Electric trucks, chapter 1: Energy supply 

[in the blog series: Electric trucks: economically and environmentally desirable but misunderstood]

By Auke Hoekstra

 

Chapter 1
Energy supply

Chapter 2
Motor

Chapter 3
Energy storage

Chapter 4
Energy delivery

Diesel

Fuel

<30% efficient

Gasoline tank

Gas stations

Electric

Electricity

>85% efficient

Battery

Chargers

We are all passengers on "spaceship earth": a relatively small rock in an endless universe with thin sliver of life on its surface. But all is not well. We are unbalancing the wisp of air above us called the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. Simultaneously we are exhausting the thin fertile carpet below us called topsoil. Biofuels are an attempt to save the atmosphere by exhausting the topsoil even faster: a recipe for disaster. Once you realize that we have to avoid both fossil fuels and biofuels you understand that electric transportation is the only way forward.

This chapter explains the point in more detail and illustrates how biofuels compete with nature and humans for scarce fertile topsoil and fresh water. It calculates that oil already provides seven times as much energy as all humans eat while a single heavy truck "eats" as much as 750 humans.

Road freight is important

On page 17 the IEA provides a helpful chart (figure 1) that describes how we use our oil. As you can see 26% goes to passenger vehicles which is why many experts (me included) focused their energy on that first. But now that the option to electrify passenger vehicles is firmly established (see introduction) we must focus on the whopping 18% of oil that goes to road freight. 

Conventional engines need fossil fuels or biofuels and both are bad

Right now road freight runs on fossil fuels. Almost all heavy trucks run on diesel because diesel engines can be made a bit more efficient and hence use less fuel than gasoline engines. Making a really good diesel engine that is also clean is expensive but since heavy-duty vehicles use so much energy this makes the needed investment worthwhile. The IEA report states (page 85-86) that CNG and LNG are interesting alternatives because they are better for the air quality in cities but that it is questionable if they reduce CO2 emissions at all.

So in order to achieve significant CO2 reductions the report turns to efficiency, electrification and – most of all – biofuels. Figure 39 shows that biofuels will provide the biggest CO2 reduction of all the measures the IEA proposes in its Modern Truck Scenario. This is both too little and too much. It is not enough if we want to stick to the Paris accord but simultaneously it is way too much if we want to keep spaceship earth a fun and livable place.

I think people honestly advocating biofuels in order to mitigate climate change are unaware or in denial about how out of hand things have become since we have begun using fossil fuels. The following table breaks down the daily energy needs of a well fed human being, a car and a heavy truck.

Daily energy needs of a human, a car and a heavy truck (i)

 

kWh

liters of oil equivalent

factor

 

Human

4

0.4

1

 

Car

40

4

10

 

Heavy Truck

1500

150

375

 

Are we really thinking we can feed all our cars and trucks without having an impact on hunger or nature? Already the oil we produce contains seven times more energy than what we eat worldwide (ii). If we want to provide all the ten billion people we expect in 2100 with the energy currently used by Americans we would need to feed our machines about a hundred times as much as we currently feed ourselves (iii). In what imaginary world is that even possible?

Rather we should try to put less pressure on our agricultural system. Depleting aquifers [2] are already causing food crises [3] and if we don’t stop our abuse of topsoil our agricultural output will plummet (please read the links if you doubt that) [4]–[7]. Feeding humanity will be huge challenge, even without our growing appetite for meat. Adding biofuels to the mix is a recipe for disaster.

If the above argumentation and links have not convinced you yet, many scientific papers have already pointed out how commercially viable biofuels compete with food [8]–[10] and nature [11]–[14] for globally scarce fertile topsoil and fresh water [16]. Palm oil is just one of the many examples [15]. The only way to “solve” this issue is by hypothesizing that somehow agriculture will become much more productive and that land use change can be avoided by globally enforced rules. This is theoretically possible but not very realistic. Literature that assesses land use change based on observed reality instead of hypothesized ideal situations concludes that commercially viable biofuels are actually worse for the planet than fossil fuels [17]–[19]. The UN rapporteur on food has even called it a crime against humanity [20].

So why are we still pretending biofuels are the solution? Well, biofuels fit neatly into the perspective of experts of the old, especially if they just look at the mobility system. The IEA report is a good example. On page 90 it states: “The long-term role for crop-based biofuels in decarbonizing heavy-duty transport in certain markets will depend on the extent to which the land-use change debate can be clarified.” But after this cryptic warning it proceeds to ignoring the elephant in the room. Furthermore, biofuels are business as usual from a vehicle perspective and thus popular with car makers. Agricultural lobbyist push it as a new and potentially lucrative crop. Oil lobbyist push it because it’s close to oil’s current business model and can be processed by their refineries. That’s three powerful lobbies supported by the experts of the old.

