Electric Cars

Note: I wrote this in 2011 when I was more optimistic about our future. EV’s are great, but they will not be able to save us from fossil fuel decline. As I have learned more about the nature of the world’s economic system, I have accepted that I was previously confused between what is technically possible, versus what is economically possible. While it might have been technically possible to convert the majority of our energy generation and usage infrastructure over to renewables (as it would have been 100 years ago as well…), it is not economically possible since our economic system is essentially a resource monster that gobbles up resources and energy in any way it can in order to produce growth. Any opportunities that EV’s present to reduce our ecological demands will instead be used as an excuse to ramp up growth even further to maximize consumption, due to Jevon’s Paradox, which I discuss in my thermodynamics page. I will revise this essay at some point to reflect this.

The world is going to be changing in a big way over the next ten years, at least as far as energy is concerned. One of those changes will be because of the electric car. Practical electric cars have been available for purchase since late 2010 (Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt — for those living in selected countries). Despite the often critical coverage EV’s get in the media and public opinion, they actually offer major advantages over conventional cars. When mass produced, they will cost about the same price to buy as a regular car, but only $25 a month to charge, and a fraction of the cost to maintain because they have so few moving parts to break down. They are faster than regular cars, they can be charged in 30 minutes if needed, and best of all, they don’t need gas! And amazingly, the amount of electricity and natural gas we would save by not refining gasoline anymore to drive conventional cars would be enough to power the transition to electric cars! In other words, driving an electric car could be done “for free”, simply by eliminating the inefficiencies in the oil refining process from the gasoline you would no longer be purchasing!

The Nissan Leaf costs about $35,000, depending on where you live. This sounds expensive except when you realize how cheap it is to charge via a trickle charge overnight. Also, because of its simplicity, it will hardly ever need maintenance and will therefore last longer than a regular car and have a higher resale value with lower depreciation (except for the battery pack).

It does have a few drawbacks. One is that after a few years the battery will begin to lose its range, with an expected lifetime of 10 years. Who knows what a new set will cost, but we can be pretty sure that by then it will have longer range. Newer batteries will have much longer lifetimes too. The other disadvantage is its range limitations — it only goes 150 km per charge. For most urbanites this will not be a problem most of the time. How automotive companies and governments are overcoming range anxiety is by establishing a network of quick charge stations, which zap the battery with high power 420 V to give the car an 80% boost in 30 minutes. In this case you could drive several hundred kilometers in a day. With these charge stations placed strategically along highways it would be possible to drive across the country with little inconvenience… kind of like gas stations! What an idea!

Another solution to range anxiety uses the genset trailer. This is basically just a little generator mounted on a trailer which you tow around on longer trips, and it charges the batteries as you go, by burning gasoline as usual. What you would do is go down to your local rental store when you want to drive to another city or go into the boonies, and rent a genset trailer. Then you’d drive to your destination and drop the trailer off at the local branch of the rental center! And if you don’t like the idea of having to back up with a trailer (some people can’t do this), no problem. Trailers have been invented that steer themselves when you go backwards to prevent jacknifing.

The other solution to range anxiety slightly alters the theme of the genset trailer. Instead of putting a generator on a trailer and only pulling it around when you need it, you instead put it in the car and drive around with it all the time. This is what the Chevy Volt does. Because of this, it only gets a 40 mile range on the batteries, after which the generator turns on and charges the batteries, giving you similar range (actually better range) as a regular car, and equally quick fill-ups at the gas station. The disadvantage is that you are always carting around your genset, even when you aren’t using it, which takes up space. This additionally adds complexity. I have heard statements made that the Volt has more computer programming than a 747! (I can’t verify that…) It’s a tradeoff, and having both the Leaf and the Volt available for consumers to decide between will only be a good thing. Range anxiety can no longer be a valid reason for not purchasing an electric car.

Despite all the advantages electric cars present, there is still a lot of resistance to their widespread acceptance. In my opinion this is a good sign, because generally people resist change that is good for them. As a general rule, if the media is hyping something up to try to get you excited and fork over your money, then it’s probably best to shy away because the media is the mouthpiece for industry, and industry wants your money. Think the US housing bubble and subprime mortgages… By contrast, EV’s have quietly crept into the market over the last year with little media fanfare. This can be seen as a very positive sign because they don’t need excess media hype; they can stand on their own four wheels without it.

People’s reactions to electric cars generally fall into four categories. Firstly are the status quo Business-As-Usual promoters who try to portray electric cars as nothing more than toys incapable of taking on a lion’s share of the burden of real man’s work. They may feel threatened by change, or they may have financial interests in our continued addiction to fossil fuels, so they do what they can to falsely promote the perceived shortcomings of EV’s. Call them the “luddites”.

