Guest Commentary

The New York State Assembly this week adopted a bill requiring that all new passenger cars and trucks sold in the state be “zero-emissions”—that is, fully electric-powered—by 2035. Sponsored by the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee chair, Steve Englebright (D-Brookhaven), this proposal is New York’s answer to a nearly identical mandate stalking Californians via a recent executive order from their embattled governor, Gavin Newsom.

It would be easy enough to suggest these politicians are jumping onto a green bandwagon without fully understanding the consequences. But their actions are conveniently consistent with the commercial goals of some of the most powerful companies on earth. With a market value of over $600 billion, newcomer and electric vehicle pioneer Tesla is now well established. High tech industry heavyweights including Apple and Sony are developing electric vehicles. Taiwan’s Foxcon is partnering with Fiat Chrysler to develop all-electric vehicles, and China’s search engine giant Baidu is working with Volvo to do the same. And as for legacy automakers, General Motors, attempting to lead the way, has declared it will sell only electric vehicles by 2035.

If electric cars are the corporate choice, destined to be the only consumer option within barely more than 13 years, New York had better get ready. This is especially the case if, as appears likely, America’s corporate giants have decided not only to precipitously usher in an all-electric age, but do so with only renewable energy.

Are politicians right to follow the lead of these corporate initiatives? Is this green symbiosis between corporations and politicians yielding policies that are in the best interests of New Yorkers? Will these policies help the environment, taking all impacts into account? Are they even possible?

Under this bill, after all, New York would be committed to mandating a totally electrified transportation sector within a generation, while also boosting “renewable” sources such as wind and solar to 70 percent of electricity generation by 2030, as required by the state’s 2019 Climate Act.

Have Assemblyman Englebright and his colleagues really thought this through?

The first thing proponents of an electrified transportation sector should consider is what sort of energy options are available. Solar power is a good place to start.

Solar power is not a good bet in the State of New York. It never was. It never will be.

New York even at its southernmost extremity is north of the 40th parallel. This means that in winter, most New Yorkers get barely nine hours of daylight. Moreover, with an average of 121 days of rain annually, sunlight is unreliable in the Empire State even in summer time.

Then there’s wind energy, which has been pushed hard by the Cuomo Administration. For example, a massive offshore wind generation installation planned for Long Island Sound is expected to generate 2.4 gigawatt hours of electricity by 2030. But that translates into barely 3 percent of the state’s current annual energy production.

How much electricity do New Yorkers consume, how do they currently generate it, and how much more would they have to generate if they were to truly enter the Electric Age?

Electrons vs Combustibles – A New York Overview

According to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), which offers historical data up through 2017 on electric generation in New York, for the past few years total electricity consumption has been in slight decline. The peak year was 2005, when New York’s consumers purchased 150 terawatt-hours of electricity. By 2017, presumably thanks to improved energy efficiency, that total dropped to 145 terawatt-hours. And of that total, a mere 2.8 terawatt-hours were for transportation.

But the transportation sector is one of the biggest overall consumers of energy in New York State. Per NYSERDA, 32 percent of all energy consumed in New York is for transportation, and only two-tenths of one percent of the transportation sector is powered by electricity. Clearly, New York is going to need an awful lot more electricity if it intends to electrify its transportation sector.

To get an idea of how complex the process is of getting from raw energy sources—fossil fuels, nuclear, hydro, wind and solar—to actual electrons running appliances or furnaces heating homes, NSYERDA has produced a chart that merits close study. Presumably, policymakers such as Assemblyman Englebright have taken a good hard look, and decided they understand the challenges.

While there is a lot to digest in this energy flowchart, it offers valuable insight even without bedazzling the observer with numbers. On the left, raw energy inputs are depicted, and it is immediately obvious that solar and wind energy, occupying the bottom left corner of the graphic, currently contribute an insignificant share of the total. In the upper middle, electricity is depicted, properly situated as neither a primary energy source nor as an end-user. Electricity must be generated using some raw fuel input. Note that only a small fraction of the source energy for electricity is contributed by wind.

Two other observations from this flowchart: 1) the transportation sector, represented by one of the blue boxes to the center right on the chart, is by far the largest single consumer of energy in New York; and 2) the grey shading on the right edge of the chart, shows how much energy input ended up as energy used vs energy lost. Energy is lost between the raw fuel input and the actual consumption in the form of traction, light, or heat; the extent of that loss, as depicted in this chart, is significant. For every bit of energy embodied, for example, in a combustible fuel, as shown coming in on the left edge of the chart, about two-thirds of it is ultimately lost in transmission or dissipated heat, as shown on the upper right edge of the chart.

