Can the Electric Car Save the American Way of Life?

The Electric Car

Transportation consumes and enormous amount of energy, especially in this country. One of the most recent developments/innovations in this sector is the looming possibility of the electric car. General Motors’ engineers are working in overdrive in a “bet the company” attempt to develop the Chevy Volt by 2010. Daimler recently announced that it would stop making internal combustion engine cars by 2015.

When I first saw these announcements I thought that the companies were crazy. As I’ve been reading through MacKay’s book however, I’m beginning to think that it might just be genius. It might just be beginning of the end of the carbon based economy. I’m formulating a theory in my head that I’ll expound upon later in this series. The gist of the theory however is that the electric car is the key to everything.

The electric car will spur the development of new renewable electricity. I can’t stress how important that this would be. As the cost of renewables has come down possibly the biggest restraint on its growth has been the sunk cost of carbon based electricity generation. You don’t simply throw away a good coal power plant just because a similar cost renewable source is now available.

But in a move to an electricity based energy infrastructure you need massive amounts of new electric capacity. Not to replace current generating capacity but rather to supplement and expand it. The electric car becomes the cattle prod which spurs the development of wind, nuclear and solar.

With that little teaser, I digress. We must first understand if the electric car is feasible.

Is There Enough Lithium?

If we hope to power the world with electricity and batteries, then we probably want to make sure ahead of time that there is enough lithium in the world to make the requisite batteries. Fortunately, MacKay sees no issue here.

Is there enough lithium to make all the batteries for a huge fleet of electric cars? World lithium reserves are estimated to be 9.5 million tons in ore deposits. A lithium-ion battery is 3% lithium. Fisher et al. [2006] If we assume each vehicle has a 200 kg battery, then we need 6 kg of lithium per vehicle. So the estimated reserves in ore deposits are enough to make the batteries for 1.6 billion vehicles. That’s more than the number of cars in the world today – but not much more, so the amount of lithium may be a concern,

There’s many thousands times more lithium in sea water, so perhaps the oceans will provide a useful backup. However, lithium specialist R. Keith Evans says “concerns regarding lithium availability for hybrid or electric vehicle batteries or other foreseeable applications are unfounded.” And anyway, other lithium-free battery technologies are being developed, such as zinc-air rechargeables. I think the electric car is a goer!

You’ve shown that electric cars are more energy-efficient than fossil cars. But are they better if our objective is to reduce CO2 emissions, and the electricity is still generated by fossil power-stations? This is quite an easy calculation to do. Assume the electric vehicle’s
energy cost is 20 kWh(e) per 100 km. (I think 15 kWh per 100 km is perfectly possible, but let’s play skeptical in this calculation.) If grid electricity has a carbon footprint of 500 g per kWh(e) then the effective emissions of this vehicle are 100g CO2 per km, which is as good as the best fossil cars. So I conclude that switching to electric cars is already a good idea, even before we green our electricity supply.

How Much Energy Do Various Types of Transportation Consume?

Electric cars will be more efficient than our current models. But how will they compare with other types of short-distance transportation. After all, if we’re going to struggle to create enough renewable energy, then might we not need for everybody to get on the bus or the train?

MacKay does the math.

Car (doing 33mpg)
Single Occupent 80 kWh per 100 km
Four Person Car Pool 20 kWh per 100 seat-km
Electric car
Single Occupent 11 kWh(e) per 100 km
747 42 kWh per 100 seat-km
ICE at 125mph 3 kWh(e) per 100 seat-km
Victoria line (subway) 4 kWh(e) per 100 passenger-km
London transport trains 70 kWh per 100 actual passenger-km
London buses 24 kWh per 100 actual passenger-km


Trains and buses are potentially much more efficient than cars, if only they were full. But the way we do public transport at present, trains and buses are not that much more energy-efficient than cars. There remain many other good reasons for encouraging a switch to public transport (for example avoiding congestion and reducing accidents), but don’t expect to reduce energy consumption enormously by a switch to public transport.

This is huge. One thing that I am fairly convinced of is that any American solution to climate change will not involve changing our lifestyles precipitously. If at all. I think that Americans can be convinced to fully embrace a societal shift to renewable energy. I think that Americans will embrace electric cars. I don’t think that it will happen however if it is couched in terms of “sacrifice” and “changing your habits.” Americans will pay for renewable energy. You couldn’t pay them to change their lifestyles.

The problem goes beyond a general unwillingness to change however. Since the suburban explosion after World War II the United States has based its entire society on three inter-related things: cheap energy, flexible transport and cheap housing. Each of these three items are necessary components of how we live. Cheap housing exists in the suburbs not the city center. Trains and buses are less convenient than the automobile for suburban living. Cheap energy is necessary for the mass use of the automobile.

Recent spikes in energy costs have led to ridiculous predictions in the media about the death of the ex-urbs. Predictions of recently built housing developments full of 4000 square foot McMansions becoming ghetto-ized apartment dwellings.

