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The Electric Car Nightmare

Companies / US Auto's Sep 25, 2011 - 02:45 AM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleElectric car and low carbon energy boomers from Carlos Ghosn of Renault-Nissan and Dan Akerson of GM, to Sir Richard Branson, Al Gore, James Lovelock, Stewart Brand and a host of other promoters of the politically correct future never lose a chance preaching massive numbers of all electric cars in the national car fleets of every developed country by around 2020.

To be sure, what "massive" means is variable geometry - it could be just a few million cars, it might be more and they hope out loud, a lot more.

Ghosn says his firm will be able to crank out 1 million-a-year Leaf-type family electric saloons "by 2015", and much more after that. Other major car making chiefs like Akerson, and the chiefs of emerging giant automakers in China and India are less sure, or more cautious, but say they could easily match anything Renault-Nissan can do "within 10 or 15 years" if the market demand - and above all the government subsidies - are there.

Ghosn thinks out loud that French and other European governments will jumpstart the electric car flood by handing out subsidies of up to 7000 euro on each electric car. For 1 million-a-year that would be a cool 7 billion euro-a-year tinkling through Renault-Nissan cash registers, handed out by generous, but unfortunately stony broke European governments. Is that credible ? Is that sustainable ?

We also need to believe there will be magic scientific breakthroughs with electric car batteries, making them cheaper, easier and faster to charge, have longer life times, and not flake out after a few hundred recharges in fast charge mode, using high voltage and high amperage charging instead of regular home voltage plug-in charging at a mere 5 kW a time. We will hope, with the car industry, that rare earth element supply will keep up with mass production of electric cars (needing strange expensive metals like neodymium for electric motor magnets), noting that present world supply is at present about 95 percent sourced from China, which does not intend to raise production, but cut it.

We will suppose that battery swapping problems will be solved: each electric car in the hoped-for new and massive all electric car fleets of Europe, the US, Japan, China and India will need as many as 3 batteries, at around 12 000 euro each, to keep the cars running 24/7. Funky highway swap stations run by Better Place and other new entrant, nice business model players will look after this, we are told, backed by supposedly serious banks - seriously close to failure and needing new and massive bailouts of public cash again - like HSBC which arranged $ 350 million of loans for Better Place.

We are imagining all those problems were solved - and the electric power nightmare is now certain. If the electric car future happens - if the things are built and operated in the numbers that the boomers dream about in public - we are almost sure to get massive electric power system failures. Power down. Lights out. System breakdown.

Take the case of Europe. Say the boomers' dream came true in Europe, with its all-green low carbon energy quest written into the laws and regulations of all 27 member states since December 2008. This says at least 20 percent of all energy in Europe must be renewable by 2020, and also that energy demand per unit economic output will be cut by 20 percent: energy economy will be promoted by all means, including cuts in transport energy demand. In Europe's cities of  2020, the European Commission says, the public will love bicycles, electric trams, electric trains and gas powered buses - and will adore electric cars.

Road and land transport presently takes about 7.8 million barrels a day, or one-half of all oil consumed in Europe. Replacing even a tiny part of that with biofuels is such a no-no that the first target of replacing oil in transport, of 10 percent by 2020 (not even 20 percent, you note) was cut to 5.6 percent a few months after the December 2008 European low carbon quest was announced. This new modest 5.6 percent goal could itself be cut even further.

So the natural solution is: electric cars, recharged by windmills and solar power stations in those glitzy powerpoint shows on a host of European Union Web sites. Who cares if its not possible ?

By 2020, lets suppose a massive 8 percent of Europe's car fleet is "all electric". To be sure, that 8 percent doesnt seem massive to normal persons,but if we supposed the European car fleet didn't grow by one single unit from 2011, from today's count of about 210 million cars, that would make about 16 million all electrics needing very regular charging, on Europe's roads in the year 2020.

These 16 million all electric cars on Europe's roads would need about 5 kW when their batteries are recharged.

As we know already from user and driver studies for electric car owners they have a paranoid and constant fear of running out of juice. They compulsively recharge the battery whenever it shows even a slight fall of its charge. They like fast charge high power battery boosting (440 volt triphase current), when it is available - despite it being very bad for battery life. Supposedly, again according to Ghosn of Renault-Nissan, high power booster charging will be made available in "hundreds of cities", in France at some undefined date, hinting that generous green-minded president Sarkozy will look after the problem of who will pay for that.

So its Sunday evening in winter in Europe, in the year 2020. Everybody with an electric car is worrying about their Monday morning crawl-in to work on those 8-lane highways with thousands of other drivers making it to work, at an average 10 miles-per-hour in their non-electric cars able to hit 100 miles-per-hour. In those urban daily crawl-ins the recommended battery stretching maximum cruise speed of about 40 miles-per-hour for electric cars is not such problem - but the battery charging mania is.

