Car Wars: Hydrocarbons, Lithium, and the Greening Grid

Image by Eren Goldman.

New battlelines are being drawn in today’s revamped auto world, not over style as in the 1980s – when Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca characterized success as “to grab the new just as soon as it is better” – or performance as in the 1930s – when Henry Ford introduced the V8 to an evolving car crowd – ushering in a free-wheeling independence that soared in the 1950s with 41,000 miles of freshly paved road (thanks to a $25-billion US Federal Aid Highway Act). Now it’s the engine itself and whether electric vehicles are worse for the environment than “gasmobiles” as is dubiously being claimed by some. With electric vehicle sales reaching 10% in 2023, the petrolheads are overheating. At over $3 trillion in annual sales, it’s only standard business practice to badmouth the competition.

Today, almost 100 million automobiles are sold around the globe each year, compared to 66 million 2 decades ago, as sales continue to climb in the developing world (30 million in China, a fivefold increase since 2005). In 2009, Chinese vehicle sales roared past the US for the first time (11 million) and Europe in 2012 (19 million), although Americans still enjoy the distinction of living in the only country with almost as many cars as people (1.25 people per car). That’s a big pie to slice, not to mention almost 100 million barrels of oil consumed per day, much of it burned in an internal combustion engine (ICE). With over $200 billion in annual profits, the Big 7 (ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, TotalEnergies, BP, ConocoPhillips, ENI[1]) aren’t planning on giving up their lucrative market share without a fight.

Henry Ford once boasted a customer could have any color Model T “so long as it is black,” a misstep that cost his company top spot to GM and Chrysler, along with Ford’s long-standing resistance to change such as hydraulic brakes, windshield wipers, luxurious interiors, loan financing, and unions. Back then in 1921, Ford boasted half of all American cars, over 15 million Model Ts by 1927, and is still a major player today (6.4 million annual sales), behind industry leaders Toyota and Volkswagen (10 million each). Alas, Detroit’s Big Three eventually paid the price for being slow to adapt to labor changes and smaller model sizes from Asia and Europe, albeit nothing compared to a complete engine overhaul.

Innovation is key in any vibrant market and despite various roadkill from poor management, bad financing, and unfair competition, such as Tucker, Bricklin, DeLorean, and Fisker, electric vehicles (EVs) are here to stay. How much market they capture and how fast are the issues. The delayers may try to slow the pace to incorporate their own alternatives, but they can’t stop the change – the manufacturing dies are cast. Automobile journalist Dan Neil succinctly explained the new thinking: “I spent my childhood driving fast cars, working on them, writing about it. I love gasoline horsepower, but I have come to the conclusion that I will never buy another gasoline-powered car as long as I live.”[2]

Enter the latest challenger, Tesla Inc, almost twice bankrupted as it worked through battery issues, transmission problems, costs, and a relentless manufacturing “performance hell,” before offering a higher price on its next EV and reinventing itself online. Despite having made only 76,000 cars by 2017, Tesla became the world’s highest valued car company at $50 billion. In 2022, it was the highest-valued company ever added to the S&P 500 Index. Although short-sellers tried to burst a presumed bubble, no one expects its demise anymore. Last year, Tesla sold 1.8 million EVs, made in 4 assembly plants (Fremont, Tilburg, Shanghai, and Berlin). They can’t build ‘em fast enough, while its one-time CEO darling cum self-styled free-speech guardian Elon Musk is raking it in at over $200 billion and counting.

But as Europe and others plan to ban the sale of gasmobiles by 2035 (2040 for gasoline-fuelled trucks and buses), the issue is whether EVs are bad for the environment: dirty versus clean, noisy versus quiet, armed global supply chains versus local microgrids. Few will be left unbloodied in the fight as we begin the revolution revolution and anoint new kings.

