Oct/Nov 2022  •   Salon

Free Electrons Aren't Free

by Marko Fong

Organic mixed media artwork by Kay Sexton

Organic mixed media artwork by Kay Sexton

Encased in 3,000 pounds of metal and plastic, I'm driving alone for maybe the 10,000th time since I managed to convince the DMV examiner I come to complete stops at stop signs and signal before turning. I was so nervous the first time, I had to do the test twice. In a year, my 2005 Toyota Prius will be old enough to vote.The semi-translucent ink on the passenger side mirror tells me, "Objects in (the) mirror are closer than they appear." Whether or not we're driving the 300-plus miles to our daughter's in Knoxville or to the market a mile from our house, we're actually all cruising towards the same looming disaster, carbon-induced climate change. Full on climate disaster is considerably closer than our media mirror allows it to appear. Droughts in Syria, fires in the American West, Glacier National Park without glaciers, and—more locally for me—Hurricane Ian might be individually explained as the result of some other factor, but, cumulatively it's like hearing the first unmistakable notes of a Rolling Stones song. I just can't tell whether this is "Time Is on my Side" or "It's All Over Now."

For several months, I've been semi-voluntarily "shopping" for the trendiest bright shiny object of virtue-signal culture, an all electric vehicle (EV), a personal "contribution" to addressing climate change. Back when cars with fins and chrome bumpers were the bright shiny objects, and a family having two cars was more status symbol than necessity, you shopped by going to the dealership for a test drive after possibly seeing a full page ad in the daily newspaper announcing the arrival of this year's models. Today, car shopping starts with clicking on a couple web pages, then having pop-up ads for EVs stalk you across the Internet. Am I the only one who thinks targeted ads were inspired by the behavior mod scenes from Clockwork Orange Most EVs are pre-sold, often at a several thousand dollar premium above sticker price. The cheapest EV is currently over $30,000. Most are more than $50,000 on up to the 933 horsepower Lucid Air for $170,000. The drivetrain of an EV is considerably simpler than its internal combustion cousin, which makes them cheaper to maintain but not cheaper to buy. If you ask why EV's cost so much, you'll get a consistent answer: the batteries. A full Tesla battery replacement costs over $20,000. After that, you'll hear a speech about how manufacturing will ramp up and the price of batteries will surely go down in the foreseeable future, just like computers and flatscreen TVs did.

Unfortunately, that assurance may be like Elon Musk announcing his intention to buy Twitter, which did happen but only after Twitter forced his hand via lawsuit. As some have noticed, I'm one of those individuals who obsesses over questions like whether there are more McDonald's in the US than clean public restrooms in places you're not obligated to buy anything. I'm not especially good at math, but I tend to notice numbers. Lately, it's been .89 motor vehicles for every American and 1.47 billion cars in the world. Now that mainstream electric cars no longer perform like oversized golf carts driven by Ed Begley Jr., their batteries use 17 to 20 pounds of lithium per vehicle. Current world lithium reserves are estimated at 14 million tons. That last number sounds like a lot, but it's only enough for a little over a billion cars, and that's using every bit of the reserve.

Maybe the cars of the next 20 years will go further on fewer pounds of batteries, but thanks to Mendeleev, sulfur batteries and solid state batteries will still use lithium anodes. Lithium is, after all, the most active of active metals, the free electron oxidation king, the star of high school chem class demonstrations where a strip of lithium catches fire just by being exposed to air. To be fair, there has been talk of sodium ion batteries, but no one's yet suggesting they'll have the energy density needed for mobile applications. In the meantime, ask Adam Smith what happens when demand dramatically exceeds supply. Electric cars are great, but the promise of 220 volt outlets with trickle charging capability in every garage—not that we all have garages—could be a lot like the claim that trickle down economics was really about helping low-income Americans. Someone's going to be left out, and it's not the people who can buy Lucid Airs.

