Clive Matthew-Wilson, famous for putting together the “Dog and Lemon Guide” to cars has done a detailed study  called “The Emperor’s New Car” on the sustainability and environmental friendliness of electric cars. The results are pretty shocking:

Despite their ‘green’ image, electric cars are often less efficient and more polluting than the petrol cars they replace, according to a major report…

Matthew-Wilson, who edits the car buyers’ Dog & Lemon Guide, says:

“The car industry is selling a false image of efficient, environmentally-friendly electric cars powered by ‘green’ energy. In reality, electric cars often aren’t very efficient and aren’t very green.”

The report was highly critical of the iconic Tesla electric sports car, which has become the international symbol of chic, environmentally-responsible motoring.

“The Tesla is actually not very efficient at all. Most of Tesla’s publicity focuses on the efficiency of its electric motor. What they don’t tell you is that its batteries are heavy, inefficient and that Teslas are frequently powered by electricity from highly polluting power stations.”

“Despite what most people believe, a high percentage of the world’s electricity is produced using dirty fuels like coal. This isn’t going to change anytime soon; in fact, the widespread introduction of electric cars will probably increase the world’s reliance on coal in order to keep up with the increased demand for electricity.”

“Claims that electric cars are ‘emissions-free’ are simply a lie; they merely transfer the pollution from the road to the power station. Not only will electric cars not reduce emissions, they may actually increase emissions, because burning coal to make electricity to power an electric car creates more pollution than if you simply powered the same vehicle using petrol.”

“Renewable energy sources may be growing fast, but they’re still a tiny percentage of the world’s electricity supply and they’ll stay that way for the foreseeable future, because renewable energy sources tend to be far more expensive than fossil fuels.”

The report compared the Tesla electric sports car to a petrol-powered Lotus Elise sports car. Because the Tesla is essentially an electric version of the Lotus Elise, it was possible to directly compare the electric and petrol versions of the same vehicle.

“In four of the five countries we surveyed, the Tesla electric car was less efficient and more polluting than its petrol sibling. Only in New Zealand – where the majority of electricity is produced by hydroelectric generation – was the Tesla ‘greener’ than the Elise. However, a New Zealand scientist recently predicted that if the New Zealand car fleet was replaced with electric cars, the country would probably need to build coal power stations to meet the increased demand.”

It certainly is true that New Zealand probably has more potential to gain environmental benefits from electric cars than most overseas countries, but as is hinted at above, in the past 10 years or so we have actually struggled to increase the amount of power generated through hydro and other renewable sources. In fact, the percentage of energy in New Zealand generated by renewables has dropped from around 90% back in the 1980s to less than 70% today I think. Putting a further load on the power grid, from electric cars, would most probably make it very difficult to meet that demand through renewable generation.

In a previous article on the matter, the Dog and Lemon Guide had this to say about electric cars:

It’s incredibly seductive to imagine that you can continue living the dream by switching from one fuel to another and then carrying on business as usual. The fantasy behind electric cars says that it’s going to be possible to continue the Western lifestyle of the twentieth century by changing the form of energy used to power it. That’s a bit like a fat person trying to lose weight by switch- ing from hamburgers to french fries. The basic problem is never addressed.

The argument should never be over electric cars versus petrol cars; it should be over the use of personal cars versus mass transport. Cars are the best form of transport for empty roads and the worst form for busy roads. The entire electric car movement is based around a 1950s American Dream of endless suburbs linked by endless motorways; in the Californian version, the vehicles are powered by electricity, but little else has changed. That’s an unsustainable way of running the planet. Period.

Now I’m not opposed to electric cars. Indeed, in the New Zealand situation if we are able to increase the amount of power we generate from hydro, wind, tides, geothermal and other non-polluting sources, then electric cars could be a very useful way to avoid the worst effects of peak oil, and a useful part of the solution to reduce our transport-sector CO2 emissions. My problem is that we seem to be putting all our eggs in this basket.

Spending $11 billion on motorways over the next decade when oil production is likely to peak within the next few years (if not already) is utter insanity unless you put all your eggs in the electric cars basket. I don’t think that’s a sensible approach, especially now that electric cars seem to be not quite the panacea previously thought.

