What people don’t understand about electric cars

German parliamentary elections are coming up this fall, and the German Green Party has adopted a plan for 100% electric vehicles by 2030 for new car sales. But one leader of the party remains skeptical. His criticism showed that we have to get our heads around how fundamentally different electric cars will be. Craig Morris looks at the debate.

Mini E at a charging point on TU Berlin main campus

Germans are ditching diesel for electric cars (Photo by Matti Blume, edited, CC BY-SA 2.0)


Winfried Kretschmann is the Minister-President of the German state of Baden-Württemberg, home to Mercedes and Porsche. As such, Kretschmann is one of the most powerful politicians in the Green Party. But his stance on the automotive sector is not in line with the party’s, as recent comments he made privately to a party colleague (video in German, apparently covertly recorded) at the party’s convention reveal:

Imagine what’s going to happen if we have 5 million electric vehicles on the road. Where are they going to fill up?… Think about the normal filling stations we have today. At the big ones, there might be space for 10 cars to fill up simultaneously. Except that electric cars are going to need 20 minutes. How is that supposed to work? You don’t know what you’re talking about! But you tell people that you can do this by 2030. That’s ridiculous!… You can say these things if you want, I don’t care, but then you have to be satisfied with six or eight percent (of the vote).

The Greens are currently struggling to stay above 5% of the vote in order to be eligible for seats in Parliament; parties that get fewer votes are not eligible for party representation. So Kretschmann is warning his party colleagues not to take such a “radical” (his word) position, lest voters be scared off.

But there’s a problem with his analysis: electric vehicles will not need filling stations, at least not the ones we have today. Fast charging is possible within 20 minutes, but it shortens the battery’s lifetime. So you will want to charge where your car stands for hours. People will want to charge quickly when they need to drive farther than the car’s range (so on highways), but the rest of time you will want to charge your car wherever you park it. Filling stations will die.

People will charge their cars at home, where possible, overnight. Otherwise, they will want to charge wherever they park: on the streets in front of their city apartments, in the parking lot at work, and in parking lots wherever they go shopping. It’s convenient to charge your car for 30 or 60 minutes while you buy groceries; your car is going to be there anyway.

Kretschmann reveals how poorly he understands electric vehicles when he talks about “filling up” (tanken in the German), but it’s a common misunderstanding. We currently think of charging electric cars as an inconvenience, but in the future we will park somewhere and plug-in in mere seconds. People will look back on making an extra trip to a filling station as a major inconvenience.

A few weeks ago, Kretschmann made another statement that rankled his colleagues. He had recently purchased a large diesel car and justified the purchase by saying he needed a “real car” (in German) because he recently had to tow a ton of sand for his grandchild’s sandbox. A delivery service, which certainly existed, would doubtlessly have been far cheaper than purchasing a car large enough for even the rarest need. Money permitting, we have always purchased cars not to suit our everyday needs, but to make sure the vehicle is the right one for every occasion. Car-sharing (and eventually self-driving cars) will allow us to choose the vehicle we actually need at the time.

In short, Kretschmann’s thinking about cars is old-school. What’s more, he probably isn’t even right in saying that the Greens will scare away voters if they call for all cars sold by 2030 to be electric. On the contrary, Germans are losing their love for diesel; they support bans for diesels in cities.

On the other hand, Kretschmann is right that sales of electric vehicles in Germany are slow right now because of a lack of infrastructure. Last year, only 34,000 EVs were sold, up 33.4% (report in German). As the comment section on that website shows, people willing to buy EVs lack charging options at home, especially in apartment complexes. But at home in Baden-Württemberg, Kretschmann has made his state a leader in expanding charging infrastructure with a budget worth 43.5 million euros (in German). So Kretschmann knows what he’s talking about when he discusses charging stations.

Still, Mercedes and Porsche must be justifiably concerned about the threat of electric cars. But Kretschmann won’t be able to save them, especially if he is wrong and I am right about Germans slowly abandoning diesel for electric. The Greens’ call for all-electric by 2030 might cost them a few votes, but they probably stand to gain many more.

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.

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Craig Morris

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.

8 Comments

  1. “People will look back on making an extra trip to a filling station as a major inconvenience” – distress purchase is the phrase commonly used. Globally EVs are growing slightly above a fibonacci series rate. My guess is 250m by 2026 with most in China, USA and EU. Self drive will tear the heart out of car ownership.

  2. Dr. Josef Pesch says

    This is the dilemma of being in power in a “car-state” like Baden-Württemberg, home as you say of Porsche and Daimler and Audi where a real car sinks and imitates a roaring deer. That is what Tesla will not provide, but of course it has all the range and pulling power that Kretschmann requires, even a tow bar is available (I asked them at Intersolar). So indeed the PM does not know what he is talking about.