I’m not going to examine population projections for the United States in this article. Suffice to say, given the expectation of 50% population growth in the coming decades I expect that the major population centers will become more dense but it will also lead to the further growth of the suburbs and exurbs. Provided of course that the automobile remains at the center of our transportation infrastructure.

In the short term of course, expensive energy will put a dent in this growth. If a carbon free world would force Americans to abandon the mobility provided by the automobile then predictions of a re-ordering our living arrangements might hold more water. But if the energy consumption of trains and buses and electric cars are similar then there will be no need to make changes to how we live.

Americans will eagerly embrace a move to electric cars powered by renewable energy if it is cheap, convenient and allows them to maintain their current lifestyles.

Related Reading:
Part 1: Is There Enough Alternative Energy to Power the United States?
Part 2: Can the Electric Car Save the American Way of Life?
Part 3: How Much Renewable Energy Does the U.S. Produce?
Part 4: Carbon Sequestration. Of Jet Emissions?
Part 5: Professor David MacKay’s View of Future Britain’s Energy Use
Part 6: Wind Power: Can We Get to 300 GW by 2030?
Part 7: The Solar Pipe Dream?
Part 8: World Energy Consumption Per Capita
Part 9: Dealing With the Intermittency of Wind and Solar Power


  1. Jurgena Germany Kassel 2.09.2009
    batteries are dead end in the automotive industry, they do not play a primary role is an interesting future device that rozkr?ci global industry of electric vehicles, we must talk about this new device we are waiting, who will first talk with us

    Groups Jürgen Kassel, Germany 2.09.2009

  2. I agree with Jurgen. The future is in some type of fuel. A fuel that is renewable. I agree with you Brian, that the future layouts of cities depend on which technology Americans embrace. The modern age of energy consumption, however, in my opinion, will need to find an energy paradigm that is much more sustainable than electric cars. Some may opt for public transport, but you are also correct in pointing out that Americans cannot be paid to change their lifestyles. What is ultimately going to change people’s standards when energy isn’t cheap?

  3. Why is the electric car not sustainable? Why won’t energy stay cheap?

    What renewable fuels are we talking about? If we’re talking about Hydrogen, I’m not currently a believer. Why not just use Electricity in a battery, rather than converting it to Hydrogen? A hydrogen car is simply an electric car which stores energy chemically as hydrogen.

    A Hydrogen infrastructure uses electricity to create Hydrogen, storing and transporting that electricity as Hydrogen, and then converts the Hydrogen back into electricity to run the car. Instead of pulling electricity directly form the grid and storing it in a battery (the tech of which is improving by leaps and bounds faster than fuel cells).

  4. I apologize for being brief, I have to leave. Rare earth metals needed for the battery-powered world are exactly that, rare. Why create another resource war?

  5. Welcome we are pleased that this issue has supporters, as to ours, research is not the type of liquid fuel is the device, it is a continuation of studies of a man who is well known to physicists rozwiali?my we went further his studies, so nothing is sticking with the laws physics after all these years it seems so simple, we need only 3 minutes to persuade the rest of the world, the name and direction of research., we believe that at the time the patent was that it quickly locked, so we look forward. It is hard to believe, as many have undertaken attempts to create clean energy 0 if the world rejects our research to bear the loss pretty good going blind de-sac, this flash of that world, and cars waiting

  6. Wind + Nuke + Solar has HUGE potential, not just for keeping energy cheap but for making it even cheaper. Technological advancements are key, but the energy is already there. I read that there is enough solar energy in ONE DAY that hits the state of Nevada that if harnessed 100% (obviously a ridiculous statement just to make a point), it could power the entire state for a full year. Wind potential is also enormous. Our utilization of wind is a joke. The State of Nebraska has SEVEN windmills, are you kidding me!? It ranks 10th best in the nation for wind potential and something like 45th in actual production (the reason is that NE has negotiated fantastic coal prices with several mining outfits in Wyoming and Union Pacific being based here brings it in dirt cheap).

    The electric company here has a program for those of us who feel guilty about out gluttonous energy consumption (yes, even conservatives like me experience occasional guilt). It allows some those of us so inclined to pay an extra $30 per month to receive “green” electricity, meaning it comes from the local wind production. Obviously, this is a joke, but I figure the money will demonstrate that users want to promote green power. Anyway, the point is that they know it’s happening and are testing the market. Once the financial incentives (not DISincentives!) are in place, it will happen faster than you can imagine. I was reading in the Omaha World Herald (which gus reads from cover to cover, so he’ll have seen this too :) ) that there are plans for a new power station in the state. They have drawn up plans for a traditional coal plant, as well as a modern Nuke facility. Amazingly, the environmentalists are fighting the nuke. What? Anyway, we’re close. If we can get the right people elected and further educate the masses, this thing can happen. If we can get the electric car going, it WILL happen. And I have to say, the electric car is absolutely sustainable. I was reading about a new battery tech that involves the use of sodium (not the molten type you’ve probably heard about), of which, there is plenty.

    Check this out and cross your fingers it’s not a hoax.

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