EV in a Frightening Chinese Haze

Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News!


Imagine confusion, trying to navigate streets in a Chinese haze where you can’t see across the street. It is like being in a dense fog where you are afraid to breath. Street signs are invisible even if you could understand them. Crossing the street on foot is more a matter of trust or hope than observation. The situation is in many ways similar to our gaze into a murky transportation future. “Is that an EV or a too-silent hybrid bearing down on us out of the gloom? Do we hear the clatter of a diesel engine approaching or is that a familiar gasoline-powered car about to run us over?” An unknown future creates anxiety.

About 8 years ago, I was fortunate to spend a month in Northern China. It wasn’t all doom and gloom and it left me with a profound respect for the country, its people, and its thriving economy. Yesterday, I responded to a study which concluded that use of electric vehicles in China would contribute to Chinese air pollution. Technical problems prevent me from responding there to the many issues raised in the comments section. Some will be addressed here.

Why Refute an Article About EV Use in China?
(Skip this section if you know.)

The short answer is “Rhetoric,” which is essentially the study of arguments and a basis for most advertising. But adverts are not limited to what we expect to buy and sell. Sadly, there are also negative ad campaigns for products, just like those we see during elections. Electric vehicle adoption is a hotly contested issue. It is contested by existing, well-funded oil interests, and understandably so. Oil has a near monopoly as our transportation fuel. Along with that economic power comes some political power. I would expect oil executives to fight to maintain their market share. Our corporate structure essentially demands it. But every act of protection is also an act of fear. And so I agree with brotherkenny’s comment that the fossil fuel industry is fearful.

Battles involve tactics. One is to confuse definitions. The study mentioned the pollutant “particulates,” but references to the study only referred to “pollution.” The study mentioned China and high coal usage, but these facts are easily dropped as later writers use a questionable study as ammunition against electric transportation, another tactic. Comments like Ggagnon76’s “…Are you, as a consumer…” assure me the target for this rhetoric is the buying public and not a Chinese EV, as does Steve K, who wants us to “Look at societal costs….”

An EV Advocate

We sit today as if we were Odysseus between Scylla and Charybdis, two irresistible forces waiting to destroy us. On one side, we are destroying and polluting our environment. On the other side, we are at a critical stage with the very energy supplies we used to build our present civilization. We are not running out of oil. That might be easier to deal with. Perhaps we could agree on the obvious. Instead, a demand for oil exceeding our supply, potential interruptions, and increasing costs for energy, threaten our economic health, security, and even indirectly our environment.

Ggagnon76 and Steve K seem to feel as if oil is an endless spigot. They say our grid is fragile. They want to reframe the issue to focus on where are we going to get our electricity BECAUSE of the electric vehicle demand. Bob_Wallace explains that the grid is close to capacity only during times of great stress and that this is associated with very hot summer days (and the resulting air conditioning loads), and that EVs would in most cases be charged at night when there is already electricity being created but not used. If we are going to discuss society and transportation, the question has to be inclusive. Our oil supplies are mostly an imported product. This is also a fragile situation.

The military announced 2 years ago that, by 2015, the world could be expecting critical shortages of fuel. They don’t want to be caught immobile. But oil does not have to run out for there to be critical shortages, and we are one war, one embargo, one disaster from that possibility. At issue is not that our electric grid is fragile but that all our transportation possibilities are precarious. If military predictions become fact, then we will be very glad that we have an electric option for at least part of our fleet. A limited range and costly batteries that need to be recycled is a better option to not transitioning at all.

Electric Vehicles: a Package

Electricity is a domestic resource, mostly because, although it can be transmitted, it doesn’t package well. Component parts may be made overseas, but the electricity is going to mostly be home-grown. What patriot would not consider that a plus? Electric vehicles come in many flavors: solar cars, serial hybrids, vehicles that have power transmitted to them, and there is also an entire class of vehicles powered by electric motors but moved by cables. And then there are battery electric vehicles which is what we most commonly mean when thinking of an EV.

An EV provides what electricity needs. A package. The very battery some complain about charging, provides the potential for stability within our electric grid. We don’t even have to begin discussions of a vehicle-to-grid (V2G) program — it is enough to say that vehicles can be powered using a technique called “time shifting” (what Bob_Wallace was discussing and I will get into more in the section below). And at the end of its useful life as an EV battery, when reduced to a 70% to 80% capacity, it will be transferred to power companies to continue supporting the electric grid.

