A(nother) Rant About America’s Blossoming Love for Battery Powered Vehicles

In November last year we published Tesla Gas Mileage & The Philanthropic Rush to Ruin. The rant tried to explain how the all-or-nothing approach to ditching gas-powered cars for battery electric vehicles was a mistake. Citing research from environmentalists, we highlighted the potential economic, social and environmental crisis from lithium.

Subscribers recently sent us articles from The Guardian and The Atlantic published in January of this year.[i],[ii]

While taking different approaches, both explain that battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are failing to deliver the promised environmental benefits. We quote from the Guardian:

The US’s transition to electric vehicles could require three times as much lithium as is currently produced for the entire global market, causing needless water shortages, Indigenous land grabs, and ecosystem destruction inside and outside its borders….the transition to lithium battery-powered electric vehicles by 2050 will deepen global environmental and social inequalities linked to mining – and may even jeopardize the 1.5C global heating target.

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The world is waking up to the epic negative externalities of BEVs due to the obscene mining requirements. Will that mean more pragmatic policies going forward? We doubt it.

In the meantime, let’s move towards another cost of BEVs that few seem to talk about. To help us on this journey, I ask that you watch this superb video on how Mercedes built the world’s most efficient car.

As the video explains, they doubled the per kWh efficiency compared to other BEVs by pressing the very limits of what is mechanically achievable in something that looks like a car.


Source: Engineering Explained, h/t Brad Munchen

The video is a healthy reminder that BEVs cannot revoke physics. This is not some green-bashing video. Quite the contrary. With the basics of battery efficiency, weight and drag in mind, we turn to the article in The Atlantic:

The Tesla Plaid Model S can reach 60 mph in 1.99 seconds, a new record for production cars and far faster than even luxury gas-powered sports cars…[and]…superfast acceleration compromises the efficiency of an electric battery…Because they do not produce tailpipe emissions, electric cars are less polluting than otherwise identical gas-powered electric models. But EVs still create emissions in other ways, notably from the electricity required to build them and charge their batteries. (emphasis ours)

Let’s dig a little deeper, keeping in mind what we learned from the video on the Mercedes.

The Model S battery, which looks ok in comparison to Mercedes’ new battery, may be achieving those numbers due to a controversial chemistry and discharge limit.[iii] This configuration may shorten battery life and make them prone to thermal runaway (fire). The configuration is not one other automakers have been willing to use.[iv]

Towards the end of the video they compare the efficiency of ICE vs. BEV drivetrains. They state that the best ICE motors are 35% efficient vs. BEVs in the 90s. The comparison makes ICE motors look catastrophically inefficient.

Yet this is an imperfect comparison for precisely the reasons noted by The Atlantic. It fails to account for the efficiency loss of electricity creation, transmission and charging.

According to the EIA, 60% of the energy used to make electricity is lost at the point of generation.[v]

So a BEV is down to 40% efficient the moment electricity is created by the power-plant. But it gets worse….

More than 60 percent of energy generation is lost in conversion 1

Once again, using the EIA’s own estimates, we lose 5% of the electricity getting it from the power-plant to your home.[vi] By the time it gets to the charger in a BEV owner’s home, we are rapidly approaching the 35% efficiency of an ICE motor….but it gets worse….

How much electricity is lost in electricitySource: EIA

The electricity that comes out of your house is alternating current. To charge a battery we must switch this into direct current which requires an inverter. When you flip the current in the inverter and charge the battery it creates heat. The energy losses are myriad.

First there is drain in the power cable. Then there is loss in the inverter. Then more loss in the battery as its temperature soars from charging. Then even more power is lost keeping the battery cool to prevent fires.

To avoid the appearance of bias, let’s use data from pro-BEV sites Tesla Motors Club, Green Car Congress, Inside EVs and go-e to see how much electricity is lost at the point of charging. All of them explain that losses are between 10% – 25%.

go e Green Car Congress

Reading the articles you will also note that, understandably, the faster you charge the hotter things get, the more power you lose and the more quickly you erode the battery’s life. So the race to install super-chargers, which will require epic amounts of mining, another topic we discussed in our piece The Role of Critical Minerals in the Clean Energy Transitions, is quite literally a race to waste more power.

Even worse, this paper from Stanford, published in Nature Energy, explains that the propensity of BEV owners to charge at night is putting the whole grid in jeopardy. As the researchers explain, if left unchecked this behavior will require California “….to build more generators – likely powered by natural gas.”

That would seem to contradict what environmentalists hope to achieve. The Stanford paper continues to advocate for the “decarbonization of transport.” While it does offer solutions, like the IEA’s research, they require behavioral changes that have proven elusive to date.

Watching the video you might have felt like it was a brief refresher on physics 101. You’ve only got so many levers to pull: weight, drag, drivetrain efficiency etc. And we are pretty close to optimal on all of them with that Mercedes prototype.

For context, a Tesla Model S weighs 90% as much as my 2014 Toyota Tundra. The difference? My Tundra pulls a 10k pound trailer. For further context, the Tesla Model S weighs 10% more than a 2022 Chevrolet Silverado LTD pickup truck.[vii]

That’s a tough business making sedans that weigh more than a pickup truck “green.”

In some countries where 100% of the power is geothermal, BEVs might make sense. In many countries they make sense only for a sliver of people with access to electricity that is primarily derived from nuclear or renewables. This is particularly true if consumer behavior remains unchanged.

