Alice in EVland Part II; The Hall Of Mirrors

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John Petersen

Mark Twain reportedly said that “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.” Truer words were never spoken.

On November 22nd the EPA issued an official fuel economy sticker for Nissan’s (NSANY.PK) Leaf that shows an impressive electric drive equivalence of 99 MPG. Two days later it issued an official fuel economy sticker for General Motor’s (GM) Volt that shows a comparable electric drive equivalence of 93 MPG, a gasoline drive fuel economy of 37 MPG and a combined equivalence of 60 MPG. Both stickers were heralded as the dawn of a new age in transportation. Unfortunately, they were outrageous lies that account for the distance a car can travel on a kilowatt-hour of electricity but ignore the energy needed to make a kilowatt-hour of electricity in the first place.

To arrive at their magical fuel economy numbers, the EPA started with the scientific fact that 1 kWh of electricity contains 3,412 BTUs of energy and 1 gallon of gasoline contains 124,238 BTUs. After calculating a base energy equivalence of 36.41 kWh per gallon, they adjusted that value to show a 7.5% energy loss in the battery and arrive at a final value of 33.7 kWh per gallon. In the words of autobloggreen “Since the Leaf has a 24 kWh battery pack and can go, officially, 73 miles, then, the EPA says, it could theoretically go 99 miles if it had a 33.7 kWh pack.”

Now let’s talk about what really happens.

To get a gallon of gasoline we have to drill a well, produce the oil, refine it and transport it to a gas pump near you. Overall, the production, transportation and refining consumes about 20% of the raw energy the crude oil contained at the wellhead. So if we back the entire process up to mother earth, each gallon of gasoline had an initial energy value 155,300 BTUs.

To get a kWh of electricity from sources other than water, wind and solar, we have to consume fuel to create heat in a generating plant and then turn that heat into electricity. The conversion process is very inefficient. According to the Energy Information Administration, it takes 10,378 BTUs of coal energy, 11,015 BTUs of petroleum energy, 8,305 BTUs of natural gas energy or 10,453 BTUs of nuclear energy to make 1 kWh of electricity. In other words, about 2/3 of the raw energy extracted from mother earth is wasted. If we include electricity from water, wind, solar and all other sources, the US consumed an average of 8,775 BTUs of raw energy last year for every kilowatt-hour of electricity it produced. By the time we account for transmission and distribution losses on the electric grid, the energy inputs for each kilowatt-hour of electricity delivered to a wall socket near you is about 9,375 BTUs.

When we track all the numbers back to mother earth, the energy equivalency ratio between gasoline in a car’s tank and electricity in an EVs battery is 16.6 kWh per gallon – not 33.7 kWh per gallon.

The EPA’s official sticker for Toyota’s (TM) venerable Prius shows a respectable combined fuel economy rating of 50 MPG. Since the Prius only burns gasoline but does so very efficiently, we have to extract 3,106 BTUs of energy from mother earth to move the Prius a mile. In comparison, we have to extract 3,388 BTUs of energy from mother earth to move the Leaf a mile and we have to extract a whopping 3,873 BTUs of energy to move the Volt a mile.

The bottom line is all the efficiency talk for plug-in vehicles is based on a fundamental deception that ignores the energy required to produce electricity in the first place, the same way it ignores the emissions impact of producing electricity. As a result, all of the arguments in favor of vehicle electrification have the intellectual integrity of a no peeing zone in a public swimming pool.

William Martin wrote that “In America we get up in the morning, we go to work and we solve our problems.” We don’t delude ourselves by creating a hall of mirrors where unconscionable waste can masquerade as conservation. We can do better, but not until we take our heads out of the sand and recognize the problems.

Disclosure: None.


  1. I’ll accept that your calculations are correct. That being the case, are you effectively saying that the Leaf, the first commercially manufactured EV, has the same energy economy as the Prius, which has been on the road for 13 years. If that’s the case, and excepting all other variables, shouldn’t we, at the very least, parallel path EV development with hybrid development?

