Concerning hybrid cars–I’ve frequently seen the assertion that the energy costs of manufacturing the battery are so great that they use up as much energy as that saved by operating the vehicle. I’ve been unable, however, to find any actual data on the topic. Can anyone help?
What I’m looking for is the energy consumption of making a hybrid battery, including the total value chain (including mining of the raw materials) and also how much of this is recoverable if the battery is recycled.
This seems like essential information for anyone who wants to develop an informed opinion about the future of hybrid power.
55 thoughts on “Information Please”
Wait until they get the bill to replace the battery. Won’t seem so efficient then.
Manufacture of a car accounts for about 10% of its lifecycle energy consumption, while direct and indirect fuel consumption accounts for about 83% according to this ILEA analysis. It’s extremely doubtful that a hundred-pound battery could require so much energy to produce that it could increase the total; I’d go so far as to call the idea risible.
incognito: You can build a rough equivalent of the Prius battery pack with off-the-shelf NiMH cells for two grand or so. I also read recently that the battery packs are lasting longer than initially expected and most should go for the life of the car… I’m digging for that one… couldn’t find it, but the expected lifespan is 8-10 years (in an article which seems mighty pessimistic without apparent cause).
At any rate, within 5 years Li-ion batteries will be considerably cheaper than NiMH per kWh of capacity, and have about 3 times the energy/weight and energy/volume. Instead of replacing a 1.7 kWh NiMH pack 8 years from now at $2000 exchange, you’ll probably recycle the old pack and drop in 5 kWh of Li-ion and a grid charger for $1200. That will also get you the capability of running to the store and back without having to burn any gas, and run you at least partway to work each day ditto.
Thanks for the link Engineer.
I’m a bit of a car enthusiast, so the Prius’ 76 horsepower doesn’t exactly get my heart pumping. I have a general rule of thumb that says if the left/environmentalists are up in arms about something, it’s probably a good idea. Conversely, if they are gung-ho in favor of something, Iíll be wary and scrutinize it to a greater degree. The Prius gets 60 city/51 highway mpg. A Volkswagen Jetta Diesel gets you 100 HP with fuel efficiency of 38 city/46 highway. A 400 mile trip will cost you 7.8 gallons on the Prius, and 8.69 gallons on the Jetta, difference of less than $3. You wonít be pealing out in either car, but I wonder how much of hybrid cars is hype vs real world practicality. The article you point to makes some good points:
Also, if the electric drive portion of a Prius breaks outside of warranty, how much will it cost to fix? Some have insurance that will cover it, some donít. If a Jetta diesel breaks, I would guess that itís cheaper to fix overall, with a greater number of mechanics who can fix it. If a Prius breaks, youíll most likely have to take it back to the dealer, or at least until there are enough Priuses out there (which isnít looking too bad in Northern California). The Prius has a power train warranty of 5 years, 60,000 miles. Enough for most people who change cars frequently, but pity the guy who goes past that and something breaks.
Personally I donít find the tradeoff worth it because I place a higher value on performance. Iím happy with the 25 mpg that I average.
That’s divided into the motor mechanicals and motor electronics. The motor mechanicals are permanent-magnet rotors and wound stators; these are probably built the same way as induction motors which currently go 50 years without even a starting capacitor replacement. The electronics are more of an unknown, but you can bet on three things:There is a supply of spares for warranty service, and there are likely to be some left over.Someone is pulling modules out of wrecks.Just about any piece of electronic gear ever made has been refurbished if there was a market for it.
[please put long URLs in form above-JG]
(previous link is to the battery life article I was looking for.)
If you are interested in performance, would you accept a 34-MPG Explorer that does 0-60 in 7.05?
No? Then how about an 80-MPG sports car that does 0-60 in less than 7?
This is where things are going.
The best way to make these comparisons is on price and operating costs (unsubsidized). Prices make it possible to compare the tradeoffs of different types of vehicles directly. Museums are full of brilliant technologies that never went anywhere, because they couldn’t deliver what consumers wanted at competitive prices.
You want to see which type of vehicle is superior? Stop subsidizing technological fads and let producers sell what they want and consumers buy what they want. Anyway, as Incognito suggests, different vehicles suit different drivers, so the outcome of a free-market experiment (even in California, God forbid) would not have everyone driving the same type of car.
On the flip side, let’s make sure the “technological fads” don’t have unfair competition from tax-subsidized commodities such as corn ethanol and petroleum in general.
(Well over half the defense budget is spent to protect oil and access to oil. Pretty much the entire homeland security budget is spent to defend us against fanatics financed by oil revenue. Charging these to the general taxpayer rather than at the pump is a subsidy.)
