Thursday, July 13, 2023

Freeman on Mills on IEA on battery powered cars

James Freeman's always excellent "best of the web" WSJ column today covers a Manhattan Institute report by Mark Mills itself referencing material deep in side an International Energy Agency report on battery powered electric cars. Like corn ethanol, this enthusiasm may also pass. 

The economic and environmental costs of batteries are slowly seeping out. One of my pet peeves in all of our command-and-control climate policy is that any comprehensive quantification of costs and benefits seems so rare, or at least so hidden. How many dollars for how many tons of carbon -- and especially the latter: how many tons of carbon, really, all in, including making the cars? (California only counts tailpipe emissions!) I have seen guesstimates that electric cars only breakeven in their carbon emissions at 50,000-70,000 miles. And, the point of the article, those estimates are likely undercounts especially if there is a huge expansion.  

Parts I found interesting and novel: 

For all of history, the costs of a metal in both dollar and environmental terms are dictated primarily by ore grades, i.e., the share of the rock dug up that contains the metal sought... Ore grade is what accounts for the differences in the cost per pound of gold, $15,000, and iron, $0.05. The former ore grades are typically below 0.001% and the latter over 50%.

... Average nickel ore grade is under 2% and for copper below 1%, ... Such geological realities determine the amount of energy used by big machines to do the digging, moving, grinding, refining, etc.

The global mining industry today already accounts for about 40% of all industrial energy use, and that’s before an epic expansion that will be needed to meet green plans. Petroleum itself typically accounts for half of mining-sector energy use.

Thus, estimating future EV energy emissions requires including the trajectory for ore grades. There is no evidence that any study is doing so. [My emphasis] 

Every metal exhibits a long-run and significant decline in ore grades. [The International Energy Agency] acknowledges this, even if it tendentiously understates the reality: “Future [minerals] production is likely to gravitate towards more energy-intensive pathways.” The word “likely” dodges the fact that the data and the trends are clear. Copper is typical and is one metal for which there are no substitutes for building EVs or wind and solar hardware. As a National Renewable Energy Laboratory paper pointed out, “a decrease in copper ore grade between 0.2% and 0.4%, will require seven times more energy than present-day operations.” And copper ore grades are forecast to continue the long-run decline...

Mr. Mills cites an IEA report showing a trend of increasingly energy-intensive mining to collect a number of other minerals needed for EVs and adds:

All the trends for declining ore grades are visible, even if they are ignored. [my emphasis]

Now any economist of a certain era like me remembers the resource limits arguments of the 1970s, and the fact that raw materials prices keep going down over time. How does this square with the above? Simple: over time energy prices go down, and a bit the cost of machinery goes down, so we can mine lower and lower quality ore at the same or lower price.  This is how we overcome the laws of thermodynamics. As the thing you want is more and more needle in a haystack of rubble, it takes more and more energy to pull it out. We could make copper from sea water with enough free energy. We could make copper from other elements in particle accelerators with enough free energy. Energy abundance drives declining resource prices. And, of course, current policy is driving us to more and more expensive energy.  So perhaps the resource limited crowd might be right after all, though only because of our self-imposed energy policies. 

(I don't see how one can use nuclear or solar power to run a mine. Maybe, which would at least help the carbon issue if not all the other externalities of mining.)

Some of the environmental question around carbon is nicely stated as, what kind of earth do we want to leave our great grandchildren? A hotter earth is not a pleasant choice. But an earth with all of its high grade minerals removed, and only a tenth of a degree cooler, is not a great choice either. I recall from somewhere a speculation about whether industrial civilization could revive after a social collapse. The answer is no. We can't even have a new Bronze Age. All the easily accessible deposits are gone.  

