EVs, Lithium-ion Batteries and Liars Poker

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John Petersen

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.

8.19.11 Health Damages.png

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.

8.19.11 GHG Damages.png

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.

8.19.11 Batteries.png

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.

Disclosure: None.


  1. John,
    I think you’re too harsh, in a couple of ways. First, there is something that ICE with efficiency can’t accomplish that electric drive (with efficiency) can: it can fuel your vehicle with domestic, renewable energy. I doubt the health and environmental effects of the wars in Iraq are included in your graph, but they probably should be if you want to do full lifecycle analysis.
    Second, the high up-front cost and low operating cost of an EV will mean that we will have fewer, smaller EVs that are used more intensively than we currently have and use ICE vehicles. But the study you reference almost certainly assumes that all vehicles are used with the same driving patterns, something we know to be untrue given the different incentives put in place by the different cost structures. Fewer cars used more intensively will mitigate the high environmental impacts of the production and recycling of EVs when compared to ICEs.

  2. There are multiple problems with your analysis.
    Your charts show no improvement in Battery Energy density. What a crock. You are using PERSONAL COMPUTER battery data.
    If you knew anything about electronics engineering (my degree), you would understand that the automobile battery pack developed by Tesla is as different from a laptop Lithium Ion battery as a 22 caliber rifle is to a 50 caliber machine gun.
    300 HUNDRED MILES ON A CHARGE. Look it up.

  3. “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.”
    Some genius already did that. Five years ago. His name is Elon Musk.
    Please do a little research with the publicly available data on Tesla’s Models S. Your lack of research is appalling.
    You are making buy/sell decisions on data FROM 2003?

  4. Peterson has been singing the same tune forever, or so it seems. If he thinks the cost
    comparisons are the same as even two years ago, he simply hasn’t been paying attention.
    Battery costs has dropped quite a lot and the cost of oil has skyrocketed, which makes his claims beyond absurd. While EVs are not yet affordable, a statement that even Elon Musk often
    makes, he also claims battery prices will drop enough in 5 years to invalidate that claim. Batteries today, with 300 mile ranges and 45 minute recharges can physically compete with gas powered jobs, no problem. In fact, any unbiased reviewer would admit that the Tesla Model S is clearly better than any of its high end gas powered competitors. And just as cost effective, in that market niche. So EVs have already won the contest at those upper price levels, and only prevailing battery prices prevent them from rendering the gas powered vehicles woefully obsolete. EVs are intrinsically more efficient, reliable and cost effective than a gas vehicle, assuming a reasonably priced battery.
    The age of gasoline is about to end, and it won’t require any stroke of genius from some battery inventor. That’s Peterson’s big (and invalid) assumption. He should keep up with the technology and the pricing before he makes a fool of himself once again.

  5. Tom,
    You’re absolutely right on the domestic security issue, but you’ve overlooked the point that CNG can accomplish the domestic part cleaner, faster and cheaper. There is a logical fallacy in the renewable energy assertion. The virtue of renewable energy arises from creating the electrons. Once the electrons exist it doesn’t matter whether they’re used to power EVs or toaster ovens and plasma TVs. Every electron that comes from renewable energy and is used in an EV is one less electron that can be used to clean up toaster ovens and plasma TVs. So at the end of the day how the electrons are used is a zero sum game.
    The NRC report specifically addressed the costs of foreign military involvements and concluded that “Dependence on imported oil has well-recognized implications for foreign policy, and although we find that some of the effects can be viewed as external costs, it is currently impossible to quantify them. For example, the role of the military in safeguarding foreign supplies of oil is often identified as a relevant factor. However, the energy-related reasons for a military presence in certain areas of the world cannot readily be disentangled from the nonenergy-related reasons. Moreover, much of the military cost is likely to be fixed in nature. For example, even a 20% reduction in oil consumption, we believe, would probably have little impact on the strategic positioning of U.S. military forces throughout the world.”
    You and I both believe that car sharing and other alternatives that use vehicles more intensively will likely become the norm. I’m not entirely sure, however, how using vehicles more intensively will change the health and environmental costs per vehicle mile traveled. It’s nice to talk about recycling and EVs in the same sentence, but the reality remains that the only lithium-ion batteries that can be economically recycled are the cobalt varieties and even there a large percentage of the metals end up being converted into penny a pound slag.
    Ki’s Dragon
    The Tesla battery pack is made from about 6,000 personal computer batteries that have a cell level specific energy in the 150 wh/kg range. When Thomas Edison was in the battery business, specific energies in the 25 to 50 wh/kg range were commonplace. If you do the math, it works out to a 3x to 6x improvement over the course of a century. There have been significant improvements in cycle-life and overall durability, but the laws of chemistry that govern the battery business are far crueler than the laws of physics that govern electronics. As Mark Twain observed, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
    Apps 55753818692
    I heard exactly the same rant from Ener1 stockholders when I said it was overvalued at $8 per share. I heard exactly the same rant from A123 shareholders when I said it was overvalued at $22 per share. Today Ener1 is priced at $0.37 and A123 is priced at $4. I can guarantee the same thing will happen with Tesla because it must. I actually believe A123 is probably a decent investment at $4. I might believe the same thing about Tesla when its price falls to $4. I’m not always right when I pick stocks that are likely to appreciate in price, but I’m batting a thousand when it comes to identifying the doomed.