Understanding this is key to understanding one of the biggest challenges facing electrification of transportation. Energy loss derives chiefly from electricity generation and from the burning of transportation fuel. While electric motors are far more efficient than gasoline engines, unless efficient means of generating electricity are developed, the losses will just be transferred upstream, and electrifying New York’s transportation sector will not yield energy savings.

Electrifying Transportation Requires How Much More Electricity?

New York’s transportation sector is estimated to consume about 1.2 trillion basic thermal units, which equates to 352 terawatt-hours. The efficiency of charging and discharging an onboard battery and converting that electricity into traction is now being achieved at efficiencies approaching 90 percent. Thus, if one assumes comprehensive grid balancing—which might be facilitated if New York’s entire vehicle fleet is electrified—the actual energy expended in the form of traction to move the state’s mostly combustion-powered engines may be estimated at around 250 billion basic thermal units, or 73 terawatt-hours. That’s still a tremendous amount of electricity.

The chart below, using information from the U.S. Department of Energy, depicts what fuel inputs are used to generate electricity in New York, as measured in terawatt-hours (column one). Shown in column two is terawatt-hours converted into gigawatt-years. This conversion allows a quick comparison of output capacity, also expressed in gigawatts (column three) to actual output per year. The actual output divided by the capacity is shown in column four. This yield shows what percent of each year these power generators, according to fuel input, are actually active.

With this in mind, note the last row of data in column one, which shows “electrifying transport” requiring 73 terawatt-hours per year. As shown in column two of the same row, 73 terawatt-hours equates to 8.3 gigawatt-years. If New York’s transportation sector goes electric, that’s how much continuous new electrical output would be required to keep all the new EV wheels turning.

While 8.3 gigawatts of continuous output may not be much compared to New York’s 43.1 gigawatts of installed capacity, it is a great deal when compared to New York’s 15.1 gigawatt-years of actual output. Nuclear is the only source of electricity that shows a high yield, at 82 percent, because nuclear power plants run all the time. Natural gas plants have low yields because they are turned on and off to cover fluctuations in other sources of power, or in consumer demand. Coal and petroleum generators have low yields because they are being phased out.

Evaluating which sources of fuel for power generation have high vs low yields lends additional insight into the challenge posed by renewables. For example, if, by 2035, the number of registered electric vehicles in New York rises from today’s 56,000 to several million—currently, there are 11 million registered vehicles in the state—generating the needed additional electricity could be possible simply by running natural gas peaking plants at full capacity. But that would accomplish nothing with respect to the ultimate reason for mandating electric vehicles, which is to reduce emissions.

The only way to reduce emissions is to replace fossil fuel power plants, which generate almost exactly half of the terawatt-hours consumed in New York, with renewable sources.

Note the yield on solar and wind power. At 19 percent, this represents the amount of time the wind is actually blowing or the sun is actually shining. At such a low yield, consider what it would take in terms of installed capacity to replace the 65 terawatt-hours currently delivered by fossil fuel in New York, much less add another 73 terawatt-hours to electrify the transportation sector.

Going EV and Going Renewable All at Once – The Numbers

Wind farms only operate at full output 19 percent of the time, as historically demonstrated in the State of New York. That means for every gigawatt of constant output, five gigawatts of capacity are required. How this plays out numerically is a sobering reality check. New York’s annual 65 terawatt-hours produced by fossil fuel equates to 7.4 gigawatts of continuous output. Because wind farms only produce at full capacity 19 percent of the time, to get 7.4 gigawatt-years of power, 38.8 gigawatts of wind energy capacity must be installed. That to get rid of electricity generated by fossil fuel. Add to that the 8.3 gigawatts of continuous electric power required to convert the transportation sector to electric energy, and you’ll need to install 82.5 gigawatts of wind energy capacity.

The implications of relying on wind energy must be calculated to be believed. Demand fluctuates, of course, but the total terawatt-hour (or gigawatt-year) annual demand for New York can be accurately estimated. Doing this with wind, wherein the supply of electricity fluctuates wildly literally according to when the wind blows, would require not only 8,250 wind turbines—at ten megawatts each which are about as big as they get—as well as an electrical grid capable of absorbing an 82 gigawatt load when all the turbines are spinning, and an installed base of battery farms capable of collecting and storing that electricity for discharge once the wind dies down.

