Response to OneShift Opinion Article
Updated: Jun 29, 2020
A few days ago an article from OneShift was brought to my attention over social media. The article posed the question if Singapore can afford to go electric? My expectations was that this would be a piece showing the economic difficulties of using Electric Vehicles for the average resident, but the article dealt more with the ‘green’ credentials of the technology. If you've not read it then please feel free to before continuing. Reading through the article the author raises some concerns about EVs; the aim of this article is to hopefully provide some evidence and assurance that the majority of these concerns are either unfounded or already being addressed by the EV industry.
First thing to acknowledge is that the OneShift article is an opinion piece, not a work of investigative journalism or claiming to be an information resource. That said there are plenty of claims which go without any links or references; I’ll try and go through each section of the article and focus mostly on the claims made and try to provide some evidence where possible. I may stray from this direction at times but will attempt to keep my own opinions to the end or to footnotes. I suggest those interested do their own research into the areas discussed in the original article and mine below. Please point me in the direction of information you think I should know about too – knowledge is power.
The first line posits that EVs might be flawed in reducing emissions - we will come back to this later as more specific claims are made. The sentence is worded such that it implies EVs are not clean, because the question then asks if it is true in Singapore? Either way no references are provided.
“Your car is really as clean as what it really burns” - Once again we will come back to this phrase as it has better context later.
The rest of the introduction deals mostly with subjective and emotional opinions about the nature of cars and the intentions of those pursuing EVs. As mentioned this is not the focus of this article*. But I totally agree with the sentiment that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”, I can certainly look back on times when my opinion on a subject I knew little about led me down the wrong path. Another good phase is “the only cure for ignorance is education”. With that, let’s continue.
“So EVs… They are Good”
Despite its title, this section mostly pays underhanded compliments towards EVs with the main crux of the argument is that unless renewable energy is employed to power them they are not worth using. I’m still waiting to fully address this until later, sorry to play with your patience! There is also a slight dig at renewable energy not being able to be produced without using resources***.
We certainly agree that local air quality would likely improve a lot, it’s already been seen thanks to the pandemic that air quality in Singapore has improved thanks to reduced road traffic.
Regarding potential incentives EVs drivers could see, the first cited example about bus lanes is claimed to be controversial within the same breath. The most conclusive evidence I found that this might be true is this WSJ article where bus drivers seem to be the most upset. The other incentives such as no congestion charges, lower taxes etc are certainly more enticing. The UK currently has a tax incentive that allows corporate car drivers to switch to EVs and not have to pay taxes. These sorts of incentives have been shown to work wonders in other countries like China and Norway.
“So They Are Bad”
This is the section where we have the most to talk about. There’s lots to unpack here.
The comments about supply chain disruption are true, as it is with many new technologies into a market. Traditional ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) vehicle manufacturers are built around their own production & assembly processes with tiers of suppliers that work together as beautifully as the engines they produce. Having to change all of that to totally new processes and partnerships doesn’t happen overnight, takes lots of investment and time. But as the article states, this process is already underway.
Range anxiety is then claimed to be a real thing. It would certainly appear to be true that there are people who are concerned that EVs will suddenly run out of power with little warning. But my experience with speaking to these drivers is that their experience with EVs is minimal at best, most have never driven an EV. I’ve spoken to drivers of the BYD E6 used by HDT Taxis in Singapore and when I ask about range I get a wave of the hand saying it’s not an issue. And that’s from a driver who will do exponentially more driving than the average commuter in Singapore in a year. In my first podcast I spoke with a Hyundai Kona EV driver who makes it clear that range anxiety isn’t really a concern, even when it comes to popping across the causeway (Sections at the 6m27s and 13m01s mark briefly discuss the subject of range).
I would love to hear the author's story about running out of electricity test driving the BMW i3 with the range extender.
Charging time is also a concern raised by many. This is especially true when 7.4kW fast chargers are referred to with the aim of reaching >80% of battery capacity. I’d like to offer some points of thought.
If you regularly have to drive up into Malaysia then, yes, some planning for charging is going to be needed, but it’s nowhere near impossible. Here is a screenshot from Plugshare showing that already chargers are being installed across the causeway. The orange pin near Melaka is a rapid 50kW DC charger.
What this indicates is that, say you were heading to KL whilst driving a Hyundai Kona EV. Firstly you could make it to this charger on a full charge easily. It’s around 270 km away from Singapore's CBD. This would leave you with around 180 km range left from the original range (which is actually 480 km, but let’s be pessimistic and assume some extra losses due to AC or higher speed highway driving). Technically you could actually have gone straight on to the Petronas Towers in the heart of KL which are only another 100km away, but you stop to charge.