-Who said anything about ethanol?
-Automotive gasoline isn’t subsidized, it’s heavily taxed. Front-month futures, which are a close proxy for spot-gasoline prices, are around $1.65/gal. Most of the spread between that price and the pump price is accounted for by taxes.
-Our defense spending protects everything, not just “access to oil.” So by your logic hybrid vehicles are subsidized too. Or maybe your point is invalid.
You’d probably be the first to accuse me of playing fast and loose with the facts if I proposed e.g. billing everyone an income-based fee for maintenance and protection of electric transmission lines, because we all benefit from them and higher-income people benefit the most. Doing so would fail to reward the producers which are best at building reliable lines and protecting them, and consumers who minimize their use of the hard-to-protect commodity. Applying different logic to oil is insane.
The bases and naval battle groups in and around the Persian Gulf are there because of oil; they are protecting the shipping and taking action against terrorists. They are not in Brazil because of no oil and no oil-financed terrorists.
We import something like 60% of our 20 million bbl/day of oil; call it 4.3 billion barrels a year. Our defense spending is on the order of $400 billion a year, plus the Iraq war; call the oil-related part $300 billion, or about $68 per barrel of imported oil. I make that about $1.56 a gallon tax subsidy, or almost as much as the full wholesale price of regular no-lead.
If we did the right thing and charged that $1.56 to the users rather than the taxpayer, people would act to minimize the cost. They might buy things from Brazil, like parts for vehicles that use tiny amounts of oil or no oil at all. But as long as consumers get the false price signal due to the shift of cost to their taxes, they’ll continue to act against their own best interests.
Your premise is wrong. We are not in the Middle East because of oil, we are there because of Sept 11. If we were in it for oil we would have simply continued to buy oil — somebody’s going to sell it to us — without having to run the risks and pay the costs of war. And of course we could have seized Iraq’s oil fields if obtaining oil were our main goal. Your argument that we are subsidizing oil therefore makes no sense.
Cog: you want a hot hybrid. try the Accord. My 2003 V6 Accord (pre-hybrid) is a very satisfying daily driver.
Check this article: Honda Accord Hybrid: Haul ass and save gas; December 2004
The hybrid that always could have happened finally did. This is a performance car that gets excellent mileage, too.
In the Honda line, this is the best Accord, just as the Civic hybrid is the best Civic. But the Accord pushes the envelope to include 0-to-60 in 6.7 seconds in a comfy five-passenger sedan while, according to the EPA, achieving 30 mpg city, 37 highway. Yes! Consider: The four-cylinder automatic Accord does only 24 city and 34 highway. With today’s technology, only a hybrid could hit all of these marks.
This primo Accord naturally has the highest price, about $30,000 base, Honda says, including automatic, leather, heated seats, AM-FM-satellite radio and six-CD changer, anti-lock brakes, and curtain airbags; the only option is a nav system.
It also has the best performance of any Accord four-door, outrunning the V-6 automatic by 0.3 second to 60 mph and 1 mph in the quarter, to 93 mph in the end zone.
Remember, the energy cost to make batteries (or anything else) is wrapped up in the total cost.
Isn’t the price mechanism wonderful?
David…yes, I know that the energy consumption is wrapped up in the current price (ignoring for a moment the fact that a manufacturer may temporarily shave margins in order to capture market share) However, if you want to look at how costs will behave going forward, you need to have an understanding of the components of the cost. A car which makes extensive use of aluminum will probably be more sensitive to electricity costs, for example (because the aluminum production process is very power-intensive) whereas one which makes extensive use of plastics will be more sensitive to oil prices (oil being a feedstock for plastics)…so, even if these two hypothetical cars are priced the same at the moment, the costs & prices will diverge in certain resource pricing scenarios.
EP…the question of energy consumption in battery manufacturing is not something that should be dismissed so lightly. Just because something represents a small portion of the vehicle weight doesn’t automatically mean that its energy consumption will be in equal proportion.
I’ve seen several items that suggest that the manufacturing cost of PV cells, in energy terms, is high enough that it takes significant time to recover. Here’s a study that puts the breakeven point at 7.3 years.
Obviously, this doesn’t translate to batteries, but it does suggest that energy costs of manufacturing energy-producting systems can be significant.
In any event, the assertion about hybrid batteries has gained fairly wide currencies, and I would think that those interested in promoting hybrid vehicles would want to research and refute it.
