Electric Vehicles: Net Zero or Zero Benefit?

"I think the reader will be able to see why motoring magazines contain horror stories from people who have tried a BEV and gone back to a conventional vehicle or a hybrid."

publicerad 30 juni 2023
Elbil. Foto: Anastasiia S. Licens: Shutterstock

We have all followed vehicles that proudly proclaim “Zero Emission” on the tailgate, but not all of us believe it and the word is getting around. In this look at electric vehicles that would likely never be published in the usual media, I intend to rely on the laws of physics wherever possible, along with some logic.

By John Watkinson

There are two types of truth: one type is scientific and based upon impartial observation of nature. The scientist accepts how things are. The true scientist spends a lot of time trying not to fool himself and wonders if one day a new experiment will disprove his theories.

To the politician, however, truth is what he wants it to be and reality does not enter the matter. Truth is what people will believe. I leave it to the reader to determine which kind of truth I prefer. The pressure to electrify is political; it’s not supported by any science.

First a few definitions: A battery electric vehicle (BEV) works purely from stored electrical energy generated elsewhere. A hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) burns traditional hydrocarbon fuel but uses a small onboard battery to recover energy from braking.

A plug-in hybrid (PHEV) has a slightly larger battery than the HEV, which can be charged from an external source and allows short journeys without running the engine.

These vehicles are relatively new technology, so it may be interesting to compare them with other new technologies to see what can be learned. Following WWII, the jet engine rapidly replaced the piston engine in transport aircraft.

The Diesel engine rapidly replaced the steam engine on railways. The transistor radio replaced the tube radio. A little bit later the Compact Disc replaced the vinyl disc amazingly quickly. What did all of these have in common?

They were all significantly better than what went before. Whether technically or economically, they were better.  A few people tried the new technology, liked it, and word spread. Adoption grew exponentially and that was that.

Another thing they had in common was that there was no coercion. No one was forced to buy into the new technology. It all happened voluntarily.

With the introduction of the electric car, the media told us that the advantages would result in rapid adoption. It has not happened. No one has ever come up to me and said how wonderful his BEV is.

There has been no spectacular growth to compare with the adoption of the Internet or the ubiquity of the cellphone. Sales of gasoline-powered cars remain strong. HEVs and PHEVs outsell BEVs in a lot of countries, including Sweden and the UK. For whatever reasons, and we can explore those, the acceptance of BEVs is rather poor.

In order to make the poor adoption look better, the media have now started lumping PHEVs and BEVs together into a new category called plug-ins. Don’t be fooled: look more closely to see that the actual sales of BEVs are not very good.

Oh, I almost forgot the coercion. Sales of conventional cars are going to be banned and there are various incentives and tax breaks to buy BEVs. The poor uptake of BEVs despite the coercion and incentives could be for a number of reasons, but it suggests there is something fundamentally wrong.

Could it be that, unlike the earlier examples I gave, the BEV isn’t actually any better than a conventional car? What if it were actually worse for the owner, the environment or both?

Another worrying point is that mass electrification is seen as the only solution when in truth there are other solutions. Ignoring those other solutions instead of allowing them to be explored sounds like dogma.

One only has to look at the way marketing works to see how electric cars fit the pattern. First, instill fear in the market; if we don’t do something quickly the world will end. Second, provide the solution.

We have seen religions that promise freedom from hell if people behave the way the church says. We have seen it with hi-fi accessories that solve some invented problems. We have seen pharmaceutical companies invent conditions and then produce the drugs that treat them. It’s a neat way of getting rich.

As far as I can see, the BEV has a single advantage, which is that at the point of use, it emits next to nothing: no CO2, few particulates, no NOx and little sound. In a dense urban environment, that improves the air quality and reduces noise. Elsewhere, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to air quality. It follows immediately that as most drivers do not drive in dense urban environments most of the time, they don’t see that benefit.