What price tag would New Yorkers pay for wind conversion?  That question alone should give pause to anyone considering an uncompromising rush into EVs and renewable energy. One of the biggest wind turbines available today is  GE Renewable Energy’s Haliade-X turbine, rated at 12 megawatts at full capacity. It has a tip-height of 853 feet and a 721 foot rotor diameter. Every one of them would require thousands of tons of concrete and steel. The Haliade X is rated for offshore use, where yields are allegedly higher. New Yorkers should ask whether it is likely or desirable that several thousand Haliade X wind turbines are going to be installed on Lake Erie. How will they handle storms? How will they be maintained?

Almost forgotten in all this is the grid. New York’s grid rarely handles more than 20 gigawatts of electricity running through the high voltage power lines at any one moment. How will the grid be upgraded to absorb and distribute four to five times that much electricity when the wind is blowing? And even if battery storage is partly alleviated through parked EVs being plugged in to absorb surplus power from the grid, that would only reduce the need for utility scale battery farms by 10-20 percent. And today’s utility scale batteries only hold four hours of charge. To the extent grid deficits during periods of low wind are prolonged beyond four hours, battery storage capacity in excess of 80 gigawatts could be required.

These equations rely on basic algebra and basic knowledge of grid capacity and demand. Any competent engineer at the NYSERDA should be able to verify and expand on the figures put forth here. Are yields from installed wind turbines greater than 19 percent, despite the evidence to date? How much better? Imagine a 35 percent yield on land, considered very optimistic in the industry, and calculate how many 1.5 megawatt standard large land-based wind turbines would be required even under those rosy assumptions. To generate 82.5 gigawatts, it would require 55,000 of them. Here, from windwatch.org, is a description of one 1.5 megawatt wind turbine:

“The widely used GE 1.5-megawatt model, for example, consists of 116-ft blades atop a 212-ft tower for a total height of 328 feet. The blades sweep a vertical airspace of just under an acre. the nacelle alone weighs more than 56 tons, the blade assembly weighs more than 36 tons, and the tower itself weighs about 71 tons — a total weight of 164 tons. In a line of several turbines perpendicular to the wind (as on a mountain ridge), the GE 1.5-MW model would need at least 32 acres for each tower. In an array that can take advantage of the wind from any direction, the GE 1.5 MW model would need 82 acres per tower.”

Split that down the middle: That’s 57 acres per tower. Want to electrify New York’s transportation sector while retiring fossil fuel power plants? Want to do it with wind? Prepare to allocate 4,900 square miles to wind farms. How would that be spread around?

Well, the five boroughs of NYC, all of Long Island and four counties directly north of NYC (Orange, Putnam, Rockland and Westchester) are barely over 2,500 square miles. Don’t like that? The Adirondack Park, the largest park in the lower 48, is 9,375 square miles.

Politicians should demand quantitative data from NYSERDA and other public power agencies, distilled into terms that make clear the consequences of their policy ideas.

This is the reality that makes requiring zero emissions for all new cars a daunting proposition. It is unlikely that hydropower solutions can be significantly expanded. Nuclear power, at least for now, remains a political impossibility. Solar power is barely viable during the New York winter. Just exactly how many wind farms are New Yorkers prepared to take? Because to get from here to there, wherever you see one wind turbine, imagine hundreds of them. That’s what it would take to eliminate fossil fuel, electrify transportation, and begin to cut back on nuclear power in New York State.

Other Challenges Presented by Electrifying the Transportation Sector

Some of the typical objections to electric transportation are being addressed. The ability to quick charge an electric vehicle is clearly a major impediment to rapid adoption. How fast a battery recharges can be expressed in miles of range per minute of charging. Top of the line cars, using an 800 volt fast charger, deliver much better results than affordable EVs using standard chargers. Porsche and Tesla have models that can charge at a rate of 15 miles per minute using a fast charger. A Nissan Leaf, on the other hand, charging at home, may store as little as five miles of range per hour.

It would be a mistake, however, to write off the potential for ongoing breakthroughs in charge-time. Lucid Motors, a Silicon Valley startup, has announced its debut vehicle will be able to charge at a rate of 20 miles per minute. At that rate, EVs begin to approach refill times comparable to gasoline engines. Five minutes at the gas pump enables a 300 mile range; 15 minutes at a fast charger does the same.  According to Business Insider, a Chinese company has just announced an EV battery that can be fully recharged in five minutes.

