The electric car: social progress? physical progress? realistic progress?Published on 30/05/2023
"The European decision to stop producing internal combustion engine cars from 2035 touches on a considerable number of key areas: environment, climate, energy, transport, industry, sovereignty, domestic policy, international competition, European governance, psychology, social justice... Thus, touching on the future of the private car means touching on the intimacy of each of our lifestyles in a concrete way. We can therefore expect a wide range of reactions from Europe's citizens.
Under these conditions, how can we analyse and comment on the consequences of this important decision on behalf of EAFT? As it is materially impossible to represent the most opposing points of view in a single newsletter, the editorial committee has opted to make it exceptionally two on the same subject, each giving the arguments specific to their personal sensibilities. One of the privileges of free thought is the ability to freely express an opinion, which must be received with understanding and tolerance. Each version is the sole responsibility of its author.
The Editorial Committee
Is the electric car socially responsible, given that it is on average at least €10,000 more expensive than a combustion engine car and that its price is unlikely to fall any further due to the foreseeable reduction in the availability of certain materials as this technology develops? (*)
And what about travel in low-density areas with very poor public transport links, where the car is still necessary?
What's more, even in densely populated areas, the availability of charging points is an impossible problem to solve in buildings without private parking spaces (e.g. the vast majority of streets in Brussels) or in flat blocks.
Commodities - a geopolitical risk
The electric car raises many questions about the supply of minerals needed to produce batteries and engines: the quantities required will be enormous before we can rely, and only in part, on the recycling of end-of-life components.
Each car requires between 320 and 600 kg of battery, depending on the model, to which must be added the weight of the electric engine(s).
In comparison, the engine of a combustion engine car only weighs around 125 kg.
On average, more than 460 kg of minerals are needed per car for more than a billion cars in the world, i.e. 460 million tonnes, a quarter of which is produced in Europe alone. This is particularly true of lithium and cobalt, but also copper and rare earths.
In its report dated 30/1/2022, the IEA (International Energy Agency) even warns of a risk of lithium and cobalt shortages by 2040.
For several years now, China, which has almost 50% of the world's mineral resources on its own soil, has had a stranglehold on mines everywhere else in the world, and currently controls more than 88% of the world's production.
From a geopolitical point of view, the insecurity linked to dependence on this country alone will be far more worrying than that linked to oil, gas and fissile materials, the supply of which can be diversified. (*)
Is the electric car a green technology?
But we also need to be concerned about what happens "on the other side of the plug".
Wind turbines, which we are led to believe will produce the electricity we need, are totally incapable of doing so. The density of offshore wind turbines is ideally limited to 5 or 6 MW per km². When this density is increased, the production yield decreases because the turbulence generated spreads to the neighbouring turbines. Off the Belgian coast, the accepted density doubles to 12 MW/km². Despite this, the physical limit is there: there is not enough space available to compensate for the nuclear power stations that are due to be closed, i.e. to meet current needs. So to imagine that wind turbines could cope with vast new applications, such as electric cars, is simply impossible.
Above all, we must be aware that offshore wind turbines only produce between 29% and 48% of the time, i.e. an average of 38%, because of the variability of the wind, as can be seen from the recordings made by FEBEG (for Belgium).
(For solar collectors it's even worse, they only produce 9% of the time (12% on average in France!) and in an even more variable way than wind turbines , depending on cloud cover, the seasons and day-night alternation). (cf FEBEG)
The plan to build a 300 GW wind farm in the North Sea and the Baltic will unfortunately do nothing to change the fact that wind turbines only produce less than 40% of the time. To believe that the scale of the project will make up for windless zones by interconnecting the pylons is to ignore the fact that anticyclones and other meteorological phenomena very frequently cover the whole of the project.
Even with this mega-project, in the absence of nuclear power, the new needs can unfortunately only be met for the remaining 60% by gas-fired power stations (or even coal-fired, as in Germany!). It just doesn't make sense!
We therefore need to compare the primary energy consumption of an electric car powered by electricity from gas with that of a combustion engine powered directly by gas.
