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Dec 30, 2011

Iran, Electric Cars and Our Stuck Narrative


With Iran threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, chokepoint for the passage of 17 percent of globally traded oil, this is a good time to introduce myself to Outlet readers. This set of issues—oil addiction and the vehicle-centric, land-abusing society it engenders—has a lot to do with why I joined RMI as editorial director after a 30-year newspaper career.

This week, as an old headline about oil insecurity reappears, I feel mounting frustration about a newer storyline being adopted in my former industry: the supposedly faltering launch of mass-produced electric cars.

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These stories, of course, are related, but the media, politicians and the public either don’t see the connection or don’t want to.

Let me step back for a moment to personal history.

Gasoline topped 40 cents a gallon in my hometown on the day I got my driver’s license in January 1974, in the midst of the Arab oil embargo. Over the next few years, I saw a clear connection between U.S. oil dependency and my struggle to gain traction in the economy as oil price spikes drove inflation. The experience led me to study political science and journalism in college and to buy the most fuel-efficient vehicles I could afford.

As a student reporter, probably then driving a Ford Maverick, I first heard of the Strait of Hormuz in about 1979, when I covered a speech by Gerald Ford in which he warned that as Iran’s stability quavered, we would soon learn about the strategic waterway and its vulnerability.

In the intervening decades, despite Amory Lovins changing the energy discussion, despite a range of uneven conservation and efficiency efforts and a loophole-filled set of rules that improved automotive fuel economy, quite obviously not enough has changed. We are again hearing about the Strait of Hormuz as a potential threat to our economic security as Iran reacts to sanctions imposed because of its nuclear program.

Our oil dependency gives erratic leaders money to do things like repress their people, finance terrorism and pursue nuclear weapons. It gives them outsized power to influence the U.S. economy and the very lives of Americans whom we keep sending to war in oil-rich hot spots.

Our national leaders are stuck and our narrative is stuck.

The entirely predictable response to Iran’s threat will be calls for military action and increased domestic oil production.

These decades-old ideas, which have not yet made us secure and leave us to depend on the continued stability of Saudi Arabia, of course do nothing to address the environmental and economic risks of continued fossil fuel dependency. We urgently need a new storyline, such as the Reinventing Fire vision of freeing the U.S. from fossil fuels by 2050, with business leading the way.

Now, the U.S. burns 13 million barrels of oil a day at a cost of $2 billion. That oil dependence also incurs hidden costs totaling roughly $1.5 trillion a year, or 12 percent of GDP.

The only way to avoid these costs is to stop using oil, and RMI research shows a huge potential prize for doing so—the transportation sector alone holds a $3.8 trillion opportunity from oil not needed.

Key to this is the adoption of electric vehicles built with ultrastrong, ultralight materials that enable powertrain reductions and fuel efficiency of up to 240 mpg equivalent.

These approaches, while not easy, offer far lower risks to national security, the economy, the environment and public health.

The benefits transcend party lines—and get us unstuck.

Which brings us to one new story the media are telling that is counterproductive to solving our oil addiction: That the launch of the first mass-market electric cars, the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf, is fizzling. Under the headline “Are electric cars losing their spark?” USA Today this month focused on Chevy Volt fires that came only in tests and on Volt and Leaf sales falling below projections this year, reaching probably about 17,000 between the two. In naming the Volt one of the big product flops of the year, Yahoo Finance made much the same arguments. 

This narrative simply lacks context. Gas-powered vehicles catch fire nearly 200,000 times a year—on the road, not in labs. Toyota, which has now sold more than 1 million hybrids in the U.S., sold only about 5,800 of its Prius hybrid to U.S. customers in 2000, the first year it was offered here. Selling 17,000 EVs in the first year may not be so bad.

To be sure, pricy EVs face obstacles to consumer acceptance. So did the car. The Literary Digest (not to be confused with the USA Today of its time), proclaimed in 1899, “The ordinary ‘horseless carriage’ is at present a luxury for the wealthy; and although its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle.”

I want to stop buying gas. The patriotic alternatives, with no loss of comfort, safety or convenience, are on the road.

So I see an EV in my future, just as I see EVs becoming as common as hybrids within a few years. But Iran’s latest threat reminds us that we need to go further faster, for example while the Saudi royal family is able to maintain power without direct U.S. military intervention, even as repressive regimes around it collapse.

For my part, I have more faith in a U.S. energy future in which resources from above the ground power homes, industry and EVs than I do in the long-term stability of Saudi Arabia.


Showing 1-10 of 10 comments

January 3, 2012

Hi Randy,

Your statement: "To be sure, pricy EVs face obstacles to consumer acceptance. " is in itself one of the obstacles to widespread adoption of the EV.

An EV is only expensive if we insist on comparing it to the so called "comparable" ICE make and model of auto. For instance, comparing the Leaf to the "comparable" Versa.