With 44% of the battery capacity remaining, and aiming to get back to 80%, you could use that 50kW DC charger and reach that point in 30 minutes. Half and hour. Seems like the perfect excuse to stretch your legs, grab a bite to eat and get a coffee (it might still be warm when you restart your journey).
For the majority of drivers and journeys in Singapore, range and charging time are not a problem with these sorts of EVs becoming more and more available. So the question is how often do you really need to charge all the way up to 80%? Even if you just use 7.4kW chargers in shopping centres you can add 25 km of range in a 30 minute lunch break. If your commute every day is 15 km each way you’re maybe only going to be a few km down on your remaining range by the end of the day. Recently the Electric Vehicle Association of Singapore did a survey and it showed that despite fears of waiting around for their cars to charge, EV owners find plenty to do whilst the car is plugged in like go shopping, catch up on emails or just have a rest. Unlike an ICE, and EV can refuel whilst you are off doing other things.
Cobalt is the next subject in the article and this is an area I myself am concerned about. The supply side of Cobalt is beset with problems ethically and ecologically. Demand is also going to increase in the coming years, that’s undeniable too. Cobalt demand comes from a number of sectors; the largest of these is batteries which covers a number of areas but basically can be split between EV batteries and consumer electronics, like our phones and laptops (This publication provides a great overview of the Cobalt market).
Something to consider are the developments already under way in the industry so that demand for freshly-mined cobalt is slowed.
Battery development is trending towards reducing the amount of cobalt used. So if 8kg of the element is needed to produce a 40kWh battery now it is hoped that in the near future only 4kg will be needed to produce the same sized battery. Companies like Tesla and their suppliers are even on the cusp of having cobalt-free batteries.
This might be the most important factor – battery recycling. This video is a must watch. By being able to reclaim these rare earth minerals from batteries which reach the end of their second or third life (i.e. after being in a vehicle) and putting them back into new batteries means one less bit of demand on the controversial supply side.
New business models and mobility requirements in the market - this one is harder to put dates, numbers or predictions to, but it’s clear that EVs are not the only force causing the automotive industry to feel on shaky ground. Ride-sharing, and in the long-term autonomous vehicles, are going to lead to a huge number of the vehicles on the road being shared assets (we will come onto the Covid/health points made in the original article later). There will always be those who want to manually control their vehicles, just like there will be those who want to hear and feel the sound of an engine. EVs don’t get rid of these outright, they just don’t make them the norm. Privately owned vehicles right now spend most of their time parked, waiting for their owner. Autonomous vehicles can be nearly continuously moving people around. So instead of one vehicle serving one person, one vehicle may be able to serve ten. Even if one vehicle only serves two people, potentially you could be looking, at best, at halving the total demand for small passenger vehicles, and by proxy the need for those batteries. Things are changing in many ways.
As EV batteries move into position as the largest consumer of cobalt (and this admittedly is pure conjecture) there could be a case that this would give these manufacturers even more influence over supply. The article already noted that BMW is putting on some pressure. With a coordinated effort and oversight, EV/Battery manufacturers can join forces and demand further that their supply chains meet their global corporate social responsibility goals. Plenty of large companies like Apple are already doing plenty to hold their cobalt supply accountable for environmental and ethical problems as if they were part of their own business.
Lastly, cobalt isn’t just the mineral of the EV world. One particular alternative use is in the desulphurisation of oil. Oil to be refined into petrol. Petrol to be used in ICE vehicles…
We finally reach the “Your car is really as clean as what it really burns” bit of the article.
This phrase could be interpreted in two ways. The first, and how it appears to be framed in the article is that EVs in Singapore will - in the short-to-medium term at least - rely on fossil fuel based power, the suggestion being that they would be on par with ICE vehicles regarding their green credentials. Would by this logic then mean that all ICE vehicles are on the same level with each other in terms of cleanliness? A 20ft lorry is just a Honda Vezel as far as emissions are concerned? This wording could lead the reader into thinking that, well, if EVs rely on fossil fuel generated electricity then they hardly could be clean at all...
The second interpretation digs deeper into that second “really”, which is a measurable amount. That second “really” changes the sentence into what I think is its true meaning - “Your car is really as clean as how much it burns”. So let’s examine this.
Firstly the average grams of CO2/kWh given appears to be purely for natural gas plants emissions. Though, no link to where this number has come from. The Singapore grid has had an average less than 549g for at least 8 years. This can be seen in the EMA’s own data. The actual average grid emissions are around 420g - over 20% less the number cited in the article. Methane emissions are a problem throughout the extraction process and is causing a headache for a number of industries that are much more intricately intertwined with LNG.