Second, an interesting forecast that our regulators will give up -- i.e. give up on the idea that replacing ICE vehicles with batteries and continuing as we do now will work: 
. . . Consumers are also to be persuaded, or forced, to drive less in general and travel more by bus, bicycle, rail, ride-share, or on foot, and to own fewer cars in the first place. As stated in the IEA net zero goal: the number of global households without a car needs to rise from 45% today to 70% by 2050, reversing a century-long trend of rising ownership. One researcher simply stated: “There is therefore a need for a wide range of policies that include measures to reduce vehicle ownership and usage.” As usual, California regulators are ahead of the proverbial curve in admitting that the state’s emissions goals will require citizens of that state—on top of being forced into EVs—to drive 25% fewer miles than they did 30 years ago . . . 

Reversing Americans' entire residential locations to something like a Manhattan where non-car transport can work is hard enough.  Carbon emissions in the next century means China, India and Africa. Do they join the modern world? Reducing "global" car ownership means, no. You walk. 

Not in the article, my own pet peeve about electric car mandates, current policy, and the coming total ban on ICE vehicles: Economics teaches you the wonder of tremendous variety in our economy. Lots of people use cars and trucks for lots of different things. If electrification saves carbon at all -- a big if, and the central point of this report -- but is expensive or range limited, then it makes sense to do it first where it's least costly and most beneficial, and leave the most high value and hard to substitute uses of gas power alone. 

For example, the natural first use for electric cars is a second or shared small car with small battery for around town. Most families have two cars. Or, you could own a small limited range car for daily driving and rent a Chevy Tahoe for a long road trip. Privately owned cars sit idle most of the time, and are not a great first use for expensive and environmentally costly batteries anyway. A fire truck that operates one month of the year in the middle of nowhere off the grid should probably stay gas powered forever. The earth does not require 100% elimination of ICE, 90% will do! 

Yet our policy makers see only one vision: each family has one car, Chevy Chase's family truckster, and must take that car on a long road trip. So the car needs to be huge, have a huge battery, and have a network of charging stations. All at once. Moonshot, not bit by bit. 

The pressure on materials will not just come from cars either. The current policy plan is to move home heating, AC, stoves, and industry to electricity, and to move electric production to solar panels and windmills. But those only work during the day. The current plan -- dream -- is battery powered grid scale electric storage. To obviate the need for backup fossil plants -- i.e. doubling the fixed cost -- we then need something like a week's worth of battery backup for the whole current electrical output, all the cars, houses, and industry that are going to be forced to move to electricity, and new economic growth. 

A total ban on gas power, a forced move to huge cars with huge batteries, and no clear quantitative understanding that this actually saves any carbon at all, let alone the other environmental consequences of massively increasing resource extraction, will obviously end badly. Freeman says "they're coming for your cars." They may, but we are still a democracy. More likely, this will join corn ethanol, switchgrass, high speed trains, urban mass transit, and a hundred other enthusiasms in a pile of eternal subsidies while the chattering classes move on to the next great enthusiasm. I can bet what will happen in California. The ban will take effect, but there will be a mechanism to plead for exemptions. Once again large well connected people and companies will get exemptions, smaller businesses will shut down, and everything gets more expensive.  The sad effect of all of this is that slow diffusion of sensible electric cars may be stalled, along with development of the technology--whatever it is--that will eventually win out 20 or 30 years from now. 



  1. Just like King Canute trying to roll back the tides, our feckless leaders deny the reality. The alarmists are right the next generation will pay the price but to buy what?

  2. The entire carbon “question” is ipso facto fraudulent. Human activity is a trifling 0.3% of so-called greenhouse gas emissions; nature is the other 99.7%. Our actual impact on global temperatures is too minuscule to even measure with modern instruments. Further, carbon dioxide above 300 ppm has no additional such effect: its absorption wavelengths are effectively opaque by that level.
    Globally, we have already squandered a trillion dollars on this fraud machine. The proper way to address the scam is to stop falling for it and stop funneling ever more billions into it.

  3. The saddest part of this story is that atmospheric CO2 doesn’t have a significant effect on our climate. The climate is controlled by atmospheric pressure and changes in the amount of solar radiation that reach the earth due to atmospheric reflection. The climate is going to change despite our valiant efforts to control it as we’ve seen over the last ten years. The details of this science can be found at I’ve read most of Mr Mills articles on energy. He’s absolutely right but nobody is listening.