Thanks Robert, that’s an impressive Accord. The good byproduct of all this is that it’s prompting engineers to really squeeze more performance out of the non-hybrids. Jonathan and I have been batting around this theme wrt Google vs Yahoo. It’s the reason why free market competition is the best way to go. I test drove the new BMW 330i, and what a treat that was. They upped the HP from 225 to 255, while increasing mpg from 19/29 to 21/32 iirc.
For those who can handle it, another option to consider is the hybrid variant of the incomparable Funtzii-Manulii.
Good question on the total value chain for the hybrid battery technology –
and great comments & links. Hopefully your "Information Please" post will grow
into a resource node.
Another ILEA study that may be of interest examines the life
cycle economics of the "hydrogen economy". In particular, assessing
the efficiency of the hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle compared to the
hybrid vehicle. I just reviewed that study again for any data on your hybrid
battery question – the authors did not examine the manufacturing phase energy
inputs, they focused upon the deployment phase energy.
BTW, the ILEA conclusion is provocative: for transportation,
hybrids are significantly superior to hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. If that
is correct, does it follow that the "Hydrogen Economy" initiative is a
Sweet car Jonathan, I take it the girl is not a standard option = ) Is FM an aftermarket Mercedes tuner?
Incog, I believe she is the chief designer.
Yes, must be. She looks smart.
Hybrids also lose fuel economy every time you turn on the A/C or Defroster. If you live in a cold or hot state you will have lower performance than San Diego!. Also, remember, Hybrids are more efficient in environments where braking is a common occurance. If you do a lot of highway without gridlock, you will not have good MPG either.
Dave H: Goodness, do you mean to tell me that hybrids use energy to run A/C the same as conventional cars do? Running the air affects fuel economy just like it has in all the cars I’ve owned? Say it ain’t so! </sarcasm>
David Foster: You can use the cost of something as a way to put a rough ceiling on the amount of energy used to produce it.
Take that NiMH battery pack; if it costs $1000 wholesale (you can build the rough equivalent for $2000 at retail prices!), no more than about 20 barrels of $50/bbl oil could have been put into its full supply chain. 20 barrels is 880 gallons. A hybrid car getting 45 MPG vs. a 30 MPG conventional car will save 880 gallons of fuel in 79,200 miles.
Note that 79,200 miles is a way-high guesstimate based on numbers intended to be nearly absurd; the payoff would probably be in a half to a quarter of that. Toyota currently expects Prius batteries to last ~150,000 miles.
Steve D.: The viability of hydrogen depends on its source. It’s a lousy motor fuel no matter how you cut it (too bulky), but there are some methods of production (direct photolysis, certain algae) which could make it cheaper than electricity. I believe that if we do start using e.g. hydrogen from algae, we’ll use it to make ammonia first (for fertilizer), then other chemicals of interest, and then maybe methanol for fuel; changing the entire transport infrastructure to use hydrogen would be way down on the priorities list.
David Foster: Energy payback for PV, according to the NREL is ~4 years for current-technology crystalline cells (anticpated to come down to 2 years) and 3 years for thin-film (anticipated to come down to 1 year).
Warranties on PV panels are currently running 25 years, according to what I read.
Current thin-film cells are ~10 microns thick; no word on the payback time for the 1-micron flexible “polymorphous” silicon cells, plastic cells, or any of the other things out there.
EP…a reasonable approach to the analysis; I would quibble only that if the energy originally consumed is in the form of electric power (which much of it probably is) then the amount of energy represented by a fixed dollar number would be greater, since most of the power comes from coal or nuclear.
The PV analysis is interesting; however, the energy economics appear based on PV as a byproduct business for other semiconductor manufacturing, since silicon scrap is assumed and the energy originally used in the crystallization is not counted. This works until PV demand reaches a level at which it can no longer be served as a byproduct business.
If silicon prices/embodied energy are too high, you can always go with the 1-micron cells. At that thickness, there is so little silicon in a square meter that the per-watt energy investment is insignificant compared to the housing.
A question regarding the “oil subsidy:”
Are the people proposing their tax-at-the-pump actually planning a tax on all gas, or do they plan to offer rebates if the gas came from Texas or Louisiana?
What about gas from Canada or Mexico?
Three words: “oil depletion allowances”.
Tax all of it, it’ll save trouble by eliminating a lot of cheating.
SO you believe people in the domestic oil industry need to be taxed to pay for what you believe are to be subsidies for imported oil, and your answer to that is that the oil depletion allowances constitute a subsidy for the domestic industry anyway?
It sounds to me like you don’t want to discourage oil imports from the middle east, or oil imports, you just want to discourage oil use, period, and use oil imports from the middle east as an excuse.
