Working its way through the New York state assembly right now is Bill Number 4302, which requires “that one hundred percent of in-state sales of new passenger cars and trucks shall be zero-emissions by two-thousand thirty-five.” Sponsored by Democrat Steve Englebright, the legislation is New York’s answer to a nearly identical mandate stalking Californians through a recent executive order from their embattled governor, Gavin Newsom.
It would be easy enough to suggest these politicians are jumping onto a green bandwagon without fully understanding the consequences. But their actions are consistent with the goals of some of the most powerful companies on earth.
With a market value of more than $600 billion, newcomer and electric-vehicle pioneer Tesla is now well established. High-tech industry heavyweights including Apple and Sony are developing electric vehicles. Taiwan’s Foxconn is partnering with Fiat Chrysler to develop all-electric vehicles, and China’s search-engine giant Baidu is working with Volvo. And as for legacy automakers, General Motors, attempting to lead the way, has declared it will sell only electric vehicles by 2035.
If electric cars are the corporate choice, destined to be the only consumer option within barely more than 13 years, New York had better get ready. This is especially the case if, as appears likely, America’s corporate giants have decided not only to precipitously usher in an all-electric age, but to do so with only renewable energy.
But are politicians right to follow the lead of these corporate initiatives? Is this green symbiosis between corporations and politicians yielding policies that are in the best interests of New Yorkers? Will these policies help the environment, taking all impacts into account? Are they even possible?
A totally electrified transportation sector within a generation, while concurrently moving to completely renewable sources of electricity. Have Steve Englebright and his colleagues really thought this through? The first thing proponents of an electrified transportation sector should consider is what sort of energy options are available. Solar power, which Englebright has been pushing since the 1990s, is a good place to start. Solar power is not a good bet in New York. It never was. It never will be.
New York even at its southernmost extremity is north of the 40th parallel. This means that in winter, most New Yorkers get barely nine hours of daylight. Moreover, with an average of 121 days of year-round rain, even in the summer, sunlight is unreliable in the Empire State. Of course, there’s also wind energy. Will that be enough? How much electricity do New Yorkers consume, how do they currently generate it, and how much more would they have to generate if they were to truly enter the electric age?
Electrons vs. Combustibles—A New York Overview
According to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NSERDA), which offers historical data through 2017 on electric generation in New York, for the past few years total electricity consumption has been in slight decline across the state. The peak year was 2005, when New York’s consumers purchased 150 terawatt-hours of electricity. By 2017, presumably thanks to improved energy efficiency, that total dropped to 145 terawatt-hours. And of that total, a mere 2.8 terawatt-hours were for transportation.
Meanwhile, overall, the transportation sector is one of the biggest consumers of energy in New York state. Overall, per NSERDA, 32 percent of all energy consumed in New York is for transportation, and only two-tenths of one percent of the transportation sector is powered by electricity. Clearly, New York is going to need an awful lot more electricity if it intends to electrify its transportation sector.
To illustrate the complex process of getting from raw energy sources such as coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, wind and solar to actual electrons running appliances or furnaces heating homes, NSERDA has produced a chart that merits close study. Presumably, policymakers such as Englebright have taken a good hard look, and decided they understand the challenges.
While there is a lot to digest in this energy flowchart, it offers valuable insights without having to bedazzle the observer with numbers. The left side depicts raw energy inputs, and it is immediately obvious that solar and wind energy, occupying the bottom left corner of the graphic, contribute an insignificant share of the total. The dark blue box in the upper-middle of the chart depicts electricity, properly situated as neither a primary energy source nor as an end-user. Electricity must be generated using some raw fuel input. Wind only contributes a small fraction of energy for electricity.
Two other observations must be made from this flowchart. First, the transportation sector, represented by one of the light blue boxes on the center-right of the chart, is by far the largest single consumer of energy in New York. Second, and more subtle, is the grey shading on the right edge of the chart, showing how much energy input ended up as energy used versus energy lost. Everyone knows that energy is lost between the raw fuel input and the actual consumption in the form of traction, light, or heat, but the extent of this loss is significant. For every bit of energy embodied, for example, in a combustible fuel, as shown coming in on the left edge of the chart, about two-thirds of it is ultimately lost in transmission or dissipated heat, as shown on the upper-right edge of the chart.