Like we already know, electric cars are quiet, accelerate fast if the battery is charged, and as long as you dont run the heater and de-icer in winter or airconditioning in summer, the wipers, the headlamps, the in-car stereo, the GPS, telephone, computer and other power-consuming needs and gimmicks, you might get 100 miles with a fully charged battery, if you run economic for the last 30 or 40 miles of the charge, at a speed of 25 or 30 miles-per-hour. And that only costs about 35 000 euro for a Leaf !

Running real sweet and low, that is slow and economical in the daily crawl-in to work should not be a problem for proud owners of planet saving all electrics, but funny thing, Carlos Ghosn and Dan Akerson, and all the other boomers and promoters never say that. Our problem is that its Sunday night in winter, in Europe in 2020, and there are 16 million all electric cars out there to charge at 5 kW each.

Its cold, the wind is not blowing so you can forget about windmills (Europe proudly has about 45 percent of the world's entire windfarm capacity, as of early 2011), and its nighttime, so those expensive solar power plants are also off-line. We will however be generous, and imagine that only 80 percent of the European all electric car fleet is going to be on charge at those somber moments. Say 13 million plugged in and needing 5 kW for 5 hours, to charge their big, heavy, low power storage capacity (able to store about the energy equivalent of 1 US gallon of fuel), and very expensive batteries.

Down at Better Place and its highway battery swap station clones, imagine what they are doing on Sunday nights ? Charging batteries.

To be sure, the electric car boomers never get on to how we supply the power, but we will. Charging 13 million cars, some 80 percent of a massive 8 percent of Europe's car fleet number of today, will make it necessary to find 5 x 13 million kilowatts of additional power. That is 65 million kilowatts of power.

 In the electricity business they talk megawatts, so the need is 65 000 MW. One way to understand what that means: in Carlos Ghosn's soft touch France of Nicolar Sarkozy, its much vaunted nuclear power programme - supplying the most national nuclear electric power in the world - has a total of 58 nuclear reactors with a combined total capacity of around 63 600 MW. That is if all of them could run at full power simultaneously - which they can't.  It took France around 40 years to build up that 63 600 MW of nuclear capacity, we can add.

So one way we could or might charge up a lot less than 8 percent of the European car fleet would be to build 65 000 MW of new electric power capacity. Since that in fact is not going to be possible - electric car owners will need to be told to not use their electric cars and use one or other of their family fleet of good old thermal-type cars, or take a day off, use bicycles or buses, work at home, or give up working entirely - after all, they are saving the planet by preventing global warming catastrophe !

 Otherwise, it is easy to forecast what happens when around 13 million all electric cars plug-in simultaneously. We get total system overload, large area power cuts, and possible long term damage to overused power grids, transformer stations, and electrical equipment as power surges and collapses with the onslaught of demand.

What would it cost to charge the hoped for mass market electric car fleets of 2020 ?  This depends on how you do it. If we choose either offshore windfarms or nuclear power to do it, we have per-kilowatt capital costs of around 6000 euro in Europe. This is based on German, UK, Danish and other offshore windfarm construction and projects, and French EPR nuclear power plants being cumbersomely, slowly and expensively built at two-only locations in Europe (Finland, France).

Each electric car costing the state 7000 euro in government hand-outs, would therefore also need about 30000 euro of invstment in new wind or nuclear power plants to handle its 5 kW power demand (and 3 times more if its needs 15 kW high charge boosting). The time limit would also be problem, but because we are discussing pure fantasy schemes and childish daydreams that does not matter.

For amusement purposes, we could compare that 37000 euro total of subsidies-plus-power plant capacity needs, with the the lifetime average fuels costs of a normal thermal-type automobile - about 1600 litres of fuel, or 10 barrels, each year of its operating life. To be sure, $200-a-barrel oil, the favourite scary oil price forecast of Carlos Ghosn and Sir Richard Branson, would help make the electric car seem just a little less vanity tech.

If we are talking solar power plants, plus nighttime storage of electricity able to supply 65 000 MW on demand the costs are so far out - if it was technically possible - there is no need even imagining them. We end up with a simple readout: we would need coal or gas power plants, but again for amusement purposes, we can give a price tag for charging less than 8 percent of Europe's fantasy fleet of all electric cars in the year 2020 using "low carbon" nuclear or offshore wind power.

At 6000 euro per kilowatt, and 6 billion euro for 1000 MW of power generating capacity, we find that for 65 000 MW the spending need would be 378 billion euro. At a mere 1500 euro per kilowatt for coal fired plants with CCS, the price tag would only be around 95 billion euro - but who is going to pay ?

Welcome to the "all electric" car future - that will not happen. If it did, there would be a permanent threat of total breakdown for national, or even continental power grids in the European case.  Anybody who believes in that "ecological" future is just plain stupid or too lazy to work out a few simple numbers.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2011 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.

© 2005-2022 - The Market Oracle is a FREE Daily Financial Markets Analysis & Forecasting online publication.


