers. They need to tell potential customers that they might get 4 miles per kWh of pack capacity on a good day, but can’t plan on getting more than 2 miles per kWh on a bad one. They need to stop comparing the fueling cost for a brand new EV with the average economics of an aging automotive fleet. They need to stop dividing 12,500 miles per year by 300 days and telling potential buyers that 40 miles of EV range is enough when they know that customers will need at least 80 miles of reliable range to accommodate day-to-day variations and achieve an annual average of 12,500 miles. Instead of bafflegab claims of pennies per mile, they need show more realistic economics based on end-user battery pack costs and reliable ranges in congested traffic and poor weather.

The realities of EV range are a bitch and I’m not the only one who questions whether long-range EVs can ever be cost effective. Industrial revolutions arise from technologies that first prove their economic value in a free market and then seek subsidies to accelerate growth. A business model that can’t work without subsidies doesn’t make sense because the punch bowl always gets taken away too early, particularly if customers aren’t happy. The green jobs myth of the EV revolution has already proven to be a mirage. The cost effective and reliable transportation myth will be the next to crumble.

The last few weeks have been a busy time in the happy-talk press corps as Ener1 (HEV) arranged $55 million in potentially toxic debt financing to continue its plant construction, Valence Technologies (VLNC) trumpeted a six-year extension of a contract with Wrightbus that may generate a three or four million dollars in annual revenue, A123 Systems (AONE) announced the opening of its new battery manufacturing plant in Livonia, Michigan and Compact Power, a subsidiary of Korea’s LG Chem, broke ground for its new battery manufacturing plant in Holland, Michigan. All these events gave rise to great trading opportunities, but there is a wide gulf between progress on the construction of a battery manufacturing plant and profitable operation of that plant.

Every prior generation of electric cars has died of congenital birth defects. While the next generation may not be stillborn, I have no confidence that the outcome will be different. In my view these companies are not equities you want to buy and squirrel away in a safe deposit box for the grandkids. Hope, after all, is not an investment strategy.

Disclosure: None.

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