We can discard the obvious, that EVs produce as much pollution as gasmobiles because the grid is dirty, albeit elsewhere at the source, i.e., the fossil-fuel power plants that prime most of the electricity supply. That would be true if the grid was 100% brown, but those days are gone. Last year, global grid capacity was already 10% green (800 GW) and could become 100% green by 2050. Some countries such as Denmark (wind power) and Norway (hydroelectric) are already almost 100% green, where EV sales are rocketing. True, Norway still extracts oil and gas from lucrative North Sea stores and hydropower has green issues, but Norwegians no longer burn fossil fuels to fuel their grid.

In the US, some states have shown huge increases in wind-turbine and solar-panel installations. By 2016, 12 American states reached at least 10% wind penetration, led by Iowa (31%) and South Dakota (25%), with Texas at almost 18 GW capacity, more than all but 5 countries and enough to power 6 million homes. In Iowa, almost half the grid is now powered by wind, aiding corn production as one in two bushels goes to making ethanol fuel, ironically using as much petroleum to produce, just as carbon intensive, and not as clean as claimed. The latest data lists US solar installations at 32 GW in 2023 and 180 GW in total.[3]

Despite questionable green credentials for nuclear and hydropower, the onsite power plant carbon emissions, however, are still much less, as in France (56% nuclear) and Quebec (99% hydroelectric). Costa Rica, Tasmania, El Hierro, T’au are powered by a mix of geothermal, wind, hydro, and solar, such that a grid-fuelled car is 100% clean, while others are getting there. In 2013, Spain’s primary grid source was wind – a world first[4] – and in 2023 reached over 50% renewables. Portugal, Ireland, and Scotland are similarly greening their grids via expanded wind power, both onshore and offshore. In Germany as elsewhere, the utility bill lists the percentage of green juice consumed while you can choose your own clean providers.

Of course, full life-cycle analyses are needed to measure all fuel impacts of burnt hydrocarbons versus spinning electrons, from well to ship to refinery to pipeline to gas station to gasmobile (for petroleum) or from mine to plane to factory to assembly plant to vehicle (for EV batteries), but on the street there is no comparison: EVs emit no toxic fumes while running, and increasingly less so elsewhere as the grid greens. An EV cannot be considered “zero-emission,” however, without counting all imbedded emissions in the supply chain. For example, cobalt mined in the Congo can be refined in Finland, processed in China, and turned into production packs in Nevada before being used in an EV battery in Fremont, California (20,000 air miles[5]).

Most EV life-cycle worries involve mining in the “lithium triangle” of South America (over 50 million tons) as well as elsewhere that impacts local populations, especially from excessive water use. No one can justify destroying one environment to save another, and safeguards are needed in any industry, including the nascent battery building biz. Led by progressive president Gabriel Boric, Chile is already planning to limit the impact of lithium mining via increased regulatory control.[6] Some high-lithium sources aren’t as intrusive as in a proposed geothermal brine extraction process in the Salton Sea in southern California that could fuel the entire American market of almost 300 million cars and trucks.

Similar analyses are needed to compare the impact of petroleum infrastructure (extraction, transportation, refining) versus geological concerns for solar panels (e.g., silicon) and wind turbines (e.g., steel, carbon fibers, rare-earth elements) that produce the hydrocarbon or electric fuel. One has only to look to the petroleum industry to see what not to do. Take your pick from the hundreds of thousands of accidents at wells, on ships, along pipelines, and at stations. In the name of easy liquid fuelling, Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon, and Santa Barbara are three of the worst hydrocarbon foulings. According to the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, almost two incidents per day occur along the 2.8-million-mile national network, caused by corrosion, excavation damage, shoddy workmanship, and welding or equipment failure. Since 2010, there have been more than 100 deaths, 500 injuries, and $3.5 billion in damage.[7]

As noted by environmentalist Jonathan P. Thompson in The Land Desk newsletter, “If the media paid as much attention to oil and gas mishaps as it did to clean energy calamities, it wouldn’t be able to cover much else.”[8] Aesthetic issues are also concerns. I wouldn’t want to live next to a wind farm, but most are located away from homes. I wouldn’t want to live near a coal plant, oil well, or petroleum refinery either. Unfortunately, millions of Americans live near such sites.

