Electric Vehicles - Passing Fad or Paradigm Shift

Posted on March 07, 2014
Posted By: Davis Swan

There has been a lot of discussion about the electric vehicle revolution and what its impacts will be.  Are EV's gaining traction or getting stuck in the mud?  Will they quickly replace internal combustion powered vehicles or will they represent a "green" niche market for decades to come?  Will manufacturers be willing to lose billions of dollars on EV development forever or will they eventually make most of their profits from this technology?

The questions about EV's go far beyond the impact on the automobile manufacturing industry (which is one of the biggest industrial concerns in the world).  The impacts upon electricity utilization and the grid, both positive and negative, will in many ways shape future decisions about generation and grid management.  I am going to explore a few of these questions in this blog posting.

Firstly, what is the current status of EV sales worldwide?

In trying to answer this question we are immediately faced with another question.  What is an EV?

One definition would be that an EV uses an electric motor as its primary propulsion system.  Such a definition would probably exclude the Toyota Prius and other Hybrids which normally use the internal combustion engine for motive power and reserve the electric motor for very low speed driving (under 25 miles per hour) and more importantly to boost power during acceleration.  The Chevy Volt would meet that definition as it only uses an electric motor to power the vehicle even though it has an internal combustion engine which can generate electricity to drive the engine when the battery pack has discharged to a certain level.

In my blogs I always stress that we need to be looking at the ultimate goal which is to eliminate our use of hydro-carbons, including gasoline.  Simply reducing our use of gasoline is not sufficient.   By continuing to use an internal combustion engine for long distance travel hybrids and even the Chevy Volt avoid the most difficult issue facing EV adoption.  Namely, an unacceptably short range under normal driving conditions.

The Chevy Volt can travel approximately 45 miles on battery power alone under good conditions.  The Plug-in Hybrid version of the Toyota Prius is rated at 14 miles.  Of course both of these figures can be considerably less in cold winter conditions or under heavy load (for example going uphill for a long distance).

The average commute for U.S. workers is about 16 miles so the Volt would probably work using electric power only.  The Prius would definitely not.   Neither would work for many weekend trips under electric power alone.

For these reasons I am not going to include either plug-in hybrids or the Chevy Volt in my definition of Electric Vehicles.  I will discuss vehicles that are practical, electric power only vehicles that have no gasoline tank.  These vehicles are, in my opinion, the true future of the automobile.

Using that definition there are only two mass-market EVs available today.  The Nissan Leaf and the Tesla Model S.

Although it is difficult to get accurate quarterly sales figures the graph below represents a reasonable estimate of how sales of these two vehicles have grown since the launch of the Leaf in 2011 and the Model S in mid-2012.

There are now more than 80,000 Leafs on the roads of the world and about 30,000 Tesla Model S's.  This number has been increasing at a steady pace, notably due to a price decrease by Nissan at the beginning of 2013 and by increasing recognition of the Model S as a vehicle that has dependable long-range capability.

The EPA estimate for "average range" for the Leaf is 75 miles.  That will certainly handle most commuter trips and some longer trips.

The Tesla Model S is EPA rated at 265 miles range with the largest battery available in 2013.  The Model S can also be equipped with super-charging capability which is able to fully recharge the battery in less than an hour.  The large battery range and the existence of super-charging stations make long road trips with a Model S quite realistic.  A map of the super-charging stations in place at the end of 2013 is displayed below.

EPA ratings and marketing brochures are one thing. Real world experience can be quite different.

When I began to write this blog posting I started looking out for EV's in my home city of Vancouver, B.C.  After a few days I caught sight of a Tesla (I probably missed a few Nissan Leafs which are harder to differentiate from other similiar sized vehicles).  I was able to follow the Tesla into a parking lot where the owner, Barry Yates, kindly agreed to an impromptu interview.

Barry purchased his vehicle the first day they were available locally.  He regularly travels to Whistler Mountain for ski trips, a distance of about 70 miles.  The road to Whistler climbs uphill to an elevation of more than 2,000 feet and has to be done in cold, winter conditions.   Barry told me that he never has trouble making the round-trip on a single charge, partially because there is regenerative charging on the trip down on some of the steeper declines.