Of course I want to reduce oil use in general; the marginal barrel is imported, so there is no difference between that and reducing imports. At $55/barrel, we are not going to get any more production by tilting the playing field toward Texas and Oklahoma. I also don’t think that we should give a subsidy to domestic oil producers the same way we prop up the sugar cane and corn-sweetener industries by restricting imports.
Why not? I mean, production sure did sink in Texas and Oklahoma when imported oil hit fifteen dollars a barrel in the mid-80’s. Everyone who survived that is still in the business today, and they’re trying to avoid further investment, because it takes three to four years in many places to bring in production, and they worry that oil will be fifteen dollars a barrel again in that time frame.
The Saudis rely on that worry to be able to sell their three dollar a barrel production cost oil in the West at fifty dollars a barrel, even when they’re using the profits from that sale to carve out quarter-mile-wide holes in Lower Manhattan.
Also, Texas and Oklahoma aren’t the only places to drill for oil in the US. There’s Alaska, there’s new discoveries going on in the Great Basin (in Utah in particular), and the entireties of the east and west coast were declared more or less off-limits for political reasons back when we were getting Saudi Oil for $ !5/barrel back in the late 80’s.
You also didn’t answer my question about Canadian and Mexican oil production: it receives neither oil depletion allowances nor does it require a US presense in the Persian Gulf. What’s your problem with them?
Okay, fine. Set a price floor for imported light, sweet crude and make up the difference that and the world price with taxes. Ought to keep the domestic drillers from being bankrupted by temporary price dips and, if we got lucky, do a little something about the deficit too.
You said gas… it was kind of ambiguous.
Regardless: even if Canada and Mexico were wholly-owned subsidiaries of the United States, their production (which is not sufficient for us) would not insulate us from world market conditions. We can’t keep allowing demand to increase; it has to be cut, and it behooves us to cut it on our own terms and our own schedule instead of having someone else (e.g. China) do it for us.
We can’t keep allowing demand to increase; it has to be cut, and it behooves us to cut it on our own terms and our own schedule instead of having someone else (e.g. China) do it for us. [emphasis added]
This is a non sequitur. There is plenty of oil in the world, and as with other finite resources the best way to coordinate supply & demand is to let prices float in an open market. If prices remain high, people will develop oil sources that are currently uneconomical, will reduce consumption (less driving, more-efficient automobiles) and will begin to use alternatives (nuclear/electric/hydrogen, solar/electric, and so forth).
To say that we should reduce consumption as an end in itself makes no sense. Of what value is reduced consumption per se? It seems to have religious significance for some people. But for all we know it would be more efficient in the long run if we continued to use oil for as long as it remained cheap to do so. Delaying development of alternatives means our technology will be more advanced when we actually do the development, which might well lower overall costs. In any event the price system weighs such complex issues more efficiently than people acting deliberately can.
That attitude presumes that oil is and will remain a commodity, going to the highest bidder. This relies on the producers also holding that view, but there’s good reason to believe that this will not long be the case.
Cutting use in this case has great strategic value; we do not have to worry about securing or defending supplies that we do not need (and we could use such supplies as strategic weapons against others). It also has great value in general as cost savings, which we get twice: first as the money not spent for what’s not used, second as lower prices on what is used because of lower total demand.
That’s half-true; there’s roughly half as much oil left in the ground as has ever been produced, but that’s about where it gets difficult to extract. Right now we are up against the limits of production capacity, and I’ve seen reports that VLCC rental rates have fallen substantially; this proves that there isn’t as much oil being moved as there was. Either it’s being stored by the producers, or it’s not being pumped at all.
Either way, it pokes holes in the “plenty of oil, business as usual” argument.
We’ve got lots of technical savvy, and there is plenty of low-hanging fruit to be picked in the orchard of petroleum savings and substitution. What we could really use, ironically, isn’t legislation but some words from the bully pulpit next to the desk in the Oval Office.
That assumes that the price mechanism isn’t being corroded and jammed by subsidies, preferences and regulation. I know that partially electric vehicles (gas-optional hybrids, or GO-HEVs) are quite feasible with today’s (heck, 1985’s) technology, but they can’t be marketed easily because the EPA doesn’t have an emissions test procedure for them! Such vehicles could eliminate 50-80% of the fuel requirements of a conventional vehicle, and they’re held up by things like that.
I won’t get into the half of the defense budget and lion’s share of homeland security which is either to defend oil or defend us from fanatics financed by oil; I’d be writing all night.
-Your premises re oil reserves are way off. See, for example:
(It took me a few seconds’ googling to find these pages, BTW. Not exactly secret information.)