On the other extreme we have a different kind of “luddite”, those who view anything technological as a distraction from our inevitable return to a romantic agrarian existence at one with nature. They view our current economic and political systems as cancerous to the world (a characterization with which I generally agree) and see EV’s as simply an excuse to continue on with that car-culture diversion for a little bit longer. To them, technology = overshoot, and nothing more, so any new fancy technology like electric cars can only be a diversion, right? They point out how the world is running out of resources and that it still requires a lot of resources to build and power EV’s, so how do they alleviate the problems? I can kind-of see where they are coming from, but EV’s don’t necessarily have to fill the role of extend-and-pretend; they would still be able to drive just as far in a world that was organized differently.

Yet another extreme is the pollyanna who sees EV’s as the solution to all our energy and transport problems. Alternative energy systems should ramp up quickly to take up the slack from fossil fuel depletion and we can simply recycle all our old cars to make new EV’s. To the pollyannas, neither the scale of the energy predicament nor the rate of change that would be required to address it is realistically considered.

The human mind tends to think in absolutes, bouncing from one polar extreme to the other. And unfortunately that tendency is brought out in full force with the topic of EV’s; most people fit into one of the above three categories. Fewer are in the fourth category, that of the “cautious optimist”. The cautious optimist understands that there is no way billions of people could be maintained on the planet without the assistance of modern technology. With millions of miles of roads already built, it is not feasible to expect that all heavy grunt work will revert back onto the shoulders of elephants, donkeys, and slaves, with human transportation once again relegated to bicycles, snow sleighs, and horses. The cautious optimist understands that there is a phenomenal amount of energy shining down on us every day that can be captured at 10% efficiency and that this energy could power equivalent transportation systems and more. This energy could also be used to recycle old cars into new EV’s; this energy could be used in chemical synthesis reactions to create hydrocarbons out of basic ingredients when fossil fuel supplies dry up. The cautious optimist takes the more moderate view that while there is no way that electric transportation will be able to ramp up quickly enough to save modern industrial civilization from a major collapse, what it will do is cushion the landing a bit and provide a framework for moving forward. Therefore, the cautious optimist is fully supportive of the deployment of EV’s and the associated renewable energy systems, even though they currently require fossil fuels to be built, because the cautious optimist realizes that at this point, humanity simply has no other choice. Every year that the deployment of an electric transportation infrastructure is postponed is a waste of vital time and fossil fuel resources. Yes, the future is going to be ugly as energy and resources become scarce. But rather than wasting our remaining fossil fuel energy to burn once in an internal combustion engine and thereafter be lost forever to the universe, the cautious optimist understands that we should be using those remaining fossil fuels to be building out a renewable energy infrastructure so that we can continue to harvest energy in the future.

So then, on to addressing some of the more common misconceptions and criticisms of EV’s:

Question: But where does the electricity come from? Aren’t we just shifting the emissions further back from the tailpipe to the electricity generation station?

Answer: In two words, not really. For several reasons. Firstly, the refining of crude oil or oil sand into usable gasoline that you can put in your car is a very energy intensive process. Depending on the source of that oil, it uses almost as much energy as what you’d get out of burning the fuel itself in a car! In an electric car you could go the same distance as a regular car, simply on the energy savings from not refining gasoline anymore! Can you believe it? Scroll down to the bottom of the page and I detail these calculations.

The bottom line is that making gasoline is a very inefficient and carbon intensive process, and along with this, expensive. It just can’t come anywhere close to competing with electricity and electric cars, even if all the electricity is produced by burning coal. Given the coming shortage of fossil fuels, the operating cost advantage of electric cars will only increase, and this is another reason why they will maintain their resale value.

Secondly, not all our electricity comes from fossil fuels. In the US, about half comes from burning coal, but this is still significantly better than burning gasoline in individual cars, as explained above. And in certain areas like Canada, a lot of the electricity comes from hydro, which has low carbon emissions and is renewable. But here is the interesting part — with an EV, you can charge it any way you want! If you can afford it and live in a sunny location, you can put solar panels on your roof and charge it that way! And the more people there are that do this, the cheaper it will become until it might actually be an economically attractive option (it already is in certain sunny climates with expensive electricity). By contrast, if you have a regular car that uses gasoline, what other choices do you have to refuel it other than driving to the gas station and supporting a big oil company? You have none.

Thirdly, most electric cars will be charged overnight when demand is low. You’d charge it while you sleep, just like your cell phone. So although total electricity production will have to go up a bit with a switch to electric cars, because most of that demand will be at night, little or no new electrical generation infrastructure would be required; it simply would just not slow down as much at night anymore. Here is a study which shows that 85% of the vehicle fleet could be switched over to electric without any upgrades necessary to the electrical infrastructure, simply because they will mostly be charged at night.