One thing that surprised me was that Barry felt the Tesla had good winter road handling despite being a rear-wheel drive vehicle.  The large battery distributes the weight very evenly between the front and rear wheels which probably helps.  Barry has installed snow tires which is a normal requirement for all vehicles traveling to Whistler.

Barry has also made a few trips to Seattle, Washington, about 150 miles from Vancouver.  He has been in the habit of stopping at a Super-charging station at Burlington, Washington, about half-way to Seattle.  The 15-20 minute stop tops up his charge so that he doesn't have to worry about being low on power as he gets closer to Seattle.  Anyone that has been in the traffic jams on the I-5 can appreciate that.

What is the bottom line?  I think a fair evaluation would say that currently available technology can produce a vehicle that meets the everyday needs of most North Americans.

But that does not guarantee that the adoption of EV's will be quick or smooth.  The Tesla Model S is an impressive vehicle.  However, the pricetag is also impressive with the long range version costing more than $70,000.  The Nissan Leaf, at about $30,000 is more manageable particularly after various rebates and incentives are accounted for.  But for a vehicle its size it is not inexpensive.

There are very significant savings to be had with a true EV with regards to fuel costs.  Barry Yates indicated that his home electric bill had gone up about $50/month after installing a 220 V charging system for his Tesla.  However, his fuel bill went down more than $500/month.  An annual savings of something like $5,000 isn't a bad return on an investment of $70,000 - as long as you have the $70,000 to put into a vehicle.

Prices will come down as the technology matures, as manufacturers start to achieve economies of scale, and as inevitable increases in the price of gasoline make the returns more attractive.  So in my opinion the transition to EV's is underway and won't slow down anytime soon.

Given that new reality it would be wise to consider some of the non-automotive consequences that will likely result from this transition.

First, what will the impact of EV's be on electrical load factors?

Like most things when it comes to load factors the impacts are not that easy to predict.  However, it is likely that a typical charge cycle will extend from the time a person gets home from work until the battery is fully charged.

Barry Yates indicated that charging his Tesla takes about 10-12 hours on a 220 V outlet (the same type used for a clothes dryer or oven). 

As the number of EVs increases this new source of load will start to have an impact on demand curves and the grid.

In Northern areas where the peak demand is in winter this will be particularly problematic.  The period 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm is already a high demand timeframe and adding EV charging will definitely result in new record demands unless significant changes in energy usage can be implemented.

In the south where summer air-conditioning results in peak demand the impact will not be as severe.  The main impact will be to extend the typical peak demand period (2:00 pm until 5:00 pm) later into the evening but it is unlikely that higher peak demand would result.

For workers with longer commutes there will possibly be a need to charge vehicles after arriving at the workplace.  This should not be much of a problem because the morning peaks are not as high as afternoon and evening peaks regardless of the season.

Based upon this very preliminary high level assessment it would probably be wise to try and delay home EV charging until later in the evening.  A start time of 11:00 pm would still provide a long enough charging period for most users.  As EVs, like other appliances, become "smarter" it may well be possible for them to be programmable to delay the charging cycle until a specified time.  Perhaps, ala Siri, this could be done by voice command.

"Car - start charging at 11:00 pm" - sounds both futuristic and creepy at the same time!

In anticipation of an eventual fleet of hundreds of thousands of EVs, considerable research has been conducted into how this resource can be used for grid stabilization and frequency smoothing services. A number of papers published by scientists from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have discussed implementing real time demand response by controlling when the EV fleet starts and stops charging (see for example "Value of Plug-in Vehicle Grid Support Operation"). Of course this would depend upon vehicle owners allowing the local grid operator to control the charging functions of their vehicles.  It also assumes a reliable grid-toEV communication infrastructure and protocol was in place.

There has also been some speculation that EV batteries could be used as a source of electricity for the grid when sharp drops in generation capacity occur  (as a result of changing weather patterns which impact renewable generation sources such as solar or wind or as a result of an unexpected plant/unit shutdown).  This is much less likely because it would require that whatever outlet the EVs were plugged into was capable of receiving electricity as well as delivering it.