What drivers do see is that BEVs lack range. It’s an unfortunate truth that our battery technology is complete rubbish. In transport applications where weight matters, energy sources are compared by a specific energy, which is the energy available from one kilogram.

Our best battery technology is comfortably out-performed, by an order of magnitude, by burning cow dung. The specific energy of hydrocarbon fuels like Diesel, gasoline, and AVTUR is about fifty times better than batteries. Yes, fifty times.

Ah yes, the ignorant journalist tells us, in the future battery technology will be a lot better. But battery technology is now a mature subject, entering the realm of diminishing returns. Do we seriously expect a sudden improvement by a factor of fifty?

Inevitably, BEVs will be heavy, will be forced to use the highest specific energy batteries available, and will still deliver disappointing range. Don’t be fooled by the manufacturer’s claimed range. It’s a joke and the joke is on you. BEVs are tested for range without using the heater or the A/C and without traveling at the high speeds possible on freeways/autobahns/motorways.

In very cold weather, the heater of a BEV takes power from the battery and significantly reduces range. The extra drag of driving in snow reduces the range further. If your battery runs down in the middle of Lappland or Alaska in the winter you are going to get very cold very quickly.

Your BEV won’t be insulated very well, because it would make it too heavy. Even if you can reach a charger, the battery may refuse to charge if it is too cold. BEVs are simply not viable in cold climates. Don’t be seen dead in one.

The joke gets even funnier when it is realized the quoted range comes from using all of a full charge. But for the best battery life, a battery should not drop below 20% charge or be charged above 80%. People complain about the time it takes to charge BEVs. The mass media tell us that will be solved by the introduction of fast chargers. Fast charging shortens the life of batteries and you will be asked to pay more for the privilege.

If you still haven’t laughed enough, try towing something. Lots of people have horse boxes, sailboats, gliders, and caravans and reasonably expect to pull them around.

A lot of BEVs can’t tow anything at all because the extra mass would overload the dynamic braking. Some are rated to tow, but when used for towing the extra mass and drag of the tow slashes the range. If you make it to a charger, you may find that a vehicle with a trailer won’t fit.

If you still haven’t laughed, a conventional car charges the battery of the caravan it is towing. A BEV doesn’t, for if it did, the range would be reduced further. If you still make it to your camping ground away from it all, you will find it gets electrical power down from an old cable that used to be enough but would be overloaded by more than a few chargers.

The campsite owner won’t be able to afford to have his power feed upgraded, or the power company won’t pay for their part.

If the BEV can be charged at the owner’s home, and a round trip is within the available range, all is well. But if a longer trip is needed, public chargers will have to be found. The electricity from a public charger costs a lot more than home charging.

Recent electricity price increases, care of a well-known Russian, mean that the savings from running a BEV have evaporated. And later, when the battery is worn out, the vehicle will be junk because the new battery will cost more than the vehicle is worth. The ideal consumer product offering built-in obsolescence and massive depreciation.

Then we hit a Catch-22 because investors won’t fund chargers when there are so few BEVs on the road and people won’t buy BEVs because there are so few chargers. If you want to know where the seat of power lies in a country, look where all the chargers are:

Stockholm and London perhaps?

I think the reader will be able to see why motoring magazines contain horror stories from people who have tried a BEV and gone back to a conventional vehicle or a hybrid.

In contrast, the HEV and the PHEV have the advantage that they don’t depend on a charger infrastructure. Instead, they use an existing comprehensive hydrocarbon infrastructure that is dependable and fuels vehicles that can drive in all weathers.

Staying with the subject of jokes, the “Zero Emission” BEV is only zero-emission if you are prepared to ignore a couple of serious factors. The first is that the BEV has to be manufactured, and the construction of the vehicle and its battery has an environmental impact that includes a carbon footprint.

The second is that if the vehicle is charged in a country with anything other than 100% renewable electricity, the BEV simply pushes the emissions back to the energy source. There is a third factor, which sometimes results in spectacular emissions. That is the small matter of safety, which we will come to.

