Tobold's Blog
Saturday, November 11, 2023
Electric vehicles

My wife and me spent all day yesterday testing and then buying a fully electric car for her, replacing her 10-year old petrol car. The market for electric vehicles has strong growth rates, but a strong growth of very small numbers still takes a lot of time to become really a dominant technology. Right now, world-wide, only 2.1% of cars are plug-in electric vehicles. And there are a lot of good reasons for that.

The one thing everybody immediately thinks of is range. I think that is actually less of a problem. The car we bought is relatively small compared to the average car, but still a fully enclosed 4-seater, and not one of those tiny electric vehicles. And with the size of battery this car size allows, and the weight of the car, we end up with a range of 400 km or 250 miles on paper, using the Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure WLTP standard. As that is a lab test, the real world range is generally estimated to be 80% to 90% of that number, depending on conditions and driving style. The range goes down with time, with a guarantee of it still being 70% after 8 years being standard these days. Which means that the real range at the end of the battery life might be just half of the sticker range. However, 200 km or 125 miles is still a lot farther than the average car return trip. People do longer journeys for holidays and the like, but the far more common typical commute or shopping trip is a lot shorter. Note that average driving distances of course vary by country, which might be one of the reasons that only 1.3% of cars in the USA are plug-in electric.

Our current solution will be the electric vehicle for all those short trips, and a second car, running on petrol, for the longer trips. While Europe and some other countries are planning to phase out combustion engine cars by 2035, we think that if you buy an electric vehicle in 10 years, and buy more of a "family sized" car, you'll get a much longer range. For example a Tesla Model 3 already has a WLTP range of 629 km or 390 miles. We looked at plug-in hybrid cars, which turned out to be about as practical as having a car that can be both drawn by a horse or run by a motor when transitioning between the horse-drawn buggy to the motor car. The fully electric distance on plug-in hybrids is tiny, around 60 km WLTP, and when driving in combustion engine mode the added weight of the battery and electric motor drives up fossil fuel consumption.

While we are happy with the electric vehicle solution we have found for us, it was rather obvious that we are somewhat privileged in our personal situation to make this work. A lot of factors clearly speak against a widespread adoption of electric vehicles. First of all the price of buying the electric vehicle, which is a lot more expensive than a petrol car of the same size. That problem gets even worse for people on medium or low incomes, who usually would buy a used car: There simply aren't that many used electric vehicles available yet. Electric vehicles are a bit weird in the long run: The battery isn't expected to last much more than 8 years or 160,000 km (100,000 miles), while the rest of the vehicle can last a lot longer than a car with a combustion engine; estimates are about twice the lifetime of a combustion engine car, but again there aren't many electric vehicles this old around to get reliable data from. An electric vehicle might get "3 batteries old". Given the cost of a new battery, a 10-year old electric vehicle with a fresh battery is going to be more than twice the cost of a 10-year old petrol car.

But what about the cost of running the car? For us, the insurance for the electric car will be higher than that of the petrol car it replaced, simply because the car is more expensive. Taxes will be lower, due to many countries incentivizing EVs fiscally. And for us, very specifically, the fuel cost will be zero, due to perfect conditions: We have an excess production of electricity from solar panels on our house, and currently we do not receive any money for that excess production, it goes for free to the electric company (that sounds like a bad deal, but in exchange we don't get paid less for the produced electricity than we pay for the consumed electricity). Also, we are retired, which means that mid-day, when solar panels produce the most electricity, the electric vehicle will often be in our garage, charging; somebody commuting to a job might well have his car in the garage only during times when his solar panels aren't producing any electricity. Charging your car with electricity from the grid is a lot more expensive, and in Europe, where there is even some grid electricity produced by coal, not very ecological either. Charging a car at a highway rapid charging station is even more expensive. You can pay up to $30 to charge up your car for the next 200 miles (80% of capacity), which depending on the current petrol price and miles-per-gallon might actually be more expensive than petrol.

In a full life cycle assessment, which is extremely hard to do, and given our personal situation, we can expect that after several years of driving our new electric vehicle, we will end up with a positive overall environmental impact. The production of a single electric vehicle has a worse environmental impact than the production of a vehicle with a combustion engine. But provided that all or a large majority of the electricity used is "green", coming from renewable electric sources like wind or solar, after some years the diminished greenhouse gas emissions of running the car will turn the overall balance positive. If, on the other hand, you live in Poland and charge your car exclusively with grid electricity, which in 2022 came 69% from coal, your lifetime greenhouse gas emissions with an electric vehicle will be higher than if you had bought a petrol or diesel car.