Understanding this is key to understanding one of the biggest challenges facing electrification of transportation. The two biggest categories of energy loss are in generating electricity and in burning transportation fuel. While electric motors are far more efficient than gasoline engines, absent significantly more efficient means of generating electricity, the losses will just be transferred upstream, and electrifying New York’s transportation sector will not yield energy savings.
Electrifying Transportation Requires How Much More Electricity?
Diving into the numbers to answer this, New York’s transportation sector consumes an estimated 1.2 trillion basic thermal units, which equates to 352 terawatt-hours. But since the efficiency of charging and discharging an onboard battery and converting that electricity into traction is now being achieved at efficiencies approaching 90 percent, and if one assumes comprehensive grid balancing—which might be facilitated if New York’s entire vehicle fleet is electrified—replacing New York’s mostly combustion-powered engines with electric motors could produce the same amount of traction using only around 73 terawatt-hours. That’s still a tremendous amount of electricity.
The chart below, using information from the U.S. Department of Energy, depicts what fuel inputs are used to generate electricity in New York, as measured in terawatt-hours (column one). Shown in column two is terawatt-hours converted into gigawatt-years. This conversion allows a quick comparison of output capacity, also expressed in gigawatts (column three) to actual output per year. The actual output divided by the capacity is shown in column four. This yield shows what percent of each year these power generators, according to fuel input, are actually active.
With this in mind, note the last row of data in column one, which shows “electrifying transport” requiring 73 terawatt-hours per year. As shown in column two of the same row, 73 terawatt-hours equates to 8.3 gigawatt-years. If New York’s transportation sector goes electric, that’s how much continuous new electrical output would be required to keep all the new EV wheels turning.
What is immediately clear is that while 8.3 gigawatts of continuous output may not be much compared to New York’s 43.1 gigawatts of installed capacity, it is a great deal when compared to New York’s 15.1 gigawatt-years of actual output. The only source of electricity that shows a high yield—at 82 percent—is nuclear, because nuclear power plants run all the time. Natural gas plants have low yields because they are turned on and off to cover fluctuations in other sources of power or in consumer demand. Coal and petroleum generators have low yields because those plants are being phased out.
Evaluating which sources of fuel for power generation have high versus low yields lends additional insight into the challenge posed by renewables. For example, if, by 2035, the number of registered electric vehicles in New York rises from today’s 56,000 to several million—there are 11 million registered vehicles in New York State—generating the needed additional electricity could be possible simply by running natural gas peaking plants at full capacity. But that would accomplish nothing with respect to the ultimate reason for mandating electric vehicles, which is to reduce emissions.
The only way to reduce emissions is to replace fossil fuel power plants, which generate almost exactly half of the terawatt-hours consumed in New York, with the rest coming from nuclear, hydro-electric, and “other” which is solar and wind. Note the yield on solar and wind power. At 19 percent, this represents the amount of time the wind is actually blowing or the sun is actually shining. At such a low yield, consider what it would take in terms of installed capacity to replace the 65 terawatt-hours currently delivered by fossil fuel in New York, much less add another 73 terawatt-hours to electrify the transportation sector.
This is the reality that makes requiring all new cars to have zero emissions a daunting proposition. It is unlikely that hydropower solutions can be significantly expanded. Nuclear power, at least for now, remains a political impossibility. Solar power is barely viable during the New York winter. Just exactly how many wind farms are New Yorkers prepared to build? Because to get from here to there, wherever you see one wind turbine, imagine 50 more of them. That’s what it would take to eliminate fossil fuel, electrify transportation, and begin to cut back on nuclear power in New York State.
The Challenges Don’t End There
Some of the typical objections to electric transportation are being addressed. The ability to quickly charge an electric vehicle is clearly a major impediment to rapid adoption. How fast a battery recharges can be expressed in miles of range per minute of charging. Top-of-the-line cars, using an 800-volt fast charger, deliver much better results than affordable EVs using standard chargers. Porsche and Tesla have models that can charge at a rate of 15 miles per minute using a fast charger. A Nissan Leaf, on the other hand, charging at home, may store as little as five miles of range per hour.
It would be a mistake, however, to write off the potential for ongoing breakthroughs in charge time. Lucid Motors, a Silicon Valley startup, has announced its debut vehicle will be able to charge at a rate of 20 miles per minute. At that rate, EVs begin to approach refill times comparable to gasoline engines. Five minutes at the gas pump enables a 300-mile range; 15 minutes at a fast charger does the same. According to Business Insider, a Chinese company has just announced an EV battery that can be fully recharged in five minutes.