Question: What about in winter when the batteries are cold? Will they still work and what will the range be?

Answer: The Volt will turn on the generator to warm up the batteries, so no, cold weather performance of the Volt will not be affected. The Leaf, when plugged in, will use wall power to keep them warm until you drive away. After this, the natural production of heat upon battery discharge will keep them warm in their compartment. The power necessary to heat the cabin on a cold day will need to come from the batteries, and this will result in about a 10% loss of range. Some EV manufacturers have brought forth the idea of using propane heaters which would not impact driving range at all. Cold weather battery performance won’t be much of an issue soon since the batteries to be released in the next couple years don’t lose performance even at very low temperatures.

Question: What happens to the old batteries? Won’t we have more toxic batteries in the ditch to deal with?

Answer: Not really. Actually, used batteries are less of a problem with electric cars than with regular cars (each one of which has a large lead-acid battery). Electric car batteries use lithium based chemistries, which are much less toxic (actually, they do still have a regular lead acid battery for low voltage accessories like a regular car). Even then, they will not be thrown away because they will be too valuable (and I don’t know how the average person would even be able to access the batteries in a Leaf). One possible use when they are finished with their life in your car, because the range has gone too low, is to use them for grid electricity storage, for example in wind farms when the wind isn’t blowing, or if you have solar panels on your roof and want power at night. You could use your old car battery to do this for you, since it will still have sufficient capacity for several years. And when it finally does die, the valuable metals that it contains will ensure that it is recycled.

The other issue is that the new batteries coming to market soon will last decades, meaning that they may outlive the car.

Question: Won’t there be a shortage of lithium for the batteries?

Answer: There will likely be enough. A typical EV will use about 8 pounds of lithium. I have seen reports going both ways on this issue; however, if EV development ends up being voluntarily stalled because of a potential future shortage of one of the raw materials needed in battery construction, I think that this would be the first time in the history of industry that it has not gone forward with development of a product because of a perceived possible future shortage of one of the materials needed in manufacture. And who knows, maybe when battery research really gets going we will find an alternative metal that can be used in lithium’s place. Have the people screaming about a potential future shortage of lithium not spent time analyzing the issue of Peak Oil? Interestingly, mining lithium from salt flats is actually a low energy impact activity.

Question: But the electric motors need rare earth metals and there aren’t enough of these to supply a worldwide switch to EV’s, and China controls the supply.

Answer: The new motors being used in the new EV’s actually don’t have rare earths in them because they use AC induction motors. The motors which use rare earth metals are permanent magnet motors, in which the magnetic charge in the motor is permanent and stabilized by the rare earth metals. The motor in the Prius is an example of this. The Tesla Roadster, as an example, does not have a permanently magnetized motor. When the power is off, there is no magnetism in it. The magnetic field is induced by power electronics which impose a variable frequency alternating current on the coils of the motor.

Question: That’s great, but what about aviation and trucking? They need more than 300 km range.

Answer: Yes, those are more challenging applications. Let’s start with the low hanging fruit of urban drivers first, then maybe we’ll have some solutions available when the technology develops a bit. Other solutions are hydrogen fuel cells, although making hydrogen is almost as energy intensive as burning regular fossil fuels. Hydrogen can be made from excess electricity at night, however. Another possibility is that if the lifetime and charge time for batteries can be improved significantly (it seems to be likely in the near future), then big rigs could use enough batteries to go 500 km per charge, and then stop by a super high capacity recharge station and be back on the road in a half hour. Once the technology hits the market, solutions will come.

In summary, the drawbacks to electric cars are only minor and will diminish soon after they reach a reasonable proportion of the automotive market. The technology will only get better and cheaper. Think about how flat screen TV’s, camcorders, digital cameras, laptops, and cell phones have improved over the last ten years. The same will happen with electric cars. In ten years, no rational car buyer will get a gasoline powered car unless they have a specialized application that needs it.

