Electric Car Wisdumb

The current McKinsey Quarterly feature’s Andy Grove’s editorial, An electric plan for energy resilience. An excerpt:

We believe the United States should consider accelerating this movement by creating an industry of after-market retrofitters. What problems’”technical and economic’”would need to be solved in order to do that? With the help of a team of second-year graduate students in our Bass seminar at the Stanford Business School, we examined this question in the context of a proposed pilot program, whose aim would be to retrofit one million vehicles in three years. We felt that such a project would represent what in game theory is referred to as the ‘minimum winning game’: a significant step toward a long-term strategic objective (see sidebar, ‘Inside Andy’s real-world seminar’).

We estimate the price tag of such a pilot project to be around $10 billion, owing to the present high cost of batteries, which are around $10,000 each. One might expect such costs to drop as volume increases, but because this program is accelerated by design, we have to assume that batteries will remain expensive. Assuming an average gas price of $3 per gallon, the payback period to the owner of a retrofitted vehicle is at least ten years, not a strong economic incentive. But the benefits of this program’”testing and validating a key approach to energy resilience’”accrue to the well-being of the United States at large. As the general population is the predominant beneficiary, economic assistance flowing from everyone to vehicle owners, in the form of tax incentives, is justified.

There are different approaches to retrofitting vehicles. We favor GM’s Volt design, in which the car is directly driven by an electric motor. The vehicle’s existing gasoline engine is replaced by a smaller one, whose sole purpose is to generate electricity and recharge the battery. To simplify the retrofitting task, we would limit the scope of the program to six to ten Chevrolet, Ford, and Dodge models, selected on the basis of two criteria: low fuel efficiency and large numbers of vehicles on the road. Most of these vehicles would be SUVs, pick-ups, and vans.

There’s some wisdom in this proposal, particularly in the recognition that achieving an alt fuel vehicle transformation takes more than a few inventions; it requires changes in infrastructure, marketing, and a variety of other domains, each with bugs to be worked out:

Others wondered why we should bother retrofitting a million cars if that would deal only with a fraction of a percent of the existing cars. That’s one way to look at it. Another, which was the view our students took, is that it is important to strive to do enough conversions that we can encounter all the unknown unknowns, which in my experience characterize every new product or technology as it gets scaled into volume. Should it be 5 million? Should it only be 500,000? We picked a million as a number that is big enough to stress retrofitting capability, battery production capability, manufacturing issues and marketing issues. We described our aim as the ‘minimum winning game’ that would give us a platform from which we could scale further.

However, the retrofit idea strikes me as fundamentally flawed. Targeting low efficiency SUVs, pick-ups, and vans puts batteries exactly where they’d be least effective. If most such vehicles weren’t overweight, un-aerodynamic, saddled with lossy AWD, and bloated with power-hungry accessories, they’d already get decent fuel economy. Adding batteries to them is going to result in some combination of high cost, short range, and poor performance. That sounds like a sure way to poison the public perception of plug in electric vehicles.

RMI has been arguing for years that a coordinated set of chassis innovations could make powertrains with high cost-per-watt, like fuel cells, attractive. It’s no accident that that the only really successful hybrid vehicle (the Prius, responsible for over half of 2007 and 2008 hybrid sales) was designed from scratch. It gets its breakthrough mileage/performance combination from much more than a battery and motor. Lightweight materials, aerodynamics, low rolling resistance tires, and other innovations are also key.

I think Grove and his students are falling for a common fantasy: that technology will step up and allow us to drive exactly as we now do, fossil-free. I personally doubt that will happen. Arnold will probably be one of only a few to ever drive a hydrogen Hummer. The rest of us will have to recognize that if alt fuel vehicles are to accomplish anything really meaningful from an energy standpoint, they’ll be different, as will our land use, commuting, and travel habits.

With that in mind, we should be focusing on creating the new stuff, not fixing the old. That might mean the Chevy Volt, but it might also mean rail or telecommuting. Rather than setting up programs to achieve narrow goals, I’d rather see broad, credible signals (e.g., prices at the pump reflecting environmental and security values) guide the evolution of the new from the bottom up.