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  1. Marty, yes that’s probably true. However, if you think about how a hydro station works, it doesn’t really matter when you drop the water to generate power – it’s still gone.

    The only real power stations that you can use more efficiently by switching their use to off-peak times are things like coal/gas/geothermal plants, and only one of those is non-polluting.

  2. Here is the executive summary which I thought sums up the for and against argument well:

    There are credible reasons for gradually converting the world’s car fleet from fossil-fuel-powered vehicles to electric vehicles, on the grounds of economic and environmental efficiency. These advantages can be summarised as:

    1. Electric cars improve the security of vehicle energy supply by avoiding liquid fuels that are often imported from hostile or politically volatile countries and are being discovered at a slower rate than they are being depleted.

    2. Electric cars offer much improved air quality in cities.

    3. Electric cars offer drastically reduced traffic noise.

    4. Electric cars offer less CO2 emissions if the electricity comes from nuclear, hydro, solar, wind or perhaps biomass.

    5. Electric cars are sometimes more efficient than petrol or diesel cars.

    However, these advantages appear to be equally balanced by the disadvantages:

    1. Globally, most electricity is produced using highly environmentally damaging sources, and much of it is produced from fossil fuels. There is unlikely to be a significant change in the way this majority of electricity is produced in the foreseeable future.

    2. Although there are alternative forms of electricity production that cause less harm to the environment than conventional forms, these forms are invariably far more expensive, and are therefore unlikely to be adopted en masse in the near future. Thus, the central premise behind the electric car movement – that electric cars will be powered primarily from ‘green’ sources – is essentially wishful thinking. The car driver generally has no control over how and where the electricity that powers his car is generated. Electric cars do not stop environmental damage: rather, they tend to merely move it out of sight, from the highways to the power plants.

    3. Cars – electric or otherwise – are most efficient when used for special trips on empty roads. However, most cars are used as a form of mass transport on congested roads, a task for which they are manifestly unsuited. Compared with efficient electric buses and trains, in most cases there is little economic or environmental justification for electric cars as a form of mass transportation.

    4. Most commentators agree that, regardless of what form the energy takes, there is currently a serious global shortage of accessible energy. The electric car scenario, as promoted in movies like ‘Who killed the electric car?’ is built upon the assumption of a vast resource of cheap, abundant, electrical energy, in precisely the same manner as the petrol car model is built on the assumption of a vast resource of cheap, abundant petroleum fuel. Both models erroneously assume that a ready supply of cheap, accessible energy will somehow be available to maintain the current Western lifestyle and the lifestyles of emerging nations, which are essentially copies of the Western way of life.

    5. While electric cars are sometimes (but not always) more efficient than their petroleum-powered rivals, this greater efficiency will not significantly ease the current global energy-environmental crisis. This is because the private car, regardless of how it’s powered, appears to be an intrinsic part of an unsustainable economic model. Improving efficiency, by itself, will not help in a society that is set up with an expectation of perpetual growth, because any efficiency improvements will inevitably be overtaken by this growth.

    6. The main driving force behind the current rush to produce electric cars is coming from both the motor industry and the electrical generation industry. As sales of conventional vehicles falter due to economic recession and tougher environmental standards, the car and power companies hope to gain government subsidies for electric vehicles in order to maintain sales volumes and to capitalise on these tougher environmental laws. Many governments have shown themselves to be more than willing to spend taxpayers’ money on what is essentially a bailout of ailing car companies, under the guise of environmental concern.

    7. Most electric vehicle advocates see these vehicles as part of a transition towards affordable, sustainable personal transport. However, there’s an inherent ‘Catch-22’ in this equation. Globally, and, in most cases, nationally, ‘green’ energy is such a minor proportion of total energy production, that electric vehicles will invariably be powered by unsustainable and heavily polluting fuels, thereby negating the basic premise behind these vehicles. This harsh reality is unlikely to change substantially for the foreseeable future. Conversely, if unsustainable fuels were eliminated from the generation equation, the price of energy would rise so dramatically as to make personal transport unaffordable for most people.

    8. While a shift to electric cars is perhaps inevitable, it does not currently appear to be either physically possible, nor desirable, to simply exchange a global fleet of oil-powered cars used as mass transport, for a global fleet of electric-powered cars used as mass transport.