-Your premise re the influence of oil producers on the market is also way off (e.g., fear of China monopolizing the market WRT UNOCAL). If you were right about this, OPEC would have been able to keep oil prices high during the 1980s and 1990s, when prices actually cratered. Oil is a commodity subject to supply and demand. This time isn’t different. You are merely repeating the same cliches that one hears every time commodity prices are high.
–Cutting use in this case has great strategic value; we do not have to worry about securing or defending supplies that we do not need (and we could use such supplies as strategic weapons against others). It also has great value in general as cost savings, which we get twice: first as the money not spent for what’s not used, second as lower prices on what is used because of lower total demand.
You are again considering only the benefits of conservation and ignoring the costs. If there weren’t costs to conservation, consumers would already have reduced their petroleum use to zero. Obviously current consumption is near an equilibrium where costs = benefits. This implies that arbitrary reductions in consumption at this point are likely to cost more than they benefit.
Of course the Saudi oil minister is going to say he’s got plenty of oil; he doesn’t want users moving to other supplies. But that fails to explain why there’s less crude being shipped, which is far more consistent with this. Regardless of disputes today, we’ll be certain within a few years.
One explanation is that the Saudis are talking out of both sides of their mouths. They have plenty of oil left; it’s just the heavy, sour stuff that few refineries can handle and nobody wants (and isn’t even being pumped). Their production of light, sweet crude could have peaked and that statement, taken in isolation, could still be true. If so, we’re facing a lot of investment to handle this rather different product. Instead of investing to process a much lower grade of oil, why not bite the bullet now and move away from oil entirely?
So many of those costs are externalized that it’s obvious to me that this is far from the case; there are also issues with regard to political and regulatory barriers to shifting to cheaper energy supplies.
As proof of that, compare gasoline to electricity. Gasoline has around 33.7 kWh/gallon of energy. At the average vehicular efficiency of 17%, this winds up as 5.73 kWh at the wheels; at $2.20/gallon, the driver is paying about $0.38/kWh. Electricity has been cheaper than gasoline for a long time, yet there are still no mass-market vehicles which draw partial power from the grid (they’re in test, like the Dodge Sprinter van). It’s so bad, people bent on making a passenger vehicle had to wait for a Japanese product (Prius) to use as a base for modification.
Things would be at equilibrium if the market was perfect. The market is a long, long way from perfection.
-You’re ignoring the fact that known reserves have been increasing for decades, independent of Saudi estimates. That was the point of the 2nd link in my previous comment.
-The reason why there are currently no mass-market electric cars is obvious: they aren’t practical. Most drivers want vehicles that do not require frequent refueling, can be refueled quickly and can be refueled anywhere. Current electric vehicles do not have these qualities.
-Markets do not have to be perfect to reach equilibrium.
–Instead of investing to process a much lower grade of oil, why not bite the bullet now and move away from oil entirely?
Because doing so is, on balance, more costly relative to benefits than are the alternatives. This was one of the points I made in my previous comment.
I think the reason that Saudi Arabia hasn’t increased production is that their physical plant, all the gear required to pump, transport and process the oil, is pretty much maxed out. They are hesitant to invest in more equipment until they know whether the current price jump is going to be stable long term or not. They’re already in hock up to their eyeballs.
I think there is a world wide hesitancy to invest in new expensive capability when nobody is sure how long these prices will last. Nobody in the oil business wants to be caught like they were in 84 when the oil bubble popped.
The current plug-in hybrids do have those qualities:They run on electricity when the batteries have been charged, gasoline otherwise.They can “fuel” from either pumps or electric outlets, which includes many owners’ garages and carports.Being able to “refuel” while parked at home allows visits to the gas station to be much less frequent, which is much more convenient for most people (if you’re burning half the fuel, you need to fill up half as often).The sad thing is that the technology was available to make this happen in mass-market vehicles at least 15 years ago, maybe 20, but various barriers of regulation, inertia and short-sighted policy kept them from hitting the market.
But people will be reasonable when all other alternatives have been exhausted; it appears that the Senate may finally have gotten a clue.
Yes, these vehicles are so good that they won’t sell without subsidies.
Your main premise — shrinking world oil reserves — is invalid. If it weren’t, gas would cost a lot more than $2.50/gal and we might be driving different kinds of cars than we do now. But there’s plenty of oil and gasoline is historically not very expensive, and instead of admitting it you want us to pretend that we live in a world of scarcity. Thanks, but I’m done playing that game.
