24 September 2010

The Hidden Cost Of Electric Cars

There are lots of good reasons to like electric cars.

Environmental Benefits Of Electric Cars

Electric cars generate no air pollution. They are quiet. They are mechanically much simpler than cars powered by internal combustion engines. Plugs to let them recharge off the power grid are far less noxious than gas stations.

The power that is fueling the electric grid that powers electric cars now comes to a great extent from environmentallly problematic coal, but is rapidly being produced in ways that are a lot more environmentally friendly. Colorado has mandated that a significant share of its electricity come from renewable sources and this week, California's air quality control board followed suit. Wind power has become economically feasible. The use of coal to generate electricity will be declining substantially in the United States over the next few decades. (Only a tiny fraction of all electricity is generated with oil outside Hawaii and Alaska.)

Strategic Benefits Of Electric Cars

There are also strategic reasons to like electric cars.

Electric cars leave us much less reliant on unreliable international trade partners, and the world's supply of oil is fixed and running low, so we can expect hikes in the price of the oil that is used to make gasoline and diesel fuel many years before supply shortages drive up the prices of any of the fuels used to make electricity, even if electric cars drive a surge in electricity demand.

Oil accounts for about half of all U.S. imports. This leaves the U.S. economy dependent upon oil prices that dependent upon policies of political unstable regimes (e.g. Middle Eastern monarchies and dicatorships, Nigeria, and Venezula) with a lot of other policies that the U.S. finds undesirable, while the fuels that power our electrical grid don't (the U.S. hit "peak oil" in the 1970s, although the world oil market has not yet reached this key threshold).

In contrast, about 99.6% of the natural gas used in the United States comes from North America (mostly Canada) and from Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean. Canada is unlikely to shut down natural gas pipelines to the United States as Russia threatened to (maybe it actually did) recently in a diplomatic conflict with Western Europe. Our coal, wind, hydroelectric and solar electricity is likewise produced without significant reliance on non-North American sources to operate. Russia provides about half of the uranium we import to fuel our nuclear reactors (mostly from dismantled nuclear weapons), but more reliable allies like Canada, Australia and Brazil are also important sources of fuel for nuclear power and we could restart the uranium mining industry in places like Colorado (or by dismantling our own nuclear weapons) if we needed to do so.

Environmental Concerns

So, what's not to like about electric cars?

One important environmental concerns associated with making electric cars and other key infrastructure elements of an electrically driven economy is that securing the rare earths that go into make magnets and other key parts used in windmills and electric cars (and key parts of military devices like tanks and guided missiles) is a pretty noxious process. As industry expert Tim Worstall explains:

There are any number of places around the world where I could scare up a few tens of thousands of tonnes of rare earth ores. Really, almost trivially simple.

However, separating them can take thousands (yes, really, thousands) of iterations of boiling them in hot acid. And when you're done you've still got the thorium almost always associated with them to dispose of. So, politicians will have to accept that if they want windmills and electric cars then they're going to have to allow people to play with boiling acids: and they're going to have to find a repository for all that thorium (for it is radioactive, if only mildly so).

There is, other than the boiling acids thing, a possibility that we'll go off and find another way of separating the rare earths. While there have been academic advances in this subject over the past 30 years there haven't been any practical ones, no attempts to apply them. Why bother when China is doing it all for us?

Rare earths and radioactive elements are natural bedfellows, it turns out.

[R]are earths almost always occur naturally in deposits mixed with radioactive thorium and uranium. Processing runs the risk of radiation leaks, — a small leak was one reason the last American mine was unable to renew its operating license and closed in 2002 — and disposing of the radioactive thorium is difficult and costly.

Of course, if you develop ways to use the thorium and uranium as materials for nuclear power generation, you kill two birds with one stone, turning noxious waste into another income stream of rare earth processing, in much the same way that one can recycle high level nuclear waste for use in a slightly different process of generating nuclear energy, as some countries like France, do.

India has a thorium fueled nuclear reactor, a nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania that used thorium was part of the power grid from 1957 to 1982, and several countries are considering new thorium reactors.

Strategic Concerns

An economy that needs rare earths to produce electric cars and renewable energy infrastructure for them also trades an intense, long term reliance on oil rich dicatorships for a reliance on Chinese sources, until alternative sources of rare earths can be developed. As the New York Times story linked above explains:

China mines 93 percent of the world’s rare earth minerals, and more than 99 percent of the world’s supply of some of the most prized rare earths, which sell for several hundred dollars a pound.

Developing a U.S. supply of rare earth minerals is a process that it is estimated would take about fifteen years and cost about $500 million.

Rare Earth Shortages Are Not Yet A Crisis

We haven't reached a crisis point yet, although Chinese threats to limit supplies of the materials to Japan in their recent dispute over a Japanese fisherman held in a dispute over which waters belong to each country have raised concerns. A rare earth mineral used to make guided missiles costs about $32 a pound. It takes about two pounds of rare earth minerals to make a Toyota Prius. The rare earths that go into making a single hyrbrid electric car cost on the order of $65.

By comparison, the platinum needed for catalytic converters on conventional automobiles costs considerably more than gold which was trading a $1,300 an ounce today, and is also found only in a few locations (the main one is South Africa with 80% of world output) in economically exploitable purities. A catalytic converter adds $100-$250 to the price of a car.

Even a fifteen fold increase in the price of rare earths caused by a need to resort to non-Chinese sources of rare earth metals would hardly make a dent in the total retail price of electric cars which are expected to cost something on the order of $30,000 to $45,000 for the lowest price early mass production models like the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt coming out in 2011.

Also, so far, we have encounted only the barest whiff of any Chinese interest in using its control of the market in rare earths with diplomatic gain. But, this is due in part to the fact that until recently, rare earths have not been a very strategically important commodity. If you aren't making electric cars, electricity generating windmills, or guided missiles, it isn't nearly so essential to have access to large volumes of rare earth minerals.

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