Now I know biofuels are also promoted by well meaning greenies and farmers that point to their lovingly cultivated patch of land and say: "I'm doing my part. I'm not hurting anybody. How can this be wrong?" So I feel like a party pooper but am obliged to tell it like it is: biofuels are a solution that predates the industrial revolution and in modern times it’s broad application would result in even more problems than burning fossil fuels.

Finally a note about biofuels from waste or so called “advanced biofuels” because they are often used as “switch and bait” in biofuel discussions: in the business case discussion the traditional biofuels are presented and when the discussion shifts to land use change it’s the biofuels from waste or the advanced biofuels that are presented.

There is nothing wrong with biofuels from waste. If you cannot turn waste into feedstock, biofuel is a great alternative. But compared to what our machines eat, the amount of waste we have is negligible and as we are moving closer to a circular economy we will hopefully get less waste. The IEA report acknowledges as much in several places. I would also say: save it for harder problems like airplanes.

Really advanced biofuels are basically fuels that are produced using photosynthesis – the way plants do – but that don’t use scarce fertile topsoil and fresh water and thus don’t compete with food and nature. An example is growing algae in glass tubes. These developments are not mentioned in the IEA report because they are too experimental and expensive. Furthermore, photosynthesis is inherently inefficient compared to solar panels and windmills so advanced biofuels will probably never be able to compete on price with synthetic “solar fuels” like hydrogen. They are still a great idea for high value added applications though! They are already a great source of high quality vegan feedstock that can be engineered to provide ample proteins and valuable and scarce nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids.

Electric trucks can drive using renewable electricity

As has been widely reported, we receive more energy from sunlight in an hour than we would need to power an affluent society for all of humanity an entire year. Solar panels can already harvest that energy with 20% efficiency so we need to dedicate less than 0.1% or surface to that. And instead of fertile land it can be desert, rooftops or ocean surface. Even wind energy (that uses this energy indirectly by harvesting the air currents generated by solar energy) can provide us many times the energy we need. Thus almost any country in the world could easily power itself this way.

The picture shows the ocean surface needed for both our current electricity need and the entire electrification of road transport. Red is wind area. Blue is floating solar panels. Combining them would decrease the surface needed.

More importantly the prices of solar and wind have been falling in a very predictable manner. E.g. in the case of solar every doubling of production has led to a 21% decrease in cost [21]–[23]. This has made solar cheaper by a factor of more than one hundred in the past fifty years while oil prices have doubled or tripled during that time. I was not the first to predict that solar panels would become the cheapest source of energy in the first place (I wrote about it in 2007) but by now it is becoming definitively mainstream. I now predict that airborne wind energy will become even cheaper if you factor in storage and I think we are in for a veritable renewable electricity tsunami.

So I hope that I’ve established that the electric drivetrain is the only real option forward if we want to save both the air above our heads and the soil beneath our feet. I hope I’ve also made the point that the renewable electricity to power it is abundant. But will electric trucks be expensive? Find out in the next chapter.

 

 ---------------------------------------

Footnotes

(i) The average person on this planet eats about 2940 kcal or 3.42 kWh but in industrialized countries it is 3440 or exactly 4 kWh per day [1]. So if we look at global energy intake we must multiply 7 billion inhabitants by 3.42 to get 2.39E10 kWh/day. The IEA reports we produce about 96 millions barrels of oil a day and an oil barrel contains about 1700 kWh of energy so that’s 1.63E11 or 6.83 times as much.

(ii) An American uses about 80.000 kWh per year or 228 kWh per day so 10 billion of them would use 2.28E12. Divide that by the 2.39E10 we currently east (previous footnote) and you get a factor of 96. Now this is just to show how out of hand things have become. The same affluence can be achieved with much less energy by e.g. insulating your house, using heat pumps and switching to electric cars but that is precisely the point: we must find new solutions instead of falling back on biofuels, an idea that preceded the industrial revolution.

(iii) In the next footnote we establish the 4kWh/day for a well fed human. The average European car (more frugal than the US cars) uses about 8.7 liter gasoline / 100 km and travels around 15.000 km/year. If you assume 10kWh/liter and 25% added energy because of production you arrive at 40 kWh/day. The long haul track idem but it uses 40l/100km according to the IEA report and drives about 100.000km/year.

 

References

[1]          “WHO | 3. Global and regional food consumption patterns and trends,” WHO. [Online]. Available: http://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/3_foodconsumption/en/. [Accessed: 24-Jul-2017].