They won’t sell without subsidies? How do you know this? What I can find indicates that the Federal tax break started in 2004; the Prius sold 5562 in the USA in August-December 2000, 15556 in 2001, and 20119 for 2002 (I couldn’t find 2003 sales numbers). Looks like a sales success to me!
Consumers buy lots of things which make no financial sense, but even at today’s prices hybrids do not appear to be among them. I did a brief analysis of the cost of a plug-in hybrid vs. the cost savings (link), and they appear to be marginally beneficial at $2.25/gallon and wildly profitable at $3.00/gallon. I expect to see $3.00/gallon fuel prices in spikes this year, and as the accepted base by 2007.
Is that so? Why did Royal Dutch Shell reduce its reserve estimates, then? Why did British oil production drop 17% over last year?
The world is using about 84 million barrels a day, or 31 billion barrels a year. Where were the 31 billion barrels of discoveries last year? It takes about 10 years to bring a field into production; where have they been for the last decade? News I’ve been seeing says that we’re running about a quarter of that.
Even if we could continue to run on oil, why would we want to? I see no reason to continue with internal combustion engines and their effluent any more than I would want to go back to horses and theirs.
If you are wondering about the difference between discoveries and consumption, one graph is here. It clearly shows that discoveries began lagging consumption in 1985 and has never even achieved parity since.
If this is incorrect I want to know where to get more accurate info.
Engineer Poet, I greatly enjoyed the technical contributions you made to David’s post.
I share your desire to convert our economy to cleaner fuels, and more renewables. But I fear the method that involves overt governmental coercion, like tax-payer funded subsidies or complicated tax-code incentives. To this libertarian capitalist, our coerced Federal taxes should be devoted to national defense and protection of my property rights, not to support cherry-picked industries from our dynamic free economy.
I see no need for the government to make our energy decisions for us. Enlightened consumerism is the mechanism I trust most because it is voluntary, democratic, it enforces real market mechanisms, and it de-necessitates big government solutions. If indeed the world’s petroleum reserves have reached a critical level, and I don’t debate that they may have, the markets will respond. A side-blessing of the current crude price of over $50/barrel is that now its price differential with other alternatives has taken a sharp fall. Capital is already flowing into realistic, competitive alternatives. Individual consumers are already altering their life-styles to cut the costs of profligate energy use, and energy-conserving appliances like hybrid cars and tankless, on-demand water heaters are gaining in popularity.
Which brings me to David’s post. It isn’t unreasonable that one would want to calculate the real energy savings when examining the merits of “hybrid” technology. The costs associated with the manufacturing and disposal of batteries are not widely known. So individual, enlightened consumers who want to buy with all the information in mind are missing a large part of the picture. His post and your comments on this thread have gone a long way towards exposing those costs.
BTW: this comment is powered by Northern Arizona sunshine – free for the taking.
As do I. I think our ethanol subsidies in particular are a crime. The most direct way to start solving this problem is to ditch the complication: scrap the ethanol subsidies and mandates (corn ethanol is just “laundered” fossil fuel and may have a negative energy payback, e.g. it is part of the problem), preferences for gas-fired electric generation (Exxon says N. American natural gas has peaked), and regulatory barriers. Replace them with a simple, straightforward petroleum tax, and tax embodied petroleum in imports (no sense importing processed oil from China and India instead of doing it more efficiently ourselves). People/markets will find their own way to cut costs.
I oppose the recent Senate move to increase CAFE standards instead of fuel taxes. This is the least effective and most expensive method of cutting petroleum use, it takes years to have an influence, and it diverts attention by giving the impression that “something has been done”.
I’m not sure that’s the case. Oil seems more like electricity than other commodities in some respects; when you don’t have enough electricity the grid fails catastrophically. We have buffers for oil and price mechanisms work much better in the fuel/chemical markets, but the short-term inelasticity of consumption relative to price hints that even small shortfalls may have seriously damaging economic consequences.
We have the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. We need other things too, ways to substitute other forms of energy for petroleum. This is one reason I’m annoyed by the many missed opportunities to make partial (not total) substitutions of electricity for gasoline as auto “fuel”; it would have been technically easy, relatively cheap, and would have allowed many more degrees of freedom in response to oil supply problems.
Tankless water heaters won’t help the oil situation one bit, and the people who bought Escalades and Excursions and Hummers over the last 4 years aren’t going to be able to make big adjustments until the loans are paid off.
Know what would affect the oil situation? Cogenerating water heaters and partially or completely electric cars. If cars run partly on electricity, anything that squeezes electricity out of another process effectively makes “motor fuel” ex nihilo (you’re reducing the amount of entropy generated, which increases the available energy from a given process). I know this sounds like magic, but it’s very down to earth and there is at least one company making a nice business of it.