We need to stop doing this. The only thing "comparable" about these two vehicles is their outward physical appearance. Beyond that, the Versa is based on 100 year old technology that chains us to oil and all of its many, no longer tolerable, destructive side effects. The Leaf on the other hand is based on 21st century technology that not only breaks our addiction to oil, but also allows us the opportunity to produce our own "fuel" via a PV array on our homes thus breaking our dependence on the pricing whims of large corporations.

Truth be told, the Leaf is actually cheap when compared to a Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Lexus, Acura. Cadillac, Porsche and so on. These brands sell in large numbers in this country and around the world. Nobody asks these buyers, "What's the payback time", or point out that all of these "luxury" or "prestige" cars are based on that 100 year old, outdated technology. There is no way that any of them can ever deliver what the Leaf does.

So the success of today's "expensive" EV rests with those wealthy and upper middle class consumers that are presently paying big bucks for the prestige and status of driving what they perceive to be a superior automobile. And they buy a lot of them-
well over a million a year in the US alone. If just 20% of those buyers would purchase an EV as a status symbol, production numbers for EVs would reach a point where prices for battery packs and vehicle assembly costs would start downward. Then the masses could jump in.

Selling that 20% on the prestige of the EV sounds like a challenge for RMI.

January 3, 2012

Last year I turned heads in my Nissan Leaf everywhere I went in Nashville, TN. This year there are enough of them on the road that it's unremarkable. Granted, we're home to Nissan USA and their employees are all driving Leafs, but still.

Pricey? $25G is a lot of money but it's less than what a typical SUV costs. The media narrative aside, the reality is electric cars make a lot of sense in a world where gas is $3.50 a gallon. I spent $8 on fuel last month. That's a fraction of what I would have paid with my old ICE vehicle. As more Leafs, Volts and other electric models come on line, the pundits will adjust their talking points.

January 5, 2012

Well written and timely, Randy. Kudos to the RMI for all that you do.

A little kow fact is that we already produce electric vehicles that get an MPGe of 240. They are alterntively called LSV (low speed vehicle) or NEV (neighborhood electric vehicle).

Our orgnaization is attempting to increase their utilization in Georgia, where many are produced. Please see what it's all about at www.augustagreenway.org


January 5, 2012

I like the car RMI makes all carbon fiber looks great Would get five star crash rating I am sure See about offering up one or two for charity auction see some cash from the exclusive car market .

January 5, 2012

"These approaches, while not easy, offer far lower risks to national security, the economy, the environment and public health.

The benefits transcend party lines—and get us unstuck."

Great to read your article but... it is preaching to the choir - and the problem is that there are just too few of us! And while we might like to think that we can get "unstuck", the proof is in the pudding.

We may have grown in size from a flea to a bee over the last decade but the elephant has also gotten bigger. I have been following Amory for a long time and one only had to look at where we are today vs the timeline in Endgame to realize that.

I don't despair but I do get very frustrated by the lack of patriotism and/or selfishness exhibited by the majority of the population and politicians, especially. Over the past few years I've become quite "intense" in my "evangelizing" attempts when I see people, including educated professionals, who really don't care about the legacy they are leaving their kids and grand kids.

For example, I recently had quite a heated discussion with my bank manager... a really nice, educated guy with about 5-7 years to retirement. He just bought a "loaded" F150 for his 1.5 hr commute to the bank. I was simply blown away by his choice... he could have bought any vehicle he wanted but instead bought a gas guzzler that served absolutely no purpose other than to satisfy a whim.

Anyone who follows Amory knows that we could quite easily be off imported oil within a decade (faster than the timeline laid out in Re-inventing Fire).

We have more people "aware" and "evangelizing" than ever yet, if we are honest, it really hasn't changed things all that much. All that we have done is the equivalent to "redecorating" the deck chairs on the Titanic because the facts are that the majority of the country is populated by people with attitudes like my bank manager, on the one hand, and corrupt and selfish politicians, on the other. And that, unfortunately, is not going to change for decades unless we hit a crisis (one would have thought that $100 oil would have been that point, but it obviously isn't even close - 3 of the 4 top selling vehicles are trucks!)

January 5, 2012

When judging the efficiency of an EV I look at the weight, drag, cost, range, and battery. I want to know the battery cost replacement and life. All present EVs fail the efficiency analysis. I too want to be energy independent. I want to be free from a gas station except to recharge on long trips. I want to get my energy from the sun. But we won't get there by encouraging inefficient EVs. We must wait an auto maker to build a true EV, not a half measure based on the ICE platform. The technology is here. No manufacturer uses it. We must demand that they do by rejecting half measures. For example, I would have bought an Aptera. That was no compromise.

January 8, 2012


Good discussion, thanks! I have to agree with Gary Munkhoff, below, about how we frame the 'cost' of EVs. I've been driving a Toyota RAV4 EV for the past 9 years and we've got about 105,000 miles on it. I do a little public radio piece called "Life in the Fast Lane" - also, an NPR Podcast - and at the 100,000 miles mark, I did a comparison of the cost of owning and running the RAV4 EV and an ICE RAV4, on LitFL.

