Sunday, November 15, 2009

EVs Speed Climate Change? WTF??

Now that climate change is firmly on every country's agenda, lobby groups and think tanks everywhere are jumping on the band-wagon.

It seems like there are million of these wise-ass organizations trumpeting green advice for public consumption, and producing policy statements and reports for government.

A very common factor in many of these statements and reports is the well-to-wheel analysis which talks about electric vehicles producing greenhouse gases. Below I go into a detailed discussion of why this type of analysis and its conclusion (EV's produce greenhouse gases) are just plain wrong.

But first a prime example of how misleading this type of "report" can be.

Clean vehicle website Autoblog green is carrying a press release from the Environmental Transport Association, quoting from a new report by a group called Transport & Environment stating that:
Switching to electric cars could speed climate change
There are other groups such as the National Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Law and Policy Center saying:
Wait!! Oh, my God!!

You mean my electric car, which I thought was definitely clean and green, could actually bring on climate change? Panic! Hold the presses!!

Could, might? Its lurking down there in my garage, and on the toss of a coin, the roll of a dice, it might decide to start spewing greenhouse gases into the environment! There's a chance??


So what the hell are they talking about then?

Are these guys some sort of oil industry goons, talking down EV's?

No, they're mostly not - but they're also not scientists (like the IPCC) or governmental agencies (like the US Department of Energy). They have their own particular hobby-horses to ride.

The ETA for example is a company that makes its living in the United Kingdom by selling green transport services, like insurance and roadside assistance. Its name - Environmental Transport Association makes it sound official, but its a commercial organisation, and it has to pay the rent just like any commercial organisation. Every EV owner who believes that their vehicle generates no emissions is one less customer for ETA's carbon offset service.

NRDC does not like coal, and - rightly so - is keen to jump on any chance to point out that increasing dependence on electricity in states that depend on coal has to be coupled with a corresponding commitment to reducing the use of coal in its power generation mix. As the NRDC rightly points out so-called carbon capture and sequestration is not a "technology" it is a branch of science fiction, and is not to be relied apon to clean up coal-fired power generation.

And of course since most of the states in the mid-west rely on coal for power generation (see table A1 in the DOE's figures), the ELPC (a mid-west specific environmental organisation) is keen to see that the new-found governmental interest in EV's does not push aside concerns about pollution from coal fired power generation.

There is a completely valid point to be made here that coal fired power generation is an environmental hazard, and that clean power generation has to be a top priority in the fight against climate change.

What is not valid is to connect uptake of EV's to an increase in coal fired power generation.

See the could here, is not that there is some chance or possibility. Green EV's are not suddenly going to start producing greenhouse gases on some percentage outcome.

Electric Vehicles never ever produce greenhouse gases.

All of this confusing scare mongering is just another repackaging of the good old long tailpipe argument that we've heard so many times before.

Let me just say this again slowly.

Some power plants produce greenhouse gases. Not EV's - power plants.

An EV is not a power plant, and EV's don't have tail pipes at all, or chimneys, or in fact any way at all to produce smoke or pollution.

Well-to-wheels - in depth discussion

How this mischief has come about is that the good ol' boys that we love for coming up with the "Hummer is more economical than the Prius" and other great "analyses" and "reports", just could not except that EV's produced no pollutants. They said "You have to look at the big picture - you have to do a well-to-wheel analysis".

As a result the EPA and also european equivalent organizations have come up with measures based on gCO2e - which means in English grams of CO2 equivalent, used to analyse things like the total impact of renewable fuels. Stretch that analysis over vehicles and you have gCO2e/km, which results in completely bizarre statements like the GM claim of 230 miles per gallon for the Volt PHEV.

Don't get me wrong - the Volt is a great design and will be a great vehicle for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But 230mpg is rubbish - its meaningless. Why? Because equivalents just do not work when you start powering vehicles with electricity.

How you drive, when you drive, when you charge, how you charge - all of these things are drastic game changers for the sums behind the report that the ETA is quoting from.

