Time to Drive Stake Through Heart of the Status Quo

By Bill Moore

Posted: 29 Sep 2011

John "I am long on Axion" Petersen and I probably have more in common on our view of the future of electric vehicles than you might assume.

Now for those of you that aren't familiar with him, Mr. Petersen is an erstwhile director at Axion Power International, a New Castle, PA-based company that is developing a lead-based battery that uses a carbon anode, which he contends increases its cycle life ten-fold. He is a prolific writer who publishes regularly on the SeekingAlpha.com web site; and is also a consistent and persistent critic of electric cars.

His most recent polemic, melodramatically entitled "It's Time To Kill The Electric Car, Drive A Stake Through Its Heart And Burn The Corpse," got the attention of a couple acquaintances here in Omaha, who simultaneously emailed me the link to the article and asked my views on it. Seeing it was written by John, I pretty much knew what he was going to say before I read it. The gist of his latest argument goes something like this: electric cars are uneconomic at several levels. They are energy intensive to manufacture, require scarce metals, and you have to drive them many, many miles to get any economic value out of them, which means they have to be charged more, reducing the life of the battery and requiring even earlier replacement.

There's no doubt that John is a very bright guy who I hear lives well in Switzerland off his investments and advice he gives, though one of his investments, Axion (AXPW.OB) firmly remains a penny stock that has fallen from its high of $4 a share in 2007 to 53¢ a share today. To his credit, he always notes in his blogs that he "holds a substantial long position in its common stock." He'll need to hold it a long time at its present of rate of return.

If you've followed John for any length of time -- and we have here at EV World -- you'll know that he is candid and unabashed about his view on fully electric cars and plug-in hybrids, but he isn't entirely deprecating of electric-drive technologies. In his recent (dis)missive he apparently picked up on my interview with Jeremy Neubauer on his NREL study, The Impact of Lithium Availability on Vehicle Electrification, which makes the case that if lithium were a limited resource, which it presently isn't and which John recognizes, it would make more sense using it in a small hybrid battery in cars like the Prius than in a far smaller number of plug-in or even fewer battery electric cars. Based on this, he argues…

"When batteries are used to recover and reuse braking energy that would otherwise be wasted, a single kWh of capacity can save up to 107 gallons of fuel per year. When batteries are used as fuel tank replacements, a single kWh of capacity can only save 19 gallons of fuel per year and most of the fuel savings at the vehicle level will be offset by increased fuel consumption in power plants."

He continues…

"Using batteries to enable energy efficiency technologies like recuperative braking is sensible conservation.

"Using batteries as fuel tank replacements is a zero-sum game that consumes huge quantities of metals for the sole purpose of substituting electricity for oil."

I am not a graduate of Notre Dame Law School or a successful practicing attorney and CPA living comfortably in Switzerland, so I am not going to argue with John's numbers, especially since they reflect those based on scientists I respect. The question, of course, is do electric cars make sense? Will so-called "vanity product" companies like Tesla face extinction in a cold, resource-scarce world where 6 billion people want the same quality of life 600 million of us currently enjoy? Should we (including EV World) recognize the folly of our illusion and give up our foolish quest? Should I be among the first to drive a stake through the heart of the electric car vampire?

And replace it with what, John?

See, here's the problem I have with critics -- informed and knowledgeable ones like Mr. Petersen, or ignorant blowhard bloggers with a political axe to grind -- seldom if ever do they offer an alternative. They seem blithely willing to kill off the electric car, but apparently are loath to do the same to the status quo. Frankly, I'd be happy to consider other options to the electric car, especially when much of the fuel producing the electricity to run them comes from fossil energy sources: coal, oil, natural gas. The trouble is no alternatives are offered: just electric cars can't work… period. Yank the oxygen tubes out of them and unplug their government life support system.

See I can use colorful metaphors too.

In fairness, John and I do agree on a couple points. While he's not fan of large electric cars, he seems to like the idea of electric two-wheelers. He writes that if lithium battery makers like A123, Altair and Valence would "stop chasing rainbows and focus on sensible applications like electric two-wheeled vehicles that reduce natural resource waste, they may have long and prosperous futures."

On the topic of electric two and three-wheeled EVs, John and I concur. The question is, would he be willing to use them, or are electric bicycles, scooters, and motorcycles just for the proletariat?

And if you get right down to it, the simple pedal bicycle is even better, but for any of these options to succeed we need to have really excellent public transit, such as the Dutch have developed (see the Dutch Cycling Embassy video). Maybe John has lived in neat little Switzerland so long he's forgotten about the sprawl we foolishly built in America over the last half century where we planned only for private cars with little if any thought given to sidewalks, much less public transit. Now we're having to figure out bass-ackward how we're going to build a more efficient transportation system when funds are limited and uneconomic population densities are the rule of the day.

Given that John is hoping circumstances will make his investment in Axion pay-off, he also seems clearly fixated on his favored solution: lead and carbon, and is skeptical of other possible technological pathways. Let me share with you a press release that arrived in my email box this morning. It is promoting a new study edited by Professor Takashi Yabe (a Time magazine Hero of the Planet in 2009) and and Tatsuya Yamaji entitled, Magnesium Civilization: An Alternative New Source of Energy to Oil.

The use of fossil fuels damages the global environment, and supply of oil is becoming more unstable. However, it is difficult to replace whole fossil fuels with renewable energy like solar-cell. Magnesium recycling society is a promising solution against these problems. Seawater contains 1800 trillion tons of Magnesium and Magnesium can be smelted with "solar-pumped laser" created directly from sunlight, thus Magnesium acts as solar-energy reservoir. Magnesium can be used for metal-air-fuel cells for automobiles and powerplants. The automobile with Zinc-air-fuel cell achieved 600km mileage in 2003 and Magnesium-air-fuel cell can give 3 times more energy which is 7.5 times more effective than Lithium-ion battery. Solar-pumped laser regenerates metal Magnesium from combusted Magnesium oxide.

A entire civilization built around processing magnesium as a enegy storage carrier using sunlight. I love, though I am sure there are significant hurtles between here and there. Look, while lithium is the current battery flavor of the month, it isn't the be-all and end-all. Professor Yabe's magnesium proposal could be one possible option at some point in the future.

Yes, Bill, that's interesting, but what about Petersen's argument about limited rare earth metals?

The bottom line is, they are important, but we don't need to them to build electric motors or generators. There are substitutes available today that don't require rare earth lanthanides; and there are on-going research efforts around the globe to address this issue. Of course, lab research and promising "breakthroughs" do not a commercial enterprise make, and here too, John and I agree. It can be a long way from button battery cells on university lab benches to battery assembly lines in Holland, Michigan.

Where we truly part company is his insistence that going down the electric vehicle pathway as we currently envision it leads us into a blind canyon. That position, to me at least, seems both short-sighted and premature; but I do appreciate John's willingness to play the "devil's advocate." We need people asking tough questions. It keeps all of us grounded, but we also have to realize that doing nothing is doing something: it perpetuates the cycle of waste epitomized by the internal combustion engine and our fossil fuel run thermal power plants, both of which throw away 50-85% of the energy they consume. John says he's in favor of reducing such waste, so it would seem that one good place to start is with electrifying the automobile -- though we shouldn't limit our quest to be smarter in how we use energy to just cars and trucks. What we need to figure out is how to more efficiently move the people inside them; and that will take some serious rethinking of our personal priorities and reworking how our energy-extravagant societies operate here in the West.

So, John, isn't what we need to be doing is driving that oaken stake through the heart of the status quo instead of through a promising, albeit still immature technology that is seeking to achieve -- imperfectly, no doubt -- what you yourself are espousing?

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