    9. China is likely to be the main beneficiary of the electric car movement. Due to massive government investment, China is likely to be the first country to mass-produce electric cars at prices that are competitive with conventional petrol and diesel engines. However, these cars are likely to be produced using environmentally destructive materials and techniques, in factories that are powered by non-renewable and heavily polluting forms of energy.

  3. A couple of things to add to that:

    1) Electric cars are really expensive, and are likely to remain so for the next 10 or so years.
    2) The rare metals that go into their batteries are actually fairly rare, and could “peak” in the future the same way as oil.

  4. Batteries are expensive and use rare metals because they have had very little investment over the last 100 or so years compared to other things in our society. With a high level of investment in them it is not unreasonable to expect a vast improvement in capacity, reduction in cost and use of more environmentally friendly materials.

    I think that there are also some concepts that out there that utilise easily replaceable batteries, the idea being that when low on power you could pull into a service station and have the battery changed within a few mins. You would not own the battery and this system would allow for the batteries to be replaced with better versions when they come along

  5. I wouldn’t quite dismiss electric cars as bad on the grounds the electricity to power them comes from coal.

    This arguement has some validity if electric cars were used by the masses and people who don’t care much about the enviroment. However the people who use electric cars today are atypical people who are concerned about the enviroment and would be likely to buy their electricity from power companies like meridian energy that get their electricity from renewable resources.

    Elelctric cars can be good in countries like japan and France which get most electricity from nuclear and not coal power stations. Plus it helps delay peak oil.

    The real big downside is it wont stop congestion etc and all other negative effects of auto dependency.

  6. It actually takes less energy to dive an BMW Mini-E electric car 32 miles (ICE Mini gets 32 MPG) than it takes to produce one gallon of gasoline. The energy required to produce oil and refine one gallon of gasoline is about 12 kWh. The Mini E takes 7.1 kWh to go 32 miles (Mini E gets 4.5 miles per kWh). This means we save 4.9 kWh for every 32 miles driven in an EV.

    So we will use less electricity, not more, if we all drive EVs because of all the energy we save by not having to produce gasoline.

  7. Interesting reading and as in all complex issues, if you look hard enough you could justify almost any position.
    My preferred position is that it is far better to burn fuel far from where people lives than right where we’re walking. However, that is not saying that I prefer to burn … but if we have to, let’s not do it that close to people.
    On the bigger picture, fortunately in NZ we’ve started to think about those “unintended consequences” in the sense of if all the vehicle fleet would switch to electric … where the xxxx would we get that much energy from!
    The research project have worked for a couple of years mapping the energy “landscape” in order to make sensible planning scenarios for the introduction of new technologies.
    It is not finished and as the website shows they are only starting to output stuff but at least it is nice to know that there has been investments into these complex issues.

  8. One of the main things that is missing in this assessment is the massive advantages to the country as a whole and to each of us when there are a large number of electric cars on our road.
    Energy Storage!
    The problem with electricity is that it is difficult to store, most renewable power sources operate when they like rather than when we want then to work
    Wind, Solar, Tidal, Wave

    If a substantial amount of cars in New Zealand were electric there would be a huge amount of electrical energy storage that could be “rented” to the grid

    If your car had 100 Km (20Kwhours) range but you were only going to the shops tomorrow you could rent out that surplus capacity
    1 million cars with 20Kwhours capacity means 20 GigaWatts for an hour!

    This would mean that intermittent power sources could easily be integrated into the grid and the grid would become massively more robust

    The main transformer into Auckland goes BANG! Use the stored power until its fixed!

  9. In terms of Auckland Transport, EV’s are definitely a viable part of the solution, in-fact I would more tend to say vital part of the solution.

    Most of our power is coming from renewable resources, and we are leading development in this area (e.g tidal power), we should also note that when one source of power is not working another part of the grid would be able to pick up it’s slack.

    At the moment we haven’t fully harnessed the energy of the environment, so there is more development to be had.

    The fact is, it’s only part of the solution, we also need Public Transport systems to move the bulk of the nation, trains, trams and the likes will also be very important for the future. A mixture of Public and Private Vehicles will be needed and EV’s provides a range of possible energy sources, which to me is much more practical than relying on just one source as we have currently been doing, it’s important to learn from our mistakes.