We aren’t talking lesser evils. A 2011 Duke University study on water-well contaminants near shale gas pads found that homes within 1 km of a fracking site are “15 or 20 times more likely to have excessive methane in their water.”[9] According to a 2018 study by the University of Colorado’s School of Public Health, the risk of cancer is 8.3 times higher for those who live near an oil and gas facility.[10]. A 2020 Yale School of Public Health study further reported that children between the ages of 2 and 7 who lived near fracking sites at birth are two to three times more likely to suffer from leukemia, primarily because of exposure to contaminated drinking water.[11]

During fracking, air is also polluted with hydrogen sulfide – a nerve toxin that can cause irreversible brain damage – as well as benzene and other carcinogenic volatile organic compounds, generating lingering problems for those who live nearby, including headaches, nose bleeds, vomiting, nausea, allergies, eczema, hives, arrhythmia, and intestinal and respiratory ailments. Damage to groundwater, aquifers, and the underlying soil strata via ongoing seismic activity adds to the perils of everyday fracking.

And yet some will argue that clean and green is worse for our health than dirty and brown. One wonders how the toxic fumes from burnt hydrocarbons that continue to fill our streets can avoid the obvious criticism amid plummeting air quality in many large cities, including Paris, London, and Madrid. To fight the fumes, some city governments have enacted no-car days or designed clean zones to restrict high-emission vehicles (especially diesel-fuelled), alas disadvantaging low-income gasmobile drivers who then travel further to circumvent the tolls, thus increasing emissions.

In 2015, the smog in Paris was so bad the Eiffel Tower and the Sacre Coeur were completely shrouded, prompting an emergency vehicle restriction – alternate-day, even–odd plate numbers – that reduced particulate matter by 40%. The following year, a partial car-free day was instigated on the first Sunday of every month, restricting cars on 650 km of Parisian streets. On its first car-free day, nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide (NOx) levels decreased by as much as 40% and sound levels by half.

During the 2018 running of the London Marathon, NOx emissions decreased by 89%, highlighting the effect of tailpipe pollution that directly contributes to the premature deaths of about 40,000 Britons each year, roughly the same number who ran the marathon. In Los Angeles, the effect of sunlight on reactive hydrocarbons and NOx gases can produce lingering photochemical smog. One such episode in 1979 saw a 50% rise in hospital patients with “chronic lung diseases such as emphysema and asthma.”[12]

The main culprits are NOx gases, VOCs (volatile organic compounds such as benzene, toluene, butadiene, and formaldehyde), PM2.5, and CO. Infirmities associated with car exhaust include cardiovascular problems, heart disease, lung cancer, asthma, and respiratory tract infections. Bad air is everywhere, killing 8.7 million people per year according to a 2019 WHO study – even more than smoking – primarily from burning fossil fuels and biomass.[13] The economic cost of an increasingly toxic environment has been estimated at almost $3 trillion per year from premature deaths, diminished health, and lost work.[14]

The single largest emitter of pollution is transportation, while contributing 30% of greenhouse gases. Although no longer added to gasoline to reduce engine knock, lead additives were another deadly toxin responsible for increased poisoning and lowered IQs. A 1985 EPA study calculated that up to 5,000 Americans died annually from lead-related heart disease, while since the ban the mean blood-lead level of the American population has declined more than 75 percent.”[15] Note that today’s gasoline isn’t lead-free, rather none is added, although lead is still used as an additive in jet fuel and boat fuel and in countries with weak regulations such as China.

To be sure, change doesn’t happen overnight and no technology is 100% green, but more EVs and zero-emission vehicles on our roads will help redress a century of unchecked toxicity, clogging up the roads but not the air. The real knock against EVs is lost sales. As noted by Martin Eberhard, cofounder and first CEO of Tesla, “If you took the energy in a gallon of gas and used it to spin a turbine, you’d get enough electricity to drive an electric car 100 miles.”[16] No wonder the oil companies are worried – a 100-mpg (equivalent) mass-market electric vehicle will destroy their more-than-century-old market for gasmobiles.