    Perhaps the only real short fall Tesla has is that it is not made in Baden-Württemberg as all the stinkers are. And that is why our PM has been getting all his knowledge from Porsche and Daimler and Audi – and not from Tesla, even though that is where the old “Vorsprung” now is located.

  3. Craig,

    Your piece is spot on. However, your statement “Fast charging is possible within 20 minutes, but it shortens the battery’s lifetime” is incorrect.

    Fast charging–and charging in general–is only damaging in hot climates and only if there is no active cooling system. Chevy volt/bolt have active cooling systems. BMW/VW too. Only the NIssan Leaf is passively cooled and that’s why their batteries fail early.

    We drive both the Leaf and the Volt. We have intentionally not babied our Leaf and as others have found we’ve lost 10% or more in battery capacity in less than three years and 16,000 miles. ~4-5%/yr or about 2 kWh and that’s enough to limit our use of the car for out-of-town trips as we have to climb steep mountains to escape the valley we live in.

    On the other hand our used Volt has more than 36,000 miles and has no apparent battery degradation. Of course we can’t fast charge the Volt but the Volt is primarily used as an EV. When we occasionally stop at a gas station (the Volt has an engine) we have to remember where the fill in port is located because we don’t use it. 😉

    Paul

  4. Good take-down. What you do with sand is rent a trailer, and if your car won’t tow it, rent a van. No need to wait for a fancy rideshare future.

    Kretschmer may be right that future autobahn service stations may need more electric stalls than they have now for fossil fuels. (City ones won’t. because of home charging). So what? A gasoline and diesel fuel pump requires multiple pipes carrying highly inflammable substances, so there is a very significant cost and safety concern in upping numbers. An electric charging station is just another electrical appliance, even if it is high-power. To instal 25, you just run a bigger cable. Plus extra storage to minimize spikes on the grid.

    • Ben says

      The capital cost of a 20 vehicle charging station must surely be a fraction of the cost of a petrol filling station. So there may not be large charging stations, but merely many smaller ones.

  5. heinbloed says

    Kreteschmer is a gunner, his brain damaged by lead.

    The Austrian environment agency has a report on the ignorance (and other health issues ) caused by fine particles from Diesel cars:

    https://www.umweltzeichen.at/cms/de/home/idart_1516-content.html

    ” Studien zeigen, dass Feinstaub-Ablagerungen die Intelligenz- und Gedächtnisleistung bei Kindern beeinträchtigen und bei älteren Menschen zu einer Verschlechterung der Gehirnfunktion führen können. “

  6. Roger B says

    There is a lot written regarding the replacement of fossil fuelled (petrol and diesel) cars with electric cars. Some suggest it is easy, others suggest it is impossible. I decided to look briefly at the electricity requirements required to do this in Germany.

    First step how much petrol and diesel is currently used?

    From the IEA
    http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/GermanyOSS.pdf

    Germany petrol and diesel consumption 2010-2011.
    Petrol 450 000 barrels per day
    Diesel 1050 000 barrels per day

    As a cross check on the total consumption:
    http://world.bymap.org/OilConsumption.html
    Total consumption petroleum consumption for Germany 2015
    2 372 000 barrels per day

    Next step what is the electrical energy equivalent of 1 barrel of Petrol/Diesel?
    From a couple of sources:

    http://peakoil.com/generalideas/how-much-energy-is-there-in-a-barrel-of-oil
    1 barrel (crude) is 1,700 kilowatt hours

    http://letthesunwork.com/energy/barrelofenergy.htm
    A barrel of oil contains about six gigajoules of energy. That’s six billion joules or 1667 kilowatt-hours

    If we take 1.7 MWh per barrel for petrol annual automotive energy input is:

    Petrol 765 000 MWh per day= 765 GWh per day = 279 000 GWh = 279 TWh

    Assuming an efficiency of 20% for a petrol vehicle the energy required for petrol automotive use in Germany is 55.8 TWh per year.

    Taking an overall efficiency for an electric vehicle to be 80% (electricity transmission losses, battery charging efficiency) replacing the petrol vehicles with electric vehicles would require 70 TWh per year.

    What proportion of the diesel is for automotive use against road or rail transport is not obvious. Suggesting a total of 100TWh for the annual automotive consumption seems reasonable.

    If all the diesel consumers were replaced by electric vehicles the annual electricity consumption would increase by around 220 TWh per year.

    Currently Germany produces around 600 TWh of electricity annually.

    https://www.cleanenergywire.org/factsheets/germanys-energy-consumption-and-power-mix-charts

    Increasing this to 700 TWH to allow for the charging of electric cars is not trivial, nor is the reinforcement of the distribution infrastructure. Increasing to 820 TWh to replace all fossil fuelled transport is probably impossible in the suggested time scales.

    Best regards

    Roger

  7. Pingback: What people just don’t get about electric vehicles

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