Navigant Research Blog

Criticism of EV Battery Environmental Impacts Misses the Point

— April 2, 2014

The environmental impact of electric vehicles (EVs) remains the subject of debate, with Tesla Motors becoming the latest scapegoat for allegedly contributing to acid rain in China.  Bloomberg News points out that EV batteries require the use of graphite, which is mostly mined and processed in China.  Graphite mining pollutes the air and water and harms agricultural crops.  The average electric car contains about 110 lbs of graphite, and Tesla’s proposed Gigafactory is expected to single-handedly double the demand for graphite in batteries.

While these are valid concerns, they ignore a few larger facts: the oil industry has far greater overall environmental impact; the production of electricity is much cleaner than refining and burning gasoline; and recycling and reuse techniques are revolutionizing the battery industry.  Tesla, meanwhile, has responded to the graphite concerns. The recent 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill reminds us of one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, in which 10.8 million gallons of crude oil was spilled into Prince William Sound, off the coast of Alaska.  Ironically, the congested Houston Ship Channel (one of the world’s busiest waterways) was partially closed over the Valdez anniversary because of a weekend oil spill of nearly 170,000 gallons of tar-like crude.

Compared to Gas

Overall, the equivalent lifecycle environmental impact of electricity is much less harmful than gasoline – assuming it isn’t entirely generated by coal.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a gallon of gasoline produces 8,887 grams (g) of carbon dioxide (CO2) when burned in a vehicle.  An equivalent 10 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity emits about 9,750g of CO2 when generated in a coal-fired power plant, 6,000g when generated in a natural gas plant, 900g from a hydroelectric plant, 550g from solar, and 150g each from wind and nuclear.  These figures include the entire lifecycle analysis, including mining, construction, transportation, and the burning of fuel.  Since 63% of the 2012 electricity mix in the United States was derived from non-coal energy sources, it has been estimated that EVs emit about half the amount of carbon pollution per mile as the average conventional vehicle.

At the same time, innovative recycling and reuse techniques are significantly increasing the sustainability of EV batteries.  In the United States and Europe, all automotive batteries are required by law to be recycled.  This has made the lead-acid battery industry one of the most sustainable industries in the world, with nearly 99% recycling rates of all the batteries’ components.  Additionally, the world’s first large-scale power storage system made from reused EV batteries was recently completed in Japan.

Second Lives for Batteries

While these approaches do not fully solve the problems associated with graphite mining, the environmental impact created by the manufacturing, transportation, and disposal of batteries is significantly lowered for each additional cycle a battery supplies.  If battery lifetimes can be doubled, the negative environmental impact is cut in half.  Navigant Research’s report, Second-Life Batteries: From PEVs to Stationary Applications, also points out that a global second-life battery market will create new businesses and jobs in addition to improving sustainability.  The global second-life battery business is expected to be worth near $100 million by 2020.

Even with the negative externalities associated with graphite production, EVs still offer an improved overall environmental picture than traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.  And Tesla, perhaps in response to pollution criticisms, has announced that it will source the raw materials for the proposed Gigafactory exclusively from North American supply chains. Producing graphite in North America is a much cleaner process than in China.

 

EVs at Home on the Texas Range

— March 21, 2014

Selling electric vehicles (EVs) in oil-rich Texas is comparable to Nixon going to China, and the effort thus far has had similarly unexpected but successful results.  Cars that do not use gas are proving surprisingly popular in the Lone Star State, and one of the main drivers for EVs has nothing to do with the cars themselves.

Navigant Research’s Electric Vehicle Geographic Forecasts report estimates that Texas has around 5,000 registered EVs currently and that this number will grow to nearly 100,000 by 2023.  While the well-to-do from Texas’ oil & gas industry can afford the higher price of an EV, the state’s utility structure is playing a major role in supporting EV sales.

As a deregulated state, Texas allows utilities to directly participate in EV charging, which provides a new revenue stream for power distribution companies that, in other states, are focused on reducing load through energy efficiency measures.  Because they can (and because it increases their profits), utilities NRG, Austin Energy, and CPS Energy have all begun installing EV charging stations across the state.  A visible, reliable network of charging stations is essential to increasing consumers’ confidence that they won’t have to worry about getting stranded with a dwindling battery while about town.

Among the Drillers

CPS Energy’s network of charging stations helps to prevent the state from running afoul of federal air quality laws.  NRG’s eVgo network has several subscription options to reduce the cost of home and public charging.  Nissan LEAF drivers in the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth areas also have access to free charging thanks to Nissan, which is subsidizing the NRG eVgo network in an attempt to bolster vehicle sales.   Another EV charging network growing in Texas is Tesla Motors’ SuperCharger network, which encircles the Dallas, Austin, and Houston areas.

Power providers in Texas are also interested in promoting EVs because the vehicles can help offset the variability of the vast wind resources being installed across the state, which will make it one of the largest producers in the world.  Texas’ grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, is working with the Southwest Research Institute to demonstrate using EVs to counterbalance wind energy production in the state.

Austin Energy has made the smart decision to use only renewable energy from wind and solar to power its charging stations.  This negates the argument that EVs merely transfer emissions from the tailpipe to the smokestack of a power plant.  The city of Austin now has nearly 1,000 EVs, according to the Austin American Statesman.

