Is This the End of the All-Electric Vehicle?

Battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs, get a lot of credit for being "zero-emission" cars. However, that designation isn't entirely accurate. BEVs are only "zero-emission" if you disregard emissions from charging the battery and exclude manufacturing emissions. If you include those -- and you must, to factor in the overall climate impact -- BEVs, in large part, are worse for the climate than hybrids.

So what does that mean for the future of BEVs?

2011 F-CELL. Photo: media.mbusa.com. 

Science vs. what's popular
The push to find a "green car" is a worthy venture. Cars have a negative impact on the environment by producing a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Right now, BEVs are seen as the next big thing, and on the surface, they're great. They don't use gas, thereby reducing our dependence on foreign oil. They can be charged with green energy -- where available. And when they're running, they don't produce emissions like a vehicle with an internal-combustion engine.

Unfortunately, if you look at the lifecycle of a BEV, you'll find some concerning facts. First, it's true that BEVs are only as green as what charges the battery. But that's only part of the picture, as battery manufacturing produces a 10,000- to 40,000-pound carbon debt, which, according to Climate Central, can only be overcome by charging the car on green energy, and driving it for tens to hundreds of thousands of miles. 

Second, according to the National Academies of Science, lithium-ion batteries are "the battery of choice for electric vehicles for the foreseeable future" because of technological difficulties facing other types of batteries. That's a problem, because lithium is an alkali metal and isn't naturally occurring. Consequently, it has to be refined after being extracted through salar brines (the most common approach) and mined hard rock.

Furthermore, the European Commission on Science for Environmental Policy states: "Although there is no immediate shortage of lithium, its continued use needs to be monitored, especially as lithium mining's toxicity and location in places of natural beauty can cause significant environmental, health, and social impacts."

What's the alternative?
Two possible solutions are to shift the entire grid into running on only green energy, or to find an alternative to batteries. There's already a push to use more green energy, such as solar, wind, and hydro power, which will definitely help cut down on CO2 emissions. But even if the grid did go entirely "green," it still wouldn't get rid of the initial carbon debt from batteries -- and there's still the issue of lithium.

The second solution -- finding an alternative to batteries -- has a number of promising options. Recently, the University of Colorado at Boulder developed a way to split water into its hydrogen and oxygen components using sunlight. That development is a major breakthrough for hydrogen, as it makes the process of obtaining the element much more efficient.

Bring on the hydrogen
The Department of Energy has estimated that the lifecycle emissions of future hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, or FCVs, powered by natural gas will be less than those of hybrid electric vehicles, or HEVs. Climate Central estimates that an HEV's lifecycle emission is less than a BEV. As such, it stands to reason that an FCV powered by hydrogen that's obtained through sunlight will have fewer lifecycle emissions than BEVs. More good news? A number of car manufacturers are actively pursing hydrogen fuel cell technology.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL, has teamed up with Toyota Motor (NYSE: TM  ) to test the Highlander fuel cell hybrid. Toyota also teamed up with BMW and announced that they'll unveil a new hydrogen fuel-cell car at the Tokyo auto show in November -- and it'll go on sale in 2015 with a price of less than $70,000. Meanwhile, Daimler AG's (NASDAQOTH: DDAIF  ) Mercedes-Benz and Ford (NYSE: F  ) have teamed up for a "practical approach" to fuel cells, and General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) and Honda Motor (NYSE: HMC  ) -- which have the most patents for fuel cells -- are working together to jump-start the hydrogen infrastructure. According to CNN, "virtually every major carmaker is preparing to launch hydrogen-powered models in the next few years," which means FCV may be a viable alternative to batteries sooner than you think.

A number of issues remain to be overcome with hydrogen, some of which are the lack of infrastructure, and the fact that hydrogen cells use a platinum catalyst -- making the fuel cell extremely expensive. However, technological advancements are proving that hydrogen has strong potential for future use.

Liquid air
Another strong alternative to batteries is Dearman Engine's piston engine that runs on liquid air. As such, its manufacturing emissions are nowhere near as high as a battery's manufacturing emissions. Even better, Toby Peters, Dearman's CEO, believes the engine could be made of plastic or resin because of the properties of liquid air. 

With proper insulation, liquid air could use existing infrastructures for distribution, and it could be stored in non-pressurized insulated tanks. As a bonus, energy stored as liquid air would allow "wrong time" energy produced by wind farms and other alternative sources to be stored for later use, instead of being wasted, and according to Green Car Congress: "A cryogenic engine such as the Dearman piston engine produces zero emissions at the point of use, has low greenhouse gas emissions provided the liquid air or nitrogen is produced from low carbon electricity, has energy and power density on a level with battery electric technology, and has the potential for rapid refueling."  