  4. A warmer world is more prosperous, healthier, and happier world. A colder world is poorer, plagued, and miserable. Don't believe it? Read history.

    The Roman warm period ended in the early 6th Century. What followed was the plague of Justinian and the final collapse of the Roman Empire that had been on the point of reconstitution in the early part of the Century.

    The end of the Medieval warm period was followed by famines and the Black Death.

    The recent warmth has been accompanied by the greatest wave of economic uplift in human history. Coincidence? I think not.

    Warmer is better.

    1. Speaking of consequences, and in particular those such as the respect for law - the Manhattan Institute, as John points out, says it perfectly in other words..

      Rarely has a government, at least the U.S. government, banned specific products or behaviors that are so widely used or undertaken. Indeed, there have been only two comparably far-reaching bans in U.S. history: the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited the consumption of alcohol (repealed by the Twenty-First Amendment); and the 1974 law prohibiting driving faster than 55 mph. Neither achieved its goals; both were widely flouted, and the first one engendered unintended consequences, not least of which was criminal behavior.

  5. An excellent reason not to be panicked by the warming we have seen is that climate science holds that the amount of warming is a fixed increment for each doubling of the atmospheric concentration of CO2. The increment is called the equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS). The Climate Science establishment thinks it is 3 degrees Celsius. Others think the number is lower.

    Here is the principle expressed as a formula where:
    T1 = The global mean temperature at time no 1. (currently approximately 288K thought to be 287K in the late 19th Century)
    T2 = The global mean temperature at time no. 2
    C1 = The atmospheric CO2 concentration at time no. 1 (19th Century 280 ppm)
    C2 = The atmospheric CO2 concentration at time no. 2 (currently 420 ppm)
    ECS = Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity (IPCC* uses 3K ± 1.5)
    Log2 is the logarithm function base 2
    The formula is:
    T2 = T1 + (ECS × (Log2 (C2/C1)))

    *IPCC is the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They are the climate change establishment.

    That is a logarithmic equation. It produces change at a decelerating rate. It is the mathematical inverse of an exponential equation like compound interest which produces change at a accelerating rate.

    BTW China now emits as much CO2 as North and South America and Western Europe combined.

  6. Another cost clearly discernible from Texas and Winter Storm Uri is that for ERCOT to replace thermal electricity sources and meet peak/spike demands they will need to build 35-38 times the 2021 renewables installation. (70MW Peak demand / ~2MW renewables output =35) And, that does not include any additional need due to EVs, home heating, cooking etc. conversion to electricity demand by the net zero zealots.

  7. "A hotter earth is not a pleasant choice." Try thinking of it as a less cold world. We are still recovering from an ice age. It's too cold in many places, and not just northern Canada and the entire area of the poles. Depending on whose stats you accept, between 3 times and 15 times as many people die from cold as from heat. I recommend David Friedman's Substack blog for some excellent discussions of the positives of global warming that are typically ignored.

  8. John,

    I agree with you on mandates and subsidies, they shouldn't exist!

    But I would caution you in betting against the market providing mass manufactured goods like electric vehicles. If you follow the industry closely then you will be familiar with a recent shift to lithium iron phosphate batteries. These are good enough for 75% of vehicles or possibly more. Using your example they use materials like iron and phosphate that are very cheap. Lithium is only a few percent of the mass and an ultra thin foil of copper is only used for one of the current collectors. Tesla has started construction for their next generation car which will be in the Corolla class. They've redesigned the motors to have no rare earths, the magnets are made out an iron oxide like refrigerator doors use. And they are increasing the voltage of the low voltage system in the car that runs the doors, radios, etc. from 12V to 48V (first time the industry has done this since the 1950s) to reduce wire size and copper usage.