Another objection to EVs, possibly more problematic, has been the sourcing and disposal of the battery materials. The cost for the raw materials used in EV batteries, lithium and cobalt, has dropped in recent years. But when there are 250 million EVs plying the highways of America, replacing all gasoline powered cars, with similar market upheaval all around the world, how will that affect the price of these materials?

In China, as reported in February, the price of lithium surged by over 40 percent compared to the same month in 2020. This means the price of this battery metal has more than made up for ground lost during the pandemic. Cobalt, another critical battery metal, has also begun to recover after hitting a low in 2019. But short-term forecasts for this metal do not begin to account for what would occur if demand skyrockets, which will happen if the number of battery powered EVs worldwide, not quite six million today, swells to hundreds of millions within the next decade. What will the impact on prices for battery metals be if demand increases by a factor of twenty or more?

The uncertainty of raw material inputs for EVs is not merely a function of demand potentially outstripping supply, because that assumes a normal market. Battery metals, however, are primarily sourced from nations that are either politically unstable or potential adversaries. The biggest source of cobalt in the world is the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The biggest owner of lithium mines and processors in the world is China. EV batteries, cheaper than ever but still very expensive, are currently priced at rates that may reflect a historic low in the value of battery metals. Imagine the cost of batteries to the U.S. if tension with China escalates and that nation still controls most of the world’s mining and battery manufacturing capacity.

Insufficiently addressed by environmentalists keen on electric cars and renewable energy is the environmental cost of batteries. Like wind energy, which despoils landscapes and slaughters raptorsbats and migrating insects, battery production is problematic for the environment. Unlike wind energy, sourcing battery materials are also a human tragedy. Cobalt mines in West Africa are cesspools of environmental and human degradation.

Financial Times analysis published in July 2019 found that 30 percent of all cobalt mined in the DRC was “artisanal” in origin. Translation: This ore is gathered by individual laborers, often children, often underpaid, working in appalling, hazardous conditions. According to the report, there are over 200,000 “informal” miners working in the DRC, with 72 percent of the world’s cobalt coming from that country. Like so-called blood diamonds, the world’s cobalt is washed in the blood of exploited miners, at the same time as the rivers and estuaries downstream from these mines are fouled by utterly unregulated toxic runoff. What’s going to happen when the world’s appetite for lithium and cobalt increases by two orders of magnitude?

In 2002, the noted environmentalist William McDonough published a book entitled “Cradle to Cradle.” It has become a landmark reference that explores how human civilization can move to an economy that recycles literally everything, eliminating the concept of waste. This core tenet of environmentalism is ironically imperiled by a headlong rush to EVs. While destroyed land, fouled rivers, and abundant greenhouse gas are all byproducts of mining and refining cobalt and lithium,  what to do with these materials once the battery is depleted raises further concerns.

If every new car will be an EV by 2035, then by about 2045, roughly 15 million EV batteries per year will reach the end of their useful life. Entrepreneurs are racing to come up with ways to process the coming deluge. One strategy, which merely postpones the reckoning, is to use these batteries for stationary storage. No longer retaining enough charge to merit being dead weight on a vehicle, they’ll enjoy a second life connected to the grid. This buys another ten years, but doesn’t solve the problem. It does call attention to the other sleeping elephant in the room, however, which is the plan afoot to replace natural gas peaking plants and absorb surplus renewable energy with giant battery farms. These batteries as well will have limited useful lives and will require recycling.

While it’s a mistake to bet against emerging technologies that may enable total battery recycling, it’s also presumptuous to mandate 100 percent EV sales by 2035 without having a clear picture of how that is going to be accomplished. Conventional technologies only recover about 60 percent of the materials inside an EV battery. A new process being developed by Volkswagen can recover up to 95 percent of the materials in an EV battery pack, but it is labor and energy intensive and still being tested.

There may be promising, cost-effective ways to recycle EV batteries, but at present, less than five percent of EV batteries are recycled. Ironically, if battery manufacturers succeed in developing a battery that does not require cobalt, there will be almost no economic incentive to recycle EV batteries since its most valuable element is no longer present. It is a safe bet that EV batteries will eventually be cradle to cradle products, subjected to advanced recycling processes, but that cost will then be added to the price of the vehicle.

