Top Scientist Slams Electric Vehicles, But Misses the Mark

A top U.K. scientist says the rush to get electric cars on the road is "dangerous." The scientist, Dr. Richard Pike, is head of the Royal Chemistry Society—an important position with a direct line to the media. He says that all of the supposed benefits of electric vehicles are nothing but myths.

We beg to differ.

Electric CarDr. Pike is mostly stirred up about the political fuss over electric vehicles, and the roughly £250 million of government funds intended to aid the tech in the U.K. That represents a third of the national budget for the science and engineering research council. In Pike's eyes, the money would be better spent on general science.

In a piece Pike wrote for Research Fortnight he says: "The myths of the electric car centre on its energy efficiency, reduced carbon emissions and low operating costs...Unfortunately, none of these are true."

Energy Efficiency. Pike says that government assertions about electric cars being three to four times more efficient than conventional cars are exaggerated, because the figures don't take into account distribution efficiencies. These vehicle efficiency figures are in kWh/km—simply how much energy (electric, or fuel chemistry) the car needs to propel it one kilometer. Pike points out only 36% of the available energy from a power station's fuel goes into electricity sent down the lines—the rest is lost during production, so in the big picture, EVs aren't all that efficient.

He's right, as far as that goes. But it's hard to push power station efficiency higher, due to engineering problems, costs, and hard laws of physics (thermodynamics of heat engines). And Pike's wrong on two counts: Traditionally-fueled cars, and even next-gen fuel cell cars, rely on a fuel station network, with tanker fleets propelling fuel around the country. That's an additional energy waste that should go into the calculation, along with issues like fuel spills, the cost of fuel-based fires, energy required to make the fuel, and too many gas-guzzling muscle cars.

Pike also plays down the fact that energy in power stations can also come from alternative sources, such as hydroelectric, where worrying about efficiency in power stations is a fairly invalid argument.

Reduced Carbon Emissions. According to Pike the cars wouldn't play a big role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Presumably his argument is that more electric cars would place a burden on power providers, who'll burn more fuel to generate more electricity to keep the vehicles rolling.

And that's true, in a 100% fossil fuel nation. But coal- and oil-fired power stations aren't the future. More and more interest is being focused on alternative power, with wind, wave, solar, biomass and hydroelectric options on the table as carbon-neutral energy sources. Even nuclear power is a good option here, because despite its PR problems, it's a surprisingly clean industry. And we dream about getting a working fusion reactor, and then everything will be electric-powered.

Lower Cost. Pike also says electric vehicles aren't cheaper to run. Well, in a price per-kWh-per-kilometer sense they are currently cheaper than normal vehicles. That's due to high oil prices and massive government taxation on the conventional fuel side, versus low electricity costs and government subsidies on the EV side. But this point Pike does have right: In the long term, as fewer and fewer gasoline-powered vehicles are on the road, the government will see its tax revenues decline and, like a vampire seeking its next vein, it'll most likely look to tax electricity.

Mainly Dr. Pike's argument is off-key in spirit—the electric car debate is all about the future, since the conventionally-fueled car is doomed for environmental and oil-shortage reasons. By highlighting the supposed problems of EVs Pike is detracting from the main point: We should stop using petrol, and coal and oil in power stations, and get EV cars on the road as soon as possible.

[via RegHardware] Image: Reuters

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  • JJ

    You're wrong. We should get electric cars on the road as fast as possible AFTER we have the energy production and distribution issues sorted, not before.

    Buying an electric car when 90% of your energy comes from burning coal, oil and gas is just a massive waste of time. Anything you save in fuel, you immediately lose again in the manufacturing of your batteries, motors and lightweight body, because all of those manufacturing processes are also driven by burning coal, oil and gas.

    All you're doing by putting them on the road too early is making people think they've made a difference to the environment when they really haven't.

  • dearwebby

    FIRST we need cheap and abundant electricity.
    If you get rid of the hysterical opposition to nuclear power and allow cheap and abundant electricity everywhere, then electrical vehicles make sense, regardless of how efficient or inefficient they are. A Ferrari owner does not care about fuel efficiency, and there will be the equivalent with electric cars. And there will also be fuel misers.

    However, all of that is just wishful thinking until we have cheap and abundant electricity. At current costs it is much cheaper to drive a gas guzzling Ferrari to work, than the most efficient electric car.

    FIRST we need cheap and abundant electricity. Period.

    Have FUN!

  • guest

    One other thing that isnt noted. What about the social/political costs of gas powered transportation. There are some massive costs involved with the drilling and transport of gas and where the gas comes from. Electric cars can be run on us/uk/where ever sourced resources where gas comes from only certain few locations.

  • Guest

    Hydroelectric is tapped out and has it's own environmental drawbacks, which include affects on wildlife which are certainly ignored in various studies.

    The author wants to point out that shipping and transportation of fossil fuels adds to the environmental burden, but it's not as if shipping and transportation are going to go away.  They will just shift to transporting these resources to power plants.