    As you might guess stationary storage batteries are shifting to lithium iron phosphate, iron-air, and sodium ion battery chemistries. The rule of thumb is that all batteries will essentially be made of dirt.

    Since every price is a signal about how much energy and labor that material needs, serving mass market customers means switching to materials like iron that use less of those resources. The market works these things out on its own!

    1. Thank you! All my free market economics says we will substitute, innovate, and forecasted disasters will be avoided , at least if prices are allowed to signal profit opportunities. Let us hope it is so for batteries or maybe other energy storage methods like hydrogen.

  9. Thermodynamics is a subject that is governed by immutable laws. You say, if only there were to be sufficient free energy we could make copper in a linear accelerator. When the Thracean embassy arrived in Sparta it sought and was granted an audience with the three kings of Sparta, and proceeded to argue to the Spartans, "If our armies are forced to advance on Sparta, then ... ." They argued thus for a half day, and then stopped. The Thracean embassy then asked the kings for their answer. The three kings looked at Thebean embassy and answered thus: "If."

    If you could find a fulcrum, and a lever long enough, you could shift the Earth fromits orbit.

    The Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics states: "Entropy is ever increasing."

    No matter what scheme a system operating under, it is increasing the entropy of the universe. Living systems take low entropy substances and create low entropy products but in doing so they create a net gain in the entropy of the environment. A nuclear power plant creates electricity (low entropy) but in so doing on net it increases the entropy of the environment (e.g., waste in the form of heat, and radioactivity that can not be harnessed for any practical purpose). In lieu of the term "free energy", engineers refer to "available energy" which is that portion of total accessible energy that can be converted to useful work. The difference between total energy and available energy is termed "lost work". The engineer who minimizes "lost work", saves energy and maximizes effectiveness and efficiency. Eventually the universe will go dark and enter the dead state where there is no available energy to exploit. Something to look forward to, perhaps. The end to politicians.

    1. "When the Thracean embassy arrived in Sparta it sought and was granted an audience with the three kings of Sparta"

      Nice anecdote. The Spartans were famous for having two kings. I did not think they ever had three.

    2. Indeed, you are correct -- from before ~900 BC until 222 BC, Sparta had two kings, one each from the Agiad dynasty and the Eurypontid dynasty. From 221 BC to 219 BC, Sparta was a republic. The dual kingship was restored in 219 BC and lasted until 206 BC.

      I was writing from memory, and failed to check the available sources for confirmation.


  10. Wouldn’t that be the Second Law of Thermodynamics?

    The Zeroth Law is usually stated that equilibrated masses have the same temperature.

  11. First: I want to claim responsibility for July 13 11:19 pm and 11:53 pm. Posting as Anonymous was accidental.

    Second: There is another factor that is limiting the natural tendency of mining technology to produce more abundant minerals. That is systematic political obstruction of mining activities:

    It is almost like they want to forbid fossil fuel powered vehicles and prevent anyone from having battery powered vehicles as well.

  12. My pick of the logical conclusion is to continue to use liquid fuels, but to make them from CO2, water and a lot of energy. Said "lot of energy" can be nuclear. We are able to make LPG (liquified natural gas) this way reasonably easily, and it burns in existing cars. You can also feed a fuel cell from it if you wish. It stores and transports the same way natural gas normally transports. No massive shift of the economy. It's only viable with very cheap energy, which nuclear could provide if not regulated to death.

  13. Hi John, mining guy here.

    I’m not sure where to start with all of this. There is a lot of mythology here. I suspect that despite a veneer to the contrary, the IEA uses Club of Rome style myths in its dubious analysis of resources.

    I’ll start simple:

    First, the “post apocalypse” recovery: Why would we need high grade ore? There would be billions of tons of ready-to-used scrap lying around!

    Second, the “low hanging fruit” hypothesis of declining grades: this hypothesis is false. The main reason we mine lower grades now than in the past is that the demand for mined commodities is *many* orders of magnitude higher than even 100 years ago. Current demand could never have been satisfied by the small tonnage of high grade deposits exposed at the surface near population centers.

