Major Russian Auto Magazine says e-cars aren’t worth it: We Respond

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Publish date: November 30, 2020

As the sale of electric cars in Russia experiences a modest but steady uptick, Russia’s most influential automotive magazine, Zhurnal, has poured cold water on the whole idea, claiming in bold headlines that not only Russia but the whole world will never make the EV transition. In a lengthy article, the magazine goes on to offer several serious sounding but ultimately tendentious arguments meant to thwart the silly hopes of EV proponents. They’re all wrong.

As the sale of electric cars in Russia experiences a modest but steady uptick, Russia’s most influential automotive magazine, Zhurnal, has poured cold water on the whole idea, claiming in bold headlines that not only Russia but the whole world will never make the EV transition. In a lengthy article, the magazine goes on to offer several serious sounding but ultimately tendentious arguments meant to thwart the silly hopes of EV proponents. They’re all wrong.

The article comes at a fragile time. Until recently, the fossil fuel-dependent Kremlin has kept electric cars at arm’s length despite their roaring success in neighboring Europe. But this spring, after years of flip-flopping, the Russian government finally agreed to cancel import taxes on electric cars until the end of 2021 in an effort to probe their feasibility on Russia’s roads.

Individual Russian cities and regions have begun pursuing their own initiatives as well. Places as diverse at Moscow, St Petersburg and Kaluga have moved to rescind transport taxes for EVs and give their owners first dibs on coveted parking spots and access restricted travel lanes – a nod to measures that fueled the EV explosion in Scandinavia.

Ulyanovsk, a region 870 kilometers to Moscow’s east, has done that and more, declaring that all of its municipal vehicles, from city busses to the limousines that chauffer city officials around, will henceforth be all electric.  The distant region of Sakhalin, on Russia’s Pacific Coast, has made the same pledge and has set itself a deadline of 2030 to get it done.

And while the raw number of electric cars in Russia remains a comparatively small 7,925 as of July, their sales, when viewed through the lens of statistics, seem to suggest ballooning popularity. Last year’s figures for new EV sales bested the previous year’s totals by 145 percent. Used electric cars – popular along Russia’s Chinese border – showed a steadily climbing ownership as well. Though charging stations outside Moscow and St Petersburg can be elusive, NGOs like Bellona are working with local officials to populate more far-flung areas with the needed infrastructure to accommodate EVs.

The Russian government is encouraging these developments. A decree on the books since 2016 makes it mandatory for all filling stations in Russia to include electric car charging points. Moscow’s vast municipal transport system, meanwhile, plans to put 2,600 electric busses on the road by 2024, boosting the zero-emissions fleet the city government began developing in 2018. And in November, numerous government ministries were told in explicit terms to start crafting legislation meant to “stimulate the use of environmentally friendly transport.”

To top that off, Russian engineers are taking a crack at developing their own electric and self-driving cars in a bid to compete with the big boys at Tesla, Renault and other major EV makers. The Zetta, which will launch this year, will be priced at about $7,000 when it hits the market. Meanwhile, numerous Russian mega-companies, from internet search engine Yandex to legendary truck maker KAMAZ have begun to dabble in their own domestically produced self-driving cars.

In short, many among Russia’s political and economic classes are clearly trying to create fertile ground for electric cars to catch on. But in in light of these developments, what do the editors of Zhurnal advise?

Forget about it. It’s not even worth trying. Stick to gas.

To reach this discouraging conclusion, the editors rely on five arguments that are routinely recycled through the ant-electric car press, but that nonetheless have enough zombielike persistence to sow doubt in whether global-scale zero-emissions transport is possible.

We turned Zhurnal’s arguments over to our experts for a reality check:

Claim #1: Humanity doesn’t have the resources to continue making electric car batteries.

Simply stated, the editors argue that there simply isn’t enough cobalt and lithium in the world to accommodate a boost in electric car battery fabrication. With numerous countries in Europe pledging to phase out the sale of internal combustion engines by mid-century, we’re simply going to run out.

Bellona says that’s nonsense. There are enough raw materials. Batteries can be built out of a myriad of different chemistries and raw material combinations, so if something is scarce or difficult to source in an ethical manner – for instance, cobalt – tech development tends to try to move away from those resources. Different chemistries suit different applications. The choice of battery technology will depend on energy density, weight and price and the method of use. A city bus needs ultra-fast charging but can do with low capacity; a passenger car has different requirements. Finally, efficient recycling of batteries will mean we can re-use materials and eventually limit the need for virgin materials.

Claim #2: Electric car production has no viable business model. Journal’s editors claim that the auto industry has yet to find a way to make selling electric cars profitable. They cite the failure of Dyson, the vacuum manufacturer, to develop an electric car after putting $2.7 billion behind the effort. They also recount the history of Ford and Rivan’s team effort to build an electric pickup truck, which ended in a $500 million write off. The magazine concludes that the cost of materials and production are simply too much for electric car startups to bear.  Moreover, they argue that the kinds of government subsidies electric car buyers currently enjoy in many countries will dry up – and with them demand for EVs.