Finally, there have been proposals to combine used EV batteries into an array that could act as utility-scale energy storage, capturing excess electricity at night or other low demand times and delivering it as a peak demand source.  I discussed this research in one of the first postings in the Black Swan Blog.

It was more than 100 years ago that Henry Ford's Model "T" rolled out of a factory in Detroit Michigan signalling the beginning of the end for steam powered automobiles.  Those were radical times;  the internal combustion engine and the assembly line combined to bring affordable transportation to the masses.  Our love affair with the automobile has never waned since that time.

The change we face today is no less radical.

This revolution will put you in the driver's seat of vehicles that move so quietly they can hardly be heard; they will not pollute our atmosphere; they will not rely upon the extraction of an energy source that cannot be replenished.

I don't know about you but I can honestly say that I can hardly wait until I have managed to trade in my 7 passenger Town & Country (can you really call a 4,000 lb vehicle a mini-van?) for an EV - maybe even a Smart Bike!

Authored By:
Davis has been involved with energy policy development and the exploration of innovation in energy use throughout his career. For more than 20 years he worked in the oil & gas industry where he had broad exposure to the technologies used in the development of natural gas, conventional oil, heavy oil, and tar sands resources. He has also acted as the energy policy advisor for the Official Opposition in the

Other Posts by: Davis Swan

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March, 09 2014

Michael Keller says

The "average Joe" is not going to be able to afford todays electric vehicle, particularly with middle-class incomes getting ever smaller thanks to the democratic parties war on those in the middle. Nor does the "average Joe" drive far enough for the investment to ever have a remotely reasonable pay-back.

The price of electric vehicle has to come down significantly and performance significantly improve. Hard to say whether or not that will ultimately occur. Current versions are not suitable for prime time.

March, 10 2014

Fred Linn says

--------" Hard to say whether or not that will ultimately occur. Current versions are not suitable for prime time. "------------

Which "current" models are you referring to? 1908 or 2008? When you are talking about electric cars---all models are "current" models.


March, 11 2014

Michael Keller says

The year is 2014. Perhaps you should check your calander.

March, 11 2014

Malcolm Rawlingson says

A good article Davis except you don't mention the replacement cost of the battery which does not last the life of the car.

The comparison between Henry Ford's model T and the steam powered vehicles of the time is not valid. In the advantages that made the Model T so much better than the steam powered vehicles of the day are exactly the same as the advantages of gasoline engines over electric vehicles now and little has changed. Steam powered cars used coal to boil the water to make steam so you had to carry along with you a truck or cart full of coal which limited the range. Similarly electric car batteries simply do not have sufficient storage capacity to make them comparable to the range of a gasoline engine and when you run out you have to wait 12 hours for it to recharge. Gasoline engines had a huge advantage over steam since the fuel could conveniently be stored in a small tank. Gasoline engines have that same advantage over electric vehicles nowadays. If the steam engine fire went out you would need to wait some time to get the boiler fired up and a head of steam going before you could move anywhere. If the battery is flat you have to wait 12 hours before you can go anywhere.

I am not at all against electric vehicles in fact the pure engineer in me will look forward to the day when that is what we drive. However I am pragmatic and a business man and as I have noted before here the law of unintended consequences will apply. You mentioned the damage to the current automotive industry but this is a two pronged attack on the two pillars of our industrialized society.

Quite apart from all the engine components that will no longer be made, the widespread introduction of electric cars will decimate the oil industry...perhaps that is what you want but the economic consequences of that will be catastrophic. In 2008 we were worried about the collapse of a few investment banks. Imagine the economic fall out when Shell, BP, Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, GM, Fiat, BMW and VW are forced into bankruptcy. That will make the Lehman Brothers collapse seem like a day at the picnic.

The simple economic truth is that millions of manufacturing and oil industry jobs will be lost and will be replaced with robot operated electric car plants.

In Ontario the auto industry is concerned that a free trade agreement just signed with South Korea will affect the 93,000 jobs in the auto plants here. With a move to electric cars all of them will be gone.