25 Sep 11, 09:32
horse and buggy

Personally I wish for the return of the horse and buggy...I like the idea of riding my horse down to my girlfriends house. Or better yet riding together to our friends house for a home cooked meal. And then riding back in the rain for a quiet evening by the fire. Simple things.

But you are right...the electric car as it is today isn't going to happen. Battery technology isn't there yet. There has to be a radical new storage technology. There are some possible ones coming using static charge storage rather than chemical storage but years away still. And even then, as you say...where is the juice going to come from?

25 Sep 11, 21:58
The amount of kW needed is overestimated

The 5 kW needed per car to recharge the battery IS not mandatory for everyone. Car charger or car setting inside the car can (and will) be equipped with intelligent recharge management to take into account the price of the electricity in real time and the minimum amount of energy (in % of a fully charge battery) you will need for the next day.

So as the demand for electricity rise, the price for it will also go up and ONLY the people who will really need that much power (the full 5 kW) will use it, otherwise their electricity bill will be high. For example, some people will prefer to charge at 1 kW for the entire night because they only need, let say, 30% of a full battery the next morning. That is a case for a home battery charging scenario.

In the case that you switch your battery at a distributor: Then the battery that you will receive would have certainly be charged at the lowest possible cost for the kWh and also at the lowest possible power in kW (because battery life is extented in that case).

Sincerely, your analysis really OVERestimated the amount of power that will be needed.

Will Dron
26 Sep 11, 06:17
Power demand will be very low, precious metals can be recycled

It's very hard to understand this kind of negativity. Hopefully the information below will allow the author to calm down a bit.

Most energy suppliers in Europe will tell you (as they have told us at that the expected numbers of electric cars are likely to account for only a small portion of total electricity demand. Even by the most optimistic expectations of EV take-up, electricity demand will account for 0.3% of total consumption by 2020 (source: SMMT electric car guide/ EDF Energy). It's going to be pretty easy to manage - electric cars are not going to cause power outages.

Energy companies recognise that electric car owners charge at night (proven in studies and field trials), when energy demand is often lower than the minimum level of supply (power stations have to keep running at a certain level throughut the night, regardless of whether or not the power is needed - excess power is grounded). This means the impact of charing electric vehicles impact is even less significant.

Having said that, total electricity demand is set to double by 2050, so they're looking for ways to handle the drain.

Home solar PV will help reduce electrical demand on the grid. Our man Robert Llewellyn, who also drives a Nissan LEAF, has been using them and you can see how it's working out for him here:

Energy companies also talk about vehicle to grid (V2G), which will use electric cars' batteries as energy storage devices that can feed power back into the system at periods of peak demand. So, far from being a drain they could actually help balance the grid (see:

As for the precious metals, according to the SMMT guide, 0.3kg of lithium is required per KWh of storage, and that even with electric vehicles making up 60% of the total new car market (we could get there by 2030), reserves will last 1,000 years.

Most parts of a battery can also be recovered and recycled at the end of the car's life - lithium, copper, aluminium, steel, plastic, cobalt and lithium salts can all be recycled.

This is not pie-in-the-sky eco-rambling - it's information gleaned from energy experts. is a car site and not inclined to concentrate on environmental issues, but when I read blatantly biased and inaccurate articles like this it's important to inject some facts.

29 Sep 11, 00:39
Article misses several points

By the time large numbers of electric cars are on the roads

many people will not be driving to work anyway and public

transport will have increased.

There will simply be a much smaller number of cars in

existence no matter what energy source they use.

Those that need a car for work may well be driving electric

when petrol reaches $10 or L5 per litre.

29 Sep 11, 12:27

Most petrol and diesel is refined 'locally' and each gallon of either uses more electricity to make than a EV will go on the same amount of electrical power. Therefore on average the grid will have to supply less power if all vehicles were electric.


R. Lefew
30 Sep 11, 01:32
This article is misleading

The Sunday night drain your worried about is really nothing to worry about at all. Sunday nights just happen to be low energy demand air conditioning, office lighting, industrial production, businesses are closed, malls are closed. Sunday night would be the best time for all the e-cars to plug in. Day time, monday through friday is peak electrical usage time, and that's the time the e-cars won't be plugged in.

E-cars have few drawback, and you didn't list any of them.

02 Oct 11, 16:54
Into fossil fueled depletion...

To think these silly anti electric car people want to drive a stake in the heart of just about the only solution besides going backwards… the electric car and its would be obvious and positive end result… the robotic LiFePO4 (or better) battery factory (which would have mass produced the battery for like 1/10th its current price 24/7 by machines that work cheaper than slaves).

NOBODY can scientifically challenge the FACT that electric cars are superior.

Too late, now, all you dreamers out there, because those with the motives to plant the seeds of the (declining) past have won… and now we are doomed to THEIR self fulfilling prophecies into fossil fueled depletion… just as they apparently want to...

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