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The Truth Will Out.

I recently blogged about a BBC online news item about a University report which hit the newswires with gusto last week.

‘Electric cars pose an environmental risk?’ asked the click-bait headline.

I read the article, then I read the report but I didn’t have the scientific acumen or indeed zeal to delve further.

So, after a bit of research and some helpful steers by the Twitterati, I came across some interesting comments from a Chemical engineer in the USA called Dan Fichana who revealed the following interesting facts about the much-touted report.

The study the BBC news site referred to with such enthusiasm was from the NTNU (Norwegian University of Science and Technology).  

Norway is a major oil and gas producer and this particular university has a partnership with Statoil.

They fund the Center for Integrated Operations in the Petroleum Industry. Nothing wrong with that, it’s on the public record, it’s not covert and I fully support such arrangements.

The NTNU is in Trondheim, the same city where SINTEF (An independent industrial research organization) runs their Petroleum Research Laboratory also in partnership with NTNU. According to NTNU's web site, the lab has 750 people which would make it a rather significant operation. 
Trondheim is also the city where Statoil is building a $42 million dollar research facility.

This year the NTNU hosted "Statoil Day" to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Statoil.

Of the four authors of the report the BBC highlighted, the only professor is Anders Hammer Strømman. He belongs to the Department of Energy and Process Engineering. That department works with SINTEF and is headed by Olav Bolland, who won the Statoil Award for Outstanding Research in 2011, which includes a cash prize of roughly $35,000, plus a work of art.

As Mr Fichana points out, this information is purely circumstantial, but it's more than enough to be at least skeptical of these people and their possible motives.

The gist of the Norwegian report was on the total Life Cycle Assessment or LCA of an electric car when compared to a petrol/diesel vehicle.
It seems they might have made one or two teeny weeny error-ettes. 

When they calculated the materials that went into making electric motors for cars, they accidentally used a static electric motor (the sort of thing you’d use to drive a large milling machine or industrial lathe) instead of a small, compact motor that would be found in a Nissan Leaf or similar car. Their calculations were for a *1,000 kg* motor, the motor in the Nissan Leaf weighs *53kg.* 

As you can imagine, an error of this magnitude could skew the figures rather badly. 

So why does it matter? 

Well, their entire prognosis rests on the amounts of materials used and the ability to re-cycle those materials efficiently and economically at the end of the car’s life.

A 1,000 kg motor contains 91 kg of copper, copper is expensive and it’s mining and production has, without question, a negative environmental impact. All cars use a lot of copper, the wiring loom, the starter motor etc. Electric cars use a little bit more, that phrase is accurate, they use a little bit more. Not 90kg more.

The report also ‘casually misjudges’ the size, weight and copper content of the frequency inverter, the bit of an electric car that transforms the AC current fed in from the electricity supply, into the DC current stored in the battery. 
These units do indeed contain copper but the report happened to measure a large, industrial scale frequency inverter you’d find in a factory tool shop. The factory one contains 36kg of copper, the one in the Nissan Leaf is 6.2 kg, total weight, most of which is the steel box it's housed in.

They then analysed battery chemistry which no EV maker uses, battery capacity that no plug in car uses, then skewed the figures of how much coal is burned to generate the power to charge the non existent batteries in the mythical car.

Essentially, the report is trash from start to finish. It's sad really because it raised some very important points. The main one being we really should stop burning coal to make electricity. That I totally support. But in their zeal to prove their utterly spurious point they pushed too far. They've shot themselves in the foot and the BBC likewise.
What we need, as consumers, is to know the true well to wheel, mine to scrapyard, oil rig to petrol pump, power station to plug socket data so we can truthfully decide which technology is preferable. We also need to know who is producing these figures and what possible agenda they might have. 

If you are of a mind to inform the BBC, and indeed the Norwegian University of Science and Technology of some fairly painfully obvious errors in this much-trumpeted report, be my guest. 

I’m bored of being ‘furious of the Cotswolds.’

Reader Comments (14)

So the point is they lied; they skewed the numbers. That is advocacy for you. Agendas get in the way of the truth. Problem is all sides in this field/fight have advocates, and all sides are guilty of what you are reporting here. [Uhhh... that includes EV's] So the truth is not likely to fall on any one side, but somewhere in the middle, if at all.


October 11, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkidmarc

What saddens me the most is that, this subject, I understand, so I can see the glaring errors and discount them. But, if this is the way they tackle EVs, what about things I don't fully understand like the atrocities taking place in Syria. Are there actually atrocities taking place? Is there even a country called Syria? How can I trust the BBC if know them to be false on this matter and in TV shows like Top Gear?

October 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Thwaite

I drive a Renault Twizy. It costs me £1 to charge, drawing approx 8.7amps of current and consuming 2kw of power and taking 3hours to do so. I can drive toughly 54miles at speeds up to 52mph on this charge. My previous car could manage 6 miles for £1.Like Richard in his initial comments about the report, I have solar panels and bought my Twizy to maximise my use of the energy they produce. Our local powerstation of Tilbury is a 60's monolith using the Thames to cool the turbines and generate the steam. It has been converted to run on compressed pellets from sustainable sources of wood products. I have visited their envoronmental site and found that the water and habitat surrounding the site has high quantities of plant and fauna around their freshwater ponds that is teeming with the full heirachy of animals and fish withing its ecosystem. The giant turbine hall contains the same plant that was originally installed, that at the end of it's life can be recycled and reused.