The billion car estimate assumes we won't use lithium for anything but motor vehicles. We currently use lithium batteries for 15 billion cell phones, 2 billion laptops, 1.3 billion tablets, and numerous pacemakers, cordless lawnmowers, bluetooth speakers, e-bikes, cordless vacuums, drones, hearing aids... All use fewer battery cells than cars, but 30 billion times anything can be a very substantial number, especially after you consider proposals for massive battery storage banks to augment solar arrays and wind turbines. Lithium salts are also used as a mood stabilizer—though, perhaps tellingly, they don't cure the underlying cause. Even in Star Trek's tech utopia (yes, I know it's TV science fiction), the Enterprise goes from galaxy to galaxy desperately seeking the dilithium crystals to keep their matter-antimatter drive working: "Scotty, beam a couple million tons of lithium down to earth in 2022? No can do, Captain. No sir, we need all the dilithium we have on board just to stay at warp four."

Sobering thought: peak "lithium" could arrive sooner than peak "oil."

Here's another number: 2035. To curb carbon emissions, the EU passed legislation to end the sale of internal combustion cars by the year 2035. California followed suit with a similar executive order for 2035. To be clear, I love electric vehicles. When I bought my first e-bike, the dealer laughed when I came to pick it up in my hybrid Prius. In fact, I'm all for the deadlines, but the EV consumer dream is built on an illusion: trade in your current cars, and you'll get shiny new electric replacements. To paraphrase a Will Ferrell EV ad for GM, "Buy yours now and save the earth!" I'm concerned many of us just won't get that opportunity. The same buy new culture endlessly churns out televisions that can't be repaired and phones with non-user replaceable batteries and screens. Meanwhile, ask yourself what currently happens to all those used batteries when the once shiny device ceases to be the latest and greatest. The lithium in batteries is recyclable, but the current recycle rate is less than two percent.

Our consumer culture is built around bright shiny objects. We spend billions on diets claiming to help you lose weight without exercise or giving up the food you love. We buy items that make you more popular without having to address your personality. Many of them aren't even being hawked by Dr. Oz. Now it's, "Dump your old carbon spewing vehicle, trade it in for an electric trophy car, and drive around just the way you always have." Should we be surprised?

For the last 40 years, we've suffered from an insistent and dangerous political correctness, but it's not about race or gender. For some time, Americans in public life have been forbidden to suggest there's anything wrong with the free market. If you support controlling the cost of insulin, forgiving student loans, paying for infrastructure (more about that to come), you get branded a "socialist" or simply "too radical." Even progressives have to extol the virtues of capitalism, just not unfettered capitalism. Here's the problem: it takes systemic thinking to address something like climate change, and the free market sucks at planning.

When it comes to trusting the free market's invisible hand to plan, there's a serious issue: its heart is even less visible. The free market is famously efficient when it comes to supply and demand, but it's relatively—some say increasingly so—heartless about distribution. The free market can't much tell the difference between Jay Leno having 180 cars and 180 families each having a car. We talk about a digital divide, where access to the Internet is not a given for many Americans. At the height of the pandemic, for instance, some families parked in McDonald's parking lots so their children could access online school. In a country with .89 cars per person, the transportation divide has been less apparent, but not having a car in America is probably more disabling than not having a home Internet connection. Try looking at a bus schedule and figuring out if you can get to two different destinations in a medium-sized city in the same afternoon.

Virtually every American city, especially in the west, was designed around the assumption that everyone has cars. Ask yourself if you can without a car conveniently worship, buy groceries, pick up prescriptions, take your kids to school, visit friends/family, or just—believe it or not—vote in person. Two summers ago, we were staying in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, and I had to walk to pick up yogurt for our grandson. Getting from the sidewalk, if there was one, across enormous parking lots wasn't either easy or safe. After my mother was widowed at 80, she was still capable of day to day activities, but she had to move from her beloved suburban home to a senior apartment simply because her inability to drive isolated her too much. With the prospect of fewer or more expensive cars, the gap for those without personal transportation will get worse.

The smartphone and GPS made rideshare services possible roughly a decade ago. The pandemic also helped create more opportunities for remote work. Both help, but free market distribution issues come up yet again. Uber does claim that in 2019 close to a quarter million people gave up their cars because ridesharing met their needs, but only a tiny percentage of those lived in rural or suburban areas.