For those who don’t believe me, I encourage you to read the IEA’s papers on Net Zero and Mining. There are few more aggressive advocates for Net Zero than the IEA. For environmental die-hards, the lowest-impact and easiest solution seems clear:

Move to a densely populated urban area, walk everywhere and stop flying on planes.

For the rest of the world, as the Stanford research shows, even asking for something simple, like shifting the hours when BEV owners charge their vehicles, is proving difficult. Changing human behavior is hard. Selling sports cars with $7,500 subsidies is easy.

Our research on Net Zero Emissions by 2050 highlighted how that work had been dumbed down to a point that policies often misrepresented the researchers’ actual conclusions. Similarly, our work on the associated Mining Investment Boom began with a simple empirical primer explaining the fallacy of the current shift to BEVs being the optimal path to CO2 reduction.

Simplistically I think we can boil this down to three major problems:

  1. The financial policies supporting BEV adoption are based on the politically palatable presentation of a simple solution to a complex problem that ignores the fact that…
  2. …changes in human behavior dwarf any possible benefits from driving BEVs and
  3. The dogma at the extremes of the debate around possible solutions to climate change have made intellectually honest dialogue impossible for those of us in the middle

It has been and continues to be my personal belief that the polarization of Americans around extreme ideologies is not reflective of the typical American. Electric cars seem to bring out the worst in us simply because they often tangle good intentions with taxpayer subsidies for technologies that struggle to survive real-world scrutiny.

Watching environmentalists fight the building and expansion of the very mines that are needed to underwrite this battery boom hopefully inspires those who believe BEVs are an environmental panacea dig a little deeper. No pun intended….

Tribe Environmentalists Challange Lithium Mine

Source: VOA News [viii]

Personal Notes:

I’m someone who believes that climate change could create problems for civilization. The majority of my family’s miles-driven occur on a hybrid. That vehicle improves our realized MPG by roughly 30% vs. other comparable vehicles.

Hardly an improvement, right? Well maybe not. We did not need a government subsidy to buy the car – it just made sense financially. Hybrids also do not require a vast expansion of the electric grid. They also avoid the epic mining required by a shift to pure BEVs.

Let’s dig deeper.

America consumes roughly 21 million barrels of oil a day with 9.1 million of those barrels used to power motor vehicles.[ix] If everyone in America switched to a hybrid vehicle that cut their fuel consumption by 30% we’d cut our oil consumption by 2.7 million barrels a day. For context that would be like if all of Brazil, a country with over 200 million people, suddenly vanished.[x]

Perfection? No. Cheap and achievable progress? Yes.

At the same time, I respect those who are climate change skeptics or believe climate change is beyond our control. Watching environmentalists embrace a single technology as some sort of cure-all has been disappointing.

By pursuing such dogmatic policies and attacking companies like Toyota because they have yet to go “all-in” on BEVs due to the overwhelming evidence it is a mistake, has been incredibly off putting. To my “deep-green” friends (and they are friends) I ask you to reconsider.

Do you really think the research we highlighted at the start of our piece The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions is wrong? That work showed that, per unit of battery minerals, the world could achieve 20x the CO2 reduction of a pure BEV by building hybrids. Effectively a scalable and economical middle-ground. (Longtime readers may recall that PHEVs may be even better.)

As noted earlier, a Tesla Model S Plaid hits 60 mph in 1.9 seconds. A Porsche 911 takes 2.8 seconds. The Tesla weighs in at nearly 2.5 tons, a staggering 35% more than the 911.[xi],[xii] Despite being far-lighter than the Tesla, the Porsche takes 40% longer to hit 60 mph.

Can you not see your high-school physics teacher frown at you for thinking that’s good for the environment?

Look, if you like electric cars because they offer the torque handling an ICE motor can’t match, that’s honest. I debated buying a Ford F-150 Lightning but had no illusions that it would somehow be an environmental improvement over my Tundra. I was interested because the electric F-150 would be loads more fun to drive. There is just no denying they are both heavy overpowered vehicles if used as daily drivers.

It is worth noting that if Toyota pulls off mass production of solid state in 2025 as expected we will see a 2x – 5x increase in power to weight ratios. Even better, this will eliminate the cobalt requirement in those batteries. So, we should have a major breakthrough in efficiency soon.

In the meantime….hopefully we can be a bit kinder and open-minded with one another!

  1. As a reminder for our Financial Advisors: our models are available on a continuous basis, and most have been in production for over a decade.  If you are looking for simple, concentrated, low turnover, and tax efficient model portfolios we would like to talk with you.  KCR also offers a wide range of easy-to-use but sophisticated tools.  Our toolkits can help identify mispriced stocks with the best and worst risk/reward characteristics, estimate a stock’s duration and warn you when a company is engaging in low-quality accounting. Over the last 12 years, KCR has built and offers time-tested and class-leading products built by experienced and proven money managers for fixed to low prices.
  2. Kailash Capital’s sister company, L2 Asset Management, runs market neutral, long/short, large-cap, and mid-cap long-only portfolios with a value and quality bias.  L2 employs a highly disciplined investment process characterized by moderate concentration, low turnover, high tax efficiency, and low fees. While nobody can predict the future, we believe the recent resurgence in risk-adjusted returns seen across all products is the beginning of what may be a long period where speculation is punished, and prudence and patience rewarded.


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March 30, 2023 |

Categories: Rants & Raves

March 30, 2023

Categories: Rants & Raves

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