Piercing the Electric Car Fantasy

Electric cars are having a big moment right now, with the supercilious wonderboy of the Biden administration Pete Buttigieg proclaiming last week that we could escape the pain at the gas pump if more people could “access” electric cars (EVs). Very telling that he chose to say “access” rather than “afford” electric cars, because without the $7,500 tax credit, very few middle-class people can afford to buy an electric car. And very few middle-class people do: the lion’s share of “clean energy” subsidies are captured by high-income households.

But press beyond the typical economic illiteracy of leftists like Buttigieg who think having the government pay billions in subsidies makes something “cheaper,” and note that electrons aren’t printed out of thin air by the Federal Reserve like our fast-depreciating currency. With electricity rates rising fastest in those places that have overemphasized “renewable” energy such as California or Germany, it's not clear that consumers will save much by driving a more expensive electric car and paying higher utility rates. And that’s if you can still fill it up with electrons whenever you want to. During recent power crunches, which are threatening to become endemic in the U.S. under the current policies of the Biden apparatchiks, grid operators have asked EV owners not to charge their vehicles in the evening, when power demand is highest and the time of day when most working people will want to charge their cars.

The truth hurts.

Right now, electric vehicles make up about 1 percent of America’s car fleet. If they pose challenges for the electric grid already, what will the challenges look like if the EV fleet reaches 50 percent of the auto fleet as Biden proposes? No wonder Elon Musk says we’ll need to expand electric power generation by 30 percent or more to meet the demand of a larger EV fleet on the road. And yet it is supremely uncouth to point out that electrons for EV batteries are generated mostly from fossil fuels right now, and thus EVs may not deliver a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions when a proper life-cycle analysis is done.

Economist Mark Perry notes that nearly two-thirds of current U.S. electricity is generated by coal and natural gas, and the figure rises to 86 percent if you include nuclear power, which environmentalists irrationally hate and are trying to eliminate. When you raise this problem, you are met with a hail of green indignation about how we’re starting on an “incredible transition” to a carbon-free energy future (a phrase Biden and energy secretary Jennifer Granholm have both used repeatedly with the unsettling grin of the chiliastic fanatic). “EVs are just an early step toward the carbon-free nirvana, which is just a few hundred thousand more windmills and square miles of solar power away!”

A recent little-noticed report from Volvo punctures this green myth, even though the very green Volvovians try very hard to obscure this conclusion. The report notes what a number of neutral analysts have pointed out for some time now: EVs are more material-intensive than old-fashioned gasoline-powered cars, requiring more steel, aluminum, copper, and other rare earth minerals and specialty products like magnets that must be mined (which environmentalists oppose) and require an energy-intensive process to manufacture into shiny EVs. And that’s before you get to the huge quantity of lithium needed for the batteries.

Where "clean energy" comes from: lithium mining in Zimbabwe.

Thus it is eye-popping when Volvo admits that the carbon footprint for the manufacturing of its C40 Recharge electric car is 70 percent higher than its comparable internal combustion version of the car (the XC40). But not to worry, says Volvo: you’ll make up the higher manufacturing emissions when you drive the emission-free EV far enough.

How far? Kudos to Volvo for calculating that: at the world’s average electricity sourcing today, a C40 driver would need to drive his car 68,000 miles to reach a break-even carbon footprint with a gasoline-powered model. The average American drives about 14,000 miles a year, and thus would need to drive his Volvo EV almost five years before reaching a lower carbon footprint. What if we had a grid that was 100 percent wind- or solar-powered? Volvo calculates that an EV driver would still need to drive 30,000 miles before reaching a carbon-footprint breakeven point with a gasoline car.

It is all a ruse anyway. If electric vehicles drop in price and effectiveness, which may be possible with enough brute-force engineering, you can expect environmentalists to turn against them, by noting the huge environmental footprint to make them and the human-rights problems of child labor in Africa mining all the cobalt EVs need. They did it before with natural gas, which environmentalists embraced back in the aughts (2000-2010) as a “bridge fuel” when they thought they could bash coal with gas, and turned on a dime when natural gas became cheap and plentiful. They’ll do the same with electric cars someday.

Destroying the Environment to Save It?

The American Left is beginning to wake up to a fact that regular Pipeline readers have known for years, namely that environmentalism isn't all that great for the environment. That was my takeaway from this NBC News article entitled, "How the rise of electric cars endangers the ‘last frontier’ of the Philippines." The piece looks at the effects of a rapidly expanding nickel mine in the rainforests of the Philippines, and the damage it's doing to the local environment and way of life of natives:

[Jeminda] Bartolome, 56, lives in one of the most biodiverse places on earth, a stunning island that draws legions of tourists to its crystal blue waters and pristine nature reserves. But these days, her livelihood, and the ancient rainforest system it depends on, are increasingly under threat. A nickel mine stretching nearly 4 square miles scars the forest above Bartolome’s farmland. The mine, Rio Tuba, plays a vital role in satisfying the global demand for a mineral more coveted than ever due in part to the explosion of the electric car industry.