Once again that is the exact opposite of what happened in Henry Fords day. Automobiles created jobs where there were none. Electric cars will destroy jobs where there used to be many.

Quite frankly the consequences of wholesale adoption of electric cars will be catastrophic economically and send the entire world into recession for years. In fact I will even go so far as to say that it will cause another great depression.

Financial commentators often remark about the "jobless recovery" being experienced in North America. All you need to do is take a tour of a modern factory and what you see is - no workers and the robot revolution has only just started.

In a world with no jobs who is going to be able to afford an electric car? Policemen maybe as they will be employed to keep the hoards of unemployed from rioting. We will all be back to pushing handcarts.

So Davis, great idea but be careful what you wish for. It may not be what you expected.


March, 12 2014

Bob Amorosi says

Malcolm is correct, our fragile stagnant-growth economy could never handle the decimation of oil consumption on the scale our automobiles currently use. On that note, I would speculate that the transition to EVs will be very gradual over long time periods, probably several decades. How this will happen is simple - as demand for oil consumption is gouged with more EVs on the road, our friends at OPEC will suppress oil price growth to keep their taps flowing. By keeping oil price growth subdued, the average consumer will be discouraged from buying EVs because OPEC knows that skyrocketing oil prices would only ensure the faster adoption of EVs.

What this all means is we will be living with both conventional autos and EVs for decades to come. Perhaps a hundred years from now, there will be very few automobiles left on our roads, and you can bet the oil companies will have transitioned their businesses into selling other products instead of oil. It will be a long slow painful shrinkage in oil production.

The only other factors that could alter this slow transition to EVs is climate change and resulting government intervention to speed up the adoption of EVs for the sake of reducing oil consumption. And don’t kid yourselves, the tax revenue lost by governments from less oil consumption will surely be replaced by new higher taxation on electricity consumption to power EVs.

March, 12 2014

Grant Gerke says

Couple of comments:

1. A good man that works for SDGE has figured out that regular cars cost (ICEs) cost about .20 mile versus .02 mile. Do the math. Drive 15,000 miles in a year, fuel costs: ICE - $3,000 vs EV $300

2. Misinformation alert: You don't have to replace the batteries during your ownership, they have been tested and Tesla was originally a battery company and has been selling to Daimler and Toyota. Plus, they are gurarnteed (smart business). These batteries not only have a shelf life of 20-25 years (lab tested), but they can be reused in energy storage applications. See Solar City.

3. There are many Plug-In hybrid models or extended range car, such as the Chevy Volt. Chevy Volt drivers are getting around 300-350 mpg because they mostly drive on electric and their commute is under 40 miles, total (70% of americans commute is under 40 miles).

4. Most folks, me included, are charging their electrics at night and done in two hours or less. I have to add a charge of about 20-50 miles at night, takes about 1.5 top with my 220 outlet.

5. The cost of charging for me is just under 0.07.

6. Quite a number of PHEVs have been sold, total of 97,500 approximately last year. Grew by 80+% last year.

7. In 2017, Tesla will have an electric model (the E) that will cost $35,000 and go 200+ miles (plus, not much maintenance). The current average price for a car today is right around 31,000. See point #1, the price comes pretty quick.

Plus, from power supply (gas or electric) to propulsion: EVs are 73% efficient vs. ICE coming at about 16-19%

March, 12 2014

Michael Keller says

Seems to me if the electric vehicle is more competitive than fossil fueled machines, then great! Build em! In such a scenario (which seems unlikely), the automotive as well as oil & gas industries must adapt or diminish/perish.

I have no sympathy for any industry that considers itself "special" and thus exempt from competition.

March, 13 2014

Reinhold Wirth says

This is all very interesting. I can't imagine that there won't be new jobs that spring up in support of EVs. The whole manufacturing world is changing. We now have "Additive Manufacturing" (Rapid Prototyping as an examle) processes that have begun to replace injection molding, metal casting, and model making which has greatly reduced product development times. It seems that there should be a roadmap in place for the large auto makers to retool and reinvent. Of course, the big problem is that Government, big business, and greed will always mess things up.