Buy a packet of Knacke bread and it will state on the label how much CO2 was released during manufacture. Buy an electric car and it doesn’t. Ask the manufacturer and they won’t tell you. This may be because the carbon footprint of an electric car is enormous and considerably worse than that of a conventional car or a hybrid.

EVs rely on significant quantities of exotic materials for their construction. Rare earth minerals like Neodymium are in the motors, and exotic stuff like cobalt in the batteries.

Guess what: the sources of these materials have slowly been bought up by Chinese concerns. For example, they own the cobalt mines in the Belgian Congo that employ child labour with a dreadful mortality rate.

With massive dependence on China for the raw materials and parts needed, Europe is digging itself a giant hole. At some point, it will be cheaper to buy the whole car from China. The cars will be built in factories run by coal-fired power stations.

That means goodbye to the European motor industry. German car production is the engine that keeps the Eurozone afloat. With that gone, it could mean goodbye to the Euro. No wonder the Germans recently refused to ban all IC cars. When the BEV falls on its face they may not regret that decision.

The provision of ever-increasing amounts of exotic materials will require more and more mines to be opened, resulting in more and more environmental damage, including a reduction in wildlife habitat, poisonous runoff, and so on.

The environmentalists are now in a fix, because they believed that BEVs were zero-emission and supported them, only to find the mining necessary to build them would cause damage that is against their beliefs; and mine for that matter.

The environmental lobby also succeeded in having some nuclear power stations shut down, just when their low-carbon electricity would come in useful for charging BEVs. As Kermit, the frog pointed out: “It isn’t easy being green!”

Even if your BEV can be charged from squeaky clean renewable electricity, the carbon footprint of manufacture has to be divided by the number of kilometers driven, so the CO2 emitted per kilometer falls on a hyperbolic curve as the BEV is driven more. The usual comparison of a new conventional car and a new BEV shows the BEV breaking even after a considerable distance. Prior to break even, the BEV was doing more actual harm, whereas at break even it has only stopped doing more harm.

This is a fallacious comparison because almost no one has a car at all and faces a choice of buying a new BEV or a new conventional car. Most drivers already have a car and new drivers won’t be able to afford a new BEV. For most drivers, the choice is between keeping their existing vehicle and exchanging it for a new one. A further skeleton in the BEV’s cupboard is the environmental damage done by building thousands of new chargers, laying new cables, and building new power stations.

In the unlikely event that sales of BEVs increase, what will happen to the cars they replaced? Most likely they will head for the third world where the environment comes some way behind in staying alive.

The UK government has said there will be 300,000 chargers installed by some magic date. A quick guess at how much concrete is involved, with its huge carbon footprint, divided among the likely number of BEVs suggests that the BEV can never break even, especially as the electricity for charging will not be 100% renewable.

Hybrids don’t need the charging infrastructure and in the real world could end up producing less CO2 than BEVs.

Whether you believe CO2 causes global warming or not, the BEV will not result in any significant reduction in CO2 release. The conclusion has to be that if you have a reasonably economical and reliable conventional car, you should keep it. If you have to have a new car, get a hybrid so you don’t have range anxiety.

Batteries develop heat when being charged or discharged. The heat has to be carried away else the temperature rises. This requires the battery to have a large surface area in comparison with its volume. EV batteries are assembled from large numbers of small cells to increase surface area. They can be quite complicated and often fluid is circulated through them to control temperature.

Lithium Ion cells are produced by million and the chances of them all being perfect are not good, especially those sourced in China where the quality ethic takes second place to the profit ethic.

A weak cell may work fine during testing, but after being vibrated in a car, that insignificant metal asperity on an electrode munches through the insulation. The cell may fail when being charged, or when driving. Most insidious of all, a cell may fail spontaneously, for no apparent reason. The failure results in a release of stored energy, causing the cell temperature to rise. That temperature rise will heat up the neighboring healthy cells and cause them to fail. Before long the battery is suffering thermal runaway.

