Monday, September 21, 2009

Terry Tamminen is "mythtaken"

Terry Tamminen, an environmentalist best known for convincing Gov. Schwarzenegger to build the "Hydrogen Highway" to provide a refueling infrastructure for fuel cell vehicles (FCVs), has been discounting EVs for years. For a time, Tamminen was head of the California EPA where he had the power to push technological solutions to our energy and pollution problems. During his tenure, he pushed hard for FCVs while claiming to be technologically neutral, however he gave nothing more than lip service to battery EVs.

In this essay, he makes many allegations that just don't stand up to scrutiny. Please see my comments below.


The Myth of Battery Cars
Terry Tamminen -
September 8, 2009

"As the world beats a path to Copenhagen for the December 2009 UN meeting to craft a new deal on climate change solutions, one of the biggest challenges remains our addiction to oil. About 40% of global greenhouse gases come from oil, when you include exploration, development, refining, transportation, and combusting it. A few years ago, the US government hailed corn-based ethanol as the alternative/savior, but when food prices skyrocketed because of a misguided policy to subsidize farmers (and when science showed the greenhouse gas benefits were small or non-existent), the rush was on to find another magic bullet.

Now the US government, led by Energy Secretary Steve Chu, has put on their Don Quixote armor again and is pouring lots of taxpayer dollars into batteries for cars. While I am the first to say there will be no silver bullet, only silver buckshot - - we need ALL alternatives to oil - - it's time to dump the battery-powered car in the same policy landfill as corn-based ethanol."

** Here is Tamminen's first "mythtruth". George Bush poured hundreds of millions of federal dollars into FCVs and Tamminen convinced Gov. Schwarzenegger to spend tens of millions of CA tax dollars on top of that. Fuel cells were clearly the chosen technology. Virtually nothing was given to EVs at the state or federal level. If Tamminen truly believed we needed "
ALL alternatives" he would have supported battery EVs with the same gusto he reserved for his favored fuel cells. **

"First, Chu admitted to Congress that it would take billions of R&D funding and many years to develop batteries that are practical for cars in everyday use. He was being optimistic, given the laws of physics - - there's only so much you can reduce the weight and charging times for batteries, not to mention the scarce and toxic materials needed to produce them. And car engineers spend lifetimes taking a few pounds out of a car to make it more fuel efficient, regardless of how it is powered. Why would we want a fleet of inefficient cars that carry around half a ton of excess luggage?

** Tamminen likes to portray BEVs in the same light as FCVs, that they aren't ready yet and need lots of R&D to make them so. What he fails to understand is that BEVs are viable now. The batteries do not need R&D to make them practical in everyday use. As thousands of drivers will attest, the production EVs made by GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda and Nissan over a decade ago were quite practical, and in the case of the Toyota RAV4 EV and Ford Ranger, very long lived. We don't know how long the other cars would have lasted since they were destroyed after only a few year's service. BTW, Tamminen did nothing to stop the destruction of those EVs.

As for "scarce and toxic materials" Tamminen is employing scare tactics worthy of the birthers since he knows that there are plentiful supplies of lithium and nickel. The toxic notation is laughable since lithium can be ingested and nickel is considered at worst, mildly toxic. Most importantly, the batteries will have a long life after their use in cars as a storage medium for off-peak energy that can be used for on-peak loads. This is a valuable aspect of batteries that Tamminen should know, but for some reason, he refuses to admit. **

"Second, this notion that battery cars require no new infrastructure is nonsense. A recent article in Science magazine highlighted the need for more powerplants, transmission lines, and home/office chargers to serve even a small % of the transportation fleet, if it was dependent on battery recharging. As an example, the Tesla battery sports car takes 37 hours to recharge with normal household current and 8 hours if you install a special high-voltage charger that costs thousands of dollars. Moreover, on a hot July day in California, if even a few hundred thousand of the state's 30 million vehicles were attached to the grid, the overloaded system would routinely blackout unless it was upgraded at the cost of billions. Battery car enthusiast Shai Agassi announced he intends to bring his battery cars to San Francisco and would build 250,000 charging stations around the Bay Area alone - - does that sound like new infrastructure to you?"

** Tamminen is way off base with his conclusion that we'll need new power plants to handle the additional load from EVs. The Department of Energy studied this issue a few years ago and concluded that 73% of the American fleet can charge during off peak hours at night without the need to add any new generating capacity. This is over 180 million vehicles!

