EV Debate

I really like electric cars. But we need to quit pretending they’re in any way sustainable or all that great for urban mobility.

If Larry Ellison gave me a huge bonus tomorrow, I’m not nearly so smug that I’d at least consider buying an all electric Tesla Roadster sports car. I bike past a dark blue Tesla parked in Palo Alto on many mornings, and even more occasionally a light blue Tesla pases me in Menlo Park. My train passes directly past the Tesla dealership in Menlo Park. They’re hot cars and I’m sure the Tesla roadster is a perfect way for me to get through a mid-life crisis. It looks like fun, and I believe in fun.

The guy pictured below is Ryan Popple. Until about a year ago, Ryan was finance director for Tesla Motors. Today, he’s a partner at venture capital giant Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byer, where he focuses on investments in green technology.


Ryan Popple

Last Saturday, Ryan talked about addressing the vulnerabilities in our oil-driven economy during lunch at Transportation Camp West in San Francisco. He started out with charts and illustrations that anyone familiar with Peak Oil concepts would recognize, pointing out the the basic economic fact that oil prices can go nowhere but up. Every time we drill will always be more expensive than what we previously drilled. If it was cheaper, we’d have already done it. We get the easy stuff first from artesian supplies near the surface in Pennsylvania. When that runs out, we move on deeper wells, then near the coast, and then to deep water and oil sands and shales. The fact that we must punch holes two miles deep on top of a mile of water and extract oil from extremely hostile environments north of the Arctic Circle is the definition of Peak Oil.

He then segued into the problems of internal combustion engines. They’re complex and inefficient. Heat become rotary mechanical energy through a chain of steps that might have inspired Rube Goldberg’s zany drawings.

So far so good. But then Popple asserted that we cannot realistically depend on our feet or public transportation for more than a small part of our personal mobility needs. We need a large scale deployment electric vehicles for personal mobility. One of the primary benefits of EVs over internal combustion — the motors are 90% efficient with almost zero waste heat, says Popple, because EVs run on fairy dust, with very little waste heat and emissions involved in their operation!


Coal power plant. Helsinki, 2003

Fairy Dust

Apparently, the other problems with internal combusion vehicles go away if we electrify our fleet of personal cars. If all cars become electric, traffic congestion, parking shortages, land use problems, stormwater run off, traffic dangers and all the rest magically disappear!


Silicon Valley Highway 101 Traffic Hell

storm drain

Electric cars are fun and cool and sexy, I’m sure investors see a lot of money in their eyes, and they’re even a little more energy efficient than gasoline and diesel powered cars and truck. For those who drive an EV or a hybrid, I really appreciate what you do. But can we quit talking about how green, sustainable and urban friendly they are?

In an #evdebate Twitter discussion earlier today led by Guardian Environment, the question was asked: “Why is EV such a government priority over cycling?” My response: Because investors are putting a lot of money into EV research and development. Bicycles are small potatoes next to the billions poured into electric vehicle research and promotion these days.

What do you think about electric vehicles? Good, evil, neutral, or somewhere in between?

50 Comments

  • March 21, 2011 - 8:50 pm | Permalink

    EVs’ ultimate efficiency, when taken as a system, is bounded by the inefficiencies of coal burning power plants on one end, and the environmental impact of large-scale battery production and disposal, on the other.

  • March 21, 2011 - 8:58 pm | Permalink

    I think many EV proponents believe research will solve those problems of energy production and car/battery production. We’ve already made substantial progress in those area, but I remain dubious that the achieved efficiencies will really be that spectacular.

  • Siouxgeonz
    March 21, 2011 - 9:20 pm | Permalink

    Yup. I never hear the question answered: and what about the source of energy for the battery? And what about the battery?
    If “research” is going to Solve That Problem… why not put the research into something more fundamentally efficient than hauling something as big as a house around you everywhere you go?
    It reminds me of people who say that the reason we should spend billions on space travel is because of all the amazing inventions that have come from it. (There are *otehr* reasons to spend money on space travel, granted.) Can you imagine how much *more* we could have done if those inventions weren’t side effects?