There are drawbacks to liquid air engines, and one is efficiency -- liquid air is 60% efficient with ambient and 70% with waste heat. However, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. More pointedly, a proof-of-concept model has already been tested, and engineering company Ricardo, which built the McLaren racecar engine, has teamed up with Dearman and is building a commercial demonstration engine. 

The future of BEVs
Right now, BEVs are being touted as a "green car," and in relation to internal-combustion vehicles, they're a step in the right direction. But that doesn't mean they're the right step. Because of their battery, BEVs don't offer a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions -- which is a major point for "green" cars. So are BEVs doomed? Probably not. But it's unlikely they'll become the "green car of the future" without a significant improvement in battery manufacturing technology. Consequently, from an investing standpoint, there are better options for the green-car investor.

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Read/Post Comments (10) | Recommend This Article (8)

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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On August 24, 2013, at 11:37 AM, spawn44 wrote:

    Maybe we should just go back to the horse.

  • Report this Comment On August 24, 2013, at 11:53 AM, tgordi wrote:

    The article states 2 reasons for the BEVs not to be as green as perceived: Emissions from charging the battery and battery manufacturing emissions. I don't know much about the latter but the former is really not an issue. The Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-partisan group, has looked into it and found that even if you charge your BEV in a state with most of the energy generated through coal-burning power plants (the worse polluters), BEV are at least as good as a car getting around 35-40 mpg. Fortunately, most states do not fit in this category and have a mix of renewable energy or less polluting energy sources in place. That makes BEVs by far cleaner than the cleanest and most efficient hybrids. Other people have also found that many BEV owners (including myself) install solar panels, which makes the "fuel" totally green.

    When it comes to the second reason, if you take the manufacturing of the batteries into account, you should also take into account the emissions associated with extracting oil and all the accidents associated with it, transport of oil and all the accidents, and the refining emissions. Again, I don't know much about the emissions when producing Li but it sounds strange that it should be much more than the oil to gas production.

    Lastly, generating hydrogen for the FCV cars is certainly associated with a lot of pollution. Last I heard (and it may be old and incorrect) it took more energy to create H2 as fuel than you could get out of it. In other word, you would go more miles in a normal car if you used the same amount of fuel that is used to generate H2 for the FCV. The notion of using sunlight to generate the gas is interesting. It is, however, surprising that the author forgets to mention the use of sun to generate electricity and drive the BEVs.

    I am not against new techniques and imagining a day when you can drive your battery-less electric car but I expect articles of the kind above to provide a more complete picture of the issue.

  • Report this Comment On August 24, 2013, at 1:30 PM, fincrafter wrote:

    There are a lot of overlooked factors here:

    For one, Internal Combustion engines already have a battery. One containing quite a bit of lead, not only polluting but highly toxic to humans. They also contain Sulfuric acid, also toxic. Lithium is not nearly as toxic and it can be completely recycled. You also have the issue of anti freeze and the disposal therof, which is poisonous and pouting and Motor oil. Then there is the issue of drilling and transportation of petroleum. The amount of oil spilled in San Francisco bay in a year is said to equal the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez. Pipeline spills and drilling spills have been a natural disaster. It also assumes electricity produced from coal which is quickly becoming replaced by much cleaner natural gas and more and more green energy is coming on line. Alternative forms of petroleum such as tar sands and fracing are also problematic. Last but not least, the refining of petroleum is notoriously dirty as well. Electric cars are no silver bullet but they are a good alternative to providing a more flexible source of energy to the singular use of petroleum exclusively for transportation. Electricity can be produced from multiple sources and it is thereby a much more comprehensive energy alternative. It can be produced from many sources including some unconventional ones like geothermal, tides, wind, solar and yes, even garbage and tree trimmings. It also lends it's self to regional resources; sunny or windy climes or places where water flows for example so it can be produced locally and sustainability and does not need to be shipped half way around the world by giant tankers, trains and tank trucks, them selves consumers, polluters and potential spillers of the very product they transport.

  • Report this Comment On August 24, 2013, at 1:41 PM, sranger wrote:

    Another pointless "its powered by coal" article...

    1) They figure the energy of the battery from mining the raw material and processing them and transporting them. They NEVER figure in the energy to mine iron oar, or aluminum bauxite and the energy to refine and transport these metals to make the engine, cooling system, exhaust system and fule systems in the the ICE car. Obviously because in reality it is more or less a wash and would no longer support their pre-determined conclusions.