    All of the alternative sources the author points out have very serious environmental drawbacks as well which he fails to mention.  Things such a strip mining for rare earth minerals.  Fossil Fuel emissions from the creation of the products.  The heavy uses of plastics which are not biodegradable. The toxic chemicals used to fabricate materials.

    The real solution Is convincing people to drive less, no matter the vehicle type.

  • Nareion

     While I think the author does stir from the vain of the article in the end, you fail to see the idea being him pointing out the transportation: if you account transportation for one, you have to account transportation for BOTH, else you are biasing. I think making the trip from the plant to the recharge station but the fuel magically appearing in the gas station does feel like bias.

    Thing is, where DO we stop going down the production line? Generation plants need fuel, be it oil, coal, uranium or whatever. And refining the oil for gas? Getting it out the earth? Or excavating radioactive material and enhancing it?

    Same thing goes for mining for rare earth and battery materials. You have lots of mining and chemistry made for making a gas car too.

    The most hard part of statistics is to avoid bias in the measures. The most hard part as an unbiased critic and reader is to spot where a fault may be and if it can be overlooked.

  • christianhgross

    I am an engineer, and have said for quite a while that electrical cars are crap! Let me rephrase this, crap with current technologies. The efficiencies are not there, and will not be there for quite a while. BTW the Swiss have already come to this conclusion a while ago:

    But hey this is about green, hype and trendiness, not facts and figures, or math and science.

    The real problem is what the expert Pike has said, not what you are trying to say. Let me illustrate. You wrote that petrol has energy efficiencies losses. Well, not so quick. What you are not understanding is the scientific principle of energy densities:

    Take a look at energy density of petrol, and compare that to a battery. What it means is that if you are able to harness energy with a certain efficiency then it is more effective. So say you have an efficiency of 35% for petrol, which is not wrong, then you have an energy density of 16.1, whereas with 95% efficiency of a battery you have an energy density of 1.6, or 10x less. Thus your "waste" of trucks running around delivering petrol is moot since for every car I can have 10 tanker trucks.

    Next: Nuclear a good option? Really, seen what it has done to Japan? Nuclear is a very efficient energy production. The problem is that we can't control it well, and when it goes crazy we have real issues. And to say that you can't make fossil fuels clean is wrong. What about bio-fuel? Fuel created from trees, etc? Yes the growing mechanisms need research, but once that is ironed out there are no more problems because we have created a closed loop. To put it in context. Those fossil fuels we are burning were once trees and plants. That means that carbon was already in the air.

    Once we have fusion, and once we have real batteries or a means to store energy efficiently I will become the biggest supporter of electrical vehicles. But we are nowhere there, and it bothers me to no end that many of those people who argue about climate change and its problems are the first ones to jump into a "clean" electrical car. That is the biggest hypocrisy!

  • Scott03060

    "it's hard to push power station efficiency higher"

    No it's not. With cogeneration power generation can achieve almost 80% efficiency. If the heat created during electricity generation is used and not wasted efficiency is much higher.

  • John Eadie

    Absolutely.  Why do we have brainwaves like Dr. Richard Pike be allowed to talk whatever??  We need to move off fossil fuels which are making me avoid the sun for the first time in my life, like, *yesterday*.  Who is making these false leads pop up?  WHY?  We need concerted action on climate change.  Mr. Obama, who has a chance to do something about it, and has the script but doesn't have the balls to do anything, it seems, is unfortunate.  We need action *SERIOUSLY*.  Starting *somewhere*.  Not it would appear, from out of the UK or USA.  Chief villains.

  • Guest

    First off, panicking causes you to shut your brain off and make stupid decisions. You're obviously panicked which is why you fail to see that doing ANYTHING isn't going to help. We need to make improvements, not just changes or we could end up in a worse position. The conclusion of the original article is that this course of action is not an improvement. Let's calm down and think of better solutions as a society.
    Secondly, Chief villains are US/Canada. The biggest villain is China. The Koyoto protocol and all other such carbon reduction treaties given China a free pass with absolutely no restrictions to them, but do restrict other nations. The results of this would be that more production ships to China which has the worst record for environmental policy.
    Third, there are several issues that I have with this critic. "too many gas-guzzling muscle cars" isn't an issue with gasoline, but with people being purposely wasteful. With regards to "But coal- and oil-fired power stations aren't the future", he may be correct, but you need to have water in the pool before you dive. When the magic new sources of electricity are available then we can discuss how to use them. For instance, there are algae plants that can take CO2 and turn it into petro for use in cars which would support our current system.
    What we need is to pursue research in avenues and reevaluate the best solution as new technology becomes available. The most efficient way of doing this is to let the free market decide rather than using the force of government for push one solution

  • twall10107

    Between tar sands, "Koch's Klean Koal" and fracking, North America's dominant culture is launching an all-out offensive on earth, air and water which will soon make environmentalism a dead letter.