I contacted the ETA's press officer and on request was promptly given a copy of the 51 page report. The report is actually written not by the ETA, but by the European Federation for Transport and Environment. Yet another official sounding group, T&E is actually an industry organisation representing around 50 different bodies mostly with a environmental focus. The report is not new facts - it is an analysis of existing studies and of yet more reports. The main focus of the report is on the European Emissions Trading Scheme and the impact of European government taxation schemes on electricity generation for EVs.

The T&E group wants stronger government action to tighten taxes and legislative incentives to produce cleaner power - something we all should wholeheartedly support. But since EV's are so high on the agenda of governments, T&E is hitching their message about cleaner power to EV's by saying EV's could "produce more emissions" unless power is cleaned up first.

This is where T&E stretches the friendship, by making claims that there is no science to support.

So what does T&E base its claim on, if its so wrong?

Well, the sound bite that heads up ETA's press release, and which is trumpeted in the introduction to T&E's report is referenced (on pg 27) to a study by Kromer & Heywood. In fact several large portions of the T&E report are verbatim from Kromer & Heywood's study.

Take note before going on, that the plugins could speed climate change statement has actually lost some context as it appears in the sound bite: the Kromer study is actually saying that if power is coming from coal, PHEV's like the Chevy Volt will be marginally more emissive than a hybrid vehicle like the Prius.

I think you'll agree that this is far from saying that EV's will increase climate change, but its still wrong, and its potential for misquoting means that it must not be left to stand.

The Kromer study was funded by companies including Shell, and the Ford Motor company. The latter via yet another research group called the Alliance for Global Sustainability. It is wonderful that Shell and Ford are getting involved in funding research into sustainability, and not for a minute do I suggest anything but the highest standard of intellectual rigour in the methods of Kromer's study but again it is not new science. The methodology is to take existing figures and using a computer model develop a number of scenarios to predict future figures.

All of these scenarios are based on the idea that CO2 equivalents can be fairly calculated for the electricity used to charge EV's. In fact the methodology uses a straight energy content calculation, and goes further by doing such things as adjusting to allow for transmission losses via the grid, comparing these to the plant-to-tank costs for transporting conventional fuels.

These foundation assumptions for the well-to-wheel (WTW) methodology employed are just plain wrong. WTW is the long tailpipe argument in academic guise. The methodology comes from an existing energy sector that is clinging to its existing structure with oil refineries as central points of distribution.

But notice that while no company, save the oil companies, can currently refine their own petroleum to drive their cars, everyone has the potential to generate their own power to power EV's.

This is the first breakdown in the WTW assumption. Electric grids world wide are right now being transformed by local power generation from a vast number of solar panel installations. Solar panels are going on rooftops all over the world.

While I was working at Google last year, the many electric vehicles on the campus were being charged from the solar array on the Google rooftop. Here in Australia houses all over are sporting solar rooftops thanks to the governments incentives.

There are zero transmission losses here - the power is generated right where it is used, and that power is 100% clean.

Oh, but wait - those amounts of power are still tiny compared with total electricity consumption!

Yes - but so are the amounts of power being used by electric vehicles! EV's require very small amounts of power to run, and we have so few EV's that the process of renovation of the grid is more than keeping pace with EV uptake.

While many of these environmental reports are talking about "technologies" such as carbon capture which are right now just science fiction, EV's and local power generation is here and now. Its already working.

Along with local power generation from solar panels, there is also a large amount of activity in co-generation, demand side response and active power market participation.

When I was at the AEVA Electric Vehicle Festival in October I met and talked with Dean Spaccavento, Enabling Technology Manager with Energy Response. Their service involves enabling companies to take an active part in the National Energy Market, by responding to energy demand as reflected in real-time updates of energy costs via DSR. The software and hardware systems that Dean is involved in building go into Australian industries and reduces their total energy bill, whilst at the same time reducing the impact on total energy generation capacity requirements and the environment.

Companies that produce energy as a by-product of their operations can generate electricity on site, to both provide their onsite electricity requirements, and also sell back into the grid. There are a increasing number of co-generation sites in Australia right now, such as Coopers Brewery in South Australia. Power companies are getting into the act, enabling and welcoming co-generation as a way to reduce load on power generation capacity and also reduce environmental impact. Using software like that produced by Dean Spaccavento's company they can benefit financially by responding to the local market with their co-generation capacity.

