Last week I stumbled across a link that led to a 2010 report from the National Research Council titled “Hidden Costs of Energy, Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use.” This free 506-page book takes a life-cycle approach – from fuel extraction to energy production, distribution, and use to disposal of waste products – and attempts to quantify the health, climate and other unpriced damages that arise from the use of various energy sources for electricity, transportation and heat. After studying the NRC’s discussion of the unpriced health effects, other nonclimate damages and greenhouse gas emissions of various transportation alternatives, and thinking about what the numbers really mean, I’ve come to the conclusion that the electric vehicle advocates are playing liars poker with their cost and benefit numbers – emphasizing a couple areas where electric drive is superior and de-emphasizing or completely ignoring a far larger number of areas where electric drive is clearly inferior. The result, of course, is unfounded and wildly optimistic claims of superiority based on four sevens in a ten digit serial number that don’t mean a thing if your goal is to evaluate the entire serial number.
The first graph from the introduction summarizes the unpriced health and other nonclimate damages arising from the use of thirteen different vehicle fueling technologies over the entire cycle life of an automobile and quantifies the unpriced mine to junkyard cost per vehicle mile traveled, including well or mine to wheels costs of manufacturing the vehicle and fueling it over its operational life.
The thing I found most surprising was the relative consistency of the numbers across all thirteen classes, both for today and for the future, and the fact that many advanced drive train technologies score lower than their conventional cousins because the unpriced costs of manufacturing the vehicle or processing the fuel exceed the claimed operating benefits. When you look at the realities from a cradle to grave perspective there are no clearly superior choices and the values are all clustered within ±15% of a $1.25 average. While I derive some personal satisfaction from the idea that the low cost winners are a Prius-class HEV or an internal combustion engine with a CNG fuel system, and that electric drive is just a smidgen cleaner than a diesel engine burning fuel produced from Fischer Tropsch coal liquifaction, the reality is that none of the advanced technologies are inherently better. They’re just more expensive.
The game is simply not worth the candle. It’s certainly not worth the enormous expenditures of public funds that governments worldwide don’t have. There’s nothing electric drive can accomplish that CNG and fuel efficiency can’t accomplish cleaner, faster and cheaper.
The second graph from the introduction summarizes the unpriced greenhouse gas damages arising from the use of the thirteen different vehicle fueling technologies over the cycle life of an automobile. While the range of variation around a current average of about 450 grams of CO2 per vehicle mile traveled is a little wider at ±25%, once again it’s just not worth getting worked up over inconsequential differences that entail substantial incremental costs.
One of the most intriguing take aways from these two graphs is the inescapable conclusion that the differences today are modest and as technologies mature and improve the differences will become less important, not more. By 2030, plug-ins will have no advantage over internal combustion when it comes to greenhouse gasses and be significantly worse than internal combustion when it comes to health and other nonclimate costs.
Over the years I’ve suffered endless abuse from commenters who decry my appalling lack of vision when it comes to lithium-ion superstars like Ener1 (HEV), A123 Systems (AONE), Altair Nanotechnologies (ALTI) and Valence Technologies (VLNC) that are certain to drive battery performance to new highs while driving manufacturing costs to new lows and enabling a paradigm shift to electric cars from Tesla Motors (TSLA), Nissan (NSANY.PK), General Motors (GM) and a veritable host of newcomers that are positioning for future IPOs and certain to change the world. While the following graph is a little dated, it shows why the electric pipe dream can’t happen unless some genius in a garage comes up with an entirely new way to store electricity.
Liars poker can be a fun way to fritter away the hours in Wall Street watering holes like Fraunces Tavern, but it creates enormous risk for investors who hear about four sevens but never hear about the other six characters in the serial number. I’ve seen this melodrama before. For the period from 2000 through 2003 fuel cell developers like Ballard Power (BLPD) and FuelCell Energy (FCEL) carried nosebleed market capitalizations based solely on dreams. From 2005 through 2007, it was the age of corn ethanol kings like Pacific Ethanol (PEIX). Lithium-ion battery developers have already taken it on the chin and there’s no question in my mind that Tesla will be the next domino to fall. Its demise is every bit as predictable and certain as Ener1’s was.
It’s frequently said that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. There isn’t much I can add.