First, it's harder to make it worthwhile for drivers in sparsely populated and/or spread out communities. In our area, the airport generates a large percentage of rideshare fares. You drop off your rider, and inevitably there's someone there who needs a ride home. It won't be true for a doctor's office ten miles from a suburban home.

Second, if I can afford a $50,000 car, will I be driving it as a rideshare? I have seen an occasional Mercedes and Tesla pull up with one of those flashing rideshare signs on their front dash, but they're "joy driver" exceptions. With remote work, the distribution question is similar. If you're part of the "knowledge" economy, there are plenty of opportunities, but Amazon warehouse workers, haircutters, housekeepers, elder care workers, fast food employees, and even schoolteachers (we tried that one) can't work from home. In other words, it's the folk who can barely afford the vehicles they currently use to get to work and sometimes use as homes.

In the shift from oil to electric, there's an even more critical systemic issue: the batteries in your EV are really more like the gas tank than the gas. Where do we get the electricity that charges them? You remember Donald Trump calling coal beautiful and promising to keep the coal industry in business? There are still over 224 coal power plants in the United States. Coal power plants account for 19 percent of our kilowatt hours and more than half of greenhouse gas emissions from electricity production. Where? Texas (Ted Cruz), Indiana (Mike Pence), West Virginia (Joe Manchin), Kentucky (Mitch McConnell), and Pennsylvania (please, not that guy who lives in New Jersey) lead the way. You also might be surprised to learn that the world's biggest producer of oil isn't Saudi Arabia, it's the US. It's just that Americans use 20 percent of the world's oil or roughly a third more than we produce domestically. Meanwhile, transportation remains the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in America at 29 percent, but keep in mind that figure includes planes, trains, and trucks. Electrical generation at 25 percent and Industry at 24 percent are very close. There's considerable overlap between categories, and how we generate our electricity will affect all three. The current best way to produce large amounts of electricity with minimal greenhouse gas emissions is nuclear power plants, which is not exactly a free lunch, but it maybe beats having New York and Miami go the way of Atlantis. So guess which country is currently constructing 16 new nuclear power plants?

It's China, of course. China leads the world in solar panel production, and they purchased some three million electric cars in 2021, more than double the US total. More notably, China has 500,000 electric buses or 98 percent of the global total. China also dominates battery manufacturing and has domestic sources for it. It's currently third in lithium production behind Australia and Chile and has the fourth largest reserve. Perhaps we can stage another coup in Chile, Bolivia, or Argentina, all countries which may soon have the chance to start their own professional golf tours. Until then, the US has a single lithium mine in Nevada. Think Grand Canal and Great Wall; China has a 3,000-year cultural history of systemic thinking. Meanwhile, we wrestle climate change with 50 (or more) Republican senators tied behind our back and Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema selling them rope at below-dealer cost. We don't have to go Xi Jinping authoritarian to think systemically. We just need to stop letting consumer culture—whether embodied by oligarchs buying elections with dark money, or more subliminal forces like the illusion of the all-electric Panacea GT somehow solving the climate crisis—run our democracy. It's like paying Kanye West to sing at your Bar Mitzvah.

There's a lot of talk about "America First," but staying first through climate change may be in our rear view mirror surprisingly soon. While we've obsessed over children transitioning, the transition we really need to discuss is the one from fossil fuels, where the over under is between their killing most of us, or our running out of them first. The free market isn't going to tell you the dream of electric cars seamlessly replacing our fossil fuel vehicles is Willie Loman on steroids. When we start running out of lithium, it'll do just what it's doing with oil right now: the price and profits will go up dramatically with the remaining supply going to those who can afford it.

There are possible alternatives. There's a lot more lithium in the oceans, though we have no way to extract it in quantity because it's three parts per billion; and there's been talk of hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered vehicles, but we still have to get past platinum electrodes and All Wheel Drive hatchbacks going Hindenburg. If you ever saw "Forbidden Planet," they're closer to Krell technology than something we'll actually buy any time soon.

I get ready to signal for a turn as I get to the bright red stop sign, but even the best GPS can't tell us how we can all get where we need to go safely. It's going to take a vaccine for that scarier pandemic: our growing avoidance of serious fact-based discussion.