  2. The only way the energy balance is going to change is if somebody rewrites the laws of physics.
    I have no objection to people who want to spend their own money developing EVs if they think they have an idea that makes sense. Hobbyists have been doing it for decades.
    I have serious objections when people want to spend massive amounts of taxpayers money to develop EVs that are unlikely to ever be better than a wash when it comes to the overall energy balance.

  3. Bravo for trying to use the numbers to figure out MPGE or mile-per-gallon-equivalent.
    But wait, some really smart professional educated engineers over at DOE and EPA have been chewing away on this for a while. OEMs are arguing with them on the definitions, and so there is transparency, a feedback loop, and now that the adults are back in control, expertise.
    All that intellectual process could still be wrong, especially if any economists crept in, but it certainly out-ranks you and us readers. However there is also the possibility that both good and bad politics weight the outcome after the white-coats are done.
    So lets examine your assumptions.
    Assume we leave out the embodied energy of things like new cars and batteries and oil wells. Thats way way beyond us.
    Default- yes it takes the same kinetic energy to move a gas car as an equivalent electric. obvious.
    Default – yes there is way more energy stored in a gallon of gas than six pounds of batteries. Thats why we started with gas.
    So I ran your numbers and got about the same result – 2790 BTU/mile for as BEV and 2480 for a Prius. So how come the Leaf isn’t rated at 50 mpg?
    Well this rather good Wikipedia article has some slightly different numbers and explicitly states (somebody check the refs) that the MPGE is tank-to-wheels not well-to-wheels.
    But I think we are straining at nits. Not all BTUs are created equal. We all know we have to get off fossil fuels, its just a question of how soon and to what. Even if we take no preventive measures, and ignore global warming costs, and even continue to subsidize petroleum, rising demand and diminishing, ever-more-expensive supply guarantee there will be a change.
    So weighting the MPGE is not lying, after all the process and formula is open and visible, it’s an attempt to include the externalities in the costs of energy. No doubt its somewhat arbitrary.
    Here is the Volt sticker, looks to me like a lot of info there:
    I think GDP and unemployment stats for instance, are a much bigger problem, because they conceal economic fundamentals.
    The argument that electric vehicles are not a good idea because a large part of our electricity is generated from non-renewables, essentially your argument distilled to a Rush L soundbite, is bogus. It’s bogus because at least some electricity is generated with renewables and zero fossil-fuels are renewable on our time scale. There’s no hope one way and at least a glimmer with the EVs that we may be able to retain some of our lifestyle.
    If you want to pick on a REALLY scary assumption, think about whether there is enough fossil-fuel left to build the new, renewable infrastructure, and still support growth in China and India.

  4. As a Swiss resident I’ve not heard anything of Rush for about 13 years.
    First, I have to disagree with your assertions about the adults being back in control. In truth we’ve merely replaced on set of ideologues with another. You may feel more comfortable with the current crew, but like the political parties in general there’s not a dimes worth of difference between the two. It’s just a question of who’s pocket they want to line.
    For gasoline the difference between dirt to wheels and pump to wheels is 20%. For electricity the difference is more like 67%. Using any standard that artificially punishes one choice while artificially benefiting another gives rise to exactly the kind of problems Mr. Twain recognized when he complained that “figures don’t lie but liars figure.”
    The really sad part is that most investors are not as enlightened or informed as you are and they believe the bafflegab about zero emissions and the non-existent advantages of EVs when it comes to CO2 reduction.
    I hate to piss on your glimmer of hope but we live in a world where six billion people are striving to earn a small piece of the lifestyle you obviously believe is a god given right. If we give them 10% purchasing power parity, we will double global demand for everything overnight.
    The inescapable reality is there is not enough stuff on the planet to get us anywhere near parity and if the self absorbed citizens of advanced nations don’t change their wasteful ways the worlds poor will force the issue.

  5. Your post completely ignores the huge efficiency losses that occur in the internal combustion engine. Nearly 80% of the energy from gasoline is lost in engine heat and exhaust. EVs have about a thousand less moving parts and the conversion of energy is far more efficient that the ICE.

  6. Your argument completely ignores the inefficiency of the coal and natural gas power plants that generate over 70% of America’s electricity. When those figure into the mix an EV is no more clean or efficient than a Prius-class HEV.


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