Estimating the cost of the electric vehicle over the lifetime is even more difficult. In 2022, due to the war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russian gas, spot electricity prices in Germany peaked at over 650 Euro per Mwh, up from an average around 30 Euro per Mwh in 2020, with the current price being just below 100 Euro per kwh. Predicting the price of electricity for future years is impossible. Unless you are in the privileged position to be able to exclusively charge your electric vehicle with electricity produced by your own solar panels, a rise in prices of fossil fuels might perversely still raise the price to charge your electric car. Note that exactly the same considerations are true if you replace your oil or gas heating by a heat pump; and if you use that heat pump mostly for heating in winter and not for air conditioning in summer, your solar panel electricity production is sadly out of phase with your electricity consumption.

These considerations on the personal level of a single car still don't show the whole picture. If you waved a magic wand and instantly replaced all combustion engine vehicles in the world with electric vehicles, most electricity grid infrastructure would collapse under the load. We are also very far away from a network of public charging stations that would withstand holiday traffic situations when electric vehicles are widespread. There are huge question marks over the future of recycling lithium ion batteries in large scale. Today, as a way for a financially well-off couple like mine to do their part for the environment and against climate change, buying an electric car is fine. Extrapolating that to everybody driving fully electric by 2035 isn't that obvious.

As you said, electric cars are fine as long as few people buy them. We're still very far from being electric-only ready.

Charging times are an issue too, once everyone goes electric. Even a partial charge takes its time and it's extremely slow, compared to the petrol counterpart. Having 4-5 cars in line, waiting for a free charging spot, would mean more than a hour waiting for your turn. Thre is no way this can be sustainable, at least until chargin a battery will take a 2-3 minutes at most (I doubt it will ever happen, though).
My main issue with buying electric is the longevity. You touched on it but replacing the batteries for an electric car is currently very expensive so not only is the car up front more expensive, long term it is more expensive to maintain.

I currently have a 2007 Ford Focus I bought in 2010 and while it has issues, it runs and drives and I know if it broke down I could repair it for relatively cheaply compared to swapping the batteries on an electric car. Being a Ford parts are cheap here and I can go to any mechanic.

I've also lived in apartments/condos for years so charging is another issue. As I'll likely never own a home my options would be charging stations which are relatively close by but a weekly chore I'm not too keen on adding to my list.
Still seems too early to buy one. Toyota promises cars with batteries with over a 1000 I’m range by the end of the decade. If that’s true, the car you buy now will be worthless by then.

Still, seems like my next car next year will be electric as in Belgium, all company cars have to be. Sadly, for the budget of my current golf I can’t buy anything decent…
Once the issues that you identified are addressed I'd consider a battery vehicle for a "daily". I routinely drive 250+ miles in a day as a car enthusiast and I have property's that are 200 miles apart that I need to visit. Some places I visit are "raw land" and don't have utilities. It's much easier to store five gallons of gas in such a place compared to 100 miles worth of electricity. The current ranges don't work for me and seemingly for a lot of people in rural areas. Once the range, battery longevity, battery charging rate, and costs (both the initial purchasing price and the replacement batteries) come down they may work for the majority of the people.

Personally as a car enthusiast, I'm really hoping for large advancements in synthetic fuels (at cost parity with fossil fuels) and mass carbon sequestration. I know we're not there yet, but I hope we get there.
I'm really hoping for large advancements in synthetic fuels

Doing research on that used to be my day job before retirement. Some synthetic fuels are actually relatively easy to make, chemically. However, we live in a world where you can make a profit by converting 1 unit of fossil fuel energy into a bit less than 1 unit of electric energy, as evident by the large number of fossil fuel power stations. The first law of thermodynamics then tells you that you can't possibly be profitable converting 1 unit of electric energy into a bit less than 1 unit of synthetic fuel. Unless you exclusively use "curtailed" electric energy, which should be very low cost. But even then the intermittent nature of the excess production causes some serious chemical engineering problems.
Community based nuclear fusion generators would solve the charging problem. If those become common then electric cars will win the market share. If not, I would bet on hydrogen fuel cells that use lithium batteries for electrolysis to pull hydrogen from water. Yes, you still have to charge the battery but those batteries would be smaller than charging a battery bank to run the entire car.
A very informative post on the current status of electric vehicles. Thank you.
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