This is working, right here, right now. Zero transmission losses with power being used on site, and with EV's in that companies fleet parking lot their charging is not reflected at all in any central coal fired power station.

The future for co-generation has much greater promise, with waste products being used for domestic level power generation instead of going into landfill. South Australian company Micro-Cogen have developed a small scale cogen unit suitable for the basement of your house which they say will be shipping in 2010.

Smart grid technologies also have matured and will form an integral part of the EV take-up phenomenon. As we see our grid as mentioned above becoming cleaner, it will also become smarter with software and hardware from a whole range of companies, including industry giants IBM, and other new startups competing to provide the best savings in electricity generation capacity.

EV's are inextricably bound up with this future since they are ideally situated to be charged at times when it is cheapest for their owners, and also lowest impact on the grids generation capacity.

When the dinosaurs of the energy world, the oil companies threw up their hands in horror at being compared to EV's they were right to be afraid. Their well-to-wheel analysis tries to portray a negative impact via the long tailpipe argument for EV's on the basis that a "whole lifecycle" model is the only fair way to compare EV's with internal combustion engines (ICE's).

But we have had 100 years of internal combustion engines, and now the landscape is covered with petrol stations, pipelines and petrol tankers - the infrastructure to support the plant-to-tank mentality that the dinosaurs are still clinging to.

The only fair way to compare EV's to ICE's is to look at what the energy distribution network will look like with these real current technologies - smart grids, solar, co-gen and local power generation - feeding into the EV picture.

Forget about gCO2 equivalents which assume the moment you plug your EV into the wall, a power station somewhere is instantly going to produce smoke directly in proportion to the energy used at the socket.

Those analyses were bogus when the oil companies first proposed them, and they are bogus now, even though many producers of reports who ought to know better have swallowed their marketing story.

But surely all these smart grids and co-generation are going to take time to ramp up, and in the meantime if every body goes out and buys EV's isn't that going to put pressure on the existing electrical grid causing more pollution from coal fired power stations?

But the reality is EV uptake is going to be slow. It will take years for early adopters to convince the middle of the normal curve that a switch to an EV is a good idea. Even with Nissan producing its new Leaf EV in production volumes next year, going forward EV's as a percentage of the national fleet will by even the most optimistic of projections still be down at %15 by 2030.

And the good news is that our existing grid infrastructure can easily accommodate the loads generated by these levels of demand without generating any new pollution at all. The charging can be done out of surplus capacity, meaning that even in places where coal is being used for generation, no extra generation will be done as a result of the EV's plugging in.

A study in 2007 by the Pacific National Northwest Laboratory found that surplus generation capacity in the USA could support 43% market penetration of electric vehicles, based on charging being done during the night. Interestingly this same information is actually quoted by Kromer, and Kromers quote is produced verbatim in T&E's report, yet they both fail to draw the obvious conclusion that projected levels of EV uptake are not going to have an impact on power generation. The PNNL report mentions a case study of San Diego where night time charging would allow up to 60% of the San Diegan's becoming EV drivers before any generation impact was felt.

Of course the T&E report claims (page 30 and 31) that as EV ownership increases, quick-recharging facilities are demanded and
"...substantial daytime charging will also occur..."
however they offer no support whatsoever for the claim of substantial daytime charging. Whereas the PNNL study examines night time charging as the obvious mode, there is no support in any actual studies for T&E's claim.

Does it make sense then? Will people charge during the day rather than at night?

You can only charge a battery if it is empty, or partly empty. And EV's are always plugging in where-ever they go. You arrive home from work in the evening, plug into the wall socket, and during the night the battery is topped up to full on cheap night-time rates.

Then during the day you head out to work, and maybe your employer has a charge point to plug into. If you're an EV owner you definitely have a charge point at home, but maybe your employer has one for the EV owners on staff. Then on the way home you stop at the supermarket for 30 minutes, and maybe there is a charge point in their car park.