  10. This article contains some breathtaking distortions. If you do the analysis fairly (e.g allow for the energy burned in tankering fuel around the country, and the fact that a high percentage of petrol driven miles are short journeys with a cold engine), then electric vehicles kick internal combustion engines into the weeds on fuel burn and emissions even with the nastiest coal fired infrastructure. Mike Boxwell’s book is good on this.

    Plus there are lots of other reasons to use EVs. Zero tailpipe emissions translates to less noise, less stress and less asthma in city centres.

  11. In response to the question about end of life for electric vehicles …

    The car won’t be any worse than existing cars. The complaints about batteries being expensive becomes an advantage at this point, they’ll still be worth enough for recyclers to want to buy them.

  12. @John Hardy, as I’ve said for a while, EVs are better than combustable liquid driven vehicles but if we think they are an economic and environmental panacea we are deluding ourselves…

  13. I understand that there are not enough materials to produce all the batteries that would be needed worldwide (and since we are in a global market, we can’t insulate ourselves from that fact, even if NZ was the first country that managed to get a high percentage of electric vehicles). Also, the mining to get them is very dirty.

    Now I don’t know whether these claims are true. But they are not the only issues, such as not fixing congestion, or road barrier effects, or parking spaces gobbling up our cities. So EV’s can never be the golden bullet that our government makes them out to be. Where is the bundle of other methods?

    Also, I don’t see them actually DOING something about EV’s anyway – where are the well-funded crash research programs? Where are the infrastructure plans that take extra electricity needs into account? Where are the design standards that will ensure interoperability, and the need for car manufacturers not to all go off into different directions and thus ensure that every vehicle is a niche product like right now? None of that seems to be happening, so I call it a bluff, to give them something to say in the face of criticism about spending 20+ billion or roads.

  14. Do these energy comparisons take into consideration that a modern thermal power station will be around 50% efficient, whereas a car engine is about 25%?
    (And can somebody provide more exact percentages?)

    So as far as I can see, even at worst (i.e. using no renewable power), an electric car starts off at double the efficiency of the petrol-powered one.

  15. I’ve just answered my own question. Clive Matthew-Wilson has all the figures in his study, comparisons of energy efficiency are around pages 50 – 60. He quite correctly differentiates between the figures publicised by the various industries and what is actually achieved in practice. (Turns out that your average thermal power station only does a little better than your average car. 50% efficiency is only possible by spending so much more money, that it such power stations have hardly ever been built.)
    It’s an impressive document. Take the time to download it and read it!

  16. You can ship (literally using ships) coal, or use trains, so no big hassle there.

    My nightmare is that we will get a peak fuel scenario, and some bright spark reminds us that you can turn coal into liquid fossil fuel! The result could be a crash program to do so in large quantities, giving us a continued combustion-fuel / car dependence scenario. Just now a little bit dirter yet on the environment, and more expensive.

  17. Everything I’ve read says that at current usage there is at least a few hundred years worth of coal left… Have you got a link Josh..?

  18. Page 28 of the excellent book “Resilient Cities”by Peter Newman and others says:

    “In addition, new evidence is suggesting that peak coal may be a factor by 2025 due to the same practical limits as has been seen for oil and natural gas.”

    Interestingly, just below that on the same page the book notes that Tokyo’s electric trains get 6,600 miles to the gallon.

  19. But WE, locally, have lots of coal left, and apparently easy to get at, internationally speaking. Wonder how the temptation to open the conservation estate will be when coal hits triple the current price?

    Also, Jarbury – when are you getting the first takedown notices by Auckland Transport for impersonating their official blog? 🙂

  20. I thought a lot of our coal was pretty low grade stuff spread throughout most of Southland.

    Max, heh – yeah that’ll be interesting. Maybe my hits will go up. If one googles “Auckland transport” I’m 4th after MAXX, Auckland City Council’s Transport page and ARTA’s site.

    Furthermore, judging by their proposed structure and the fact that Joyce will be appointing initial directors, this blog couldn’t possibly be impersonating the roads-fetishism they’re likely to have.