What happens next is well documented, thanks to the proliferation of security cameras that have caught innumerable examples. Readers with strong constitutions can watch them on the Internet. The pressure inside the overheating battery rises until the battery bursts or vents, releasing the gases at high velocity, typically outwards from the car. Those gases are toxic and highly inflammable, turning the BEV into a flame thrower with a range of several meters. The BEV itself will become an inferno very quickly and anything in range will also be set on fire.

Elbilsbrand 2017 i USA, privat foto
Elbilsbrand 2017 i USA satte eld även på villan, privat foto (ABC reportage)

If you think that is bad, there is more to come. The fire cannot be put out by conventional means. Sprinklers are a waste of time. Shutting off the supply of Oxygen won’t stop it, because the battery is not just burning in the chemical sense. It is releasing stored electrical energy. Firemen are slowly discovering that the only way to deal with a BEV fire is to keep pouring water on it until the heat dissipates. Then they turn of the water only to find that the “fire” re-ignites later, setting fire to the recovery truck or the scrap yard.

The military won’t touch BEVs because one bullet will turn the battery into a fireball.

The impact of a collision can cause a battery to go into a thermal runaway. The occupants have a few seconds to get out before the inferno starts. If you are rendered unconscious in the impact, you won’t survive. A collision can also damage a battery invisibly so that it suffers thermal runaway at a later date. Insurance companies don’t want to risk that, so after an impact, BEVs are frequently written off. The direct result is that insurance premiums for BEVs are rising to pay for all the write-offs.

One BEV cremating itself by the roadside is not too bad, but what if it is in a multi-story car park, a tunnel, or on a ferry?  Well, you know what will happen, and it has. The Felicity Ace was a modern, smart-looking car transporter ferry, plodding across the Atlantic with nearly four thousand cars on board, some of them BEVs. The fire sensors on one of the car decks went off and the sprinklers operated. They failed to extinguish the fire, which spread. Thankfully, all the crew got off safely.

The uncontrollable fire was so intense that the ship’s plating was burned away, revealing her ribs. Finally, the Felicity Ace sank, causing an insurance loss of around 500 million dollars. Knowledgeable organizations explained that BEVs represent an increased risk in such situations. One of those organizations was Greenpeace, which elsewhere promotes only the benefits of BEVs.

UPS lost a cargo 747 when a consignment of Lithium batteries went up. The smoke blinded the pilots and the fire burned through the controls. Both crew members died in the crash. Now lithium batteries cannot be carried by air.

In Germany, several bus depots have been destroyed when electric buses go on fire and set fire to the next one and the next one….. You have to build a bus depot like a bomb dump these days. Mercifully there were no passengers on board, but do we have to have a tragedy involving bus passengers before someone wakes up?

Everyone seems to want an electric scooter, but most of these are made to a price and catch fire and/or explode with such frequency that they are banned, for example, from all of Transport for London’s services.

As responsible people wake up to this carnage, restrictions are starting to be placed on BEVs. The owners of the Felicity Ace say they will no longer carry used BEVs. Ferry operators insist that BEVs have limited charge in their batteries, which appears to reduce the fire risk.

The company that runs the ferries that go along the coast of Norway will no longer accept BEVs. They commissioned a report that concluded ship’s crews could not tackle BEV fires unaided. The Channel tunnel already bans cars powered by LPG. How long before they ban BEVs?

Apartment blocks having basement parking are banning BEVs because the fire resistance that was good enough to handle conventional fires won’t resist a BEV fire.

The Chevy Bolt had a reputation for self-ignition. Chevrolet themselves recommended the vehicle be kept outdoors and at a safe distance from other vehicles!

Once the big picture is considered, the BEV will not result in a reduction in CO2 emissions and therefore becomes pointless. For most drivers, it offers no advantage over a traditional car and introduces lots of drawbacks, not least the safety issue. If common sense doesn’t kill the BEV, the insurance companies will.

By John Watkinson

ArcanumSkolan 2024

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