March, 13 2014

Malcolm Rawlingson says


I am not talking about the demise of an industry. I am talking about the demise of our society as we know it.The auto industry will indeed retool (as it has always done) but it will NOT be using workers to do the job. In a modern electric vehicle plant I envisage many many robots and almost no employees. There is a large auto plant near to me in Ontario. When I first came to this town there were 23000 people working there. Now they produce more cars with about 5000 workers. If they made electric cars the number will be down to a few hundred.

What is the government going to do with no wage earners to pay their bills. there is a giant disconnect occurring in our society between the Corporations that generate the wealth using workers and the Government that spends it. How does it work when there are no workers - only robots that do not get pay cheques?

I do assure you that the advent of successful electric vehicles will be the single most catastrophic economic event the world has seen. But I feel that it is self correcting since people with no money cannot buy anything let alone cars so the demand will disappear.

If you have ever wondered why we have a so called "jobless recovery" it is summed up in one word - robots. The jobs are being created by companies - they are just being done by robots instead of people.

Think about it: A robot never goes on strike, does exactly what it is instructed to do, never takes a meal break or a coffee break, does not need a pay cheque or a cafeteria, will work day or night without shift premiums, will work 7 days a week 24 hours a day, does not need a washroom, does not need to go home (the factory IS home, does not need a pension plan, can work faster better and more accurately than even the best human employee, doesn't need supervisors or performance reviews. In other words the perfect Corporate worker.

It has NOT been China that has decimated American manufacturing. It is the robot.

It is going to be a Brave New World.


March, 13 2014

Malcolm Rawlingson says


The "guarantee" that Tesla provides only holds water if the company survives. Like most guarantees it is not worth the paper it is written on. Who are you going to claim against when the company is in receivership....believe me when I tell you that past customers will be at the very bottom of the list of claimants. It is THE reason why I have no shares in Tesla and will never buy them.

The battery may have a shelf life of 25 years if you never charge or discharge it but that is a large chunk of misinformation if ever I heard it. What kills batteries (of any type) is the number of charge-discharge cycles which has nothing whatever to do with shelf life.

When all the dead batteries start showing up at Teslas door in a few years those investors that did not head for the hills will wish they did.

My money follows Warren Buffet and he does not have a cent in any electric vehicle company. You probably guessed why.


March, 14 2014

Michael Keller says

Seems to me that the entire history of technological innovation invariably leads to better efficiency, lower costs, including fewer workers to build stuff. That, in turn, means products cost less, with folks able to use their money on other things as they see fit. Further, the innovations invariably lead to new industries, which employ folks.

Big government invariably fouls up economies because it is ponderous and generally incompetent. Our current "jobless" recovery is a classic example of bureaucrats and politicians running amok, pouring cold water on private job creation, which relies heavily on small businesses. Predictably, the only sector that has grown is the federal government.

March, 14 2014

Jack Ellis says

My wife has been seduced by the Tesla Model S. For a woman who is rational, practical and tight with her money, that's saying something. Of course it would be an addition to the family fleet rather than a replacement.

I'm not prepared to bet on the longevity of the batteries just yet. I'm also highly dubious about some of the grid-connected applications being pursued by the University of Delaware's Willett Kempton and others. Sure, they're possible but only early adopters are likely to try them and making these ideas work in a mass market context is different from installing solar panels or building standalone grid scale storage. It will be orders of magnitude more complex and challenging.

The one place where I wholeheartedly agree with Davis is how to deal with charging. To be both useful and consumer-friendly, the charging intelligence needs to be installed in or near the vehicle (distributed). Centralized management of EV charging will work badly if it works at all.

Jack Ellis, Tahoe City, CA

March, 14 2014

Malcolm Rawlingson says

While I agree that Government at all levels seem to be able to do much damage to economies, I think we are witnessing something completely different from what we have seen in the past.