    Third, regarding ore grade and energy: the reason we can mine lower grades economically today is that the energy required to produce a ton of resource is *falling* - not rising! - because of dramatically better technology and larger scale.

    Just look changes in transportation in the last 200 years: in the 1850s, a typical rail car was 25ft long and six feet wide with a peak speed of 30mph. In the 1930s it was 40ft long and went up to 60mph. Today it can be up to 90ft long and ten feet wide, but it still weighs less than its 1850s ancestor, travels at twice the speed and then some, and it **still** requires less energy to move than three or four of its 1850s predecessors with an equal tonnage of product. In the early 2000s, BHP, an iron mining company, ran a train over five miles long with 80,000 tons of ore and a total weight of just shy of 100,000 tons! Unthinkable even in 1970.

    Fourth, economics: it isn’t the biggest problem for mining. Economics are irrelevant if mining isn’t allowed. The Biden admin recently put the kibosh on the Pebble Project, a deposit *exposed at the surface* in southern AK. The deposit contains a whopping 57 *billion* tons of Cu, plus Mo, Au, and Ag. Some other that I know about: Obama killed the extension of the Buckhorn Crown Jewel in Northeastern WA, forcing the operating mine there to close in 2017. Several companies have had positive drilling results for copper in the Methow region of NE Washington state, which is adjacent to operating Cu-Zn mines in Canada, but the Methow is cabin and ranch country for Microsoft billionaires, so the chances of a mine opening there are effectively zero.

    There’s no point in exploring when mining is not allowed.

    Tragically IEA and most other organizations making projections about mining are using methods that are simply wrong, which is why across the board they missed the shale oil revolution, even after it was in progress!!! This is probably because they're stocked with environmental economists, not industry economists, and this is in turn because industry economists would provide an analysis that the IEA and it's sibling orgs don't want to hear.

  14. Let me illustrate why the idea that the "low hanging fruit" has been picked is mistaken:

    Think about this: In terms of metals, where was the "low hanging fruit" for Neanderthals?

    Answer: there wasn't any "low hanging fruit" for Neanderthals, because they did not have the necessary technology to use metals, regardless of the quality of material available. Right? Even though there were ample "high grade" deposits that were immediately accessible at the surface of the earth to Neanderthals, no technology existed to exploit them. So there was no "low hanging fruit" - and that has been the case for most the history of H (species).

    In recent times, though still through millennia of trial and error, our predecessors eventually developed the technological means to exploit some types of metal deposits. Suddenly there was "low hanging fruit"! But only because the technological means had been developed to exploit it and transport it to where it was useful. When nearby deposits and/or the means to produce materials from them were exhausted, the low-hanging fruit disappeared.

    We know that past civilizations have fallen for exactly that reason - the local supply of either energy or material disappeared. This doesn't say anything about what kind of energy or material was available one hundred or five hundred miles further afield. But without means to provide supplies to extract materials and to transport the product to population centers, those deposits might as well be in another galaxy. Indeed we live in a universe that has an infinite supply of raw materials - and, in small steps, we will surely acquire the means to exploit them, and the "low hanging fruit" will come and go and come again, as it has in the past.

    So the reality is that there never was any "natural" low hanging fruit. Until the ancestors of today's humans invented the necessary technology to exploit some resources, **all** of the fruit was too high to utilize. LHF comes with the development of new technology and goes as the available materials accessible with that new technology are exhausted, then comes again when more new technologies arise.

  15. Perhaps the best case to be made is the one being made by Toyota. According to a flyer published by Toyota the ore that is required to build a single EV could be used to produce 90 hybrids. Those 90 hybrids would reduce carbon emissions by 37 times (!) more than a single EV. While the Tesla crowd will never admit to it, if we truly want to reduce carbon emissions we should all just drive hybrids and not EVs. Also worth noting that these numbers from Toyota have been "fact checked" and hold up under scrutiny.

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