Electricity: Not Magic

electric_emperor The official story is that the “electric” car is going to save capitalism.

I put “electric” in quotation marks because electricity is always made from something other than itself, usually fossil fuel combustion or nuclear fission.

But it is also important to notice that denial of sources is not the only layer of magical thinking inherent to the growing cult of the electric car.

The second layer has to do with the inherent inefficiency of electricity generation and use.

To understand that, take a look at this excellent article by Kris De Decker at Low-Tech Magazine. De Decker explains the basic physical facts about the inescapable problems with burning energy to make electricity:

First of all, it is important to know that generating electricity is far from the most efficient way to apply pedal power, due to the internal energy losses in the battery, the battery management system, other electronic parts, and the motor/generator.

These energy losses add up quickly: 10 to 35 percent in the battery, 10 to 20 percent in the motor/generator and 5 to 15 percent in the converter (which converts direct current to alternate current). The energy loss in the voltage regulator (or DC to DC converter, which prevents you from blowing up the battery) is about 25 percent.

This means that the total energy loss in a pedal powered generator will be 42 to 67.5 percent (calculation example for highest loss: 100 watt input = 80 watt after 20% loss in motor/generator = 57.5 watts after 25% energy loss in voltage regulator = 37.5 watts after 35% loss in battery = 32.5 watts after 15% loss in converter = 32.5 watts output = efficiency of 32.5% or energy loss of 67.5%).

De Decker also touches upon another decidedly non-magical aspect of electric machinery — the ecological and energy problems with batteries and steel:

[T]he embodied energy of a 150Wh lead-acid battery (like the one offered with the Windstream pedal power generator) is at least 37,500 Wh, which equals 250 full charges of the battery (more sources: 1/2). In other words: if you can deliver 75 watts of power to the battery, you have to pedal for 500 hours in order to generate the energy that was needed to manufacture the battery. Because the life expectancy of a lead-acid battery can be as low as 300 discharge/charge cycles, you are basically pedaling to produce the energy required to manufacture the battery.

Lead acid battery Of course, it also takes energy to manufacture a pedal powered machine that does not take the intermediate step of generating electricity. This concern lies mainly with the production of steel, and quite a lot of it. The commercially available Fender Blender mentioned earlier weighs 25kg (55 pounds).

If made from recycled steel, and using these figures to calculate the embodied energy of steel, this comes down to an energy cost of at least 41,625 Wh, slightly more than the battery needed for the electricity generator. If freshly made steel is used, the embodied energy is at least 138,750 Wh (3.7 times the embodied energy of a single battery).

De Decker’s conclusion?

When operating a bicycle generator you are basically pedaling to produce the energy required to manufacture the battery.

All these costs apply to automobiles, too, despite their indispensability to capitalists. Imagine how that pencils out!

More from Behind the Green Curtain

The corporate capitalist marketing of allegedly “green” products depends on fixing buyers’ attention on the end commodity only.  How many bio-diesel users, for instance, understand that bio-diesel not only diverts food to gas tanks, but is a net energy loser that requires more hidden petro-inputs than plain old gasoline-burning?  Not many.

And there’s a reason our moguls conceal their processes:  Every time a green scheme rings the cash register, a strip mine run by gangsters gets its wings.

That is a photo of a “rare earth” mine in China.  The New York Times‘ Keith Bradsher (who wrote an excellent book about the insanity of the car corporations’ SUV push of recent decades) reports today:

GUYUN VILLAGE, China — Some of the greenest technologies of the age, from electric cars to efficient light bulbs to very large wind turbines, are made possible by an unusual group of elements called rare earths. The world’s dependence on these substances is rising fast.

Just one problem: These elements come almost entirely from China, from some of the most environmentally damaging mines in the country, in an industry dominated by criminal gangs.

Miners scrape off the topsoil and shovel golden-flecked clay into dirt pits, using acids to extract the rare earths. The acids ultimately wash into streams and rivers, destroying rice paddies and fish farms and tainting water supplies.