Another objection to EVs, possibly more problematic, has been the sourcing and disposal of their battery materials. The cost for the raw materials used in EV batteries, lithium and cobalt, has dropped in recent years. But when there are 250 million EVs plying the highways of America, replacing all gasoline-powered cars, with similar market upheaval all around the world, how will that affect the price of raw materials?
In China, as reported in February, the price of lithium surged by over 40 percent compared to the same month in 2020. This means the price of this battery metal has made up for ground lost during the pandemic and is now well ahead. Cobalt, also a critical battery metal, has also begun to recover after hitting a low in 2019. But short-term forecasts for this metal do not begin to account for what happens if demand skyrockets, which is going to happen if the number of battery-powered EVs worldwide, not quite 6 million today, swells to hundreds of millions within the next decade. What will the impact on prices for battery metals be if the demand increases by a factor of 20 times or more?
The uncertainty of raw material inputs for EVs is not merely a function of demand potentially outstripping supply, because that assumes a normal market. But battery metals are primarily sourced from nations that are either politically unstable or potential adversaries. The biggest source of cobalt in the world is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The largest owner of lithium mines and processors in the world is China. EV batteries, cheaper than ever butstill very expensive, are currently priced at rates that may reflect a historic low in the value of battery metals. Imagine the U.S. cost for batteries if there is escalating tension with China, and that nation still controls most of the world’s mining and battery manufacturing capacity.
Something insufficiently addressed by environmentalists keen on electric cars and renewable energy is the environmental cost of batteries. Like wind energy, which despoils landscapes and slaughters raptors, bats, and migrating insects, battery production is bad for the environment. Unlike wind energy, sourcing battery materials is also a human tragedy. Cobalt mines in West Africa are cesspools of environmental and human degradation.
A Financial Times analysis published in July 2019 found that 30 percent of all cobalt mined in the Congo was “artisanal” in origin. Translation: This ore is gathered by individual laborers, often children, always underpaid, working in appalling, hazardous conditions. According to the report, there are over 200,000 “informal” miners working in the Congo, with 72 percent of the world’s cobalt coming from that country. Like so-called blood diamonds, the world’s cobalt is washed in the blood of exploited miners, at the same time as the rivers and estuaries downstream from these mines are fouled by utterly unregulated toxic runoff. What’s going to happen when the world’s appetite for lithium and cobalt increases by two orders of magnitude?
In 2002, the environmentalist William McDonough published a book titled Cradle to Cradle. It has become a landmark reference that explores how human civilization can move to an economy that recycles literally everything, eliminating the concept of waste. This core value of environmentalism is another example of how EVs are not ready for the level of environmentalist enthusiasm they generate. It isn’t merely the destroyed land, fouled rivers, or abundant greenhouse gas that are all byproducts of mining and refining cobalt and lithium. It’s what to do with these materials once the battery is depleted.
If every new car will be an EV by 2035, then by about 2045, there will be roughly 15 million EV batteries per year that will be at the end of their useful lives. Entrepreneurs are racing to come up with ways to process the coming deluge. One strategy, which merely postpones the reckoning, is to use these batteries for stationary storage. No longer retaining enough charge to merit being dead weight on a vehicle, they’ll enjoy a second life connected to the grid. This buys another 10 years, but doesn’t solve the problem. It does call attention to the other elephant in the room, however, which is the plan afoot to replace natural gas peaking plants and absorb surplus renewable energy with giant battery farms. These batteries as well will have limited useful lives and will require recycling.
While it’s a mistake to bet against emerging technologies that may enable total battery recycling, it’s also presumptuous to mandate 100 percent EV sales by 2035 without having a clear picture of how that is going to be accomplished. Conventional technologies only recover about 60 percent of the materials inside an EV battery. A new process being developed by Volkswagen can recover up to 95 percent of the materials in an EV battery pack, but it is labor and energy intensive and is still being tested.
Promising, cost-effective ways to recycle EV batteries may exist, but at present, less than five percent of EV batteries are recycled. Ironically, if battery manufacturers succeed in developing a battery that does not require cobalt, there will be almost no economic incentive to recycle EV batteries since its most valuable element is no longer present. It is a safe bet that EV batteries will eventually be cradle-to-cradle products, subject to advanced recycling processes, with the cost added to the price of the vehicle.