The result is clear: the gas engine is 35% more efficient than primary energy, and even more than 45% for existing prototype engines.The electric motor has an efficiency of only 24%, due to the many transformations that this primary energy undergoes before activating the wheels: we need to take into account the production of electricity (55 to 60 % maximum in the best gas-steam turbines (TGV)), its multiple voltage transformations (loss of 2% at each transformation, its transport and distribution (up to 10%), its storage in batteries and its restitution in real conditions (maximum 60% not taking into account the need to heat the batteries in winter and cool them in summer).
An electric car therefore produces 35%/24% = 1.48 times more CO2 45%/24% = 1.9 times more if we anticipate the widespread performance of prototypes. In the absence of nuclear power, we're a long way from green technology.
An unrealistic schedule
Powering the charging stations will require at least a duplication of the existing electricity transmission and distribution networks, as well as the development of new production units.
At present, wind turbines produce only 19% of the electricity consumed in Belgium. With the exception of a few countries such as Germany and certain Nordic countries, the order of magnitude is similar in most other European countries..
It is hard to believe that investment in power stations and transmission/distribution will be operational by 2035 and even by 2050. For example, you only have to look at the fierce opposition to the construction of a single high-voltage line through Hainaut in southern Belgium to see the extent to which local residents will do everything in their power to negotiate the siting of new power stations and distribution lines away from their homes (the "NIMBY" (Not in my Backyard) principle is very much in evidence in this context!) It's worth noting that this reluctance, or rather opposition, can also be observed when it comes to the construction of onshore wind farms. Unless, of course, this is done with authority, even if it means undermining the democratic rules that we hold dear... like banning all combustion-powered cars from Brussels without consultation, or making it impossible in practice to appeal against the nuisance caused by the various installations without costly legal procedures that are beyond the reach of the citizens concerned.
Given the current state of knowledge, the production of e-fuels would involve the electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen, which is then combined with CO2 Finally, methanol is produced, a fuel that can be used in petrol engines with a slight adjustment to the feedstock. These multiple transformations take place with a very low overall balance (maximum 10%).
But we have just seen that this electricity cannot come from green sources in our regions. Even if gigantic wind farms were built in South America, for example, to supply methanol plants, the quantities produced would still be derisory in relation to needs, and would be very expensive to produce (3 to 4 times the current price of oil derivatives).
On the other hand, it is not out of the question to think that new technologies could be developed in our country using electricity produced in 4 MW nuclear power stations.rd generation and that a factor of scale will also make it possible to reduce the production costs of a fuel that will only emit the water vapour from which it is derived and will return the CO2 which had been captured locally for synthesis.
A first step towards realism!
When it comes to CO2 "the science of the legislator takes precedence over that of the engineer", in defiance of physical realities.
The European decision to allow the construction of internal combustion engines to continue is a return to greater social, technological and physical realism.
It is to be hoped that Europe will encourage the construction of 4th generation nuclear power stations.rd They will produce electricity at low cost, pave the way for numerous applications and use a fuel that is 100 times more abundant than the Uranium 235 used today.
The availability of this resource is estimated at several millennia (5,000 or 20,000 years depending on the hypothesis). In addition, these power plants will also make it possible to "burn" the waste from previous generations of power plants, reducing its volume by a factor of 50 and its lifespan by a factor of 1,000.
Under these conditions, and only then, will we be able to envisage the decarbonisation of mobility, the production of hydrogen and why not "all electric", but this will take several more decades.
Unfortunately, the huge sums of money (€800 billion) being sunk into the North Sea wind farm project, which will only solve the problem 40% of the time, are diverting available budgets away from the development of these new power stations.
Under these conditions, we will continue to produce 60% of fossil-based electricity for a long time to come.
(*) Some people are banking on the fact that electric cars produced in China would be sold at a lower price. Such an assumption would make us even more dependent on China and would mean sacrificing our European car industry.
 Sources :
Le Vif: https://www.levif.be/societe/mobilite/auto/pourquoi-une-voiture-electrique-pese-t-elle-si-lourd/)
Les Echos: https://www.lesechos.fr/2016/10/la-chasse-aux-kilos-une-equation-peu-evidente-234473
 (see Global Wind Report and the many references in the Wikipedia article on the subject)
 L'atome vert by Jean-Christophe de Mestral (isbn : 978-2828912444 )