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Electric Cars and Batteries

Electric Cars are not the end all, be all, solution concerning pollution. In fact, electric cars are not without pollution. The pollution comes from producing the electricity that is used to charge their batteries. Further, in the manufacture and eventual disposition of car batteries, pollution is a major factor. The current battery technology utilizes some very toxic materials that cannot be casually disposed of. There are newer battery technologies that use almost toxic-free technology but are still in development.

In the U.S. 22% of all electric generation still comes from coal-fired facilities. That is down from 55% ten years ago. On the other hand, the utility industry speaks of a much cleaner future. One study comes from an electric utility company stating that electric cars and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) will be less polluting in their lifetime because it assumes the national electric grid will be less polluting in the future decade.

As an engineering and financial model, there is a need to sell a product or idea on the base case, not the high case, i.e., model a base case scenario with facts, not assumptions. Many studies predict that people with home-based renewable energy systems will charge their vehicles without using power from the grid. Already, people who don’t have a renewable energy system, charge their cars at night which is less stressful to the system instead of during the day which is peak load. There is a tendency when modeling to ignore normal behavior in favor of desired behavior – a wish vs reality. A business plan with pie-in-the-sky assumptions is a farce that will quickly be dismissed by investors. As an amusing side note, there’s even an article out there explaining how a dog has twice the environmental footprint than an electric car, but we love dogs, so let’s talk about electric cars instead.

Consider the following: There’s a push to recycle batteries, which is an interesting conundrum. Where can you take them? Almost nobody will accept them. Pretty pathetic for a country as advanced as ours. (If you are interested in recycling rechargeable batteries, please visit

Let’s consider a cell phone battery. It weighs about one ounce and there are people out there who get upset if you don’t recycle. Let’s compare this to an electric car. For example, the average battery pack weight in a Tesla is in the vicinity of 1200 pounds. There are predictions with the new battery technology that the weight will be cut in half. So, let’s say it’ll weigh around 600 pounds. That’s about 10,000 times more by weight than a cell phone. Oh, and you’ll have to buy new car batteries every 3-5 years at a cost of thousands of dollars. I can’t even imagine how much pollution that is in batteries, especially if our nation is starting to be concerned about tiny cell phone batteries. Wait until electric cars become commonplace. Not to mention the battery sizes for trucks and buses.

We actually herald the new electric car coming out, but we need to solve the battery problem and the electric source for charging it. We spoke earlier about how to make solar PV panels and wind turbines directly feed DC energy to an electric car at very high efficiency. (Renewable Energy … AC vs DC Blog). As for the battery problem, there is a great deal of money being invested and whoever solves the problem, or at least comes up with a much better solution, will become a billion-dollar company overnight.

For those out there who think electric cars are non-polluting, be aware that they are also stealing from the commons. There is a $7,500 federal tax credit (which is much more valuable than a tax deduction). And the people who can afford electric cars will be at least in the 25% tax bracket, which makes their credit worth at least $10,000 pre-tax (i.e., same as getting a $10,000 pay raise). As we republish this article, there's a new tax incentive with a catch that someone has the tax appetite to earn the tax incentive.

Relating an environmental military story from Twentynine Palms, CA. The “Palms” military base has a cradle-to-grave program. Turns out, sometime in the '90s, the EPA sued the Marine Corps for too much pollution on the military training site, i.e., Marines would just drop batteries on the ground when they changed batteries in their equipment. There must have been a lot of batteries on the 596,000-acre training site for the EPA to sue. How much money was exchanged if any is not known to me, but what’s important is that a “cradle-to-grave” program was initiated; meaning every hazardous material (hazmat) was to be inventoried from its “birth” to its “death.” They do this by controlling all hazmat coming onto the base. You have to submit a purchase order before you even show up; spend half a day picking up your supplies, and then another half day distributing the supplies to the unit.

Supply Officers complained about this “centralized” process. That’s not the crazy part…what is ridiculous is that every battery package was serialized. Somebody actually tagged (serialized) the alkaline batteries, you never throw out your batteries in the "field," and when the training evolution was over, the used batteries were returned, and somebody cataloged them again. Whatever was missing was assumed to have been improperly disposed in the desert training area. Some people would call this job security for the battery counters. Now think about that. Consider the lowly alkaline battery! Batteries that any American can throw in the trash are actually serialized and tracked. And even non-toxic, safe-to-eat, calomel safety light sticks (a.k.a. chemlights or glowsticks) are even tracked as hazmat. And of course, the list of “HAZMAT” grew as years passed by. So, the point is to buy rechargeables. They’re pretty cheap nowadays, about $1/each for a 2600 mAH AA battery that can take about 1,000 recharges. Rechargeables save a great deal of money. 2600 mAH is a lot of power and they are so much less polluting.

And remember, finding a battery recycling center and disposing of the batteries is almost impossible today. Also, there’s no need to serialize every battery. We don’t even serialize bullets.


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