No comparison is given to how ICE and EVs compare over time regarding emissions, which is a shame because the article then seems to say that unless EVs are powered by renewables they are just as bad as ICE. This is not true. This article and the paper published in Nature it is referring to , has plenty of information which shows that even in European countries where coal is a source of energy EVs can still lead to less lifetime emissions with only a few exceptions. Even then you would need to have a very inefficient EV and need to rely pretty much purely on coal to have a chance of creating more lifetime emissions than an equivalent ICE.
But let’s look at Singapore specifically, if we compare an EV with a battery of 40kWh battery size with an ICE which is at the lowest possible end of the VES schemes band B - 125g CO2/km. For the EV, if we assume a very poor efficiency rating of 0.2kWh per km, that leads to 200km of driving. So using the Singapore grid factor, we can calculate the following:
EV = 40kWh x 420g = 16.8kg of CO2
ICE = 200km x 125g = 25kg of CO2
Even if we were to take Band A1 emissions (90g/km) you might see in hybrids it still equates to 18Kg of CO2, which is more than the inefficient EV. Remember this is just CO2. The tailpipe of an ICE will also emit CO, NOx, other hydrocarbons and particulate matter.
One other thing to consider is that huge sums of energy are needed to produce petrol. Oil refineries in Singapore have to draw massive amounts of electricity from these methane-leaking-plants to produce fuels. How much of that energy is shared and makes up the production of one litre of petrol is likely to be small, but not insignificant and if we are going to talk about how much is really burnt then it should be considered too, right?
So with ICE vehicles also having some reliance on cobalt as well as higher emissions during fuel production and vehicle operation, isn’t it more of a case of naughty, naughty… you staunch traditionalists?****
The article does note that the mix of renewables is increasing and this will help, but let’s be clear that even now using an EV will lead to a net reduction of emissions compared to the alternatives. And this is the unique thing about EVs, as the grid gets cleaner so will the EVs. It’s hard to say that about ICE vehicles.
There is also a claim that there will undoubtably need to be increase energy supply. Considering the end of 2019 there were reports that over-capacity is causing problems for power generation providers it would seem to indicate that we’ve got some spare electrons available for EVs. Technologies such as load balancing and smart charging, combined with the fact that not all EVs will have to charge at the same time - just like not all ICE vehicles have to refuel at the same time - means there is some doubt much, if any, extra capacity will be needed. Especially not in the short term and even then the global trend is towards the cleaner and cheaper technologies like solar.
But There Is More That Is To Be Addressed…
Covid-19 has made us reassess everything - the effects to the transportation systems around the world will be wide ranging and unpredictable, despite some trying. People’s health has become a huge priority and in the short term it’s likely that public transport will see a reduction in usership. Ride sharing and taxi services are going to take a hit for sure. But as their relative costs are so much lower for so many people, when we finally get a grip on Covid-19, and I firmly believe we will, the economic and environmental benefits will win out. People are also seeing how important their lung health is going to be in the future. Having cleaner air is closely associated with reduced respiratory problems, this is going to be important going forward and EVs can help.
The importance of car ownership is completely subjective, so private ownership is really a case-by-case basis. I’m sure most drivers currently wouldn’t welcome a dramatic increase in the number of vehicles on the road. Any of us who have been stuck in traffic congestion know how inconvenient it can be, and more vehicles means this would be even worse.
Regarding the EV economics it is certainly true that if you have low mileage then you may be paying extra to be an early adopter. But with a modest amount of km driven a year you may well find that you end up saving money in the long term, certainly well below the ten year COE lifespan of the vehicle. It all will come down to your individual usage and needs, so do some research, seek expert help and work out if it’s going to work for you financially. Electricity vs Petrol costs can be three times cheaper per km driven; maintenance costs can be even smaller due to the lack of a complicated ICE drivetrain with thousands of moving parts. And before people stand up shouting that EV batteries are expensive and will ruin ongoing costs, please be aware that vehicle providers offer extremely attractive warranties for batteries, sometimes for more than 10 years. Also the Degradation of battery capacity is nowhere near the problem it is in consumer electronics, so the idea that after a few years the vehicle has lost its range doesn’t hold much water. With second-life (Home/Grid storage) and recycling systems coming online this means these batteries are still going to have value even when it’s job is done in a vehicle.