    2) They use the old study of Nickel Metal Hydride or Nicad batteries and not the Li batteries. Lithium IS NOT rare or toxic... So you know the rest of the info in these so called reports is suspect.

    3) They talk about rare earth magnets while ignoring that the newer cars like the leaf, Model S, Volt, BMW i3, use three phase AC motor that DO NOT USE these rare elements.

    4) It takes huge amounts of energy to refile oil into gasoline and diesel. (And it is getting worse as the quality of crude oil declines) Refineries are usually the second or third largest consumer of grid power in a state. They also burn huge amounts of fossil fuels (Usually coal) to produce the heat and steam used to refine crude oil. After working out all of the details, it takes about 6Kwhr of power (or equivalent carbon emissions) to refine one gallon of gas. That will drive most ICE cars 20-30 miles. The SAME amount of energy will drive an EV about 20-30 miles WITH NO FURTER POLLUTION.

    5) Using simple terms and common sense a gallon of gas has 33Kwhr of power in it. You need to add in the 6Kwhr of power used to refine it and you have 39Kwhr. An ICE goes 20-30 mile on this amount of energy. An electric goes 120-150 miles on the SAME amount of energy. Which one seems more likely to produce more pollution for a pure common sense point of view?

    6) Electric do not need oil changes. No energy is used to refine the motor oil or dela with it's disposal.

    Item 4 alone completely discredits these studies...

    This long tail pipe nonsense and is just stupid....

  • Report this Comment On August 24, 2013, at 2:28 PM, rcmansid wrote:

    The first Element created in the Big Bang after 300,000 years was Hydrogen the next Helium. The third Element was Lithium. If Lithium is so bad, why did God make it so important?

  • Report this Comment On August 24, 2013, at 2:40 PM, Diggitydog27 wrote:

    Sranger if you can't read. Don't comment. The Climate Central report released this Aug addresses li ion batteries AND lifecycle emissions for ever component of each type of vehicle. You're referencing a report from a year ago. The mining of li is toxic. This article advocates hydrogen fuel cells and liquid air, not gas. 'Nuff said.

  • Report this Comment On August 24, 2013, at 5:01 PM, FordRules wrote:

    All of the zealot "Teslaphiles" use a lot of bluster and name-calling to cover up the fact that the original EV, around for decades--the golf cart--moves at about jogging speed. So getting immersed in Teslaphile propaganda tells you more about their mentality than the concept of auto technology itself. You take a golf cart, make it as big as a car--all you've got is a very big golf cart with the same limitations the ordinary one has. Range, recharging (including infrastructure). This comment will draw responses from the Teslaphiles that amount to the hissy fits thrown by any religious fanatic; "There is only one God, the Tesla, and Elon Musk is its Prophet". Some "Teslascripture" compares the Tesla to works of art by Matisse and Gaugin when all ANY car has ever been is a machine that takes you from point A to point B. An appliance. We will never be able to explore ANY alternatives in motive power for humanity's conveyances until we can look at ALL advantages and ALL drawbacks without ANY of them being seen as heresy or thoughtcrime by "true believers" in a particular concept. The bona fide Luddite may impede technological progress, but the "militant dreamer" drags you down too many of the wrong paths.

  • Report this Comment On August 24, 2013, at 7:26 PM, spuhworm wrote:

    Hydrogenic distillation would be a good solution to the "green" question---in theory---if it could be done without using our normal process of utilizing carbon fuels to achieve it. Leave the carbon locked into Mother Earth's natural storehouses, and we can begin to reverse the greenhouse warming which oh, my goodness, the beer is starting to kick in...

  • Report this Comment On August 24, 2013, at 10:06 PM, ashaskevich wrote:

    The electric vehicle is not over. Go to http://enviasystems.com/ and look at the new battery technology that is coming out in the next few years.

    If GM, Ford, Chrysler, etc.. would put their heads out of their rears than they could make a good Battery Powered Vehicle. Problem with those companies, Unions are running them. Also they are all tied in with big oil. Sad fact but true. This is a poorly conceived article. Didn't really think through the facts.

  • Report this Comment On August 25, 2013, at 1:10 AM, CrazyDocAl wrote:

    The problem with all of these "stories" is that they assume that a break though in a lab is going to happen. Tesla assumes that there's going to be a better cheaper battery. The author assumes that using sunlight to split water in a lab is going to happen.

    I read a report about how the solar panel world was going to be turned on it's head. That a company in Mass was using a printer to print out solar panels for pennies a watt. In the real world most of these never make it and the ones that do take a very long time.

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