The charging infrastructure will certainly need to be built out, but this is trivial compared to establishing a network of hydrogen stations. Well over half of all vehicles in the U.S. are parked at night proximate to electric wiring. Federal tax credits are available to offset some of the cost of hiring an electrician to install a plug. There will need to be some replacement of transformers in neighborhoods, but this is no different from when houses are expanded, pools are installed and millions of plasma TVs using triple the energy of a regular TV are bought. Swimming pool pumps use enough energy to drive an EV a good 30-50 miles per day. As a former pool boy, Tamminen should know this.

The comment about charging times for the Tesla is just plain wrong. Tesla's high power charger operates at 240V 70A, which means it can charge the 53 kWh battery pack in 3.5 hours. That's 68 miles of range per hour of charge. This, by the way, is how you look at charging times. I always see articles about EVs saying they take 8 hours to charge. We never consider how long it takes to charge empty to full, we only consider how far we have to go and how long we need to charge for. But since we can start every day with a full battery, it's rare that we ever need to charge during the day. **

"Third, range matters. Yes the average commuter may only need 30 or 40 miles a day, something they can get from batteries today, but many people live in multi-family apartments and have no access to a charger on a daily basis. Many more can only afford one car and want one that can go longer distances when needed. I recently drove 150 miles to Palm Springs from Los Angeles in my hydrogen powered electric car (the hydrogen is converted to electricity by the fuel cell, which powers the same electric motor as a Tesla or any other electric car). I refueled in 7 minutes and was ready to return that afternoon. The Tesla or any other battery car available today would still be at the recharging station 30 miles short of Palm Springs, not to mention the problem of getting back in the same day.

** Here is where Tamminen really stretches credulity. He knows EVs are not for long distance driving, yet he tries to create a straw man to show they are inadequate for such a trip. Even worse, he's showing his ignorance of current level three charging from the likes of Aerovironment. They have been making chargers that can pump a 30 kWh pack full in less than 20 minutes. All it would take is for these chargers to be purchased and distributed along our freeways. In town, most of the charging will be done at the thousands of convenience chargers that are soon to be installed.

Taminnen also fails to mention his hydrogen car used a full 3-4 times the energy a battery EV would use to make the same trip. This is the ugly secret hydrogen supporters never want to discuss.

Folks who need to drive long distances on a regular basis will opt for the plug-in hybrid. The Chevy Volt is such a car. With a 40 mile range in EV mode, and a 300 mile range in gas mode, this type of vehicle can serve as an only car for any purpose. **

"Battery enthusiasts say we will have swapping stations, so in a few minutes you can drop off discharged batteries and pick up full charged ones. Maybe, but then every car will essentially have to have multiple sets of batteries made for it, so there are enough to go around at swapping stations awaiting the need. What does that take in terms of resources and greenhouse gas pollution in the manufacture (and ultimate disposal) of all of those batteries?"

** Here, Tamminen is correct. Battery swapping, as Better Place envisioned, is a non-starter. His comment about battery disposal is wrong, however. See my previous post about that. **

"Fourth, size matters. There's a reason that battery cars so far are all small. Tesla chose the sports car because it was cool and would brand their company, but also because it is small and light which helps with range (even so, the range is far less than 200 miles). Other car companies toying with battery cars are focused on very small sedans for the same reason. Anyone who needs a larger car or truck will have a very long wait to get one powered by batteries."

** Professor Andy Frank of UC Davis has converted several large SUVs, like the Chevy Suburban, to plug-in hybrids, and they not only get amazing mileage, but they perform better than the original vehicles. When we held our EV parade in January in Santa Monica, we had a Hummer H2 that was converted to be fully electric. We also had a fully electric Balqon truck capable of hauling 60,000 lbs.!

But Terry is right that EVs will mostly be small. Gas cars will be small, too, when the costs of gas are fully internalized in the price. Smaller, lighter cars use less energy no matter its source. This is basic physics. If Terry, or anyone else, wants to waste energy, there will be plenty of car companies willing to build them a wasteful car to drive.

And Terry, the range of the Tesla Roadster is 244 miles. **

"Finally, how the electricity is produced will determine how clean battery power is, which is also true of hydrogen production. The need to build all of the new infrastructure, batteries (maybe multiple sets), and charging stations has to be added into that lifecycle analysis, otherwise we're making the same mistakes we made with ethanol - - a mirage of sustainability by looking only at the end use."