Another reason to slow the change is control over utility companies that would increase competition as more solar- and wind-powered sources, transmission lines, and interconnectors are added to the grid. The growth of EVs will be stymied if juice is not available on demand. As noted by IEEE Spectrum, “As we increasingly electrify our homes, transportation, and factories, utility companies’ choices about transmission will have huge consequences for the nation’s economy and well-being. About 40 corporations, valued at a trillion dollars, own the vast majority of transmission lines in the United States. Their grip over the backbone of U.S. grids demands public scrutiny and accountability.”[17] With more new-energy sources incorporated into the electric mix, centralized control over an antiquated, one-directional system will be challenged, loosening restrictions that hinders equal access to public transmissions lines.

As countries aim for “net zero” by 2050, the knives are being sharpened by the usual suspects. ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods blamed global warming on greedy consumers, who choose cheap over expensive, smugly questioning who will pay for the cost of change: “The people who are generating those emissions need to be aware of and pay the price for generating those emissions. That is ultimately how you solve the problem.”[18]

Maybe we should charge the oil industry for damages to solve “the problem,” starting with $50/ton for carbon dioxide, not to mention the uncountable costs of a century of pollution deaths and diseases. Why not start by garnishing ExxonMobil’s 2023 profits of $34 billion? Or its CEO’s $50 million/year salary? Will Shell pay to clean up the Niger Delta, Chevron the interior of Ecuador, BP the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, ExxonMobil Port William Sound? Who pays for the hundreds of thousands of unplugged wells that continue to leak methane? Maybe, the oil and gas industry shouldn’t be receiving trillions of dollars in annual subsidies without cleaning up its messes.

Amin Nasser, CEO of the world’s richest oil company, Saudi Aramco, added to the pretend concern, stating that the transition is a “fantasy” and is “visibly failing” because of the consumers’ reliance on cheap fuels.[19] In fact, solar- and wind-generated electrical power is already as cheap or cheaper than fossil fuels, but is not as convenient because of lagging infrastructure. Nor are pollution or greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) factored into the real cost of burning hydrocarbons. In the midst of increased carbon pollution and tailpipe GHGs, Saudi Aramco announced profits of $120 billion and a $98 billion dividend for 2023. Of course, renewables are in direct competition with petroleum and so business as usual is essential to continue banking the profits from burning black gold.

With so much at stake, one expects a backlash. The Wall Street Journal recently published the article, “Electric cars emit more particulate pollution,” implying that EVs are worse for the environment than gasmobiles, rehashed by The New York Post as “Electric vehicles release more toxic emissions than gas-powered cars: study,” blatantly misrepresenting the 2020 UK-based Emission Analytics study cited by both.[20] In fact, the study compared particle mass emissions from a gasmobile’s tailpipe versus its tires, noting that a heavier and more aggressively driven car puts more pressure on the road and thus sheds more rubber. Nothing about toxic emissions from internal combustion engines that contaminate our streets, such as soot (C), carbon monoxide (CO), NOx gases, or sulfur dioxide (SO2).

With a basic understanding of an induction engine, the obvious clickable nonsense is refuted, but the damage is done for those who don’t read beyond the headlines and head straight for the commenting bile. Some newer gasmobiles do emit fewer toxins because of higher octane fuel and catalytic converters – that more completely combust the C4-C12 gasoline-range hydrocarbons, thus emitting less C, CO and PM – but there are no emissions from an EV induction engine.

Alas, low-emission gasmobiles are required only in a few jurisdictions such as California, whose clean-air standards the Trump Administration tried to rescind. For his part, Joe Biden announced new measures to counter vehicle emissions, effectively enacting a rising quota on EVs and hybrids by 2035, albeit weakening the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed tailpipe pollution standards, essentially giving gasmobiles a free ride for another decade.

