Rhein on Energy and Climate

After GM, Nissan and Peugeot BMW has decided to enter manufacturing of electric cars. On November 5th 2010, it has inaugurated its new building site in Leipzig where it hopes to produce several ten thousand “Megacity” vehicles per year as of 2013-14.

Thanks to political and multi-billion Dollar financial support from governments across the world, especially China and the USA, the transition from the internal combustion engine to the electric motor is making astonishing headway.

There is a wide consensus in the industry that hybrid vehicles, for which Toyota has been the uncontested world leader, are no more than an interim phase of the technological development. The ultimate objective will be the electric motor. It is more energy efficient than even the most refined internal combustions engine. Automobile manufacturers are getting increasingly afraid of rising oil prices in the coming decades, as production costs will soar and oil deposits run dry.

There is no doubt that the 100 year-old automobile industry is a on the eve of revolutionary changes with profound implications for the suppliers of parts and components, like steel, gearboxes and, of course, the refining industry.

The arrival of the electric motor is to be applauded as an innovative alternative to the internal combustion engine. Without it Humanity would not be able to maintain present and future levels of mobility.

But whatever our basically positive assessment of the ongoing development we should not ignore three potential complications.

First, electric vehicles are not yet climate neutral.

As long as they do not draw the necessary electricity for battery-charging from nuclear, wind, hydro, solar or CCS generation they will emit C02, though lower quantities because of their superior fuel efficiency and the possibility of overnight battery- replenishing. In Europe, it may take until 2020 before two thirds and 2030 before 100 percent of electricity generated will be C02- free, though much of it through nuclear power plants.

Second, electric vehicles are no solution to the rising levels of congestion in Megacities.

Because of their limited battery capacity the first generations of electric vehicles will be essentially geared for distances up to 100 km, above all in metropolitan areas.

But as cities will grow in surface and height, individual transport will become slower and increasingly cumbersome. Efficient mass transit systems constitute the only rational answer to the mobility problems of the future. Making big cities, where two thirds of humanity will live in future, largely C02 emission-free by massive investments in trams, buses and subways as well as by incentives to switch to public transportation and the bicycle should therefore have preference over the drive for electric cars.

Third, electric motors need batteries that store the electricity tapped on the grid. Lithium-ion batteries are being hailed as the ideal solution for that purpose. They are frequently rechargeable and relatively light.

There is plenty of lithium available across the earth, especially in Latin America. But though only tiny quantities are needed in a battery, nobody is presently able to say if the estimated global reserves of 6 million tons of lithium will suffice as a sustainable basis for the annual production of some 100 million batteries, which the global automotive industry might require by 2050 for satisfying the future demand for electric vehicles.

But as it always has in its history Humanity will resort to those materials it can find today and use them until depletion in the hope of developing alternatives in due time.

The advance of the electric vehicle is likely to accelerate in the coming 20 years. Optimistic assessments are looking forward to one third of the global automobile production in 2020 being electric and other green (hybrid) vehicles.

Brussels 07.11.10 Eberhard Rhein

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