  • RWhite
    March 21, 2011 - 9:38 pm | Permalink

    I think we are simply moving the energy production and any related pollution to a flyover state that the investors and political types that live on the coasts can’t see. “If I can’t see it, then it doesn’t exist.”

  • March 21, 2011 - 10:04 pm | Permalink

    If we import charged batteries from China, and dump our spent batteries on Africa, doesn’t that solve the problem? Export the pollution and the waste problems?

    C’mon folks. Get creative!

  • Murali
    March 21, 2011 - 11:08 pm | Permalink

    Great topic. It’s clear that hybrids are a form of slactivism. The driver WANTS to be green, but does not want to change their behavior. Kind of like someone who wants to lose weight, but does not want to diet and exercise. They are the automobile equivalent of “light” cigarettes.

    EVs are incrementally better. But widespread EV use does not come anywhere close to the benefits of widespread mass transit use, pedal power, and foot power. Those are the real solution.

    The real problem is mental laziness. Only higher fuel prices can prod people out of that.

  • Murali
    March 21, 2011 - 11:08 pm | Permalink

    Great topic. It’s clear that hybrids are a form of slactivism. The driver WANTS to be green, but does not want to change their behavior. Kind of like someone who wants to lose weight, but does not want to diet and exercise. They are the automobile equivalent of “light” cigarettes.

    EVs are incrementally better. But widespread EV use does not come anywhere close to the benefits of widespread mass transit use, pedal power, and foot power. Those are the real solution.

    The real problem is mental laziness. Only higher fuel prices can prod people out of that.

  • March 22, 2011 - 2:07 am | Permalink

    =v= The “90% efficient” motor is fine, but it’s a misleading comparison. It leaves out the energy wasted at the power plants, which do benefit from efficiencies of scale, but lose out when the energy is transmitted or transformed, what with those pesky Laws of Thermodynamics.

    So the Rube Goldeberg heat -> steam -> rotor thing is still happening, plus power lines and many transformers, not to mention both charging up and using batteries, which is why overhead lines are such a good deal. He did make he point that electrification works better for large vehicles (e.g. public transit, but of course it does), though that’s not where he’s putting his capital. What a waste.

  • Anonymous
    March 22, 2011 - 2:37 am | Permalink

    We don’t need to worry about peak oil. We’ll just keep our electric cars charged up via coal-fired power plants since we’re afraid of nuclear. We can keep our buses running the same way. Higher oil prices will accelerate the use of coal, so I’d be careful about wishing for oil price rises. OTOH, gasoline has to rise in price an awful lot before it costs as much per calorie as even low quality food.

  • Shuichikobayashimana
    March 22, 2011 - 2:44 am | Permalink

    部分均衡と一般均衡の問題です
    You might argue about the problem between most efficiency in part and most efficiency in general.
    勿論いいところをついています 僕もおなじことをよく考えます
    Of course, you are well pointing a consistency. To be honest, I sometimes think of what you meant to say too.
    たとえばハイブリッド車の環境税制優遇は歩行者やサイクリスト(の所得税優遇)ににすべきだとかね
    For example, I wanted to say that a duty free policy for hybrid car promotions should also be done to (a salary tax free for)pedestrians or cyclists.

    Of course, I think you are right about ” Electric cars are fun and cool and sexy, I’m sure investors see a lot of money in their eyes, and they’re even a little more energy efficient than gasoline and diesel powered cars and truck.”

    By the way, I have coincidentally heard of PPCB. I was explained such a green earth project by a Japanese venture company. The project was stopped though…

  • March 22, 2011 - 3:44 am | Permalink

    I view EVs as a small good. I live in the PNW and >70% of the energy here is produced from hydroelectric. So it isn’t the same as coal up here. And EVs do pick up gains in the grid without having to wait for my car to get off the road.