Manufacturers have plenty on their shoulders too
This is the section I have little to comment on other than to agree that for traditional ICE manufacturers this is a tough time. As mentioned earlier, these companies have evolved an ecosystem of suppliers, customers, partners and stakeholders; and for the majority of these ecosystem partners, they have been happy with the ICE products provided. The reality is that these ICE vehicles are a contributor to an emissions problem we all need to solve and tough decisions need to be made. People are going to lose jobs, others are going to get new ones; investors are going to lose money whilst others make more; customers are going to have to deal with new products and systems and get used to them. But as the article says, manufacturers like BMW have already started to do some good work steering the ship towards the right direction.
There is an argument at the end of the “So They Are Bad” section that I wanted to leave until last. It is by the author’s own admission the weakest argument, but it’s emotional and therefore pretty potent for an individual. I cannot agree more that people have emotional connections to cars. Can we ask ourselves though if that emotion is because of the vehicle or because of ourselves? I’d argue the latter.
History is rife with the older generations before us complaining that our new way of life is somehow not as good as it used to be when they were our age. It’s not hard to imagine driving enthusiasts from our previous generations looking at our modern technologies of power steering and automatic gearshift systems having taken the fun and joy out of driving. “What do you mean you don’t need a key to start the engine? You just push a button? That’s so cold and joyless!”. We’re veering into psychology and social economics which I’m not qualified to speak on, so can only provide my own opinion - we create attachments to the items in our lives which are involved in formative experiences. Our cars are where we commute to and from work, singing our favourite songs like nobody's watching (or scream expletives about our demanding boss where they can’t hear us); where we take our partners for dates and then home again, wanting the journey to never end; where we transport our children to school or to their sports/friends at the weekends. These experiences rub off on the vehicle, no matter how good or bad it is and it becomes special to us. For us individually these cars are as irreplaceable as the memories they provide. But to say that it’s the drivetrain that is what causes these vehicles to be irreplaceable makes as much sense as saying steam engines were irreplaceable when it comes to railways. Or like Steve Ballmer indicating that a touchscreen keyboard couldn’t replace the physical keyboard on a phone and be successful. This argument is not a critique of EVs being soulless, this is the argument of someone who is worried the thing they love is going to be replaced and that others won’t feel the same joy they have. My response to this is to say that people will, and in fact do, already love their EVs; they feel just as deep a connection, but in a different way.
Fundamentally the reason I would implore supporting the EV industry now is because it has opportunities for improvement that ICE vehicles cannot compete with. When mass manufactured vehicles were being made over the decades by Ford, Mercedes, BMW, Toyota, VW etc., few would have predicted the impact they would have on the world from an environmental standpoint. But EVs are in a different position, they are so painfully aware of the current and future issues that they are already planning and developing improvements to their technology to reduce impact. The only way they will do that is from support from the market, from buyers being early adopters, from companies investing in their fleets.
EVs are not here to provide a soulless driving experience to people. Just search on YouTube for videos about EV acceleration seen in the Porsche Taycan, or the Tesla Model S, and you’ll see people enjoying the hell out of the experience. Yes they are new, yes they are different and yes they are not perfect. But when it comes to their ability to wean humanity off fossil fuels, EVs are going to be an essential part of that journey. I hope this exciting new future can be supported by all soon, our car doors are open for you to join us on the ride.
* That said… There is a section talking about good intentions leading to poor outcomes. The Mike Rowe / PETA / Sheep castration analogy confused me though. I personally wasn’t aware of this story so had to do some online research**. It appears this story is over 10 years old and the PETA website doesn’t appear to have any guidelines now. From what I can find, and it’s not pretty, both castration options described by Mike are pretty hard to stomach. Besides, the ‘non-PETA’ method which the analogy likens to being better may have some potentially horrible side effects. Considering we are living in a world brought to its knees by a coronavirus of animal origin it’s peculiar the best analogy seems to promote extremely intimate practices with an animal. Good intentions have definitely led to poor execution in the past, but surely there’s a better example that this? The use of CFCs in popular consumer products leading to the depletion of the ozone layer maybe...
** When I started to learn about EVs and advocate for them, I could never have predicted I would need to google ‘sheep castration’ so much.
*** I’ve never fully understood the argument that renewable energy is somehow as complicit as fossil fuel based energy because it also relies on physical items being built and therefore must be as bad? A particularly nefarious FB post went viral claiming that more resources are needed to produce a wind turbine than it would ever produce, this explains why that is complete nonsense - https://fullfact.org/online/wind-turbines-energy/ **** Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.
29/06/2020 - Small edits made to grammar, spelling and readability mistakes pointed out by readers.