What this means for western Canada is that the current economic growth resulting from Alberta oil sands development, and the associated natural gas extraction elsewhere required to satisfy this, will turn into an economic flop. Fossil fuel extraction by definition is not sustainable. Therefore, it will be a classic case of boom and bust. All Canadians will be deeply affected by this economically. This is why we should not be developing the oil sands further beyond what they currently contribute, because the greater the proportion of our economy that the oil sands represents today, the greater the economic collapse will be when the industry fails down the road, as it inevitably will at some point. Sadly, proponents of oil sands development tout the opportunities it presents to alleviate our otherwise shrinking economies due to previous resource based activities busting (eg, other mines closing, forestry in a downturn, fisheries depletion). So then … to put this into perspective, we are proposing to replace a previous boom and bust resource industry that went bust, with another boom and bust industry that is orders of magnitudes larger and can only go bust itself at some point … and this is portrayed as a good thing? How can that possibly end well? Or does the fact that it is our children’s children that will be the ones dealing with these problems make it okay? Have we learned nothing from history? The reason we currently have these problems is because our parents failed to make the correct decisions 20 years ago; they were wooed by short term greed, and they made the same decisions we are currently making. To believe that future generations will somehow find some magical solution to these problems is the same line of thinking that got us into this mess.

Question: If electric cars are so great, then why are they so slow to come to market? Shouldn’t supply and demand bring them out?

Answer: Firstly, they are out now. As to why they have taken so long; in a nutshell, because of oil industry manipulation. The 2006 movie, “Who Killed the Electric Car” describes the politics behind what happened earlier in the decade, and I will here describe the technical aspects of how the oil industry has managed to keep electric cars off the market.

For years there were not batteries of a quality good enough to compete with gasoline powered cars. Finally, in the late 1990’s Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries emerged. These are the same batteries which you buy when you get a pack of AA’s. They have good abuse tolerance and the lifetimes are reasonable if they are treated well. In 1997 Toyota introduced its Prius which uses these batteries. The Prius is a parallel hybrid, which means that it has two drivetrains, an electric motor and a gasoline engine, which are both independently connected to the wheels of the car. The batteries are charged by the engine and by a regenerative braking system which recoups the motion energy of the car when the brakes are applied. By shutting off the gasoline engine and using the electric motor during times when large amounts of power are not needed, a lot of inefficiency is eliminated by the Prius, and the mileage is approximately twice that of a regular car at 50 mpg. However, in a parallel drive hybrid, all the energy still ultimately comes from gasoline so there is a limit to the mileage they can achieve, around 70 mpg as the max.

These NiMH batteries were developed by Energy Conversion Devices. When various state governments mandated that electric cars be brought to market, automakers naturally turned to these batteries to power their cars. All automakers came out with competent electric cars. This understandably caught the attention of the oil industry, particularly Chevron, who then became involved with Energy Conversion Devices in an effort to acquire the patents for these batteries, and keep them off the market. The story behind this affair is documented in the movie. Here is the patent.

How this patent abuse on the part of Chevron works is that once they acquired control of the patent they could stipulate how these batteries could be used. They immediately set out to sue Toyota in 2003 to prevent them from making any more of their Rav-4 EV’s (most of which are still on the road as of 2010). The outcome of this lawsuit was largely in Chevron’s favour. I am not a lawyer so I don’t know if the specific details of the settlement will ever become public domain, but when you look at the situation from a technical standpoint it is pretty easy to figure out what is going on. Since Toyota had been using NiMH batteries in its Prius since 1997, they had a legal right to continue to do so, and the ruling allowed for this. But since it wasn’t until 2003 that electric cars with wall plugs emerged, the settlement came out in favour of Chevron and stipulates that no automaker can sell an electric car using NiMH batteries, which plugs into a wall. This is why you cannot buy a plugin version of any hybrid on the market today. But they can sell a hybrid if it doesn’t have a wall plug, which is why you see so many parallel drive hybrids for sale, but not one of them has a wall plug.

As far as Chevron is concerned, this is an acceptable outcome because parallel drive hybrids pose no threat to gasoline demand. They are by necessity more complex and therefore more expensive than regular cars, and they only offer twice the fuel economy. So predictably, hybrid sales have not dominated the market since. Ultimately, all the energy to power a parallel hybrid still comes from gasoline, so they aren’t a threat to the oil industry and our continued dependence on fossil fuels.

But the instant you put a wall plug on the car, gasoline consumption drops WAY down because if you can charge your car up overnight in the garage and get 20 miles of electric-only range in the morning before the gasoline engine kicks on, well you have solved the commuting needs of half the population. Most car trips are short. And it would be very easy to achieve this by increasing the battery and motor size in any of the current hybrids and make them plugins. But Chevron’s patent prevents this.

Here is an excerpt from Energy Conversion Device’s 2005 annual report which alludes to what they are doing:

“Ovonic Battery has developed the proprietary materials and technology for NiMH batteries which have been licensed to all significant NiMH battery manufacturers throughout the world.