The Consumer Cost, the Opportunity Cost

As it is, EVs are coming down in price, but still cost far more than conventional gasoline powered cars. A report from the NRDC, an organization that undoubtedly advocates for more EVs, stated “the average sticker price on an electric car is $19,000 higher than an average gasoline-powered vehicle.” Depending on how much electricity costs, EV owners get some of this back in fuel savings, but not nearly enough to offset the higher purchase price. There is evidence that EVs incur lower maintenance costs as well, although an estimate from AAA puts the savings at only $330 per year.

What consumers will ultimately pay to drive EVs will have to take into account the cost—either factored into the purchase price or socialized through higher taxes—to build out a network of public charging stations and to recycle the batteries.

Equally significant, the consumer will confront the possibility of much higher costs for electricity. In New York, as previously noted, electrifying the transportation sector will require annual output to increase from 132 trillion terawatt-hours to 205 terawatt-hours. This 55 percent jump will be necessary even if there is no reduction in power generation from fossil fuel, which currently supplies half of New York’s electricity.

Should New York’s legislature continue to display the same enthusiasm for solar and wind energy as it does for EVs, and the same antipathy for nuclear and natural gas energy as it does for gasoline powered cars, the price of electricity for the average consumer is going to soar. New York’s legislators, starting with Assemblyman Englebright, need to confront these challenges before accepting the momentum of the green movement, the other blue states, and the big automakers.

If New York is going to help blaze the trail into the Electric Age, how will it rely on solar power when there is no viable solar energy during the northern winters? Will it eliminate nuclear power, or develop more nuclear power? Will it resist pressure from environmentalists to demolish hydroelectric dams? Will it tolerate natural gas power plants? Does it truly propose to make wind energy the state’s primary source of electricity?

Before mandating that all new cars sold have to be EVs by 2035, legislators in New York, as in all blue states, need to come to terms with the energy realities that must inform any serious attempt to convert to an economy so reliant on electricity. Hard decisions must be made, requiring controversial compromises and clear trade-offs. The stakes for their constituents are high. Rash mandates could dramatically increase the cost of electricity, inflicting pain across the population, and impoverishing many households. And as the percentage of EVs grows, gas tax revenues will decline. But rather than imposing a vehicle miles traveled tax on all cars and trucks, policymakers should limit that new tax to EVs, since only EVs avoid paying the gas tax.

Electrifying New York’s Transportation Sector is Impractical and Expensive

New York state legislators should envision a state electricity grid where wind energy provides all the additional energy required by EVs, while also covering the deficits caused by retiring natural gas power plants. They should research and disclose exactly how many battery farms and wind farms would be required to make this work, where they would be located, and how much that would impact electricity prices.

New York’s legislators also need to recognize that the sources of materials for EV batteries remain problematic, fraught with labor and environmental abuse and vulnerable to unstable political conditions. Perhaps they should evaluate what it would take to bring more lithium mining and processing onto U.S. soil. Lawmakers  also need to accept that the bugs haven’t been worked out of the battery recycling processes. Most importantly, they need to accept that these dilemmas will not resolve on their own.

Finally, if New York’s legislators remain steadfastly optimistic about a headlong rush to EVs, they  might apply that same optimism towards other possible solutions, and make sure their edicts don’t preclude or defer the near-future realization of better-faster-cheaper innovations that none of us can presently imagine.

What if a breakthrough in direct synthesis enables production of vehicle fuel directly from CO2 gas, rendering combustion engines clean and carbon neutral? What if onboard storage of hydrogen gas is rendered cost-effective, and new technologies render combustion engines powered by hydrogen gas as better and cheaper solutions than using hydrogen fuel cells to power electric motors? What if natural gas powered engines operating as range extenders—sort of like a next-generation Chevy Volt—put new versions of near zero emission vehicles on the road, allowing drivers to choose their fuel depending on price and duty cycle? What if, gasp, there is a credible fracture in the alleged scientific consensus on the dangers of anthropogenic CO2 emissions?

The pages of history are littered with examples of governments that tried to roll out a solution that felt like a compelling moral choice at the time, yet turned out to be foolish and wasteful in retrospect. If EVs are compelling choices for economic reasons, then let them compete against gasoline vehicles without mandates. If and when nuclear fusion becomes a commercial reality, or, for that matter, when satellite solar power stations begin to rain terawatts onto grid connected receiving stations down here on earth, the electric age will be upon us. By then, whether stored via hydrogen electrolysis or charged batteries, EVs can own the roads. Until then, proceed with caution.

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