What’s more, EV drivers use their brakes less, because of regenerative braking, hence less rubber wear and longer-lasting brakes (some EV drivers claim not to touch the brakes), while most EVs are lighter than the gasmobiles they replace and thus emit less roadside particle mass, partly because bigger SUVs are still rarer and expensive. Although the engine weight is about half, batteries do add weight to an electric refit, making the car handle better and safer, but anyone can wear out their tires with aggressive driving, which presumably has more to do with the driver than the car.

The backlash against Tesla, however, became more than just words after an electricity transmission pylon was destroyed in early March near its latest manufacturing plant, southeast of Berlin, knocking out power to the factory and nearby villages. The activist group Vulkan claimed responsibility, stating that the factory “consumed both natural resources and labour and was neither ecological or sustainable.”[21] All are important concerns, especially excessive water consumption in a low-water area or destroying a forest to clear more land for a proposed plant expansion. Presumably similar concerns apply to BMW in Bavaria, Daimler in Baden-Württemberg, and Volkswagen in Lower Saxony for their starring roles in urban pollution.

The group also called Musk a “techno-fascist” in a 2,500-word open letter,[22] while Musk called the arson “a strange kind of environmentalism,” adding on X, “These are either the dumbest eco-terrorists on Earth or they’re puppets of those who don’t have good environmental goals. Stopping production of electric vehicles, rather than fossil fuel vehicles, ist extrem dumm” (i.e., is extremely dumb). No mention was made of Tesla’s worrying stance against unions or circumvention of German labor practices.

Indeed, one wonders about the lack of protest against gasmobiles. Volkswagen has even been redeemed after cheating on EPA emissions tests in 2015, where a dyno calibration was turned on to burn fuel more completely under indoor test conditions but not on the road, adding to 38,000 more diesel-related deaths per year.[23] VW was forced to pay almost $15 billion for its Dieselgate deception in the largest auto-industry class-action case in US history. At least, the appalling deception has helped cut diesel sales in Europe where its future seems doomed, 125 years after German engineer Rudolf Diesel first demonstrated his novel compression-combustion engine (initially run on peanut oil).

Fires and accidents are also being cited to derail the electric transition. In 2016, Samsung lost almost $1 billion after recalling 2.5 million just-launched Galaxy Note 7 smartphones when the lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery was found to catch fire during recharging, the positive and negative electrodes merging because of an excessive fast-charging voltage on the thinner, larger battery as the cathode-anode separation was reduced to save space. After a couple of high-profile early fires, Tesla devised a liquid glycol cooling system enmeshed in its vehicle battery packs and added an underside aluminum/titanium shield to ensure battery safety in the event of an accident. All new technologies undergo upgrades to ensure safety in an evolving market. Boiler explosions were a regular occurrence in the early days of steam power.

In 2023, fires from charging e-bike batteries were responsible for 11 UK deaths, often started overnight in hallways, prompting calls for certification standards to ban substandard technology and poor retrofits.[24] A compromised battery was responsible for a fatal house fire in Australia, the first such battery fire in New South Wales.[25] All deaths are regrettable, but such tragedies don’t compare to the ongoing damages from petroleum-sourced fires. A devastating blaze in early March in Valencia, Spain, killed 10 people and destroyed a 15-year-old apartment block after the petroleum-based polyethylene-filled aluminum façade erupted in flames caused by a faulty appliance, echoing the horrific Grenfell fire in London in 2017 that officially took 72 lives and left hundreds homeless. No one should live in a battery or petroleum-fuelled death trap. No one should ever encase an apartment building in highly flammable hydrocarbon tiles or use unsafe battery chargers.

Some arguments are cherry-picked from isolated events, usually involving a Tesla crash or EV fire. Crashes are on the decline, however, in both EVs and gasmobiles because of improved safety features, aided by machine vision, collision-avoidance braking, and intelligent routing. One hopes such features will soon become standard in all cars, given the millions of people killed and maimed on our roads each year.

