Will large electric vehicles cook the planet?

In an op-ed published on Australian website businessinsider.com.au, Ross Blade makes an effort to tell us how large electric vehicles will cook the planet, while small electric vehicles won’t.  Ross Blade, for those who don’t know, is the Chief Executive of Australian based companies Blade Energy Solutions and Blade Electric Vehicles, meaning he runs a company which designs and manufactures electric vehicles.  Meaning, his opinion is worth paying attention to, but in this case I’m wondering what he’s smoking.Blade’s op-ed piece is in response to an article in The Australian Financial Review titled “Era of cheap energy needn’t be over”, that itself is a response to Australian Resources Minister Martin Ferguson who claimed that “the era of cheap energy is over”.   In other words, Blade is inserting his opinion into the ongoing debate between two views on the energy supply debate.

Some claim we can continue using as much energy as we want to for as long as we want to because there is a limitless supply of oil or coal or natural gas.  However a rational look at the facts says this is a fallacy.  We’re on a planet of a limited size and the fossil oil, fossil coal, and fossil natural gas resources are not only limited but extraction and use of those resources are actively harming the climate and environment.

As Blade points out “we” (humanity) has, in just a hundred years or so, released over half the CO2 which “nature” (the planet) had sequestered over the years.  This has resulted in a drastic increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations which environmentalists say will cause (is causing) tremendous problems in the climate.

Blade goes on to describe Moran’s position as we should “continuing with business as usual by burning the equivalent amount in coal – this despite the fact that coal has only half the energy of oil and releases twice the CO2.” Oil supplies are beginning to peak, meaning that oil companies will be unable to continue meeting the increasing demand for oil, except at the cost of extreme measures such as strip-mining tar sands deposits and ever-deeper-ever-more-dangerous off-shore drilling.

Many are saying we can keep up the game of modern society by tapping into coal or natural gas reserves, and perhaps converting them into liquid fuels because that’s what’s needed to run the vehicles we’re accustomed to driving.  Blade suggests “the headlong rush to extract coal seam gas marks the tipping point where we can no longer extract enough oil to meet our voracious demand for energy,” and I completely agree.  He also says “Renewables are in no position to fill the energy gap,” and I rather think this is something he is wrong about.  However he is also the CEO of an Energy products company and has a better view on this than I do.

The quandary is – how does humanity continue having a transportation system of the sort we currently enjoy.  Oil supplies are peaking, and the replacement fuels aren’t terribly practical.  The tar sands and offshore drilling are immensely expensive, and using biofuels (ethanol or biodiesel) will require huge tracts of lands to grow the crops to turn into fuel.  Electric vehicles don’t require liquid fuels and I’m sure that Ross Blade would love (as would I) to see a tremendous uptick in electric vehicle usage.

Blade points to a project recently done in Australia he describes as:  just up the road from General Motors Holden, a group of parts makers led by Better Place and Futuris have built a Holden Commodore EV at their own expense – with some money from the government – to prove to GMH and the government that it can be done cost-effectively”
He cites figures that a vehicle the size of the Commodore EV would require 32 kilowatt-hours to go 100 kilometers, saying that it is a tremendous amount of energy, or “more than twice what the smaller Mitsubishi iMiev or Blade Electron require to travel the same distance”.  Because it uses more energy than a smaller EV, that means the Commodore EV would be responsible for causing more coal to be burned than would a smaller EV.

He goes on to say “era of cheap energy is over and it is time, as a society, to cut back our energy consumption,” meaning that “we” can no longer afford to have large vehicles.  I don’t know what the Holden Commodore is, but say its one of the typical SUV’s we see so frequently on the road.  It is true that a larger vehicle requires more energy to move than a small vehicle and that’s one reason that small cars are more fuel efficient than big ones.

His argument is playing right into the hands of those who warn about environmentalists who insist the only way forward is by suffering in cold unlit houses and making our own yogurt because the miracle of modern society is doomed to failure.  That is, he’s an environmentalist and green tech entrepreneur who’s saying explicitly that we cannot afford to have large electric vehicles.

His argument also plays into the hands of those who tarnish electric vehicles with the image that they’re really coal fired because electricity most often comes from coal fired power plants.

The place where I started veering off from his story, when he said renewable energy resources won’t be enough, is telling.  Because he contends that renewable energy resources won’t be enough, it means that in the mind of Ross Blade electricity will continue coming primarily from sources like coal, natural gas or uranium.  None of which are clean nor renewable.  This means that Ross Blade contends that in the due course of time we simply will be unable to continue the game of modern society at all because eventually coal and natural gas and uranium will all reach a peak supply point, that is if we don’t cook the climate first with all the added CO2 into the atmosphere or that the uranium power plants don’t first poison everything.

I do agree completely with him that all of us must look at reducing energy consumption, and to do so through higher efficiency.  But I’m puzzled by his idea that “small electric cars” will be able to survive as a technology while “large electric cars” will not.  The difference between the two in energy cost isn’t all that great.  Where a drastic energy gain can be made is a large scale adoption of electric cargo bicycles, because you’re talking an order of magnitude of improved energy efficiency.  Where an electric car might get 110 miles/gallon equivalent energy efficiency, an electric bicycle can get 1500 miles/gallon equivalent efficiency.

Why large EVs may cook the planet


About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.
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