  21. Okay, I was just trying to sound like I know stuff about mining. For all I know, our easy coal seams could be played out. But I suspect not.

    As for your website impersonating Auckland Transport, you would first have to make it hidden and invitation-only, and then provide a ludicrous salary to all invited people no matter whether their posts are brilliant or stupid. Also, it would have to forbid all other blogs from discussing transport in an Auckland context, unless you specifically allowed them to do so. Oh, and the blog would self-delete all posts and comments after writing, to reduce bureaucracy.

  22. Another problem with electric cars is the environmental damage caused by the production and disposal of their batteries.

    This is where vehicles that can draw their current from the power supply in real-time, ie electric trains – have a massive advantage.

    Also buses with electric batteries like Auckland’s City Circuit and Christchurch’s Shuttle will have a similar advantage in that they will transport far more people per kilogram of lead or lithium used across the batteries’ lifetime than private vehicles.

    This comes back to the issue that a vehicle dedicated to the private transport of just a few people (or one person) is not sustainable, and I don’t believe it ever will be.

  23. Andrew, actually, individual vehicles could be made to be sustainable, and electric cars (but probably not linked to todays’s battery types) are a good start. Maybe we will be able to one day build “trolley-cars” which for most of the journey derive their energy from a grid (unlikely to be via an overhead wire).

    If you then coupled that to remote controlled cars (on the main highways) that collect themselves into “car-trains”, you would also much reduce the congestion effect, and thus the need for added highways. Add some more balanced land use planning, and you could have a system in which using a single-occupancy vehicle to drive to work could truly be sustainable. But our government isn’t interested in that (and to be fair, the vision I have just set out is some ways off, even for a government set on achieving it).

  24. I’m not saying we should pour billions into it (though it might be of more benefit in the long run than the billions we put into wider motorways).

    “That is what McShane goes on about all the time… Car trains…”

    Meaning you consider it nonsense, Jeremy? I can’t be fully certain what you mean. I think they are a promising idea (and would be independent of an electric “car grid” as I suggested above). I think the main reason they don’t exist yet is the liability / confidence issues. If your car is in a train which you aren’t driving, and there’s a crash, who is at fault? And will the likelihood of crashes initially rise, until the idea becomes a mature technology?

    But from sustainability aspects, it has a lot of interesting advantages. You reduce fuel consumption (and therefore pollution and a slight bit less noise too), you get higher road capacities (if the system works well, and is widespred enough of course) because you don’t need to keep long braking distances between each car, and you can read your newspaper while driving, or have a nap.

    Of course it takes a new generation of cars – as I said, it’s not an instant fix, or an excuse to do the wrong things right now.

  25. Max, I don’t mean to be pessimistic but even ‘platooning’ cars into a single long chain (without any stopping distance between them) would only achieve an increase in the lane capacity of a motorway from about 2,300 people an hour to about 4,600 an hour. You would still naturally have to fit all these cars along the on and off ramps and through surface streets at either end, so congestion would only be made worse. It would be a bit like wideing the southern motorway to eight lanes each way, but doing nothing else.
    It does nothing but reinforce the problem.

  26. “would be a bit like wideing the southern motorway to eight lanes each way”

    Except that it would NOT need to be widened. But I get your main point.

  27. @max, I don’t consider it nonsense I just feel we’ve been promised these advances for decades now and they never seem to come, whereas electified rail, BRT, cycling all work well and exist now…

  28. For me the biggest argument for electric light rail is a logistical one rather than an environmental one. Once a city reaches a certain population and commerce density it starts to drown in cars and it needs to move on to an effective, coordinated, and efficient public transport system. Auckland got there years ago but through successive local governments has failed to put in place a descent public transport system. The three year term has proven insufficient to put a solution in place before the next administration comes along and tips it on its head. I’ve heard it said that if London didn’t have the tube it wouldn’t work as a city. By the time you put in enough motorways and parking lots to cope with all the cars that would be needed it would be all paved over and there would be nowhere for the busnesses. As the city grows an effective public transport system becomes a necessity.

    I can’t really affect the Auckland public transport situation or its environmental impact but I can build an electric car and reduce my own footprint. Since I live in a small town on the outskirts of Auckland Public transport will always be thin to non-existent without the population density to support it. A person needs to concentrate on what they as an individual can do sometimes.