Of course, all changes should be scrutinized. Consumer advocate and auto-safety pioneer Ralph Nader commends robotic systems that don’t get drunk, fall asleep at the wheel, or develop poor driving skills, yet still cautions against computers that fail and are susceptible to hacking, preferring more investment in clean energy and public transport. Nader is especially wary of allowing “full self-driving” on our roads, calling for federal regulators to ban “malfunctioning software which Tesla itself warns may do the ‘wrong thing at the worst time’ on the same streets where children walk to school.”[26]

Range is also cited as a concern, but is not an issue for most drivers as half of all trips are under 5 miles, while according to the US Department of Transport, the average daily driving distance is 37 miles. GM’s CEO Mary Barra noted that 80% of commutes are less than 25 miles, easily covered by an EV on one hour of charge.[27] Range anxiety is in fact charger anxiety as lack of infrastructure impacts long-distance journeys. Fortunately, sufficient infrastructure exists at home, where 98% of EVs are charged, although malls, motels, and service stations are adding more units as demand increases. Cold-weather performance, where the battery’s electrolytic gel hardens, is not a concern with an internal heating system, albeit reducing range.

Cost is a real concern, however, both for vehicles and fuel. Indeed, what choice does the consumer have between a $14,000 Ford Fiesta and a $44,000 Tesla? The EV sticker price is still beyond the reach of most budgets, although fill-up costs are currently less than half.[28] Costs will drop with improved batteries (up to one-third the price) and economies of scale, while the cost to repair an EV is minor compared to an internal combustion engine (mostly broken battery cells).

The wallet makes most decisions, but as economist Tony Seba noted, “under $20,000 and the thing will be unstoppable.”[29] Henry Ford famously cut Model T prices by over a half with improved high-volume production, creating affordable private transportation for middle- and working-class families ($850 in 1908 slashed to $360 in 1916[30]). Nonetheless, expense is still a dealbreaker for most potential buyers. Furthermore, a 2022 Irish transport study found that EV grants and charging locations favored high-income people in urban areas, essentially “luxury goods.”[31]

China is leading the way in lowering prices as companies such as BYD, headquartered in Shenzhen, recently surpassed Tesla as the world’s top seller, becoming the leading supplier of EVs. The entire fleet of over 16,000 public buses in Shenzhen runs on batteries charged overnight, while BYD is winning more contracts around the world. BYD is also number 2 in batteries behind another Chinese company CATL. The so-called Oracle of Omaha Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway holding company owns a number of power utilities, was an early BYD investor, although others are worried about Chinese domination in the burgeoning EV market – shades of cheaper, more efficient Japanese and German imports outselling American models in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Europe and the US are scrambling to catch up to save their own markets.

The founder of Singulato Motors – a young Chinese entrepreneur whiz-kid named Tiger Shen – sussed the transformative power of EVs for China after seeing the launch of Tesla’s Model S in 2012, and thinks that software controlled cars and 4- to 5-times more battery range in the next 20 years will spell the end of the gasmobile. Singulato’s first production model, the iS6, was purposefully designed to help clean up smog-filled cities and reduce congestion in China, which has 8 of the world’s 10 most-congested urban centers, especially Beijing where the average driving speed is only 7.5 mph. As Shen noted, “It is our duty to get the blue sky back in Beijing and other cities in China.”[32]

Change is never simple and requires money and time. Rome wasn’t built in a day nor was American consumerism. As late as the 1950s, 11% of Americans still had ice boxes,[33] while the US Census was still counting draft animals in the 1960s.[34] Standard appliances weren’t universally adopted after Edison’s Pearl Street coal-fired power station in 1882 nor Niagara Falls hydroelectric power station in 1895, which essentially inaugurated the grid and the twentieth century. The adoption of early home appliances lagged because of incomplete supply lines, non-existence infrastructure, and cost. As author Hamish McKenzie notes in Insane Mode, “In 1960, less than 10 percent of US households owned a color TV. In 1990, less than 10 percent of US households had a cell phone.”