Ovonic NiMH batteries store approximately twice as much energy as standard nickel cadmium (Ni-Cd) or lead acid batteries of equivalent weight and size. In addition, Ovonic NiMH batteries have high power, long cycle life, are maintenance free and have no memory effect. Moreover, Ovonic NiMH batteries do not contain cadmium or lead, both environmentally hazardous substances. NiMH batteries are capable of being made in awide range of sizes and have a wide range of applications, including hand-held consumer products such as digital cameras; HEVs and EVs; power tools, utility and industrial applications; and 36/42 volt batteries to meet the emerging requirements for higher voltages, power and energy of next-generation fuel-efficient vehicle applications.

Lithium-Ion (Li-Ion) batteries compete with NiMH batteries in applications for consumer electronic devices and have a stronger market share than NiMH in certain laptop computer and cell phone markets. NiMH technology has numerous advantages over Li-Ion technology such as lower cost, higher power, safety and abuse tolerance. NiMH batteries are most favored by manufacturers of mass-market consumer products incorporating rechargeable batteries where cost is a factor, or the application requires high power levels, and are the batteries of choice by the manufacturers of HEVs where safety considerations in large, high-energy battery systems are extremely important.

Our inventions have resulted in basic patents covering all commercial NiMH batteries, with 125 issued U.S. patents and 350 foreign counterparts. While all of the patents involving Ovonic NiMH battery technology are important to our licensing activities and the business activities of Cobasys LLC, there are approximately 13 patents which we believe to be particularly important. These patents have various dates of expiration through 2014. Additional U.S. and foreign patent applications are in various stages of preparation, prosecution and allowance. In view of the overall strength of our patent position relating to NiMH batteries, and that the validity of newer patents has not been tested in court, we do not believe that the expiration of any of our NiMH battery patents during the next five years will have a material adverse effect on our business.

Cobasys. Cobasys is the joint venture restructured in July 2001 by Ovonic Battery and Chevron. Cobasys was organized to bring advanced integrated energy storage systems utilizing NiMH batteries into widespread commercial production for transportation, telecommunication, UPS, distributed generation, military, homeland security, stationary power and other prismatic battery applications.

Cobasys offers complete advanced NiMH battery pack system solutions in transportation applications for HEVs, HDVs and vehicles with 36/42-volt electrical systems.

In December 2004, as part of our focus on our core businesses, we entered into a series of agreements with Chevron and Cobasys to expand the scope of licenses granted to Cobasys at the time of the restructuring of the joint venture in July 2001. The expanded licenses will provide an opportunity for Cobasys to take advantage of the growing interest in NiMH battery systems and will enable it to address a full range of energy storage opportunities.

In July 2004, we, Ovonic Battery, Cobasys, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd. (MEI), Panasonic EV Energy Co., Ltd. (PEVE) and Toyota Motor Corporation entered into a settlement agreement with respect to patent infringement disputes initiated by us and counterclaims involving NiMH batteries pending before the International Chamber of Commerce, International Court of Arbitration.

Under the arrangement, we, Cobasys, MEI, PEVE and Toyota have entered into an agreement pursuant to which the parties have cross-licensed current and future patents related to NiMH batteries filed through December 31, 2014, effective upon the date of settlement. The licenses granted to MEI, PEVE and Toyota did not include rights to use the licensed patents to (i) offer for sale certain NiMH batteries for certain transportation applications in North America until after June 30, 2007 or (ii) sell commercial quantities of certain transportation and certain stationary power NiMH batteries in North America until after June 30, 2010. PEVE was granted expanded rights in July 2005 to solicit and sell NiMH batteries for certain North American transportation applications and Cobasys will receive royalties on PEVE North American sales of NiMH batteries through 2014.

Further, under the terms of the settlement, Cobasys and PEVE have agreed to a technical cooperation arrangement, including access to suppliers, to advance the state-of-the-art of NiMH batteries, which are widely used in HEVs. Cobasys and PEVE have also agreed to collaborate on the development of a next-generation high-performance NiMH battery module for HEVs.

Through January 2005, Chevron contributed $160 million to Cobasys to develop integrated energy storage systems, to increase manufacturing capacity and for market and product development.

In December 2004, we and Chevron agreed to a number of amendments to the terms of the Cobasys operating agreement, which include providing a mechanism for additional funding from Chevron to continue Cobasys’ activities. Chevron is entitled to a priority right of repayment for providing this additional funding in the form of a loan. We and Chevron will each continue to own a 50-percent interest in Cobasys subject to adjustment under certain circumstances. Under the amended agreement, Chevron has loaned $20.1 million to Cobasys through June 30, 2005. Ovonic Battery has contributed to the joint venture intellectual property, licenses, production processes, know-how, personnel and engineering services relating to NiMH battery technology.”