You mean, “not widely publicized”; the costs have to have been known in minute detail for years, because lead-acid batteries have been one of the most reliably recycled consumer items in the USA for a long time due to the deposit requirement. If you think that batteries in cars would be treated less carefully, I beg you to look at what’s done with R-12.
E.P., Thanks for the link to Primary Energy. It looks like they are recycling “waste” energy. I’ll spend more time at their site in the coming days. Are they profitable? Have they gone public yet?
Agreed. The centralized grid is our nation’s greatest vulnerability. I favor a personalized energy-generation model where individuals and businesses are responsible for generating, storing and conserving their own energy. This model would offer infinite redundancy while it enforces personal conservation. It would largely put the government out of the energy business, and the eventual market for personalized generators and related accessories is mind-boggling.
On the topic of reforming the grid, here’s a researched comment (call it an essay) I posted on Chicagoboyz in response to another of David’s energy-related posts. In it I detail the attempts by diverse players to rein-in the giant government-subsidized utilities in this country.
Now tankless water heaters won’t save the world, but they will drastically reduce the annual energy that consumers currently expend to maintain 30 or 50 gallons of water near boiling temperature. They only heat what is needed when it is needed. This invention could save billions in electric and LP gas bills for U.S. consumers. And I’m surprised at how few Americans have ever heard of them.
I found the essay informative. Thanks for the pointer.
Their home page says right up front:
On the About Us page they state “Primary Energy is working in partnership with ASCP, a New York private equity investment firm, to fund acquisitions and new projects through a combination of debt and equity financing.“. If they aren’t profitable, they’re finding a lot of subsidies or suckers.
You may find this ironic, but I don’t. We moved from town-sized powerplants to gigawatt generators for reasons of cost, efficiency and pollution control, and to reverse this transformation for non-economic reasons would be to shoot ourselves in the foot. Then there is the management aspect; do you really think people who have no grasp of what happens when they flip the light switch are able to manage their own individual energy plants?
I see huge potential for decentralized energy systems, but they’ll be driven by their own merits and probably managed by professionals in concert with the broader networks. For instance, as the price of natural gas rises it will become increasingly profitable to cogenerate electricity and space heat rather than burning gas in separate generators and furnaces. (The potential of systems like this is massive. A home-sized cogenerator capable of 35,000 BTU/hr heat output would have an electric output in the neighborhood of 4-5 kW. A million such systems in e.g. metropolitan Detroit would have a peak output greater than the Monroe complex, the Palisades nuclear plant, and the Midland Cogeneration Venture (1370 MW) combined.)
I see these systems being owned and operated by management companies rather than individuals. Most people probably don’t want to concern themselves with such things, and they shouldn’t have to. The usefulness of these things is in swapping energy on the grid; personalization has little to do with it.
I see it differently, E.P. In a free economy, personalization has everything to do with it. Consumerism is a form of self-expression. The products we buy, and the styles we prefer are an expression of our personalities, tastes, and ultimately our personal needs.
For example, if transportation were a utility (and some would classify it as such) we already have a living example of stylized, personalized, private utilities. Personal choice and free markets, not governmental dictate, have created the modern dynamism of our transport options. For an extreme showcase of just how important personalization is in the private automobile market, look at the new Toyota Scion. The selling point of this car is that it is designed to be customized – to allow the owner to “make it his.”
I say yes. We’re grown-ups, no nanny is needed. I think the fact that there are over 50M cars in private usage today (not counting trucks) supports my optimism. Private owners of personal powerplants will capitalize the puchase and upkeep of these private utilities just as we do our cars. An industry of dealers, insurance providers, repair shops and home-services will blossom. And some Americans will go so far as to conduct their own repairs, and even modifications. In the same way that Jesse James’ Monster Garage turned a Panoz Esperante GT into a flying car, we’ll see garage-developers tinker with their stock generators in their own garages. Lastly, free folks with excess generation could share with their neighbors through their own simple, localized networks.
I admit there will be a learning curve, but Americans can habituate to any new technology if the gub’ment will just get out of the way and give us the chance.
Things like heat and electricity are hidden; people expect them to “just work” and most limit their involvement to calling a repairman when they don’t. Some even farm out the job of changing air filters once a year. People buy high-efficiency condensing furnaces, but they do not personalize them.
The fact that the vast majority of them don’t bother to open the hood unless the washer fluid runs dry supports my point: people will buy or contract for these things if they save money, especially if they become fashionable or patriotic, but most won’t want to fuss with the details. They’ll leave that to the professionals.