    But cycling, walking, and mass transit are much better for the community and much much more efficient.

  • March 22, 2011 - 5:25 am | Permalink

    These questions have been asked and answered ad nauseum. I’ve spent any amount of time on electric car forums reading up on them. If you haven’t seen any answers in this line, I’d recommend digging a bit more.

    My due diligence has satisfied me that 1) dirty coal electricity is already better than gasoline, while clean electricity (wind, solar) is far superior; and 2) lithium ion batteries are not toxic and are highly recyclable. But, of course, you may reach different conclusions.

  • March 22, 2011 - 5:29 am | Permalink

    I thought the point was to bring energy production home, rather than pay vast sums of money to buy energy from countries that don’t like us.

  • March 22, 2011 - 6:08 am | Permalink

    Each form of transport – cars, bikes, feet etc – is a tool to get us from A to B, and like any tool it makes sense choose the right one for the job. Sometimes that tool will be a car.

    EVs are a refinement of the car-tool, and potentially a fairly welcome one at that. So yes, it’s great that they’re in development and let’s hope the environmental issues get ironed out in that process.

    But EVs are not a replacement or substitute for all the other tools. Cars, electric or otherwise, will continue to be the right tool on some occasions and the wrong one on others.

  • 295bus/Nick
    March 22, 2011 - 6:27 am | Permalink

    Electric vehicles will probably do a lot for urban air quality.

    I have a hunch that once electric vehicles have been around for a while, they will turn out to last a lot longer than internal combustion engines.

    The main thing for bike/transit/pedestrian advocates to think about in terms of them is that we shouldn’t pin our hopes too much on peak oil/global warming arguments. These were always a “convenient truth” anyway–not our real reason for opposing car dependence anyway. Better to talk about what we really believe in, liveable communities, and the personal benefits of self-powered mobility.

  • March 22, 2011 - 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Amazingly, Masoner apparently believes that cycling doesn’t require any CO expenditure.
    Sorry fellows, but humans are very much carbon emitting machines. Nor are cycles in any conceivable way useful for transport in the vast majority of cases. We are not an urban-living people. That ended 80 years ago, before the burbs were born. That means long distances and that means cycles are just plain useless. And as for safety, a far, far greater percentage of cyclists are injured than auto drivers. Cycles are horrendously dangerous. Claiming that they will
    make transportation safer is a complete and total lie.

  • March 22, 2011 - 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Electric cars seem like an improvement over gasoline. That may not prove to be the case as we have to manufacture and eventually dispose of more and more batteries, so I don’t know. Yes, they still need energy, but it seems like almost any energy source is cleaner than gasoline, so it still seems like a net positive.

    I don’t necessarily feel like investor contribution is the biggest reason that electric vehicles are becoming more popular. I think the reality is that while EV only solves the gasoline problem, it does so with respect to the larger, driving(heh) issue: People love their cars. We are a car culture. And, yes, it’d be great if we could change that, but investors aren’t responsible for perpetuating that situation. They’re just putting their money where it seems most likely to flourish. Yes, cars create lots of issues that we would like to see addressed, but the reality is that most people prefer to drive. You’ll have a lot more luck trying to convince them to drive greener then trying to convince them not to drive.

    Also, other solutions to the problems created by cars like mass transportation, biking, and walking are not new. They may be valid, and I do feel like they are getting more traction then perhaps they’ve ever had in my life time, but from an investment standpoint, you want the Next Big Thing, not the Thing From 100 Years Back That We Traded For Our Cars.

    I’d love to see car use go down. Electric vehicles do not solve all, or even most, of the problems caused by the flood of cars on our streets. But they do solve some problems. And if we can get to the point where I am no longer being told that too many cars on the road have made today a particularly (intended) bad day to breath the air or engage in any physical activity out of doors, I will consider that progress even if we haven’t decreased the number of cars on the road.