Texas is also under consideration as a location for Tesla Motors’ proposed Gigafactory, which could produce batteries for hundreds of thousands of EVs.  If that happens, we’ll see even more gasless cars roaming between the oil & gas wells in Texas.

 

Formula E Racing Will Showcase Wireless Charging

— November 26, 2013

Bikes_webQualcomm took the early lead in the wireless electric vehicle (EV) charging race, and starting in 2014, the company will test the limits of its wireless power transfer technology on the Formula E (electric) racing circuit.

San Diego-based Qualcomm, which is primarily known for developing wireless technology for mobile handsets, will take the technology the company has been developing for 2 years, including intellectual property (IP) acquired  from the University of Auckland to the streets of Rio de Janeiro, London, Berlin, and Beijing as part of the all-electric Fia Formula E racing series.  For the first year, electric safety vehicles will be charged by Qualcomm Halo’s 20 kW charging technology, and in future years, the race cars themselves will be charged wirelessly.

From Track to Street

During a panel discussion at the recent EVS27 conference in Barcelona, Qualcomm’s Anthony Thomson said that the company will install wireless chargers at the race locations and leave the charging equipment in place after the race concludes for use by other EVs.  The 10 driving teams (7 have been announced) participating in Formula E field two drivers per team, and each driver will have two cars – one for distance driving (with reduced power) and one for sprints – and they will manage their vehicle charging for optimal performance.

The Formula E races will be a high profile platform for showcasing the latest in EV technology, as the quiet vehicles open up new possibilities for communicating with the drivers.  The racing series does not restrict the technologies used in the electric motors or batteries, and racing teams will experiment with new technologies on the track before they are introduced to commercial vehicles.

Formula E will also highlight how much quieter EVs are than fossil fuel burning cars, as the series will include interaction where selected fans will be able to talk with the drivers during the race.  Drayson Racing, which will compete in the Formula E series, announced that it is licensing the Qualcomm Halo Wireless EV Charging technology from Qualcomm, which is focusing on licensing the technology rather than making final products for sale.

The New Standard

Qualcomm is now taking a victory lap after the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) selected the 85 kHz frequency used by the company’s wireless charging system as the basis for an upcoming wireless EV charging standard, to be known as J2954.  While other companies in the nascent industry are likely to reengineer their products to operate at that frequency, Qualcomm will not have to make adjustments.

Wireless vehicle charging is still in its early days, though bus companies in South Korea and some automakers have expressed interest in replacing cabled charging with the convenience of wireless charging.  While the industry is small today (just over $1 million annually), according to Navigant Research’s report Electric Vehicle Charging Equipment, by 2020, the global market for wireless charging equipment will surpass $420 million annually.

 

Don’t Get Too Fired Up Over Tesla Mishaps

— November 14, 2013

Despite being named 2012 Car of the Year by Automobile Magazine and Yahoo! Autos, and chosen as one of Time magazine’s best inventions of 2012, recent media headlines in 2013 haven’t been quite as kind to Tesla Motors’ Model S.  Over the past two months, three fires in Tesla’s vehicles have gained widespread attention.  The fires have significantly contributed to the 20% slide in Tesla’s stock price this month, although the stock is still up more than 300% since the beginning of 2013.

Pushing aside the media hysteria, let’s take a look at the facts.  On average, 17 automobile fires are reported every hour in the United States (194,000 on average every year between 2008 and 2010), killing an average of four people every week.  Of particular importance, mechanical or electrical failures or malfunctions were reported in roughly two-thirds of automobile fires.  As for the Tesla fires, all three involved car crashes; the fires did not begin spontaneously as the result of electrical failures or malfunctions, and in all three incidents the driver walked away without injury.

Technology Comparison

For a deeper comparison of electric and internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, it’s useful to analyze the safety of the vehicles more generally.  This can be achieved through analyzing vehicle fires and deaths per billion miles driven.  EVs are approaching 1 billion miles driven.  The Chevrolet Volt (300 million), Nissan LEAF (323 million), and Tesla Model S (100 million) represent the majority of these electric miles driven.

According to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, roughly 90 highway vehicle fires and 0.15 highway vehicle fire deaths occur in ICE vehicles per billion miles driven.  Conversely, EVs have had a total of four reported fires and zero fatalities for the first near one billion electric miles driven.  Thus, ICE vehicles are 22.5 times more likely to catch on fire than EVs.  It’s also important to keep in mind that EVs are the first models of their kind, essentially experimental vehicles, and have still been able to far surpass the safety record of ICE automobiles.

Non-Explosive

So why is there so much attention and scrutiny on Tesla? Considering the frequency of car fires, perhaps the fact that Tesla went so long without having any is the main reason for the Model S making headlines.  Consumers may also hold EVs to a higher safety standard than traditional vehicles, due to the absence of gasoline in EVs.  However, not all are expressing distrust or skepticism around the Tesla fires.  Panasonic, manufacturer of battery cells for the Tesla Model S, has recently come to the aid of the automaker, and the company’s chief financial officer expressed confidence in Tesla and the performance of its batteries.  Panasonic ranked as the fourth best overall lithium ion battery manufacturer in the world in Navigant Research’s Leaderboard Report: Lithium Ion Batteries for Electric Vehicles.

Regardless of the recent media concern over EV safety, one issue remains clear : if your car does go up in flames, having an electric battery under the hood is much safer than a tank of gas, any day of the week.

 

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