Battery Banter 4: Could the Grid Cope with a Next Generation EV?

In my last series of posts, I focussed on the war of attribution between electric vehicles (EVs) and traditional internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEs).  Due to the recent slump in oil prices, EVs are on the defensive. They need increased volume to get down their cost curves and punch out of their current redoubt of super cars (Tesla) and green credential statement cars (Nissan Leaf). Low gasoline prices has made such an offensive a lot more tricky to pull off.

But let us suppose that a commercial super battery were to emerge that had high energy density and was cheap. What would happen next? Let’s run this thought experiment in a UK context.

First, let’s look a the UK’s existing fleet. Great Britain has a population of 64 million people, who between them drive around 29 million registered cars (source: here, click for larger image).

Registered Cars UK

And annually each car is driven for an average of 8,000 miles, which translates into 22 miles per day (click for larger image; also remember we are smoothing out weekends and holidays).

Annual Average Miles Travelled jpeg

From a previous blog post, I republish the following chart, which shows the kind of mileage per kilowatt-hour (kWh) a battery achieves at present.

EV by Range per kWh jpeg

Currently, the BMW i3 achieves around 5 miles per kWh. However, current generation EVs spend an awful lot of energy lugging around bloody great big batteries. With a super battery, like the lithium air batteries (li/O2) in the chart below (see my last post), you get four times as much energy for the same given weight. Let’s suppose that the auto makers double the battery capacity to get the required 200 mile range, but still halve the battery weight. Throw in even more use of modern materials and it is not unrealistic to guestimate that our future car would achieve 10 miles per kWh.

Battery Technology jpeg

Using these numbers, 22 miles translates into 2.2 kWh per car. Next, we find the average number of cars per household in the UK, which is 1.1 (here, click for larger image). So we are looking at EV energy expenditure per household of about 2.4 kWh.

Average Number of Cars Per Household jpeg

Meanwhile, average domestic daily electricity consumption per household in the UK is around, 4,200 kWh, which works out at 11.5 kWh per day (here, click for larger image).

Annual Average Electricity Consumption jpeg

We are now in a position to compare the daily EV energy expenditure of our hypothetical future household with current electricity consumption. In short, expending 2.4 kWh per day on the future EV will raise electricity consumption by 21% from the current level of 11.5 kWh. While that is a lot, it is not nearly as much as I would have originally thought.

Battery Banter 3: Gasoline’s Dastardly Energy Density

In my last post, I talked about the challenge that low oil prices pose for the electric vehicle industry. The following chart from a 2012 McKinsey battery study shows the key tipping points (click for larger image):

McKinsey Battery Study jpeg

With US gasoline (petrol) prices currently running at $2.5 per gallon, we are falling into the bottom left corner of the chart. In short, the battery price for battery electric vehicles (BEVs in the chart) must plummet to keep EVs in the game. As stated yesterday, Nissan and Tesla are getting their battery costs down to around $300 per kilowatt-hour (kWh), but this is still far above the current sweet spot of $150-$200.

Previously, I also talked about the ‘learning rate': the rate at which battery prices could fall due to learning from experience manufacturing cost savings for every doubling of battery volume. The industry is in the ‘Catch 22′ position of not being able to crank up volume sufficiently to get down its cost curve since EVs are just too far adrift from internal combustion engine vehicles price-wise to secure volume sales. So what is to be done?

What would break this logjam is if the auto battery industry could make the next technological leap.  The problem for batteries is that oil is so damn energy efficient. A litre of gasoline (petrol) can deliver 10 kWh of energy; the Nissan Leaf battery holds, per one litre by volume, only a hundredth of that. As the chart below shows, even the top-of-the-line Tesla battery is far inferior (source: here; click for larger image).

Battery Technology jpeg

Once the next generation of batteries arrive, however, things will get more interesting. The irony of both traditional vehicles and EVs is that not much energy is actually used to move humans. For current cars, most gasoline is burnt in order to carry a heavy internal combustion energy around; for EVs, the energy is used to transport the battery. Nonetheless, the energy density of gasoline means that traditional cars get the better of EVs in this particular trade-off. But once a new generation of batteries arrives, EVs can push into the top right-hand corner of the chart above. A that point things will change dramatically–a transition that I will tackle in my next post.

Battery Banter 2: Sliding Down the Electric Vehicle Cost Curve

With impeccable timing (for my current blogging theme), Nature Climate Change has just published a commentary by Bjorn Nkyvist and Mans Nilsson reviewing the falling cost of battery packs for electric vehicles (source: here, but apologies as the article is behind a paywall). Bottom line: costs have been falling faster than predicted a few years ago (click for larger image).

Battery Electric Vehicle Costs jpeg

In line with Tony Seba’s estimates I blogged on two days ago (here), Nykvist and Nilsson saw total battery pack costs fall 14% per annum between 2007 and 2014 from $1,000 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) to $410. The market leaders in terms of auto battery technology, Tesla and Nissan, saw a slightly lower rate of decline of 6 to 9% since they have been at the cutting edge of improvements and have had less potential for catch-up than the industry as a whole. However, their costs per kWh are now seen at around $300 per kWh of battery capacity. Note that a BMW i3 has battery capacity of approximately 19 kWh, a Nissan Leaf 24 kWh and a top of the range Tesla 85 kWh. Continue reading

Battery Banter 1: Are Internal Combustion Engines Going the Way of the Horse?

A few days ago, a good friend of mine pointed me toward a presentation on disruptive technologies given by Tony Seba. A youtube video is available here:

The entire video is worth watching, but today I will restrict myself to the issues he raises relating to battery technology.