[2]          D. Dimick, N. G. A. 21, and 2014, “If You Think the Water Crisis Can’t Get Worse, Wait Until the Aquifers Are Drained,” National Geographic News, 21-Aug-2014. [Online]. Available: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/08/140819-groundwater-california-drought-aquifers-hidden-crisis/. [Accessed: 23-Jul-2017].

[3]          “The Great Food Crisis of 2011,” Foreign Policy. .

[4]          “Only 60 Years of Farming Left If Soil Degradation Continues,” Scientific American. [Online]. Available: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/only-60-years-of-farming-left-if-soil-degradation-continues/. [Accessed: 23-Jul-2017].

[5]          S. Yang, M. relations | M. 7, 2015July 9, and 2015, “Human security at risk as depletion of soil accelerates, scientists warn,” Berkeley News, 30-Nov-2001. [Online]. Available: http://news.berkeley.edu/2015/05/07/soil-depletion-human-security/. [Accessed: 23-Jul-2017].

[6]          W. E. Forum, “What If the World’s Soil Runs Out?,” Time.

[7]          “Soil Erosion and Degradation | Threats | WWF,” World Wildlife Fund. [Online]. Available: https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/soil-erosion-and-degradation. [Accessed: 23-Jul-2017].

[8]          B. G. Henning, “The Ethics of Food, Fuel & Feed,” Daedalus, vol. 144, no. 4, pp. 90–98, Sep. 2015.

[9]          “Biofuels and Agricultural Commodity Prices: A Review of the Evidence Base.” [Online]. Available: https://ieep.eu/publications/biofuels-and-agricultural-commodity-prices-a-review-of-the-evidence-base. [Accessed: 15-Jul-2017].

[10]        The Economics of Biofuel Policies - Impacts on | Harry de Gorter | Palgrave Macmillan. .

[11]        E. F. Lambin and P. Meyfroidt, “Global land use change, economic globalization, and the looming land scarcity,” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., vol. 108, no. 9, pp. 3465–3472, Mar. 2011.

[12]        D. M. Lapola et al., “Indirect land-use changes can overcome carbon savings from biofuels in Brazil,” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., vol. 107, no. 8, pp. 3388–3393, Feb. 2010.

[13]        F. Hellmann and P. H. Verburg, “Impact assessment of the European biofuel directive on land use and biodiversity,” J. Environ. Manage., vol. 91, no. 6, pp. 1389–1396, Jun. 2010.

[14]        F. Danielsen et al., “Biofuel Plantations on Forested Lands: Double Jeopardy for Biodiversity and Climate,” Conserv. Biol., vol. 23, no. 2, pp. 348–358, Apr. 2009.

[15]        P. Meyfroidt, E. F. Lambin, K.-H. Erb, and T. W. Hertel, “Globalization of land use: distant drivers of land change and geographic displacement of land use,” Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain., vol. 5, no. 5, pp. 438–444, Oct. 2013.

[16]        E. B. Fitzherbert et al., “How will oil palm expansion affect biodiversity?,” Trends Ecol. Evol., vol. 23, no. 10, pp. 538–545, Oct. 2008.

[17]        K. Kleiner, “The backlash against biofuels,” Nat. Rep. Clim. Change, vol. 2, pp. 9–11, 2008.

[18]        J. R. Palmer, “Biofuels and the Politics of Land-Use Change: Tracing the Interactions of Discourse and Place in European Policy Making,” Environ. Plan. A, vol. 46, no. 2, pp. 337–352, Feb. 2014.

[19]        S. Tokgoz and D. Laborde, “Indirect Land Use Change Debate: What Did We Learn?,” Curr. Sustain. Energy Rep., vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 104–110, Sep. 2014.

[20]        J. Ziegler, “Burning food crops to produce biofuels is a crime against humanity,” The Guardian, 26-Nov-2013.

[21]        “International Technology Roadmap for Photovoltaic (ITRPV),” ITRPV, Mar. 2017.

[22]        Seth Miller, “Experts have massively underestimated solar. Why? (Solar: Part 1),” perspicacity.xyz, 14-Feb-2017. [Online]. Available: https://perspicacity.xyz/2017/02/13/experts-have-massively-underestimated-solar-why-solar-part-1/. [Accessed: 23-Jul-2017].

[23]        “What is the Learning Curve—and What Does it Mean for Solar Power and for Electric Vehicles?,” Union of Concerned Scientists, 29-Sep-2016. [Online]. Available: http://blog.ucsusa.org/peter-oconnor/what-is-the-learning-curve. [Accessed: 23-Jul-2017].

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