  • March 22, 2011 - 3:52 pm | Permalink

    I have a serious question: Could you plug an electric car right into a wind turbine or solar array?

  • March 22, 2011 - 4:43 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of space exploration, when will oil companies begin investing in a pipeline to Jupiter? There’s probably a million years worth of hydrocarbons there, and no pesky seal pups to endanger (as far as we know).

  • March 22, 2011 - 4:54 pm | Permalink

    @Kent, I’ve never claimed cycling has zero impact. Even sitting at a computer typing this comment has a carbon footprint. The same is true if I ate nothing but tofu and carrots and wore hemp sackcloth and sandals.

    I have advocated (mildly) for electric vehicles on these pages elsewhere and acknowledge they have their advantages in terms of resource use and emissions. Realistically, I see a lot of movement in the near term toward electric cars, and I personally wouldn’t mind driving something like a Nissan Leaf. But to claim EVs are sustainable is simply untrue.

    I’ve already addressed the safety and land use impacts of any large vehicle that you bring up. To call cycling “horrendously dangerous” is, at best, an exaggeration.

  • Murali
    March 22, 2011 - 5:31 pm | Permalink

    Learn some basic science. Humans are not simply “carbon emitting machines”. All the carbon that leaves the human body into the atmosphere STARTED OUT in the atmosphere.

    By contrast, all the carbon emitted from a tailpipe or smoke stack started out in the earth’s crust, not in the atmosphere.

  • March 22, 2011 - 5:35 pm | Permalink

    No, electricity generated from wind turbines and solar arrays has too many ions mixed in with the electrons and erodes the electrical system (specifically the anodes) of the car leading to lower efficiency and ultimately failure. The only compatible electricity that will work with electric cars must be purchased from BigCorp, Inc.. Free electricity is like free software, probably full of viruses.

  • March 22, 2011 - 5:47 pm | Permalink

    To be fair, there are significant fossil carbon and nitrogen inputs for our food supply these days.

  • March 22, 2011 - 5:47 pm | Permalink

    To be fair, there are significant fossil carbon and nitrogen inputs for our food supply these days.

  • March 22, 2011 - 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Smart aleck :-)

  • March 22, 2011 - 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Smart aleck :-)

  • March 22, 2011 - 5:52 pm | Permalink

    But would enough power be generated that way to recharge an EV?

  • March 22, 2011 - 5:55 pm | Permalink

    But to answer Jen’s question: Nissan Leaf requires a 240V/40AMP charging station wired into your home, which is over 9,000 watts, or over three times the capacity of the very large 3kW photovoltaic panel that covers the entire roof of my dad’s home.

    Nissan says it takes seven hours to charge with their 9000 watt charger. If my parents don’t use their electricity for anything else and assuming a sunny day and no conversion losses, that means a full charge in 21 hours.

  • March 22, 2011 - 5:55 pm | Permalink

    So generate the electricity locally. “Unpossible becuase of X, Y, Z!11!”

    Ok, so keep bitching and moaning about the obvious and wait for the next Tesla to come along and solve the problem for you.

    Not supporting EVs because the cord traces back to wall is an excuse, not a reason. There are reasonable solutions to the problem – replace your rear bicycle wheel with a generator.

    For everyone advocating walking and cycling, it must be nice to live in that rare part of the world where it never rains and you live three blocks from your place of employment. If human transportation made any sense at all, I think it would have caught on by now.

    But hey, keep nit-picking progress to death, it helps, a lot.

  • March 22, 2011 - 5:58 pm | Permalink

    There are reasonable things about EVs, but Ryan and the Guardian #evdebate made it *so* easy to nitpick, I couldn’t resist!

  • Murali
    March 22, 2011 - 6:00 pm | Permalink

    But that is totally orthogonal to the topic of transportation.

  • March 22, 2011 - 6:14 pm | Permalink

    Yes, absolutely. There is absolutely no reason why electricity power generation can not be moved locally.