Never before in history have humans had the capability to completely fully replace human workers with robots. That goes far beyond efficiency improvements that is a complete paradigm shift away from a wage earning society. At one time I thought this would be confined to just the manufacturing sector but robots are dropping in price dramatically and increasing in capability and speed exponentially. You can now replace a pay cheque generating person with a non-pay cheque earning robot i8n just about any industry or service you care to name.

Further I do not believe the concept that small business produces the majority of jobs. That is a fallacy. As a business owner myself I know full well how this REALLY works. What happens FIRST is that big businesses start to spend money THEN the small businesses hire people. It just does not happen the other way around. In our area small businesses start to hire when they get business in from their larger clients and the big businesses hire employees, That establishes the level of security of income to persuade a small business to hire. The problem is that does not happen when the big business use robots to do the work. There are no employees to spend their money in pizza shops and the service industries that are the majority of small businesses.


Without taxable pay cheques our current system does not work.

March, 15 2014

Malcolm Rawlingson says

There has always been a niche market for electric cars but I really doubt that they will become the mainstream vehicle any time soon. Having an electric model you can show off at auto shows is more about branding your company with an "eco-image" more than any practical attempt at displacing gas and diesel vehicles. I recall we were all soon to be driving fuel cell vehicles 15 years or so ago but nothing has come of that for exactly the same reason. The technology is not there yet. When you pay almost half the cost of the car for a replacement battery after 5 or 8 years even with a guaranteed who will buy it? No-one. The resale value will be nil. The battery technology in all of these vehicles is the same as in your cell phone - just lots of them. It is one thing to have your cell phone go dead on you - as annoying as that may be - it does not come close to your vehicle battery going dead when you are in the middle of nowhere on a rainy night trying to get home with a car full of kids. BMW or no BMW when there is no juice in the battery you are not going anywhere. Also I don't know what one does for a car heater in a climate like Canada or the North East US. Freeze to death I guess. Brian, when you say "eco-friendly i8n nature" does that not entirely depend on what you are using to run the power plants that make the electricity. If that is coal, oil or gas that is not so friendly to the environment is it. Not against electric cars - just the unjustified hype I keep hearing about them. Malcolm

March, 18 2014

jeff barton says

There are 94 protons in Plutonium. There is an extra beta decay: U-238 -> U-239 ->Np-239 ->Pu-239. Just because everyone loves a nitpicker.

Personally, I think electric bicycles will have a bigger chance than electric cars. Much cheaper. Or even just regular bicycles. If you are really destitute, you can often get one for free at the dump. Plus you can make a bike trailer out of scavenged parts to haul stuff. Keep this in mind when the blogging and consulting money dries up.

I am also happy to hear the all of the radioactivity from Fukishima was safely contained.

March, 19 2014

Malcolm Rawlingson says

You are right Jeff. I stand corrected - going from memory - never a good thing at my age.

Don't make my money blogging - got more than I need anyway.

Electric bikes are great in nice sunny places. Cannot imagine using one in Canada at -40C. Freeze yer buns off.

While Fukushima was a serious event for us in the nuclear business the amount of radioactivity released is not that dangerous from a public health perspective. Because we have a mind set that all radioactivity is harmful to the body the levels set by regulators are very very low. Once those low levels are exceeded people are required to be evacuated -however the real risks of harm to people are low. Most diagnostic procedure give an individual much more dose that these releases.

I do not condone the situation in Fukushima - it was quite avoidable - but the dangers to public health need to be put into proper perspective. I fear that peoples health is being more affected by being displaced from their homes and the worry caused by that than if they had stayed where they were. However the authorities believe they are playing it safe by doing that I suppose but not really convinced that the risk is that great. It certainly would not bother me to live near Fukushima. The earthquakes and Tsunamis would bother me much more than the reactors.


May, 06 2014

Ed Gray says

Since I've been involved in electricity policy work for decades I feel that I have to practice what I preach and having an eV is part of that (I have a Ford plug-hybrid). I have also been asked by a state regulator about my DR habits and was able to pass that test (automatic DR program with local distribution company). Eating your own cooking also helps one to test out the 100,000 foot level theories of the marketing department.

So far as robots versus people is concerned, visit a US factory and a China factory. They are very differently designed.

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