Assuming that the ICE RAV gets 23 mpg, the analysis indicated that, based on fuel consumption alone, over 100k miles, the RAV4EV cost between $1200 and $1500 in electricity @ about .08/kW hr, while the RAV4 ICE cost about $13,000 @ $3/gal. That's a conservative set of figures all a round, since the ICE RAV4 won't get, in normal mixed-mode, 23 mpg. But, then, the price/kW of .08 is a blended figure of off peak and special rate from California's PGE. So, I was trying to be 'fair' and not exaggerate the benefits.

So, here's what the breakdown looked like:

The RAV4EV cost $46K out the door when it was new, minus $4K form the Air District ($42K) and minus 12K from CARB over a 4 year period ($30K), minus $2K Fed tax break ($28), minus $11.5 thanks to no gas ($13k minus $1.5K, to make $14K).

Now, to be sure, I haven't factored in the cost of battery replacement, which will happen eventually (but I didn't factor int he cost of oil changes and maintenance on the ICE RAV, which the EV doesn't need). Since the RAV4 EV was a hand-built, short run (only about 1500 made), the battery replacement cost will be about $10k. But even at that rate, if you make a similar set of calculations with the ICE RAV, you still come out ahead AND CO2 is emissions are reduced significantly over the life of the vehicle.

As an aside, a DOE engineer once calculated that it takes about 6kW hr of electricity to make a gallon of gasoline (in fact, Nissan used this figure for a period of time while marketing the Leaf). If that's true, and one factors in to the calculation the electricity cost of gasoline for a vehicle getting 23 mpg in 100K miles, the power spent for refining the gasoline consumed is 26, 100 kW Hrs.... enough for the RAV4EV to travel 108,000 miles!

So, in gasoline AVOIDED, and CO2 emissions REDUCED - and quite apart from the national security argument - an EV is a superior choice, even in comparison to a moderately-efficient ICE vehicle.

As I say on the air, "For Life in the Fast Lane, I'm Kelly O'Brien".... *smiles*

This is fun!

January 8, 2012

Hi, Randy and gang,

Without intention of being overbearing, here's more on EV Charging vs. CO2 produced, specifically for EVs based in California:

Periodically, I’ll hear from a listener with a fair question: “Doesn’t charging EVs using electricity from the grid create as much, or more, CO2 than fossil-fueled vehicles produce?”

The answer, especially in California, is a pretty clear “No”.

Here’s what I found about charging Electric Vehicles on the grid:

In California, EVs are responsible for about half or less CO2 of fossil-fueled vehicles, thanks to California’s lack of coal-fired energy. So, a car that gets 23 miles per gallon and drives 12,000 miles a year, uses 522 gallons of gasoline and produces 5.1 tons of CO2 at the tailpipe.

A similar electric car driving the same distance is responsible, when charged solely on the grid, for about 2.7 tons of CO2 at the powerplant where the electricity is produced.

But there’s an interesting consideration left out of this comparison, which changes the game, greatly in favor of the electric vehicle.

It’s the energy cost to refine one gallon of gasoline, estimated to be about 6 kWh. Apply that up-front energy cost to the 522 gallons of gasoline used by the fossil-fueled vehicle and that same electrical energy would power the electric car for about 10,500 of the 12,000 miles in the comparison.

So, if you consider the combination of California’s cleaner energy at the source of generation, AND the CO2 avoided in refining, electric vehicles outshine fossil-fueled vehicles by a long shot.

Now, think of the added CO2-saving benefits solar charging your electric vehicle brings!



January 9, 2012

Great comments and discussion.
@Minao, let's make the choir bigger! Not everyone will agree, ever, but the facts are compelling and the Internet is powerful. Spread the word a little at a time.
The idea of getting America off fossil fuels is bold—too big and daunting for a lot of people to imagine. But our alternative is to keep doing the same thing, keep having the same vulnerabilities, keep coping with the same health effects.
That's the great thing about Reinventing Fire. It shows concrete ways to get there with existing technology. What did JFK say about going to the moon?
"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone ..."

January 14, 2012

A few thoughts:
1. Electric or plug-in cars look great, but our electricity is generated mostly by coal (70%), so I don't see a big reduction in greenhouse gases. We thought about adding a solar rooftop collector, but our utility doesn't have a net metering program. We've driven hybrids since 2004 and have had no problems with either vehicle. (Both Hondas).
2. We have noticeably reduced our electric use by switching to CFLs and now LEDs. We often find that a 5 to 7 watt LED (250 to 470 lumens) can replace a 60 watt bulb and these cost about $12 at Home Depot or Lowes. Unfortunately, we can't find any that are made in the USA. Are there any?
3. I read Reinventing Fire and it is good. Rifkin's new book the Third Industrial Revolution takes a more decentralized approach, and Bill Clinton's Back to Work book has many sensible suggestions for government (often city or state), industry, and activist participation, especially in retrofitting housing.

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