The Twizy means I have reduced my carbon footprint by the reduction of my burning of fossil fuels (as well as in my family home buit in 1936) and that as a complete package knowing how my local energy is produced, can honestly say that I have made a difference. If enough of us make this change, we can make a small difference now, but influence the generation to come. I agree that we need to see the full cost from the extracting of the raw material to the manufacture of the vehicle, to its use and end of life. Are we not engineering into products, end-of-life recyclability, the reduction of adhesives to bond materials together - WEEE regulations etc?

To disuade people who could become early adopters from making the change because of poorly analysed data is a dis-service to the environmental lobby. No one really questions why we need to upgrade to a supposedly better smart phone (whatever the brand), that has a much shorter shelf life than a car and consumes more energy in it's daily battery life and it's associated draw on ICT systems to stay connected to the network. Who would have anticipated the quantity of phone masts, server rooms et cetera - its power demands growing as we switch to 4G?

For years we have had 'turn off your electronic equipment from stand-by,' yet we are simplly exploding the number of devices that require higher energy demands as we leave them charging overnight when electricity demands are meant to be lower. To claim that the electric car has a marginal benefit to the reduction of the burning of fossil fuels compared to combustion engines misses the point of our consumer society completely.

October 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRoger Newsham

You may find it interesting that the “Norwegian University of Science & Technology” keeps a list of “Shocking Electric Car News” stories: http://www.ntnu.edu/news/2012-news/shocking-electric-car-news

Also, (in unrelated news)
Norway planning almost double carbon taxes on big oil: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/08/norway-budget-environment-idUSL6E8L851N20121008

October 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

We keep a thread listing and discussing such stories here. It's reached 144 pages in just over a year.

It hasn't gone unnoticed in other parts of the media too. No doubt these types of stories are appearing in many more locations as more viable EVs reach the market. Most contain the same old chestnuts, disproved years ago.

October 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

Thank you very much for this item about the Norwegian "study.".

They made another major error by omitting the fact that the production of every gallon of gasoline requires 5 kW of electricity generated outside of the refinery's feedstock. To give you a sense of how important this is, I'll use the example of the electric car I am buying this week, a Think City. It has a 23 kW battery, with a range of 100 miles. Using 90 miles for conservatism's sake, I've compared it with a gas-powered Mercedes Smart For Two, with an EPA rating of 36 miles per gallon.

To go 90 miles, the Smart uses 2.5 gallons plus 12.5 kW embedded in the production of that gasoline. To go 90 miles, the Think City uses an additional 10.5 kW of electricity. But in the study, it would be scored as using 23 kW of electricity, and the gas car using no electricity. Like I say, a major difference.

October 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMMencken


What's your source on that 5kWh number please? I've seen various versions of that argument over the years about never a definitive source. If we can't prove our own sources then we are as bad as them.

October 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

If you're interested, here's my take on that Norwegian study: http://brainmower.wordpress.com/2012/10/17/why-electric-vehicles-are-worth-building/
Very detailed and comprehensive calculation let down by some poor assumptions, and a lack of sensible discussion. Altogether pretty misleading.

October 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterParsons' Green

I am surprised that with the deficiencies mentioned in this blog, the Journal of Industrial Ecology reviewers recommended its publishing. Now, although it may feel good to write some lines in a blog, the much more efficient way of dismissing such garbage is to write a "Letter to the Editor" of the journal and politely point to the screw-up. I have now downloaded the article from the Journal's website and will be reading it soon. Unfortunately, this is not my area of scientific expertise so if Mr. Dan Fichana or someone else is willing to help with facts, I'll be more than happy to write a letter to the editor.

November 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterToufigh Gordi

When I read the parts about the source of the production impact of the motor and inverter, I almost couldn´t believe it… I had to check it out, so I downlodad the paper and tried to find the parts about the motor. They say wery little about them, and just link to a few datasheets from ABB.
So here are the enviromental impact datasheets they used for the motors.
(reamrsked as ABB 2010c in paper)
Total weight of this motor is around 2700kg.
And this one, which is probably the one you mentioned
(remarked as ABB 2010b)
I can´t believe they have used the raw numbers from these datasheets, but somehow tries to deduct numbers from them to somehow match the power/size of a “common” EV engine. But why do it this way? And how do they do it? I have not been able to find how they use the numbers from the datasheet, wich makes critical reviewing of the research difficult.

November 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStian

What a hack job the THREE STOOGES did with the milk truck converision to EV car!
they should change the name of the show to "TOP REAR". or "SouthGearPark"
I do not know if you know what the Three Stooges are but they were eary 50s comedy.

November 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterpecospete

Found out that there is a file containing suporting information, wich contain tables with raw numbers used. The file is called JIEC_532_sm_SuppMat.zip

In there I looked up for information about the material composition of the motor they have used.
It contains 38.9Kg kopper, 55.7Kg aluminium, 10.8Kg cast iron, 5.5Kg steel + some plastic, paint and neodymiun. Total weight around 118Kg, wich is far less than the 1000Kg industrial machinery, but you still would get two Leaf engines for that amount of material.

The story about the inverter gets worse.
It contains 34.4Kg aluminiun og 35.5Kg kopper and some plastic. Total weight at about 70Kg. Or 4 Leaf inverters.

What then took me by surprised is that they have put an equal size inverter for the charging system, which in the Leaf is 3.3KW and not 90KW. Quick charging supplys usually is outside of the car, and connects directly to the battery. I don´t know how heavy the slow charger in the leaf is, but found a link to a more comparable one. It weighs 6.2Kg, not 70Kg.

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStian

Could you point me to where in the Hawkins et al. study you find the mistake about the 1,000kg motor? Thank you, Max

March 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMax

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