The real secret about EVs: “historic disruption” in terms of performance, cost savings, and the environment

Technology Disruption Is Fun, But This Is Seriously Historic

When highlighting how quickly technology transitions happen once a disruptive technology is ripe, I like to use this graph:

disruptive technology transitions

Click to embiggen. (Note: I am well aware that this graph is hard to read, but I’m not sure who created the original version or where to find a sharper copy.)

And I like to share photos like this one:

old cell phone

Such charts and photos help to show and remind people how quickly things change and how quickly new technologies can take over the market.

But to throw solar energy, wind energy, and electric vehicles into that story is actually an understatement. To live through the development and growth of the technologies in that top graph was pretty awesome. But there’s something that even sets solar energy, wind energy, and electric vehicles apart from them.

Once upon a time, humans discovered fire. Can you think of anything in human history that happened before that? Sure, some things did, but fire goes way back — way, way, way back. Since the discovery of fire, we have burned things to produce fire, heat, and — eventually — electricity. We burn this, we burn that, we dig deeper for more stuff to burn, we look in the ocean for “black gold,” etc.

All of a sudden, we are now entering a phase in human history where we can go beyond fire. Phase 2 of civilization (in an energy sense) is now beginning. We are going beyond fire.

This point first landed in my head while watching a presentation from Envision SolarCEO Desmond Wheatley. (Unfortunately, the video has since been removed and I’m not finding the presentation elsewhere.) While writing the above line, though, it just hit me that Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute also highlighted the shift in Reinventing Fire. Check out the book, Amory’s TED Talk on the subject, and associated resources.

Why This Is More Than Just Cool

This would be cool all in itself, but there’s an obvious reason why this is more than just “cool.”

Humans are running a funny experiment where we will eventually find out if we are warming the world so much that humans one day won’t be able to step outside in some regions of the world. There’s so much destruction from global warming that would lead to that era that, even if we did let the experiment run that far out of control, no human may be around to care.

We simply have to stop burning fossil remains (I’d rather not call them “fuels” at this point) if we don’t want to wreak total havoc on our civilization.

In response to an article I wrote yesterday about Tesla’s acquisition of SolarCity, one commenter (Bob Fearn) responded to the section about solar prices with these rhetorical questions: “Good info BUT are we not moving to solar and wind to reduced climate change impacts? Is it therefore not essential that the estimated climate change costs associated with various energy sources be calculated and included?”

Indeed, the costs should be included, but if we are going to be honest with ourselves, the cost of not moving to renewables is $∞ (in case that isn’t obvious to read, that’s the dollar sign next to the infinity symbol).

That’s the logical end of this article, but since humans tend to be so illogical, I’ll add one more section (as an excuse to play with numbers and a chart again).

How Insanely Cheap Are Renewables & Electric Vehicles?

It’s hugely ironic (and depressing) that the #1 barrier to adoption of cleantech like solar energy and electric vehicles has for years been that it’s “too expensive.” Even today, with solar often cheaper than any other source of electricity (except maybe wind), and with Tesla electric vehicles (Model S, Model X, and Model 3) offering more consumer value than anything else at their price points, the biggest barrier to solar & EV adoption is probably the misconception that they are too expensive.

But even the conventional “cost-competitive cleantech” story — widespread cost-competitiveness of solar energy, wind energy, and electric vehicles — is misleading.

This is the (misleading) chart I shared yesterday to highlight the cost-competitiveness of solar energy:


The misleading bit is that chart doesn’t take into account externalities. The marketplace doesn’t take into account externalities.

If the externalities are so high that they wipe out the human species, then you get “$∞” as the cost of the energy source, of course. However, even if you try to be a bit conservative, there is absolutely no case for continuing to burn fossil fuels.

A 2011 study led by the former head of the Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment (who is now deceased) found that burning coal for electricity cost the United States ~$500 billion a year in externalities — real costs not included in the price of electricity from coal (healthcare costs, premature death costs, etc.). What that worked out to was an additional 9–27 cents per kilowatt-hour.

I haven’t seen a similar study for natural gas, but if we are generous and estimate that the externalities are approximately half as bad, that would be 4.5–13.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Altering that Lazard chart yet again, the version below puts coal and natural gas options in a more logical placement (the black bars are adjusted LCOE with approximate externalities added in).


Hmm, which electricity choices look most sensible to you?

It would be a very similar story for electric cars versus gasoline cars, for electric buses versus diesel buses, etc. If someone wants to throw a chart or two together on such comparisons, I’d be happy to share.

Cleantech is ripe. The transition is happening. It could be happening faster, and itshould be happening faster, but what can you do? (Oh yeah, you can share this information.)

by Zach Shahan

Simply better

The real secret of electric vehicles is that they are simply better—across the board better—for a long list of reasons. This truth has been masked by the limitations of existing battery technology and hang-ups about range. But, battery limitations aside, the electric motor is a fundamentally better technology for moving cars than the internal combustion engine.

For starters, it is elegantly simple. The internal combustion engine has a long list of components (starter, spark plugs, carburetor, radiator, etc.) needed to make it run, that few consumers understand. The drivetrain of an electric car, at its core, is not much more complex than a ceiling fan. You turn the knob (or step on the accelerator) and it goes. With simplicity comes efficiency. An electric car takes far less energy to move than a gas car and costs less to maintain, too.

That simplicity also results in the cleaner, sharper driving experience that we know and love. A simple electric motor responds instantaneously and does not require dozens of components working in harmony to make the wheels turn. Drivers new to EVs are almost universally shocked by how much faster they respond.

And the fuel is simple too. We have spent the last hundred years building out our electric infrastructure. Electric plugs are within arm’s reach nearly everywhere in our built environment. While yes, gas stations are pretty common, cluttering up our busy intersections, they don’t compare to electric plugs, which are discretely found in every room of every home and workplace in the country. And by the way, gasoline is highly toxic when you breathe it or get it on your skin at the gas pump. Regular exposure causes a long list of health problems.

Consider also where the fuel comes from. The footprint of the petroleum industry dwarfs nearly everything else we humans do. When you consider the remote oil fields and deep oceans where it is produced, to the massive supertankers plowing the world’s oceans to bring it to us, to the huge refineries where it is processed, to the corner gas stations where it is sold, nothing is bigger, messier, or costlier than our gasoline infrastructure.

Electricity is mostly produced locally, by local utilities. While it is true that we have historically burned a lot of coal for electricity, a transition to cleaner electricity is well underway. Every year, more coal is replaced by low cost wind and solar. And it is easier and cheaper than ever to produce your own fuel with rooftop solar, as I do.

For many years, the beauty and simplicity of electric drive vehicles has been held back by battery technology. Batteries were bulky and expensive. But that is now changing rapidly. Batteries are getting better and cheaper every year, as demonstrated by the new generation of 200 mile plug-in vehicles that will soon begin rolling out. Used batteries will also see a second life in stationary applications, unlike gasoline, which, when burned has a “second life” as a harmful pollutant and contributor to climate change.

The best sales people for EVs are the drivers themselves, so borrow one from a friend, let someone else drive your EV, or find a National Drive Electric Week event near you(September 10-18, 2016). If you already love EVs, and want to convert all your friends and neighbors to enjoy a better driving experience, consider volunteering to lead your own EV celebration.

By Joel