  6. John,
    With current price structures, I agree with you that CNG is the more environmental solution. But, for me at least, the discussion is about what type of vehicle fleet we should be heading for. Natural gas vehicles fail on several counts: 1) they are a short-term solution since gas is non renewable 2) I have not done the math, but given limited supplies of natural gas, they will probably do more environmental good by displacing coal and backing up variable renewables in electricity generation than they will by displacing oil. 3) The current way we are exploiting shale gas is causing great environmental damage because environmental agencies and rules are too underfunded and lax to force them to operate safely. As we continue to cut the budgets of environmental regulators, this is likely to get worse, not better. These environmental impacts (which have not been adequately measured, again because of under-funding and the sheer newness of the technology) will likely make shale-gas sourced CNG look much worse than shown in the graphs above. Until we can properly oversee its extraction, I am loathe to condone any move towards further increasing demand.
    You have a fairly good point regarding the impossibility of extracting ourselves militarily from the ME.

  7. Tom,
    I’m not convinced that CNG is a short-term solution. It was when we thought porous sandstone formations were the only worthwhile resources, but new technologies that open up massive shale resources are another story and could keep things chugging along for another couple hundred years. Something will eventually have to change, but I don’t have the wisdom to tell future generations how to live their lives or order their affairs.
    Most of the alarmist rhetoric about shale gas production is complete balderdash from ideologues and demagogues who see shale gas as an economic threat to their pet renewable energy projects. It’s hysteria, not rational conversation.
    It takes a lot of water to make a fracture but most of that water is recovered and can be easily processed.
    In the absence of catastrophic operator negligence, there is no way activities at 10,000 feet can impact water tables at a couple hundred feet.
    States that have long histories of oil and gas production invariably levy significant severance taxes based on the wellhead value of the hydrocarbons produced and use a small fraction of that revenue to pay for regulatory oversight.
    The bottom line is the oil industry has always paid its own way and made massive economic contributions to States that have the wisdom to properly tax and regulate it. There’s a reason that North Dakota has a budget surplus, the lowest unemployment rate in the country and some of the highest wages in the country.

  8. John,
    I think we’ll just have to disagree about the effectiveness of the current regulatory regime… I don’t think the regulators have caught up with the speed this technology is evolving, although we do agree that it’s possible to possibly regulate.
    As for 200 years, those headline numbers are years of gas reserves at current rates of consumption. We’re already increasing consumption in the power sector- if there is a significant shift of transport to NG as well, your 200 years becomes 100 or maybe even 50 years, assuming those reserve estimates are accurate, and we can extract the gas at sufficient pace without causing irreparable environmental harm.
    I agree many of the fracking skeptics are hysterical, but they have produced enough examples of well water catching on fire and containing significant amounts of benzene and other chemicals that I feel we need to slow down shale gas exploitation until we understand how better to do it without these impacts. You’re right that the fracking of shale 10000 feet down should not cause problems on the surface, but very little is currently being done to hold the negligent operators to account for their failures. If they are not held to account, they will continue taking shortcuts and causing more problems. I believe it’s better to err on the side of caution in this case, as we can only use the gas reserves once, so we may as well wait until we have confidence we can extract them safely.
    You may have that confidence based on your own experience as an oil man, but I think your experience came from a time when regulators had the resources and the knowledge to keep up with drillers. I don’t think that is true today.

  9. I can’t disagree that regulation in some States hasn’t caught up with the industry, but that’s the fault of legislators who view severance taxes as a boon for the general fund instead of putting first things first and using the increased revenues to monitor and regulate that creates the revenue in the first place. Sometimes there are lessons to be learned in flyover country.

  10. I agree… .it is the driller’s job to drill, it’s the politicians’ job to make sure they do it responsibly. The politicians are falling down on the job. Which is why the citizens need to take action, and get the politicians to start doing their jobs.

  11. Just so we’re perfectly clear on this point, it is the job of State regulators to ensure that oil and gas development within that State is conducted safely and with due regard for the environment. The Federal government has no business meddling in those affairs.

  12. I’m not expert on environmental law and enforcement, but doesn’t the Federal gov’t have a role in setting standard by which we can judge what is “safe and with due regard to the environment”?
    I really don’t care who does the enforcing or who sets the rules, so long as both do the job they’re meant to do. My perception has been that both are falling down on the job: The Feds by exempting hydrofracking from the Clean Water Act (if there were really no environmental risk from hydrofracking, why does the industry need/defend this exemption?) And state regulators for not putting enough inspectors on the ground to make sure the rules we do have are enforced.


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