Response to article on electric cars

Disclaimer: I own an electric car but also a diesel and a petrol vehicle. I use the electric vehicle much more, because it is so much cheaper to run. Currently I mostly charge at home using Eskom power.

Carbon dioxide argument

Pollution is an undeniable problem. China has been regulating movement of cars due to smog. LA has a huge smog problem – in fact most cities in the world struggle with this. Just looking through the window of the plane descending into OR Tambo makes me feel a bit sick, looking at that grey/brown cloud hanging over the city. Why do we want to perpetuate this? I visited Belgrade a few years ago and was aghast with how everyone smoked everywhere. Really unpleasant. I just realised how blessed we are in South Africa with the control on cigarette smoking.  I suspect we will soon feel the same about smelly and noisy ICE’s (internal combustion cars) as we get spoiled with quiet, clean, and efficient electrical cars. Vehicles (which includes motor bikes, trucks, ships and planes) all pollute and as the population and need for mobility increases so will pollution, unless we proactively step away from it, starting with electrification.

Reducing CO2 as a greenhouse gas causing global warming and upsetting our climate system is well documented and I am not going to dwell there.

Poisonous materials argument

Lithium-ion batteries consist of a family of chemistries using Lithium, and it is evolving constantly to meet the challenges. The biggest challenge is supply since the whole world now wants batteries – and fast. Challenges are however being met at high speed. A good case in point is cobalt which is mostly extracted from the Congo, and this is met by changing the chemistry. LiFePO4 (lithium iron phosphate or LFP) is rapidly gaining popularity since it does not require cobalt. It was fascinating how quickly Tesla pivoted to this technology for their powerpacks and smaller range vehicles a few years ago and now the bulk of the batteries they use is the LFO type. Iron is abundant.

The best source of materials used for the manufacture of batteries however is simply to recycle. Any recycling is easier than mining due to the concentration of all the materials needed. Soon we will all return all batteries simply because it will have value and we will get money for it. We do not have glass bottles lying around because people will return them for cash. Battery chemicals and materials can be used again and again unlike fossil fuels that are burned and released into the atmosphere. Batteries also seldom fail overnight, and capacity tends to reduce over time, still making a car battery useful for stationary storage in your house for example. Battery management is also improving as our knowledge increase and temperature control and charge management is ever improving. There is already evidence of a ‘million-mile battery’ – which would last longer than the vehicle in which it is installed.

The petrochemical industry is not clean. Making fuels and burning them is to release energy is inherently not clean. In SA we must import oil or use coal. Why? Why not rather use the abundant sun and wind to meet our energy needs – even to the point of exporting it in the form of carbon negative fuels?

Minerals of the future

Another reason that we as South Africans should especially embrace clean energy systems is that we are not endowed with oil, but we do have an abundance of platinum, manganese, and vanadium – not to mention sun and wind. These are minerals of the future which will include a potpourri of renewable power and nuclear, battery storage and electric propulsion as well as a hydrogen economy. We do not need to perpetuate fossil energy anymore. Dependence on oil and gas producing countries and decentralising energy supply will not only resolve many a conflict situation (ergo the Russian restriction of gas supply to Europe) but also help third world countries leapfrog energy distribution technology. In stead of major grids being built we might find that microgrids, mostly using solar, produced at the point of need can be developed and over time be interlinked.

Energy storage

The first step on the journey is energy storage – which can take many forms; pumped storage schemes, battery megapacks and the hydrogen economy. Exciting technologies like Flow Batteries offers an alternative. Vanadium is particularly suited for this technology and South Africa has 32% of the known world reserves and hosts the largest high-grade primary deposits in the world. We should be world leaders in this technology.

The hydrogen economy also has huge potential – in all shapes and sizes. Hydrogen is ideal for the ‘Hard to abate’ sectors like steel plants where hydrogen is used in place of coke and the output is iron and water. If solar and wind is used to make carbon negative fuels like methanol and ammonia, we will still have combustion engines around but probably used more in planes and ships since it is more efficient to simply use battery electric vehicles (BEV). Electrical cars are incredibly efficient vs their ICE counterparts and with the current swing towards the newer technology costs are dropping fast. Currently electrical cars coming to SA are expensive but soon cheaper models will come from China, India, Thailand – even Africa. There is some nice developments in Kenya at this moment. We must not be caught napping, missing out on the next boom of which we very much should have been a part of.

Converting uncle Dawie’s old Toyota Corolla

My dream: to take uncle Dawie’s old clapped out Toyota Corolla with the blown head gasket and convert it into electric. Nothing fancy, a 50 kW electric motor, 10 kWh LFO battery and solar panels on his roof, boot and bonnet. That car will meet his transportation needs for years to come, maintenance free and running on sunlight. Now, that is something to aspire to! Lets move on and leave the fearful luddites behind!

AUTHOR: Theo Calitz

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