And of course since the majority of drivers make relatively short trips, their EV's are going to be nowhere near empty when they plug in during the day.

Also day time charge points are going to be supplied by a company like Better Place, and will involve a charge via your credit card. Even if its like iTunes, where you make micro-payments for the small amounts of electricity topped up into your EV's its going to be much more attractive for most consumers to get their power from the socket at home where it just appears on their power bill. Or doesn't appear, if they have a solar panel or co-gen.

So these day time charges are going to happen, but due to:
  • cheaper night time rates
  • ubiquity of home chargers
  • slower rollout of charging points at other locations
  • small trips by driving majority meaning day time battery levels are high
  • charging account costs with daytime power compared to home charging
all meaning that the claim that daytime charging is going to be substantial does not make sense.

I am sure daytime charging at Better Place style charge points will be a very important part of the EV landscape, especially when EV ownership levels are as high as 20%, but even then daytime charging will not represent a substantial amount of kilowatt/hours put into EV batteries.

Instead daytime charging will be a part of the modality of EV usage, that you top up in small amounts so that you never have to worry about being low on juice.

Conclusions - EV's (still) do not "produce" greenhouse gases

Current levels of EV usage do not impact at all on coal fired power generation, and so EV's being charged today, are thus not generating any additional greenhouse gases.

By the time the EV landscape has progressed to 30% ownership, for the range of reasons discussed above, power generation will have changed how electricity delivery takes place to the point that EVs will still not require any additional power generation from coal fired or other centralised power generation sources associated with greenhouse gases.


  1. I don't see why it is unjust to measure EV's against today's hybrids using power geneneration techniques and grids in place currently. This strikes me as a fairer approach than using the energy production based on future predictions.

    The fact is we currently consume a large amount of coal and fuel to generate electricity and provide transport. Instead of focusing on which energy source we should use we should be focusing on decreasing our overall energy usage. If we used just half of what we do now we could conceivably all run off of solar power without the need to burn fossil fuels to power vehicles or cars.

    I'm also not sure how you managed to squeeze in cogen as a green alternative when the micro-cogen you link to uses natural gas to produce the power. The coopers link also uses natural gas and a number of other cogen plants burn waste products (like paper mills black liquor or cane's bagasse). Neither of these are green alternatives, they may rmeove the losses from equation (8% based on the cogen link) but neither solve the issue of actually producing clean power.

    I suggest rather than focusing your vitriol on the supposed attack on EV's that you take a step back and look at our propensity to consume more and more rather than making our power usage as minimal as pratical.

  2. Hi Zadok,

    Thanks for your comment.

    You're right to say that humanity needs to slow its consumption. The success of nations ought not to be measured in terms of "growth" and our sprawling consumerism. There are a huge number of things that the human race needs to do collectively to survive our self-inflicted climate catastrophe, and certainly decreasing our energy usage is one of those important things. We can do it by using passive solar design in our homes, utilising the sun to dry our clothes rather than electric dryers - and a million other simple and very important strategies. Certainly in my personal life I do everything I can, as I'm sure do you.

    Its a false dichotomy to say we instead of doing X must focus on Y. We must do everything we can. I am sure in your writing you focus on decreasing energy usage.

    In my writing I focus my attention on electric vehicles, because there are certainly a loud chorus of detractors out there, and if their claims were to go unchallenged one of the great opportunities we have to reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gases might be lost.

    There are plenty of actual attacks - not just supposed ones - - for example which takes a GAO report that says benefits from EV's depend on the source of electric power, and headlines with "GAO report: electric cars aren't environmentally friendly". Try Google for thousands more

    All these claims about EV's "producing greenhouse gases" which I am critiquing in my article are based on future predictions. Kromer looked at a simulation over a 30 year horizon. That is what these computer models are - predictions.

    It is unjust, not to mention plain inaccurate, because in the present day, with present day power grids and generation techniques, we do not have EV's in existence in anything like the numbers being used in the computer models.

    By the time we do, the pattern of power generation will look a lot more like you describe - EV's will be charging from solar and wind, and largely from excess capacity during off peak periods.


Hi, thanks for leaving your thoughtful on-topic comment!