“A Time Shifting Paradox”

Time shifting (aka “time shaving” or off-peak charging) is charging an EV at night. Going beyond simply charging an EV at night, we know that a coal-fired power plant cannot be simply turned off like a gas-fired peaking plant. It would take too long to bring the boiler up to full capacity for daytime peak load and it puts stress on the boiler, increasing damage.

Coal plants (and nuclear plants) are used for baseload power. For reasonable economic reasons, operators of the plants will not turn them off even when the demand for electricity is low. Turbines might be turned off (unless the plant is being used for spinning reserve), but the boiler of baseload power plants must stay mostly active. The plants, therefore, remain working (and producing pollution) when there is no need for the off-peak power.

Especially in areas where coal is a very high percentage of the mix, like China, Australia, South Africa, and some Midwestern states, it is therefore possible that an EV could use that power, charging at night essentially “pollution-free” from a coal-fired power plant (“pollution-free” since the power plant would have been polluting anyway). If this seems to defy logic to you, then we can rephrase this to “no additional pollution (and no additional demand on the grid) due to the EV charging at night.”

This would only be true for whatever electrical energy potential exists between what is needed to keep the boilers hot and a (lower) electrical power demand. Presently, cheapness of wind energy causes some coal plants to sell this power at a loss during off-peak hours simply to pay some costs. We may not like to use coal power, but we certainly won’t need to add more because of electric vehicles, and electric vehicles can improve the economics of the coal plants we presently have.

How Many EVs Can We Charge?

Bob_Wallace tells us:

“The grid is … greatly underused late at night when most EV charging will occur. The grid, as it now exists, could charge 85% of all US cars if they somehow morphed to EVs over night… Charging for [future] EVs will likely come mainly from wind. The wind tends to blow stronger at night when demand is low… Additional EV charging will come from solar. As the price of installed solar continues to fall homeowners will opt for installing panels on their roofs, sell the power to utility companies, and take back zero cost electricity when their EVs are plugged in.”

Batteries tend to be a worrisome issue:

It is simply a tactic to say that we will have to dispose of many electric vehicle batteries.

EV batteries are not the lead-acid type that runs the starter in your car… EV’s out now are using lithium-ion batteries (L-ion), no battery memory, totally recyclable, good for well over a thousand charging cycles… The average person drives 40 miles a day, if their car gets 120 miles per full charge (not exactly a high bar) then that’s 3 days per charge, about 120 charge cycles per year. With a battery pack good for over 2000 charge cycles that’s 16 2/3 years before your battery goes bad. –SaulCausano

…The Toshiba SCiB lithium–titanate batteries used in the Honda FiT EV are rated at 4,000 deep cycle recharges. With a 120 mile range EV that makes them 480,000 mile batteries. The lithium–titanate batteries in the Lightening GT are rated at 25,000 deep cycles, 3,750,000 mile batteries. Utility companies are already setting up programs to purchase used EV batteries to use for grid smoothing/storage. When the utility companies are done with them then they will be recycled. We already recycle rechargeable lithium batteries from laptops and other electronic gadgets. A couple of companies have EV battery recycling systems ready to go. –Bob Wallace

Electrical Usage

There are actually very few electric cars in China…so the pollution from coal plants is for powering consumer electronics. Much the same as here. Big items such as, water heaters, cloths dryers, electric ranges etc. as well as industrial processes. Remember they have 4 times the population. Their coal plants also have no or very little emissions equipment. –brotherkenny

China does have electric bicycles, and it makes efficient use of power, reducing overall pollution, but we are not going to see 300 million US vehicles replaced with electric bicycles. (Though I would like to see electric velomobiles have a shot.) In the US, air conditioners represent about 15% of the electrical usage, while we only hope to get electric vehicle usage up to 1/3 of 1% by 2015. If every car in the US were electric-powered, it would need power about equal to about 30% of our present grid capacity. As mentioned earlier, up to 85% of these could be charged at night with existing power supply.

But we have to be realistic. We will have petrol vehicles operating in the months and years ahead. Electrification of our transportation is not without problems and these can be worrying. Things will change, but the world is going to change with or without our decisions. Doing nothing is not an option. In a world where some adopt a philosophy of “he who can destroy a thing, controls a thing,” attempting to maintain a one-fuel transportation solution is risky, dangerous, short-sighted (and hardly patriotic). Electric vehicles present a diversity that grants added security. The military knows this. The government knows this. It is time we should be so wise. Fear can easily blind us, but lets not let it tie our hands as well.

Please read the full comments on the original post for more.

Photo Credit: pedronet

Have a tip for CleanTechnica? Want to advertise? Want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.

Latest CleanTechnica.TV Videos

CleanTechnica uses affiliate links. See our policy here.