** This is a key paragraph. Fuel cell proponents like Tamminen always use the national grid statistics (50% coal) for the energy used to charge an EV's battery, but then say that the hydrogen for their FCVs will come from renewable sources of electricity. This is the big lie they have been perpetuating for years. The truth is that a well made battery EV will use 3-4 times LESS energy than a FCV to do the same job. If you charge the battery from coal fired electricity, then you have to compare that to getting the hydrogen from the same electricity source.

The reason George Bush promoted FCVs was because the hydrogen will be controlled by the oil companies. They will sell you the hydrogen for your car just like they sell gas and diesel now. If the oil companies truly believe this is a practical technology, then they should be spending their billions in profits to build the hydrogen infrastructure. They shouldn't be asking taxpayers to build it for them.

People with EVs can generate kWh from the sunlight falling on their roof. It's simple, clean and cost effective.

Terry Tamminen is a respected environmentalist. Why he has chosen to taint his legacy by pushing the oil companies' agenda is a mystery. The fact that he chose to write this outrageous essay so full of myths about electric vehicles, just as they are gaining traction throughout the world, is suspicious. Maybe he'll write a response and tell us why. **


  1. Paul,
    Excellent deconstruction of Tamminen's arguments. Personally, I think that perhaps the biggest issue is the fueling independence issue.

    EVs offer the potential for complete fueling independence (off a solar system), and thus pose a huge threat to the top-down, big-supplier determines the whole distribution system and cost model of auto fueling that we have with gasoline.

    EV owners without solar also have far more freedom and independence than with a gasoline car. Plug in when they want, where they want, no trips to gas stations, electricity costs much more stable than gasoline costs, etc.

  2. Well said Paul.

    "Battery swapping, as Better Place envisioned is a non-starter."

    Can you elaborate on this statement? Tamminen's reasoning seemed to be that the volume of batteries could not be created. Why do you think it is a non-started?

  3. In July 2009 I drove my Tesla Roadster 440 miles in one day as part of my 850 mile drive from Menlo Park CA to Redmond WA. I used RV parks and friends homes to charge -
    all existing infrastructure. I'll challenge Tamminen to a cross country race in my BEV against his FCV right now. He won't even get out of his home state and I'll be laughing at him all the way.

  4. CelticSolar said "Can you elaborate on this statement? Tamminen's reasoning seemed to be that the volume of batteries could not be created. Why do you think it is a non-starter?"

    My take on the battery swapping is that absent virtual standardization of battery packs across all model lines and manufacturers, there will need to be several different battery packs to accommodate the various cars that come in for a charged battery. Given the high cost of the packs, this means the swapping station will need to warehouse hundreds of packs to make sure they can handle whatever car comes in. The financing costs of such an operation would be significant.

    The "product" sold is the energy content of the charged pack. Since kWh cost, on average, about 10 cents, and the packs will hold maybe 30 kWh each, then the station will have to pay $3 to charge a pack, mark that up for a profit of maybe one dollar, and swap the pack. I just don't see that happening.

    If Better Place thinks there is a financial model that allows them to make money doing this, I'd like to hear it.

  5. Not just to complain, but the type face have selected is extremely difficult to read. Your pages might look better if you used an easier to read face.
    See the New York Times Style Book, or google for more legibility.

  6. Thanks for the reply. I was wondering if your concern was technical or financial. I agree that batteries are currently expensive and there is a big cost in having "spares". And they will need a few form factors. But they could find a way to make it profitable at some future date. That is the great thing about start-ups, they try things that other companies would not or could not. Some make it, some don't. They can 'smart stock' the stations based on the number of subscribers in the area and the vehicles that they have and use rate... I am in no way saying it is a slam dunk profitable business, but I think it has a chance. Until level 3 charging is ubiquitous, swapping could fill a niche; especially in the "islands" that Better Place it targeting. In other places that niche may be better filled by range extenders or a second 'gasser' car.

  7. Great article Paul,

    Maybe we are missing the most important point, isn't driving on electricity alone plain old cheaper than using hydrogen as a medium storage solution, even with Shell's local producing stations that can't support enough FCVs?

    It seems we are focusing on whatever these "experts" like to throw out desperatly trying to grab people's attention but last time we checked, isn't it cheaper to drive on electricity in a battery operated vehicle than using hybdrogen, taking into account everything that goes into it?

    The team with the Electric Car Examiner

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