A close-knit group of mainland Chinese gangs with a capacity for murder dominates much of the mining and has ties to local officials, said Stephen G. Vickers, the former head of criminal intelligence for the Hong Kong police who is now the chief executive of International Risk, a global security company.

The biggest user of heavy rare earths in the years ahead could be large wind turbines, which need much lighter magnets for the five-ton generators at the top of ever-taller towers. Vestas, a Danish company that has become the world’s biggest wind turbine manufacturer, said that prototypes for its next generation used dysprosium, and that the company was studying the sustainability of the supply. Goldwind, the biggest Chinese turbine maker, has switched from conventional magnets to rare-earth magnets.

And, of course, the world’s most powerful and sophisticated overclass pleads ignorance to it all:

Western users of heavy rare earths say that they have no way of figuring out what proportion of the minerals they buy from China comes from responsibly operated mines.

“I don’t know if part of that feed, internal in China, came from an illegal mine and went in a legal separator,” said David Kennedy, the president of Great Western Technologies in Troy, Mich., which imports Chinese rare earths and turns them into powders that are sold worldwide.

Cars in China

freeball Having long since reached saturation in their main citadel of car-pushing, what do the corporate capitalists have in store for transportation arrangements in China?

According to Yang Jian, Managing Editor of Automotive News China, present trends suggest that China will have somewhere between 200 and 300 million cars in operation by 2030.

If electric cars become cheap enough, it could be far worse:

Their influence could be profound.

Electric cars, for example, are prohibitively expensive today. Yet given advances, they could become affordable to the mass of consumers tomorrow.

If that were to happen, the many millions of people riding electric bicycles could switch to electric cars. That would boost vehicle ownership to a level that is now unimaginable.

Something to think about the next time you’re tempted to swallow the notion that inexpensive electric cars are a good thing for anybody but corporate investors.

The Suppressed Basics of Cars & Capitalism

On Stop Me Before I Vote Again, Michael J. Smith noted how one now has to subscribe to leftist blogs and mailing lists to obtain the most elementary facts about the state of the nation and the world.

In this case, the topic was the simultaneously picayune and deeply rotten nature of Barack Obama’s (is “Obama” Bantu for “Reagan”?) pledge to further subsidize the automobile industry.

Here’s what I wrote as a comment over at SMBIVA:

Well, corporate capitalism runs by six industrial complexes, plus government spending to boost and grease it all.

The complexes are:


Remove any one of these six legs, and the money-changers’ table tips over.

The auto-industrial complex, however, is the one that is in big immediate trouble, due to the inherent pipe-dream of using two tons of materials to transport individuals to and fro every day of the year.

Finance will always renew itself, thanks to the basic structure of income distribution, and is also set up to expect some down times.

Medical ain’t going nowhere.

Military ain’t going nowhere.

Household (being food-clothing-shelter) certainly ain’t going nowhere, and is, size-wise, largely a shadow of the automotive complex. The car gives you the suburb, which sells everybody washers and dryers to replace the shared laundromat room, etc.

The car is the linchpin of the system, and, hence, it is non-negotiable, from the overclass (read: mainstream + confused/cowed/captive “alternative”) perspective.

Posted by Michael Dawson | August 6, 2008 1:44 PM

Posted on August 6, 2008 13:44
Michael Dawson:

P.S. re the numbers:

If you tote up vehicle purchases, repairs, fuel, insurance, parking, parts/tires, and road construction/maintenance, the yearly US expenditure on automobiles easily tops a trillion dollars. These days, it’s probably >1.5 trillion…

So, the Neo-Gipper is talking about pumping in something like one-third-of-one-percent of the overall endeavor.

Such is the fruit yielded by the tree of Klintonism and its imported “balanced budget” rootstock.

And P.P.S.

Where the fuck is all the new electricity for these supposedly workable electric vehicles going to come from? Wind and solar are break-even propositions, at best, in EROEI terms, and using nukes or coal to make the juice would last about a decade before it would hit the self-same supply limits now looming for petroleum.

I know it’s been said before, ala Chicken Little, but here we go again: Only a mass green-socialist-public enterprise uprising against the system will solve this coming crisis…