Endogenous Energy Technology

I just created an annotated list of links on learning/experience curves, deliberate R&D, and other forms of endogenous energy technology, including a few models and empirical estimates. See del.icio.us/tomfid for details. Comments with more references will be greatly appreciated!

Dangerous Assumptions

Roger Pielke Jr., Tom Wigley, and Christopher Green have a nice commentary in this week’s Nature. It argues that current scenarios are dangerously reliant on business-as-usual technical improvement to reduce greenhouse gas intensity:

Here we show that two-thirds or more of all the energy efficiency improvements and decarbonization of energy supply required to stabilize greenhouse gases is already built into the IPCC reference scenarios. This is because the scenarios assume a certain amount of spontaneous technological change and related decarbonization. Thus, the IPCC implicitly assumes that the bulk of the challenge of reducing future emissions will occur in the absence of climate policies. We believe that these assumptions are optimistic at best and unachievable at worst, potentially seriously underestimating the scale of the technological challenge associated with stabilizing greenhouse-gas concentrations.

They note that assumed rates of decarbonization exceed reality:

The IPCC scenarios include a wide range of possibilities for the future evolution of energy and carbon intensities. Many of the scenarios are arguably unrealistic and some are likely to be unachievable. For instance, the IPCC assumptions for decarbonization in the short term (2000’“2010) are already inconsistent with the recent evolution of the global economy (Fig. 2). All scenarios predict decreases in energy intensity, and in most cases carbon intensity, during 2000 to 2010. But in recent years, both global energy intensity and carbon intensity have risen, reversing the trend of previous decades.

In an accompanying news article, several commenters object to the notion of a trend reversal:

Energy efficiency has in the past improved without climate policy, and the same is very likely to happen in the future. Including unprompted technological change in the baseline is thus logical. It is not very helpful to discredit emission scenarios on the sole basis of their being at odds with the most recent economic trends in China. Chinese statistics are not always reliable. Moreover, the period in question is too short to signify a global trend-break. (Detlef van Vuuren)

Having seen several trend breaks evaporate, including the dot.com productivity miracle and the Chinese emissions reductions coincident with the Asian crisis, I’m inclined to agree that gloom may be premature. On the other hand, Pielke, Wigley and Green are conservative in that they don’t consider the possible pressure for recarbonization created by a transition from conventional oil and gas to coal and tar sands. A look at the long term is helpful:

18 country emissions intensity

Emissions intensity of GDP for 18 major emitters. Notice the convergence in intensity, with high-intensity nations falling, and low-intensity nations (generally less-developed) rising.

Emissions intensity trend for 18 major emitters

Corresponding decadal trends in emissions intensity. Over the long haul, there’s some indication that emissions are falling faster in developed nations – a reason for hope. But there’s also a lot of diversity, and many nations have positive trends in intensity. More importantly, even with major wars and depressions, no major emitter has achieved the kind of intensity trend (about -7%/yr) needed to achieve 80% emissions reductions by 2050 while sustaining 3%/yr GDP growth. That suggests that achieving aggressive goals may require more than technology, including – gasp – lifestyle changes.

6 country emissions intensity

A closer look at intensity for 6 major emitters. Notice intensity rising in China and India until recently, and that Chinese data is indeed suspect.

Pielke, Wigley, and Green wrap up:

There is no question about whether technological innovation is necessary ’” it is. The question is, to what degree should policy focus directly on motivating such innovation? The IPCC plays a risky game in assuming that spontaneous advances in technological innovation will carry most of the burden of achieving future emissions reductions, rather than focusing on creating the conditions for such innovations to occur.

There’s a second risky game afoot, which is assuming that “creating the conditions for such innovations to occur” means investing in R&D, exclusive of other measures. To achieve material reductions in emissions, “occur” must mean “be adopted” not just “be invented.” Absent market signals and institutional changes, it is unlikely that technologies like carbon sequestration will ever be adopted. Others, like vehicle and lighting efficiency, could easily see their gains eroded by increased consumption of energy services, which become cheaper as technology improves productivity.