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Electric cars: more disruptive than we bargained for

Image: Oleg Alexandrov

The UK is the latest in a growing list of countries to announce bans on petroleum vehicles.  This has led to understandable concerns about the ability of national electricity grids to cope with the massive demand for additional electricity that such a ban implies.  The thinking appears to be that once the ban has been announced, somebody will think of a way of producing the equivalent of 20-30 new nuclear power plants’ worth of additional energy.

Meanwhile, in the real world coal plants are shutting down, nuclear companies are going bust, the so-called ‘shale revolution’ is teetering on the cliff edge of collapse, and there is simply no way given the current state of technology for renewables to take up the slack.  The task facing us today is figuring out how to maintain the supply of electricity we already have.  The last thing anyone needs is the massive increase in demand that will inevitably accompany the mass consumption electric cars.

This power shortage problem may, however, prove to be the least of our worries.  Too many electric cars will trigger a global economic collapse.

Few commentators now doubt the benefits to consumers of electric cars compared to petrol (gasoline) powered vehicles.  As a recent article in The Economist observes:

“Compared with existing vehicles, electric cars are much simpler and have fewer parts; they are more like computers on wheels. That means they need fewer people to assemble them and fewer subsidiary systems from specialist suppliers…

“With less to go wrong, the market for maintenance and spare parts will shrink. While today’s carmakers grapple with their costly legacy of old factories and swollen workforces, new entrants will be unencumbered. Premium brands may be able to stand out through styling and handling, but low-margin, mass-market carmakers will have to compete chiefly on cost.”

With prices falling and battery life and range extending, electric cars have become a sensible choice for many motorists – only long-distance commuters face problems with re-charging.  Add in the ubiquitous tax breaks and government subsidies, and electric cars are already overtaking petrol vehicles on cost of ownership.  According to The Economist:

“UBS, a bank, reckons the ‘total cost of ownership’ of an electric car will reach parity with a petrol one next year—albeit at a loss to its manufacturer. It optimistically predicts electric vehicles will make up 14% of global car sales by 2025, up from 1% today.”

Economics is seldom fully considered in such stories.  To its credit, The Economist does point to the inevitable job losses in the automobile industry:

“[Electric cars] need fewer people to assemble them and fewer subsidiary systems from specialist suppliers. Car workers at factories that do not make electric cars are worried that they could be for the chop.”

Given that a large part of global industrial production has grown up building, supplying and maintaining automobiles, we shouldn’t treat these losses lightly.  Regional economies that currently depend upon the legacy car industry will be plunged into permanent depression of the kind previously experienced in America’s rust belt when its heavy industries collapsed.

Even this, though, is trivial in comparison to what mass ownership of electric cars will do to the global oil industry – something that green virtue signallers will no doubt applaud until the true costs come home to roost.

The existential threat posed by electric cars is simply that they will force the price of petrol (gasoline) to zero.  In 2014, the world burned 41,235,000 barrels of petrol (gasoline) every day!  Nobody else wants the stuff.  Nor is there any obvious alternative use for it.  With the exception of some power tools and hobby engines, cars and light vans are the only place where petrol is consumed.

“Great,” I hear the greenwashers shout, “just stop producing the filthy, environment-destroying stuff.”  If only it were that simple.  The trouble is, as Michael Schirber at Live Science reminds us, oil is a chemical potpourri:

“Petroleum is not a single molecule but a mix of thousands of molecules, the most important of which are hydrocarbons. These are chains or rings of carbons atoms surrounded by hydrogen atoms.

“Although gasoline comprises nearly half of all petroleum production in the United States, a wide range of fuels and specialty oils come out of a modern-day oil refinery. The petroleum is first heated in a boiler to separate the smaller hydrocarbons with low boiling points from the larger hydrocarbons with high boiling points.”

Oil refineries cannot simply stop producing petrol (gasoline) without ceasing production of all of those other – far more useful – oil products.  Lighter gases are used in such things as paints, cleaning agents and as chemical feedstock.  Heavier products include the kerosene that fuels jet aircraft; diesel that powers our heavy machinery and transport; lubricating oils and greases for industry; and solids like bitumen.  One assumes that, like the rest of us, the greenwashers would quite like all of these other petroleum products – and the things they do for us – to be available after petrol has gone away.

Ah, but there’s the rub; because petrol effectively subsidises the price of all those other products.  Even the pro-electric car Economist article concedes that:

“The internal combustion engine has had a good run—and could still dominate shipping and aviation for decades to come…”

Indeed it will; because thus far nobody has figured out a way of powering commercial aeroplanes, ships, heavy machinery and heavy trucks with batteries and electric motors.  Take away what is, in effect, the 50 percent price subsidy from petrol and the cost of such things as diesel and aviation fuel must rise accordingly… at which point the global economy – as it currently operates (including, ironically, the mass production of batteries and electric cars) is over.  More than this though, even basic items of food – whose prices are already heavily subsidised – would rocket in price if (petroleum-based) chemical fertilisers, pesticides and insecticides, together with the diesel that powers agricultural machinery were no longer subsidised through petrol sales.

For the time being, electric cars are a disruptive – in the most negative sense – technology that gets to the very roots of the crisis of a Western civilisation that grew on oil.  Their use will grow simply because for individual consumers they are better and cheaper than the equivalent petrol car.  In the process, they will crash electricity grids that remain dependent on fossil fuels.  They will destroy regional economies built around the legacy automobile industry.  But most alarmingly, as they lower the worth of petrol they will drive up the cost of aviation, shipping, mining, agriculture and industry to point where global mass consumption can no longer be sustained… after which, almost all of us are surplus to requirements.

In the absence of a sensible (i.e. one that accords with the laws of thermodynamics) Plan-B for dealing with all of these disruptions, governments may well come to rue the day they announced their bans on petroleum vehicles.

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