Same for the washing machine (1907), vacuum cleaner (1908), home refrigerator (1912), radio (1920s), television (1940s), microwave (1970s), PC (1970s), the Internet (1990s), and now the EV. Remember Alf Langdon, the Republican nominee who was picked to win the 1933 US presidential election based on a telephone poll? Alas, 90% of Americans didn’t have a phone back then, while those who did were financially better off and more likely to vote Republican. Franklin Roosevelt won in a landslide. As for Rome, they will be the first to ban diesel cars next year, while the EU as a whole has set 2035 for a ban on gasmobile sales. Expect lots of debate, choice words, and protests.

Recycling is not as worrisome as some think. Today, 90% of lead-acid batteries are recycled, and although more metals are involved in a Li-ion battery (e.g., cobalt, nickel, iron) a similar system is evolving, including the 4Rs (refabricate, recycle, resell, and reuse). Second-life batteries are being refashioned for grid storage after an EV battery loses 20% of its charge. One such system is in operation at the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam, made of reused Nissan Leaf batteries. BMW also started up a backup battery facility in Leipzig from its own i3 batteries. Improved energy density and charging software will also increase longevity. Of course, recycling needs to increase across all sectors – US numbers are only 32% – but used battery components will always be needed to reduce mining costs and increase value. Recycling can also add to more conservation, reduced consumption, and less waste.

New battery chemistries are also being developed that will ease mining extraction and the growth in materials for an evolving home charge-storage market. All-solid-state batteries may strain the environment less, while sodium could rejig the entire market. Heavier than lithium and thus not as useful for transportation, sodium is as plentiful as seawater. Deep-sea mining is more controversial, however, where pristine ecosystems are disturbed.

The loss of manufacturing jobs must also be properly managed as electric vehicles are much easier to assemble. As EVs start outselling gasmobiles, perhaps by 2030, the United Auto Workers union expects a loss of 35,000 jobs. EVs may even have been the tipping point for the 2019 strike at GM and subsequent 2023 strike at GM, Ford, and Stellantis.

More worrisome are electricity prices that can be leveraged against beholden customers. Of course, one can make one’s own juice at home, a dangerous operation with oil. The cost of a 400-watt, 20%-efficient, off-the-shelf solar panel has dropped 100fold in the last few decades. No need to pay Big Oil or the utility companies. Interestingly, it is not the meter that scares government policy makers who tax measurable consumption, it is no meter.

Same goes for high-temperature manufacturing industries (steel, cement, fertilizer), forced to swap coal or natural gas for electricity. The concerns are legitimate if future prices are unknown, for example, steelmaking giant ArcelorMittal threatening to pull out of Asturias, Spain, over unguaranteed costs of electricity needed to make so-called green steel via DRI. Green hydrogen (GH2) is the latest EU plan to reduce Russian gas, but also depends on electricity prices. The problem is not as severe if the GH2 is made by solar- or wind-powered electrolyzers, but the infrastructure is still very much in its infancy. Even with large profits and billion-euro grants, uncertainty is a deal-breaker to the captains of industry.

Battery energy storage systems (BESS) and vehicle to grid (V2G) technology will also upend the one-directional grid, where home charge-storage and EVs can be employed to flatten the electrical load, improving grid efficiency and cleanliness, as more intermittent renewables come online. The batteries can be switched on and off as needed in an evolving “prosumer” market as customers buy and sell arbitraged energy across an interconnected, bi-directional smart grid. Alas, access is a problem for those ill-equipped to pay, further widening the digital divide and adding another layer of opaque technology between sellers and buyers.

The coming changes are as scary as they are exciting as we share resources in a new contract between neighbors, where one borrows charge as easily as a cup of sugar. A whole new set of rules and regulations are evolving, including improved cyber security. More one-offs will also crop up as wealthier customers opt out, weakening the public grid with their own isolated micro grids. It’s not just “preppers” going their own way, but the wealthy who can afford to tune out as they please. The ethics of another new modernity is only just being established, again pitting shared societal values against individual moneyed goals.