So, in the years since we have only increased our dependence on oil. Until the Leaf and Volt, none of the major automakers had brought forth plugin electric cars, in large part because the only suitable batteries to do this were unavailable due to Chevron’s patent. And each automaker was fine with this, because they all know that none of the other automakers could make one either. But now there is a new battery in the picture … lithium based chemistries. These offer similar volumetric energy density, but half the weight energy density, as NiMH. They are very suitable for automotive applications, except for one thing … safety. These batteries are used for portable electronic devices, and have you ever heard of laptops sometimes spontaneously exploding? Yes, it sometimes happens. This is a totally unacceptable risk in a car, and for this reason lithium ion batteries were not used in vehicles. Until…. Tesla motors figured out a way to overcome the safety issues with these batteries and bring out its Roadster electric car which has a 240 mile range and is faster than a Ferrari. This car is not cheap, but it demonstrated that electric cars can be just as good if not better than gasoline powered cars.

Now, the automakers are in a race to bring mass produced EV’s to market. Nissan seems to be winning. And wouldn’t you know it, after 14 years, Toyota has finally figured out to put a wall plug on its Prius (I guess they decided to reverse engineer a toaster to see how wall plugs connect to appliances). And wouldn’t you know it …. they use lithium ion batteries for this. So, they have gotten around Chevron’s patent in the end, but Chevron successfully stalled the emergence of the electric car for seven years, and everyone will be paying dearly for this when the environmental impacts of our addiction to fossil fuels become more apparent (the Arctic is melting rapidly), and as the prices of fossil fuels skyrocket due to the widespread acceptance of the reality of Peak Oil before the majority of the population has a chance to trade in their gas guzzler for an electric car.


As mentioned above, I will now provide a detailed energy analysis showing how we could power a complete transition to electric vehicles simply by the elimination of the wasteful oil refining process.

From the US Department of Energy website, here are numbers for the amounts of various fuels consumed by refineries for 2009:

  • Still gas: 220,191 thousand barrels
  • Petroleum coke: 82,516 thousand barrels
  • Natural gas: 713, 532 million cubic feet
  • Electricity: 43,019 million kWhr
  • Steam: 98,671 million pounds

These are fuels brought in externally to the refineries for the purpose of turning crude oil into various petroleum products which are then sold, which includes automotive gasoline. These fuels do NOT include the crude oil product brought into the refineries. What I do now is assume that with a conversion to electric cars, we obviously do not need to go through the refinery process anymore. Therefore, these fuels could instead simply be used to generate electricity directly which would charge up your electric car. So let’s do an analysis to see how much electricity these fuels could produce. I need to convert each fuel input into kWhr of equivalent electricity in your wall socket. Each can be converted to electricity at a different thermal efficiency, with coal being the worst at 30% and natural gas the best at 60%.

I am assuming that the energy contained within these fuels is not transferred into the energy content of the final petroleum products produced by the refineries to any significant degree. I am assuming that all this energy is simply used to clean up the crude oil and sort it into its various fractions and types to create the many products sold by the refinery. This is largely reasonable assumption overall.

  • Still gas: 220,191,000 barrels X 6,000,000 BTU per barrel = 1.32 X 10^15 BTU
  • There are 3414 BTU’s per kWhr, so this equals 3.86 X 10^11 kWhr
  • X 40% thermal efficiency = 1.16 X 10^11 kWhr electricity equivalent.
  • Petroleum coke: 82,516,000 barrels X 6,000,000 BTU per barrel / 3414 BTU per kWhr
  • X 30% thermal efficiency = 4.35 X 10^10 kWhr electricity equivalent.
  • Natural gas: 713,532 million ft3 X 0.306 kWhr per ft3
  • X 60% thermal efficiency = 1.31 X10^11 kWhr electricity equivalent.
  • Steam: 98,671 million pounds X 0.294 kWhr per lb
  • X 60% efficiency = 1.95 X 10^10 kWhr electricity equivalent.
  • Electricity: 4.30 X 10^10 kWhr

Now, I will sum all these up and multiply by 90% which is the typical line loss in transmitting electricity across the landscape:

  • = 3.18 X 10^11 kWhr

How many miles could be driven on this electrical energy? Taking the Nissan Leaf as an example, with a plug-to-wheel mileage of 0.225 kWhr per mile, this equals:

  • = 1.41 X 10^12 miles

Now, we need to compare this with how many miles a gasoline powered fleet would go on the gasoline which the above fuels are refining. For this we need a different set of data which shows how much product refineries PRODUCE, not how much energy they consume. Again, this comes from the US DoE.