Enjoying the banter, E.P.
I’m enamored of an idea that may never come to pass, and you’ve taken on the chore of reminding me why: “…most won’t want to fuss with the details.”
There is always some heavy lifting on the front end of technological developments, and even the most clairvoyant among us never see all the twists and turns ahead. The rise of the world wide web and the blogosphere are good examples.
I am reminded of something my college economics text said way back in 1987: half the technology that we use in our daily lives wasn’t even invented 20 years ago. And that period is shrinking exponentially. Stay tuned. As long as private markets reign, we’ll all be continuously surprised at the innovations, that is, before we take them for granted!
I’m just reminding you that the USA is a nation in which a great many people cannot even drive a standard transmission. You can sell a few of anything to geeks, but to reach mass markets devices have to look (and preferably be) simple enough that people can just turn the key and go. The ubiquity of embedded systems proves just how important it is to keep the UI simple.
Some people might go for a fancy green enclosure outside their house which advertises that they are cogenerating, an electroluminescent lightning bolt on their car which says they’re running on stored electricity instead of gasoline, or something else which confers brand or group identity. THAT will certainly sell in some circles, I have no doubt about it.
I’ll be one of the guys managing the details and collecting my skim of the profits.
In reality, if you compare the total energy consumed by a Hybrid Toyota Prius, and an equivalently powered and sized conventional internal combustion car, you will find that the conventional car comes out ahead in energy efficiency by a significant margin.
This is due to the extra energy expended producing the batteries, electric motor, and propulsion of the extra weight of the added hybrid
parts of the car.
As an example,
The Prius gets approx. 55mpg.
A comparable compact car, like the Toyota Echo, gets approx. 35mpg.
So it would appear that the echo gets 20mpg less gas mileage.
Over the 150,000 mile life of the car, the Echo will burn 150,000/35 = 4,300 gallons of gasoline.
Over the 150,000 mile life of the car, the Prius will burn 150,000/55 = 2,700 gallons of gasoline.
The difference between the two is 4,300 – 2,700 = 1600 gallons of gasoline “Saved” by the Prius.
Now, the Prius batteries cost approx. $6000 from the Toyota.
For batteries like this, which are basically an electrochemical power plant, roughly 50% of the cost is the energy used to produce it.
So, the batteries took $3000 worth of energy to produce.
This energy comes in the form of electricity, predominantly, which was produced in Japan.
Japan produces over 80% of its electricity using petroleum hydrocarbons, like oil, natural gas, and coal.
At a wholesale electricity cost of 9 cents per kilowatt-hour, $3000 buys you 33,000 kwH of electricity.
The extra electric motor costs a good deal of money, and consumes alot of power to produce, but the internal combustion engine in the Prius is
smaller than the one in the Echo, so I’ll ignore this energy cost for this estimation.
That same $3000 buys you, at a wholesale gasoline price of $1.50 per gallon, 2000 gallons of gasoline
Since we are using current approximate wholesale energy prices here, the equivalence of $ for power is a close approximation of true energy cost.
So, we see that the energy used to produce the Prius, EXCEEDS the gasoline saved by 400 gallons.
(2000 gallons gasoline equivalent to make Lithium Ion batteries minus 1600 gallons “saved” by the Prius)
This is all pseudoenvironmentalism, and wastes energy to boot.
By the way, I’ve done extensive searching on the internet for data to refute my conclusions. The fact that Toyota and Honda have decided to ignore this issue indicates to me that they don’t like the answers they get when the do the math.
Oops, the batteries are NiMH, not LiMH, the math still holds, though.
I call bullshit.
The price premium of a hybrid over a conventional vehicle is about $2000-$2500, of which only part is the battery. You’ve also way underestimated Japan’s electric rates (28¢/kWh) and way overestimated the cost of NiMH cells.
IIRC, the 2005 Prius has about 2.5 kWh of NiMH cells; I can buy 2.5 kWh of Li-ion cells (more expensive than NiMH) for about $1800. That’s retail (albeit mail-order discount). I could put together a 2.5 kWh NiMH battery pack made out of these cells for about $1100. Note, those are today’s prices; prices have been coming down steadily even as oil prices have been climbing for the last several years, indicating that little of the cost is due to oil or anything which is tied to oil (like natural gas).
You’re also ignoring arbitrage. The only part of batteries which needs to be made using oil is plastic cases and separators (which weigh very little). As oil gets more expensive relative to coal, nuclear and the like, there will be an increasing payoff from using batteries to decrease the need for oil.
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