The Consumer Cost and the Opportunity Cost
As it is, EVs are coming down in price, but still cost far more than conventional gasoline-powered cars. A report from the NRDC, an organization that undoubtedly advocates for more EVs, stated “the average sticker price on an electric car is $19,000 higher than an average gasoline-powered vehicle.” Depending on how much electricity costs, EV owners get some of this back in fuel savings, but not nearly enough to offset the higher purchase price. There is evidence that EVs incur lower maintenance costs as well, although an estimate from AAA only puts the savings at $330 per year.
What consumers will ultimately pay to drive EVs will have to take into account the cost—either factored into the purchase price or socialized through higher taxes—to build out a network of public charging stations and recycle the batteries.
Equally significant, the consumer will confront the possibility of much higher costs for electricity. In New York, as previously noted, electrifying the transportation sector will require annual output to increase from 132 trillion terawatt-hours to 205 terawatt-hours. This 55 percent jump will be necessary even if there is no reduction in power generation from fossil fuel, which currently supplies half of New York’s electricity.
Should New York’s legislature continue to display the same enthusiasm for solar and wind energy as it does for EVs, and the same antipathy for nuclear and natural gas energy as it does for gasoline-powered cars, the price of electricity for the average consumer is going to soar. New York’s legislators, starting with Steve Englebright, need to confront these challenges before accepting the momentum of the green movement, the other blue states, and the big automakers.
If New York is going to help blaze the trail into the electric age, how are policymakers going to rely on solar power when there is no viable solar energy during their northern winters? Do they intend to eliminate nuclear power or develop more nuclear power? Will they resist pressure from environmentalists to demolish hydroelectric dams? Will they tolerate natural gas power plants? Do they actually think wind energy can be the state’s primary source of electricity? And if so, what are they smoking?
Before mandating that all new cars sold have to be EVs by 2035, legislators in New York, as in all blue states, have to come to terms with the energy realities that inform any serious attempt to convert their economy to run on mostly electricity. They have to make hard decisions involving controversial compromises, or the policies they inflict on their constituents will result in punitive, needlessly costly electricity, impoverishing millions of households.
For example, as the percentage of EVs grows, gas tax revenues will decline. But rather than imposing a vehicle-miles-traveled tax on all cars and trucks, limit that new tax to EVs, since only EVs avoid paying the gas tax.
Similarly, New York state legislators should envision a New York electricity grid where wind energy provides all the additional energy required by EVs, while also covering the deficits caused by retiring natural gas power plants. They should research and disclose exactly how many battery farms and wind farms would be required to make this work, where they would be located, and how much that would impact electricity prices.
New York’s legislators also need to recognize that the sources of materials for EV batteries remain problematic, fraught with labor and environmental abuse, and vulnerable to unstable political conditions. Perhaps they should evaluate what it would take to bring more lithium mining and processing onto U.S. soil. They need to accept that the bugs haven’t been worked out of the battery-recycling processes and refrain from glibly assuming everything will take care of itself.
And if New York’s legislators refuse to renounce the optimism that might inform their blithe promotion of EVs at any cost, they might apply that same optimism towards other possible solutions, and make sure their edicts don’t preclude or defer the near-future realization of better-faster-cheaper innovations that none of us can presently imagine.
What if a breakthrough in direct synthesis enables production of vehicle fuel directly from carbon dioxide, rendering combustion engines clean and carbon neutral? What if onboard storage of hydrogen gas becomes cost-effective, and new technologies render combustion engines powered by hydrogen gas better and cheaper solutions than using hydrogen fuel cells to power electric motors? What if natural gas-powered engines operating as range extenders—sort of like a next-generation Chevy Volt—put new versions of near-zero-emission vehicles on the road, allowing drivers to choose their fuel depending on price and duty cycle? What if—gasp!—there is a credible fracture in the alleged scientific consensus on the dangers of anthropogenic CO2 emissions?
The pages of history are littered with examples of governments that tried to roll out a solution that felt like a compelling moral choice at the time, yet turned out to be foolish and wasteful in retrospect. If EVs are compelling choices for economic reasons, then let them compete against gasoline vehicles without mandates. If and when nuclear fusion becomes a commercial reality, or, for that matter, when satellite solar power stations begin to rain terawatts onto grid-connected receiving stations down here on earth, the electric age will be upon us. By then, whether stored via hydrogen electrolysis or charged batteries, EVs can own the roads. Until then, proceed with caution.