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.’