Seba stresses that technological change in the transport sector could happen at breakneck speed. With a pair of compelling photos of early-last-century New York, we are asked to remember that a grand disruption in transport has happened before. In the first photo, dating from April 1900, we play a game of spot the car (click for larger image).

Where Is the Car? jpeg

In the second, a mere 13 years later, the challenge is to spot the horse.

Where Is the Horse? jpeg

The lesson here is that once a disruptive technology reaches a particular tipping point, it doesn’t just take market share from the incumbent industry but rather completely replaces it. For Seba, we are close to reaching that point with electric vehicles.

Continue reading

Charts du Jour, 18 March 2015: Shale and Seneca’s Cliff

In the words of the Roman philosopher Seneca:

Increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was musing on the accelerated rate of decline and fall of empires a couple of thousand years ago. The chemist and scholar of the post-growth world Ugo Bardi has borrowed the philosopher’s name for his idea of a Seneca Cliff–the precipice over which our complex society will likely (according to him) tip and fall.

While such ideas gained considerable traction a few years ago (fanned by rocketing fossil fuel prices and the impact of the Great Recession), they are now deeply out of fashion. Doesn’t Bardi know that we live in an age of abundance, or so the shale oil and gas story goes.

Befitting the name of his blog, Bardi remains a committed Cassandra, warning all those who will listen. To my shale oil production chart of yesterday, Bardi responds with this first (all is well in the world of cod):

Cod Landings jpeg

And then this (perhaps it was not as well as it seemed):

US Cod Landings Latest jpeg

Full blog post by Bardi on this theme is here. But does the argument “so goes cod, so will go shale” hold true?

This is certainly the view of the geoscientist J. David Hughes, who maintains a web site called “shalebubble.org“. On it, you will find a number of Hughes’ reports published under the imprint of the Post Carbon Institute, the latest going under the title of “Drilling Deeper‘. The full report is 300 pages long, but Hughes concludes that the US Energy Information Administration has built a production forecast on the back of a series of three false premises. Further, based on these, the US economy has taken as truisms a series of false promises (click for larger image).

False Premises and Promises jpeg

Should Hughes’ analysis be correct, then Seneca’s Cliff may beckon. Within a decade we will know one way or another. Never forget: Cassandra was proved right in the end.

Charts du Jour, 17 March 2015: Pump Baby Pump (but Don’t Drill)

I regularly report on the Energy Information Administration‘s monthly US oil production statistics, which show no slowdown in output as yet (see here for latest numbers). Bloomberg, however, has a series of multimedia offerings giving more colour as to what is going on.

First, a nice chart juxtaposing production and rig count numbers (source: here).

Active Oil Rigs jpeg

And for a great animated graphic showing rig count through time and space, this offering (again from Bloomberg) is superb. Below is my screen shot, but to get the full effect click this link here.

Watch Four Years jpeg

Finally, an animation explaining why the crashing rig count has yet to stop production rising. In Bloomberg‘s view, the divergence between rig count and production has many months to run.

National Geographic recently had an article titled “How Long Can the US Oil Boom Last?” which emphasises the longer view. They argue that the US fracking boom is a multi-year phenomenon not a multi-decade one.

But in the long term, the U.S. oil boom faces an even more serious constraint: Though daily production now rivals Saudi Arabia’s, it’s coming from underground reserves that are a small fraction of the ones in the Middle East.

Both the EIA and the International Energy Agency see US oil production peaking out by the end of the decade regardless of short-term oil price fluctuations. Nonetheless, both organisations have underestimated the upswing in tight oil production to date. Overall, it is very difficult to gauge where US production will be in five years time. This is a bigger story than the current spectacular rig count crash, and one I intend to return to in future posts.

Charts du Jour, 16 March 2015: The Direct Impact of Natural Disasters

If you have a taste for doomer porn, then Desdemona Despair is the ‘go to’ site for you. Looking at the succession of despoiled ecosystems and ravished environments, it is hard not to get depressed. Nonetheless, while our natural assets are being fed through the meat grinder, the numbers show that our bodies are yet to meet a similar fate.

In a fascinating study led by Ilan Noy, a new index is proposed that “converts all damage indicators, including mortality, morbidity, and other impacts on human lives (e.g. displacement) – as well as damage to infrastructure and housing – into an aggregate measure of human lifeyears lost.”

In their approach, they “calculate the total years lost as the sum of years lost due to death, injury/affected, and financial damage.”

Adopting this methodology, the following chart is produced (click for larger image):

Total Life Years Lost by Regions jpeg

Critically, the impact of climate change, or environmental destruction in general, is yet to be seen.

We find no trend in the calculated index, and additionally we observe that most of disaster impacts are experienced in Asia (East and South). This dominance is likely due both to the region’s high degree of exposure to a multitude of extreme events (especially wide-scale flooding) and to the high population density in exposed areas (the coasts along the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the major river systems).

Before I am accused of sounding too much like my doppelgänger The Rational Optimist, I should emphasise that this is a human-centric metric. Species extinction doesn’t show up. Just as important, the system may tip. At present, the United States can absorb a Hurricane Katrina with ease (not withstanding the devastation such an event causes at a personal level). But what happens when you throw two or three Katrinas at the system in quick succession.

Even worse, what happens when extreme weather events graduate from being acute events to those that are chronic. An economy is composed of flows (GDP) and stocks (wealth). Some wealth destruction actually stimulates GDP. But when wealth destruction become a quotidian event, flow (GDP) won’t be able to cope. We are not at such a state of affairs as yet. I am not confident that we never will reach such a state.