From this, I see that in 2009 the refineries produced 6,527,069 thousand barrels of product, of which 3,206,726 thousand were automotive gasoline. I will assume that the energy required for refining is approximately proportioned linearly between the different products, which I think is a reasonable assumption. Therefore, we need to estimate how many miles this 3,206,726 thousand barrels of gasoline would take the vehicle fleet. A barrel consists of 42 gallons and I will assume an average passenger car fuel mileage of 28 mpg, which works out to 3.77 X 10^12 miles.

The final step is adjusting for the ratio of gasoline produced at the refineries versus the total product produced, which is 6,527,069 / 3,206,726 = 2.035.

I will multiply this by the miles driven by the gasoline fleet in order to bring it to an equivalent number to be compared with the electric fleet and we get:

  • = 7.67 X 10^12 miles

Now let’s compare: the electric fleet goes 1.41 X10^12 miles on the fuel inputs to refineries alone, whereas the gasoline fleet using the products of those refineries goes 7.6 X 10^12 miles. This is 18% as far. This deserves emphasis because it is in no way insignificant. ELECTRIC CARS COULD GO 18% AS FAR AS GASOLINE POWERED CARS SIMPLY ON THE ENERGY SAVINGS RESULTING FROM ELIMINATING THE OIL REFINERIES ALONE.

But this is only the beginning of the story, because this only analyzes the refineries in isolation. But there is much more to producing gasoline than just the refining process! If it comes from Alberta tar sand, that tar sand must be extracted, transported, and also refined into synthetic crude first, which is then transported to refineries for the process which I just analyzed above.

How much energy do all these other activities require? It’s not insignificant either! Let’s do some more calculations and add these to our 18% figure. These numbers are not easy to find, but I managed to find some showing how much natural gas is used to refine tar sand from this website.

Pages 7 to 11 of this report give numbers for both cogeneration and traditional Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) processes. Let’s do the analysis for the non-cogeneration situation, from page 7. Here are the numbers:

  • Natural gas: about 2 GJ per barrel
  • Electricity: about 35 kWhr per barrel

Let’s assume that half of the barrel of crude produced represents gasoline as a final product, so we get 1 GJ natural gas and 17 kWhr electricity per barrel gasoline.

Converting the natural gas to electricity equivalent goes as follows:

  • 1 GJ per barrel / 42 gallons per barrel X 278 kWhr per GJ = 6.62 kWhr
  • X 60% thermal efficiency X 90% transmission efficiency
  • = 3.6 kWhr per gallon

Add to this the 35 kWhr electricity per barrel and you get 4.4 kWhr per gallon. With the Leaf’s mileage of 0.225 kWhr per mile, this electricity would power an electric car to go 20 miles. This compares with 28 miles for the gasoline powered car, and is 70% as far.

Let’s add this to the above 18% for a total of 88%. Now, let’s also consider that tar sand needs to be extracted with machinery and this is not an insignificant energy requirement. The crude must be transported thousands of miles through pipelines, which uses electricity to pump and natural gas to keep it warm. Then it needs to be transported from refineries to individual gas stations. After all of these additions, which you don’t have with producing electricity since this is assuming the INEFFICIENCIES in the oil refining process are eliminated, I think it is reasonable to assume that AN ELECTRIC CAR COULD GO THE SAME DISTANCE AS A GASOLINE POWERED CAR simply using the inefficiencies in the gasoline-production processes alone! This is astounding and shows how easy it would be for society to get off oil for personal transportation. All that is required is the widescale rollout of competent electric cars, and the electricity side of the equation will take care of itself as gasoline demand drops. Nailing down exact numbers for my above analysis is obviously a difficult process because there are so many variables involved, but the numbers I have presented are a reasonable approximation.

I am not the only person who has made these calculations. Another EV nut has done something similar and gets similar numbers as I do, but she only considers the refineries. There is more involved than this and I take the analysis farther.

7 responses

  1. Jen Reynolds

    Fantastic analysis Mark. Maybe I’ll be convinced to take up driving again when electric vehicles are everywhere. The main problem now is ensuring that our electricity is actually produced sustainably and that everyone has access to a plug-in for their electric vehicle. I’ve been wondering how the solar power component would play in. One question I have is (and sorry, I’m not an EV nut yet or an engineer) how come the car can’t store a lot of solar power from cells on its roof or on a building’s roof? Can the lithium battery not store that kind of energy? What I would like to see is mainly solar-powered vehicles with the plug-in option as the backup for a cloudy day rather than the plug-in and the gas as a backup…


    August 11, 2010 at 1:08 am

    • Hi Jen, yes that’s an interesting question. Ideally the bodywork of the car would be impregnated with thin film solar panels during manufacture which would then produce energy when the car is parked in the sun. With today’s panels you could get 10 to 15 km range per day if you park it in the sunshine all day, so it’s definitely significant if you don’t do much driving. The issue is cost because this would add a few thousand dollars to the cost of the car, which does not compare well to wall power. But I hope and presume that as EV’s get rolled out by the millions the price of this will drop and it would probably become an option you can buy, for those people that live in sunny locations and park outside. The other option is putting solar panels on the roof of your house which would provide much more power, but this is still not economical yet, but hopefully soon.