The raw nickel dug out of the ground here ends up in the lithium batteries of plug-in vehicles manufactured by Tesla, Toyota and other automakers... With the demand for nickel skyrocketing, the Rio Tuba mine is now on the brink of expanding deeper into the rainforest, adding almost 10 square miles to its current footprint. Local environmentalists fear that it will wipe out the forest’s fragile ecosystem and increase toxic runoff into the rivers that flow past the farmland down below, jeopardizing the crops.

The Bartolome family's story is heartrending, and the discussion of the chemicals leeching into local waterways is worse still. Testing has shown that levels of the compound hexavalent chromium now exceed W.H.O. recommendations in local drinking water, and 85 percent of  households report "an uptick in coughs and other respiratory issues" -- a common side effect of hexavalent chromium ingestion --"as well as skin lesions."

But what about hexavalent chromium ingestion?

Still, the overall tone of the article is strange. The authors have apparently never considered the potential for environmentalism -- in this case the money, political pressure, and propaganda campaign all put at the service of the Electric Vehicles industry -- to harm rather than save the environment. They clearly assume that their environmentally conscious readers will be similarly surprised.

And they do their best to make the case for the mine, giving rise to some interesting overlap with common defenses of the oil and gas industry. Their mention, for instance, of the local tribal leaders who support the mine's expansion and the economic opportunities it will engender remind us of the members of Canada's Wet’suwet’en nation who objected to environmental activists attempting to shut down the Coastal GasLink pipeline on their behalf for similar reasons.

And they quote a spokesman for the Rio Tuba mine who disputed the studies related to chemicals in the drinking water, while also contending that the mine's unavoidable environmental impact was at the service of technological innovation, and that all "human development has been a series of trade-offs." It is worth noting that, had similar words been uttered by a natural gas spokesman, he would have been mercilessly vilified for the remainder of the article.

These gestures to the mine's defenders amplify the air of desperation in the closing paragraphs of the article, as the authors struggle to justify the destruction they're reporting on. They seem to settle on an unsatisfying and contradictory one offered by Natural Resources professor Gillian Galford, who says “There's no one technology that's going to solve our climate crisis. We have to deploy as many options as we feasibly can," including replacing traditional cars with E.V.s and "conserving our forests," which absorb and store carbon. No word from the professor about what to do in this case, when those two "options" are in conflict.

Science in search of options.

Still, the authors can't help but give the final word to Jeminda Bartolome, "rice farmer and mother of six," who struggles to understand "why companies that make products used by wealthy people thousands of miles away must source materials from her backyard." It's a good question, and one that should trouble the affluent, overwhelmingly white clientele of electric vehicle manufacturers. "Our luxury goods are destroying the environment and a way of life," they might be forced to say to themselves. "Maybe we're the bad guys?"

Unfortunately for Mrs. Bartolome it's more likely that any pang of conscience felt by the Electric-Limousine Lefties who encounter these inconvenient facts will will have evaporated by the time they're ready to buy their next Tesla. Out of sight, out of mind I guess.

Electric Vehicle Fires: Nearly Impossible to Extinguish

Here's something you won't hear much about in the mainstream media -- America's firefighters are struggle to develop procedures for dealing with electric vehicles that have crashed and burst into flame. "The problem," explains Jazz Shaw, "is that despite not having a tank full of gasoline, electric cars burn longer and more fiercely than automobiles with internal combustion engines." Why is that?

Damaged banks of lithium-ion batteries contain a lot of residual energy and can keep driving up the temperature (and reigniting everything around them) for many hours. There is currently no official training for how to deal with these fires. Tesla’s own first responder’s guide only advises firefighters to “use lots of water.”

"Lots" seems like an understatement. Shaw reports that back in April it took eight fireman seven hours to get a burning Tesla under control outside of Houston, and they used roughly 28,000 gallons of water to do it, "more than the [entire] department normally uses in an entire month." And that bit about EV batteries "reigniting" is no joke either -- one veteran fireman likened them to a trick birthday candle, the kind that light up again every time they're extinguished.

So, EVs burn like crazy, they require a massive increase in mining for raw materials like lithium and cobalt which are extremely damaging to a variety of ecosystems, and, since they run on electricity which is mostly generated by fossil fuels, they aren't meaningfully reducing carbon emissions anyway.

Why are nations across the world moving towards mandating them again?