More biofuels (the big lie), green hydrogen (the old pretender), and carbon capture (unproven eye candy) are also being touted to save the old ways and continue with liquid fuels, some of which are just as dirty as the replaced petroleum. Some basic math explains the difficulty: 25% of American farmland is already used for biofuels that displace only about 5% of the fuel supply while using hydrogen gas is half as efficient as a battery.

Nonetheless, both new and old technologies will coexist in the transition, just as wood, coal, and oil did in the twentieth century and beyond. Is each technology practical, cost effective, and safe? Those are the questions that should be asked. Better technology always wins in the end. Better, greener, and cheaper technology is no contest.

You will find stories about fishermen opposing an offshore wind farm, anti-pollution activists against a chemical battery plant, environmentalists condemning an EV manufacturing plant. More organized opposition goes beyond backyard concerns to stop or ban change as well-funded petroleum interests aim to rebrand clean as dirty and cheap as expensive. Any new technology comes with its own set of challenges, although clean energy is not a lesser of two evils, but a chance to break free from a toxic past.

New energy isn’t exempt from emission controls and safety concerns. We should welcome the increased scrutiny over EVs to ensure a clean, practical, and affordable rollout, which hopefully increases scrutiny over toxic gasmobiles and dangerous petroleum supply chains. Why does the oil industry escape the same criticism about its dangers? If we paid more attention to all emissions, we wouldn’t be in such a pickle. What’s not to like as we kick gasoline to the curb – no more petroleum wars, fewer exploitative supply chains, reduced pollution?

Change is never easy, especially an energy transition that upends an entire economy, but once an EV can do the same (or more) than a gasmobile at the same (or cheaper) price and everyone can buy one, no one will want yesterday’s goods. With a cleaner technology, we will all breathe easier. Expect more battles ahead as we change from brown to green.


[1] Djuang, J., “The New Seven Supermajor Oil Companies,” LDI Training, 2023.

[2] “Revenge of the Electric Car” [documentary], directed by Chris Paine, West Midwest Productions, USA, 2011.

[3] “Solar Industry Research Data,” Solar Energy Industries Association, March 6, 2024.

[4] “Spain breezes into record books as wind power becomes main source of energy,” El País (in English), January 15, 2014.

[5] McGee, P., “This Tesla co-founder has a plan to recycle your EV batteries,” Financial Times, September 15, 2021.

[6] Janetsky, M. et al., “Native groups sit on a treasure trove of lithium. Now mines threaten their water, culture and wealth,” AP News, March 13, 2024.

[7] Paterson, L. and Wirfs-Brock, J., “Protesters say pipelines are dangerous. Are they?Inside Energy, November 18, 2016.

[8] Thompson, J., in “Boiling Point: Are dams good or bad?Los Angeles Times, January 23, 2024.

[9] “Shattered Ground,” The Nature of Things [documentary], directed by Leif Kaldo, Zoot Pictures, CBC, February 7, 2013.

[10] McKenzie, L. M. et al., “Ambient nonmethane hydrocarbon levels along Colorado’s northern front range: Acute and chronic health risks,” Environmental Science and Technology, March 27, 2018.

[11] Clark, C. J. et al., “Unconventional oil and gas development exposure and risk of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia: A case-control study in Pennsylvania, 2009–2017,” Environmental Health Perspectives, 130(8), August 17, 2022.

[12] Valavanidis, A. et al., “Airborne particulate matter and human health: Toxicological assessment and importance of size and composition of particles for oxidative damage and carcinogenic mechanisms,” Journal of Environmental Science and Health, Part C, 26: 4, pp. 339–362, November 26, 2008.

[13] Lelieveld, J. et al., “Cardiovascular disease burden from ambient air pollution in Europe reassessed using novel hazard ratio functions,” European Heart Journal, 40(20):1590–6, March 12, 2019.

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John K. White, a former lecturer in physics and education at University College Dublin and the University of Oviedo. He is the editor of the energy news service E21NS and author of The Truth About Energy: Our Fossil-Fuel Addiction and the Transition to Renewables (Cambridge University Press, 2024) and Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2013). He can be reached at: