The House Committee on Agriculture hosted a hearing on Wednesday, January 12, on the needed infrastructure and possible impediments to electric vehicle adoption in rural America. At issue is what policies would incentivize rural electric vehicle penetration and at what cost, and, whether subsidizing electric vehicle use in rural America would make a significant difference in global carbon dioxide emissions. According to at least one witness, there are impediments to electric vehicles, based on their underlying engineering and physics, for rural markets.
The total number of electric vehicles in use today is about 0.6 percent of all light duty vehicles on U.S. roads. However, the electric vehicle share of vehicles in rural America is at least 10 times lower than that. Rural residents drive about forty percent more miles per person than urban drivers and pickup trucks represent a larger share of the mileage driven in rural areas—about 40 percent of the share of new car purchases compared to 20 percent nationally. Nonetheless, auto manufacturers are working on all electric pickups.
The main factors regarding consumer acceptance of electric vehicles are lack of range, higher cost, and exorbitant charging times compared to internal combustion engine vehicles. A standard gas station pump can fill a 26-gallon Ford F150 fuel tank in about five minutes, while charging an electric vehicle with a standard Level 2 charger takes about 10 hours. A supercharger can drop that time to 40 minutes, which is 8 times longer than filling a gasoline tank. For an electric vehicle charging station to provide the same functional utility that consumers have today, it will likely mean 8 times more electric chargers than gasoline pumps, along with equivalent size increases of land dedicated to it. Because the capital cost of a supercharger is twice that of a gasoline pump, the infrastructure cost is 16 times higher. Further, the existing rural power distribution infrastructure would need to be upgraded because superchargers operate at about a ten-fold higher power level. The higher cost for a supercharger makes it unlikely that households will spend the costs for Level 3 superchargers.
Level 2 chargers are subject to the electric grid and any outages that occur, which, on average, are about 50 percent higher on rural grids than urban grids. For back-up due to grid failure, homeowners would need a Generac or Tesla Powerwall. A Powerwall with enough electric storage to cover half a tank of a F150 pickup would cost $30,000. That compares to a few hundred dollars for gasoline storage tanks to keep enough gasoline to back up a pickup at one’s home.
There is another issue regarding weight because an electric battery weighs one ton compared to 150 pounds for gasoline tank storage for a conventional truck with the same range. Further, a pickup used in rural areas is likely to haul and tow more weight and more often than a pickup used in urban areas, which would reduce range and increase frequency of recharging.
Critical Minerals Required
In order to manufacture car batteries, tens of gigatons of materials will need to be mined and even more gigatons will be needed to produce grid storage batteries. That does not count the materials needed to produce solar panels and wind turbines. Batteries requires at least a 1,000 percent increase in the tonnage of materials extracted from the earth to deliver the same mile driven by a gasoline vehicle.
Since electric vehicles make up less than 5 percent of new car purchases, the mining industry is yet to be stressed. The global rate of demand for these minerals, however, is greater than the current production plans from global suppliers. The increase in solar, wind, and battery manufacture is expected to increase demand for critical energy minerals from 400 percent to over 4,000 percent. Electric vehicles use about 300 to 400 percent more copper than a conventional car. To meet clean energy aspirations, copper will increase to half of all global copper supply from 20 percent today, and nickel will increase to 60 percent and cobalt to 70 percent from negligible shares today.
To meet the goal of electric vehicles making up two-thirds of vehicle sales by 2030, the increased demand for lithium, nickel and copper would require dozens of new mines—each the size of the world’s biggest. It is very unlikely that would happen since the average global time to open a new mine is 16 years. The imbalance between supply and demand will cause prices to increase. Since these materials make up 60 to 70 percent of the cost to produce a battery, their price increases will wipe out the gains in reducing electronics and labor costs that had been lowering battery costs.
Geopolitics and Dependency
Further, the critical energy minerals and their chemical processing takes place mostly overseas, particularly in China. Currently, the United States is dependent on imports for 100 percent of 17 critical minerals and more than half of another 28. The geopolitics of shifting the United States from fossil fuel self-sufficiency achieved under President Trump to energy-mineral dependency needs to be addressed. Further, lawmakers should be cognizant of the lack of environmental regulations in China for mining and processing these minerals. Continuing in this manner regarding critical mineral dependency on imports would be akin to importing 100 percent of gasoline from a potential adversary and our #1 competitor.
Carbon Dioxide Emissions
Mining the critical minerals and manufacturing electric vehicle batteries result in carbon dioxide emissions that are not immaterial. One study indicates that 2 to 6 barrels of oil equivalent are needed to fabricate a battery that can store the energy equivalent of one gallon of gasoline. Another study reviewing 50 Academic studies found manufacturing a single elecgtric vehicle battery ranged from a low of about 8 tons of carbon dioxide to a high of 20 tons for a battery that is half the size of that of a pickup truck. The high end of the range is about equivalent to the emissions from a lifetime of fuel burned from an efficient conventional vehicle. This analogy does not include the carbon dioxide emissions that result from recharging the electric vehicle.
To go from 10 million to 500 million electric vehicles on the road would reduce oil use by only 15 percent. Further, if rural homeowners in the United States replaced their second vehicle with an electric pickup, it would reduce U.S. oil consumption by barely 3 percent and world oil consumption by about 0.5 percent, and would have even less impact, if any, on carbon dioxide emissions.
Subsidizing rural America to buy electric vehicle pickups does not gain much, if anything, for the environment. Apparently rural residents have the common sense to see that it does not meet their needs, since they are buying electric vehicles at 1/10 the rate of urban dwellers. Rather, it will just make the United States import dependent on critical minerals, mostly from China, and push homeowners into huge expenses to maintain the reliability of their vehicles by having to purchase superchargers and Powerwalls. Further, the supply demand imbalance that is likely to occur for critical minerals worldwide will increase costs and make energy transition goals impossible to meet. This is especially true since increased electrification at a time when intermittent renewable energy is being forced into the system, causing expensive challenges to the grid for which consumers will have to pay.