September 11, 2019
The leading Democratic contenders for the White House love electric vehicles. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) all have released plans that would require the rapid electrification of the transportation sector.
During last week’s CNN town hall on climate change, former vice president Joe Biden declared that the U.S. should “get internal combustion engine vehicles off the road” and that by pushing EV development, “we will own the market. …We will be creating jobs.”
Andrew Yang said “we are all going to love driving EVs.” He said the federal government would help consumers buy an electric car and “we will offer to buy their clunker.”
While there’s no doubt that EVs are politically popular, they won’t save us from climate change. Sure, EV sales are growing. But a look at the numbers shows that American drivers aren’t giving up their “clunkers.” Gasoline sales are at record levels, and any attempt to convert the U.S. auto sector to EVs will overwhelm global markets in commodities such as cobalt and copper.
Last year, U.S. consumers purchased about 17.3 million vehicles. Of that number, EVs accounted for about 361,000, or roughly 2 percent of the total. Data from InsideEVs.com suggest that 2019 sales will exceed last year’s numbers. But even if the domestic EV fleet grows tenfold or more, it won’t make much of a dent in U.S. oil demand. Last month, U.S. gasoline demand hit a record 9.93 million barrels per day. (Keep in mind that gasoline accounts for about half of all domestic oil use, which is about 20.4 million barrels per day.)
What would it take to cut gasoline use by a third? Let’s do the math. Assume an average U.S. car is driven 15,000 miles per year and gets 30 miles per gallon. That means it consumes about 500 gallons per year. Each additional 1 million EVs that are added to the U.S. fleet will save about 500 million gallons of gasoline per year, or roughly 32,600 barrels per day. Therefore, cutting U.S. gasoline use by a third would require roughly 100 million new EVs.
Last year, about 5.1 million EVs were in use around the globe. That means that cutting domestic gasoline demand by a third would require the U.S. to deploy roughly 20 times as many EVs as are now being used around the world. That’s a tall order.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is their resource intensity. In June, Richard Herrington, the head of earth sciences at the Natural History Museum in London, and seven of his colleagues sent a letter to the British government that underscored the scale of the challenge. Herrington and his colleagues calculated the amount of commodities, including rare earth elements, that would be needed to convert all the United Kingdom’s 31 million motor vehicles to electric drive. (Rare earths are a group of 17 elements that includes neodymium, an essential ingredient in electric motors.) They found that doing so would require “two times the total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three-quarters of the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production during 2018.”
The U.S. has about 276 million registered motor vehicles, or roughly nine times as many vehicles as the U.K. Thus, if Herrington’s numbers are right, electrifying all of U.S. motor vehicles would require roughly 18 times the world’s current cobalt production, about nine times global neodymium output, nearly seven times global lithium production, and about four times world copper production.
Even if there were sufficient political will — and money — to attempt an electric overhaul of the transportation sector, there may not be enough cobalt or rare earth elements to meet demand. In an email, Herrington told me that cobalt “is probably the most problematic, since the majority of current supply is geographically constrained to Central Africa.”
In addition, any effort to deploy millions of new EVs will require cooperation from China, which now controls about half of global lithium production and 85 percent of the world’s supply of cobalt. China also mines about 70 percent of the world’s supply of rare earths. In June, China more than doubled tariffs on U.S. rare earths imports. In August, it said it would add an additional 10 percent on top of that tariff rate.
Electric vehicles have become a standard talking point for the Democratic contenders for the White House because it helps them appear serious about climate change. But the hard truth is that decarbonizing the transportation sector will be extremely difficult and the process will take decades, not years. Battery-powered vehicles lost the race with oil-fueled ones back when Thomas Edison was still alive. Yes, today’s batteries are far better than they were in Edison’s day, and yes, the EV fleet will continue growing.
But the internal combustion engine keeps getting better, too. Over the past century, myriad improvements including things such as fuel injection, electronic ignition and turbochargers have made them cleaner and dramatically more efficient. The result is that cars and trucks with internal combustion engines dominate the transportation sector and, like it or not, that dominance will continue for decades to come regardless of presidential politics.
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