    Getting back to Clive Mathew-Wilson’s report, using the Tesla roadster as an argument against electric city commuter cars doesn’t sit well with me. The car just doesn’t fit the profile of a city commuter car. It’s a long range electric sports car and as such has a large and heavy battery to furnish it with the range and performance that a city commuter wouldn’t need. A genuine city commuter would have a much smaller battery and consequently be more efficient (it takes energy to move the weight). Tesla’s choice of battery chemistry was for its energy density to achieve their range ambitions. This choice consequently requires that the battery have an active cooling system which makes charging and discharging the battery less efficient. The Mitsubishi i-MiEV would have been a much more suitable candidate to make the argument but I doubt it would have yielded the results Clive wanted. I believe that the Tesla Roadster is about 42% heavier than the Elise where as the Mitsubishi i-MiEV is about 20% heavier than the i kei car it’s derived from (1080kg verses about 900kg). The electric version should be more aerodynamic due to its lack of cooling drag which should help offset the weight penalty. Don’t forget this is a first generation design and so is going to be overly conservative with large factors of safety built in and will consequently be sub-optimal. Subsequent generations will get lighter and more efficient. Electric cars aren’t as good as they are going to be yet but ICE vehicles have had countless years of refinement. This does make comparisons a bit skewed.

    One of the reasons people who want to bash electric cars link them to coal fired power stations is that coal contains about twice as much carbon per unit of energy contained in the fuel as say oil. It is also burnt in power stations with a current average efficiency of just 33%. New coal power stations aren’t much better than this and aren’t as good as they could be. Coal stations could reasonably be built with todays technology to achieve 55% efficiency. The consequence is that coal power stations pump out a lot more CO2 than any other type. It would probably require an act of government to force utilities companies to build the more efficient coal stations. With the advent of large natural gas liquefication plants making natural gas transportable in bulk and cheap we could see more new generation being natural gas instead of coal. This would destroy the link up and the argument.

    I would also like to say that if Clive points the coal powered finger at electric cars he must also in the interests of fairness also point the coal powered finger at his beloved electric light rail. While its true that the inefficiencies of the battery only apply to the electric car these same batteries also move the electric car load to off peak times reducing the stress on the grid and allow the car to take advantage of the spinning reserve capacity of off peak times.

    It’s a very broad assumption that electric cars are going to be used in the place of public transport. This will clearly be untrue in many instances. In my case it is entirely untrue.

    It is also a broad assumption that all new power generation will be coal fired and that electric cars will be adopted in sufficient number to require the construction of that new power generation capacity. The Labour government when they were in power had an undertaking that no new coal power generation would be built in NZ. Now we have a National government this has gone out the window. People could still see new coal power as a politically risky venture in NZ.

  29. @John, good post but one point: you don’t need density to provide good services… I’ve been reading Paul Mees book and he basically demonstrates that if you have a government owned, well planned service, you can provide good, cheap services to even rural areas and he gives real world examples in Switzerland and Norway…

  30. Thanks for your thoughtful comment John. I certainly think electric cars are a great step forwards, but what annoys me is people like Steven Joyce and David Bennett using electric cars as justification to build zillion dollar motorways everywhere in the face of approaching peak oil.

  31. I agree with you there John, when it comes to the merits of public transportation I try and avoid talk of electric cars, peak oil, electricity supply and the like, because I think the argument for public transport stands on it’s own regardless of these (albeit considerable) factors.

    Even if cars could be built to run on water and produce no emissions at all there would still be a logistical need for rail based transport.

  32. Very true Nick, while environmental issues, health, carbon pricing and peak oil are a big factor behind me using and promoting PT, I tend to avoid endlessly extoling these advantages and talk about the livability and business friendly nature of PT dominated cities and add the environmentalism as a positive side effect when talking to most people…

  33. Yes, it is true there is a cost of getting the electricity from the power plants to the electric cars….

    But the difference is that electricity can be made now (from burning coal or renewable resources), and oil takes 30 million years of geothermal pressure and influence to create.

    So the full life cycle cost is a non-argument, how much does 30 millions years of an unrepeatable process cost?


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