      August 11, 2010 at 1:57 am

  2. ormondotvos


    August 12, 2010 at 5:23 am

  3. pete

    other auto fuel efficiency alternatives:

    from the third world:
    * Double the fuel efficiency of your car: take 2 passengers.
    * quadruple it by taking 4
    * you can put 10 people in the back of a pickup truck.
    * ride a motorcycle!
    * ride a bike (eh)

    * diesel. gasoline was used because gas engines weighed less but technology changed that. really no excuse not to use diesel anymore.

    * CNG/LNG- natural gas cars, trucks, and buses are rolling around the world (just not in north america) and provide *much* better fuel economy at today’s natgas prices.

    * and in general, another hint from the thirld world- if we build passenger cars and buses that weigh less, they can use smaller engines and less fuel. technology currently availible and getting cheaper by the year: composite materials. Get rid of all that metal (which is produced by energy intensive high temperature processes) and replace with composites of plastics, silicon (glass) or carbon, or ceramic, or biological (wood). This will take some decades of tech development but hey.

    * if the auto use pattern involves a lot of people moving in the same direction, (i.e., suburban commuting), why not just drive a bunch of cars onto a train? or better yet, why not just take a train?

    November 10, 2011 at 8:05 am

    • Yes I agree that there are a lot of ways to improve the efficiency of our ICE’s and how we drive, but we also have to remember that there a few a few billion poor people in the world who would love to be, and are becoming, new car owners, so say for example even if we doubled the mileage efficiency of the average automobile, but the number of people driving cars doubles, then overall no improvements have been made. That’s why I think it’s essential to be heavily investing in alternative renewable energy systems because they are our only hope in the face of limited fossil fuel reserves (whenever those happen to run out).

      November 13, 2011 at 3:28 am

  4. pete

    oh here’s a wild sci-fi idea… for the suburban commuter scenario: have passenger cars which can link up with each other like train cars, and go on a track! the cars turn into a train when all traveling in one direction along a major road! each one uses less energy that way.

    November 10, 2011 at 8:09 am

  5. Marcos Buenijo

    The problem with the EV is, always has been, and always will be the battery. In my opinion, this problem with the battery (low energy density and high cost) will prevent the widespread adoption of the technology. Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe there is a bright future for the EV. What I do not believe is that the majority of personal vehicles of the future will be EVs. NOTE: I do not consider a system with an on board power generation system to be an EV. I consider only pure battery-electrics as EVs.

    By my definition, the Volt is not an EV. Yet, when the Volt was first released, I anticipated that it would be a total failure on the markets. So far it looks like my projection is panning out. My problem with the design more than anything is the massive battery (nearly 400 lbs). The car is just too heavy, and too expensive (and complicated). In my opinion, the ideal personal automobile should be lightweight, highly aerodynamic, and propelled only by an electric motor. It must have a very modest battery system (but with a size that can be tailored for the end user) to greatly reduce its cost and weight. It should include a compact and highly efficient power generation system that has multi-fuel capacity. Ideally, the prime mover of the power generation system would be an external combustion system like a very compact modern steam engine. Before the reader rejects this notion completely, please note that work done over the last several years shows this to be a viable possibility. I’ll spend some words on this because so many have not considered it. A piston steam engine has been built and tested that shows more than 30% net thermal efficiency, and with 5 lbm/hp. The advantage of such a system over internal combustion is that just about any fuel source can be used, and in tandem. Liquid fuels would require a lot less processing for such an engine (thereby saving a lot of energy), gaseous fuels could be used, and solid fuels such as biomass and coal could fuel the system directly. This versatility allows one to take full advantage of the energy resources available in their region, and this will reduce net energy consumption by reducing energy otherwise consumed in fuel transport. Someone who lives in a region of high solar insolation (southwest U.S.) or high wind (south central U.S.) might prefer a large battery system. The higher cost of the system will be offset by lower “fuel” costs over the life of the vehicle. Someone who does not have these resources might opt for the smallest battery system. In any case, such a system will introduce incentives for individuals to pursue regional solutions for their energy needs. This alone would solve many problems.

    November 22, 2012 at 7:20 pm

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