    The problem is not so much “generation” as it is “storage”. If you had a second battery as large or as powerful as the battery on the car itself, then it could charge all day and all night, but then you could rapidly “dump” the charge from the station battery at home into your electric car battery and keep on truckin’ (carin’) while the stationary battery took it’s time charging up again.

    This is an ideal situation, but think of this way – say you owned two electric cars. You drove one while the other stayed home and charged. The next day, you drove the one that was charging (all charged up after 21 hours) while the other stayed home and recouped it’s charge. You’d never be without a charged vehicle.

    All we have to do is make the conscious decision to improve electricity generation and storage and the hand-waving and self-righteous rants about how dirty, stupid, unsustainable EVs are becomes the non-issue it always was.

    Unfortunately, this won’t take precedence until EVs become common place… And EVs won’t become common place until people stop standing in their way berating them over every non-issues they can think of because they don’t fit into their liberal cycletopia agenda.

  • March 22, 2011 - 6:22 pm | Permalink

    Hey, well, as long as we see eye-to-eye regarding your motivations, we have no reason to disagree about anything.

  • March 22, 2011 - 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Please tell me you’re running for President in 2012. You’ll get my vote and all of the votes I can rally from ACORN.

  • March 22, 2011 - 6:40 pm | Permalink

    One of the points that EV advocates (including me) have made is that electricity can become carbon-neutral, while oil-based transportation cannot. For every gallon I burn in a car, whether Prius or Porsche, I put 19 pounds of carbon into the air. For every electron I “burn” in an EV, I may or may not put carbon in the air, depending on how the electricity was generated.

  • March 22, 2011 - 6:53 pm | Permalink

    @earls wrote: “all charged up after 21 hours

    Well, there’s also the problem of fewer than 21 hours of daylight in the mid latitudes. Say realistically 7 hours of charging for 100 miles of range and you still might get away with “just” two vehicles. We can also probably assume large scale charging stations at employment areas.

    I haven’t done this exercise in a while: What’s the land area required to generate the electricity needed for the 28 exajoules (10^18 joules) we now use for transportation in the United States if we could convert the entire insolation into power for electric vehicles?

  • March 22, 2011 - 6:56 pm | Permalink

    @Brent That’s very true and I ignored that issue in my post. Can you tell me how EV proponents respond to claims that we don’t get enough sunlight on planet earth to generate the power needed for EVs, assuming current transportation patterns?

  • March 22, 2011 - 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Here’s a solar array I saw on a barn somewhere in northern Germany — I figured around 450 panels:

    http://flickr.com/gp/planetbrent/6Wx8JJ

  • Ron
    March 22, 2011 - 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Where it never rains? Has our dependence on automobiles caused such genetic mutation, in so few generations, that we’re no longer waterproof? To quote my mom, “You’re not made out of sugar, you know.”

    Happy Trails,
    Ron Georg
    Corvallis, “Basking in the liquid sunshine”, OR

  • March 22, 2011 - 7:01 pm | Permalink

    P.S. One thing I don’t understand about the math. If the Leaf’s battery stores 24kWh, why does it take a 9kW source eight hours to charge it? Isn’t that simple math: 9kW X 8 hours = 72kWh, or some three times the battery size?

  • March 22, 2011 - 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Nice solution, but where will my parents put this barn?

    I need to correct an inaccuracy in my above posting about my parents’ photovoltaic array – it’s only half the roof (the south facing portion).

  • March 22, 2011 - 7:07 pm | Permalink
  • March 22, 2011 - 7:09 pm | Permalink

    I was just scratching my head about that as well and realized that the charger requires a 40 amp circuit but it’s obviously not using the entire circuit capacity, in the same way a 60 watt light bulb doesn’t use the whole 20 amps available at the wall socket.

    Actual current draw might be five to six thousand watts?

    Electric companies like EVs because they anticipate more demand overnight, which is usually the low demand period. Makes electricity production and planning more efficient.

  • March 22, 2011 - 7:16 pm | Permalink

    I think there are two general lines:

    1) Can an individual generate enough power through clean sources to offset usage? (In general, the answer is yes, given enough money.)

    2) Will future technology increase the amount of power we wring out of clean sources (whether wind, sun, waves, fusion, etc)? This is a great unknown, but optimists hope that the continued ingenuity of humankind will yield a solution.

  • March 22, 2011 - 9:27 pm | Permalink

    Human transportation has not actually been eliminated from our options. It’s still widely used a lot of places, but in the U.S. our access to cheap gas has allowed us to get away from it, but that’s not the case everywhere, and I wouldn’t write it off as an option. I agree that EV is an improvement over gasoline, but I also agree with Richard that being car-centric creates more problems then what are solved by taking gas out of the equation. And I have to say that the biggest obstacles to our reliance on gasoline and cars in general are not technological, but are instead in our attitudes. I don’t live 3 blocks from work, but 7-10 miles (depending on my route). We’re going through a dry spell, but we still see rain and, on occasion, snow. But when I show up at work on a particularly cold and/or wet day, my co-workers still shake their heads in disbelief and say, “I could never do that.” Never mind that our climate is relatively mild. Never mind that many, many people commute much farther by bicycle in worse weather. And never mind that I am a middle-aged man with a completely unimpressive physique. They should really be looking and saying, “If he can do it, then why couldn’t I do it?”

    I’m seeing a push towards mass transit. I’m seeing a push towards streets that accommodate multiple kinds of transportation, including pedestrians and bicycles. There’s room in there for electric vehicles, but there’s also room for human transportation. And it seems like for every person saying, “That can’t work.” there’s someone out there actually making it work.

  • March 22, 2011 - 10:31 pm | Permalink

    @earls – Nit-picking would be fussing over details of no consequence. My criticism, rather, addresses the main issue at hand. The energy-efficiency comparison is misleading, and I’m going to point that out.

    Bear in mind that true energy-efficiency is the reason our tax dollars are being spent to subsidize Tesla executives — including the ones who devote their generous salaries towards expensive, gas-guzzling hobbies — so it’s more than reasonable to hold them accountable when they try to fool us with this kind of hand-waving.

  • March 22, 2011 - 10:32 pm | Permalink

    @Rob – In addition, I guess @earls is unaware that human transportation is the #1 commute mode in the world. Twice as many people get to work by bike than by car.

  • Jim
    March 23, 2011 - 8:33 pm | Permalink

    Cylces aren’t dangerous inherently, I’d wager they are almost as safe as walking, it’s the fact of drivers crashing into cyclists that makes the activity more risky.

  • Jimbo
    March 23, 2011 - 8:45 pm | Permalink

    Not to mention when the demand for electricity goes up will lead to price increases from the power companies. Self sufficient solar/micro generation will be the way to go.

    FWIW, I just like the lower emissions of EV’s, sure the power generation may have emissions, but it should be less than gas guzzling. It is still inefficient, harnessing of any energy and use of that energy will use efficiency, but I like that it reduces environmental harm, given that batteries will be recyclable etc in the near term.

    I also like the home storage idea from below.

  • April 1, 2011 - 1:30 am | Permalink

    Regardless of which mode is chosen, let us quit subsidizing the auto, whether it be gas driven or electric. There are many problems with autos but one of the main problems is that they make it dangerous or seemingly dangerous for those who bike or contemplate biking. Even if the electricity comes from solar, that means that solar will not be used for other uses, which means it will cut down on solar as a percentage of fuels used to make electricity.

    The auto, in whatever form, is a mass killer and will kill and harm the health of additional people if powered by coal.

    Another issue is all the embodied energy and, therefore, pollution required to build the auto in the first place as opposed to the auto.

    The indidious thing about the EV is that it lets people pretend or believe erroneously that they are doing that much to help the environment or improve the health and well being of those who live in towns and cities.

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