Again, nonsense. Just look at Tesla, which outperformed most other automakers even under the conditions of the worldwide coronavirus epidemic. In the third quarter of 2020 alone, it sold 139,000 new units via its unique direct to buyer business model.

Of course, the incentives on offer to EV buyers by numerous governments have played a major role in boosting demand in these initial stages. But we’re already close to the point of reaching price parity between EVs and traditionally fueled cars as big automakers are pledging to go all-electric.

As for the magazine’s comments about Rivan, they only reveal part of the story. Earlier this month, the company revealed the pricing for its upcoming models, which is sure to ignite fierce competition. Tesla has announced the Cybertruck. Later, General Motors unveiled plans to build the Hummer EV. Ford, likewise, says it will build an electric version of its bestselling F-150.

Claim # 3 Some countries will resist Journal’s editors argue that numerous countries will simply resist a world-wide shift to electric cars because it’s bad for their bottom lines. Pointing to Russia itself as an example of this, the editors suggest that Moscow could simply decide to offer government benefits to purchasers of natural gas-powered cars instead of electric cars, which would stop EV momentum in its tracks. They also point out that a number of US states started levying taxes and registration fees on electric car owners in an attempt to make up for tax revenues that are lost on gasoline sales.

But we say that, too, is wrongheaded. First, if Russia were opposed to growth in the area of EVs, then why would it be undertaking a number of measures to support them – among those expanding the number of electric buses operating Moscow? As for questions of tax revenue, it’s not unreasonable to assume that there will be fees associated with electric car ownership after the initial honeymoon period of government subsidies eventually draws to a close. But, as above, the increasing price parity between electric cars and traditional cars means that EV owners likely won’t pay more their internal combustion driving counterparts.

Claim # 4 Abandoning traditional cars will lead to electricity shortages and spiking power prices Journal’s editors say that a worldwide switch to electric cars will put too much of a burden on the power supply system, exhausting our existing capacities and driving up energy prices.

Wrong again. In electric-car saturated Norway, water and resource authorities anticipate an uptick in energy consumption of 14 percent by 2040 – that is, 15 years after Norway plans to ban the sale of cars powered by internal combustion engines. A major point is that grids are dimensioned for peak loads. The growth of EVs will lead to higher consumption overall, but smarter grid use and energy storage will mean the peak loads won’t grow in tandem with consumption. Furthermore, Norway’s 14 percent expected growth may not necessarily mean higher peak loads, just higher and more consistent consumption. EV charging often happens overnight when other electricity use is low. Further developments to look forward to are improvements in self-driving technologies. As self-driving cars get better, they can serve a dual role as robotaxis and mobile grid batteries. In fact, it is rumored that Tesla will stop producing cars for individual drivers as soon as autonomous car technologies become reliable enough.

Claim # 5: Electric cars cause terrible pollution

The editors at Zhurnal reserve the most persistent zombie argument for last, claiming that while electric cars produce no tailpipe emissions, the release of greenhouse gases involved in their production entirely cancels out any climate benefits gained by driving them. This assertion hinges on the notion that charging electric cars can only occur while they’re plugged into outlets powered by coal and other polluting fossil fuels. The editors also target battery production, which releases planet warming emission in its various stages.

There is indeed a range of rare earth metals that make up the composition of the battery, and their extraction and manipulation can contribute to carbon emissions. However, as a 2018 International Council on Clean Transportation, or ICTT, report shows, the country in which batteries are produced as well as the battery composition has a much higher level of impact on emissions.

A comparative study between EVs and internal combustion engine vehicles in China corroborates the ICTT report, indicating that infrastructure and efficient manufacturing techniques are crucial to reducing emissions during production.

Chinese EV battery manufacturers produce up to 60 percent more CO2 during fabrication than internal combustion engine production – but they could cut their emissions by up to 66 percent if they adopted American or European manufacturing techniques. As such, the pollution created through the extraction process and production of batteries remains on par or slightly higher than the manufacturing process of petrol or diesel-based engines.

In its study, the ICTT also notes the stark difference in emissions between electric and internal combustion engines over the course of their lifetimes. With no combustion and complete lack of tailpipe emissions, EVs produce the bulk of their emissions through their manufacturing process and the sourcing of their energy, giving them an advantage over petrol and diesel-powered cars.

While internal combustion engine producers have been steadily reducing their emissions since 2000, electric vehicles still have a marked edge by producing close to no running emissions. Additionally, as EVs become more common and manufacturing becomes more widespread, battery recycling will be more efficient and reduce the need to extract new materials, therefore lessening the reliance on mining and production of new batteries.

The total impact of electric vehicles is more pronounced when looking at their complete lifetime, where combustion engine vehicles are unable to compete. EV’s are responsible for far fewer emissions over their lifetime than vehicles running on fossil fuels.

In a separate study by Transport & Environment, researchers noted that electric cars pay back their carbon debt much more quickly than internal cars using combustion engines. In the EU, this implies that electric cars will have lower lifetime emissions than their traditional counterparts when it is used for as few as two years. In Russia, which has lower carbon intensity on its electric grid, this payback time for electric cars is even less.

As for EV charging, current electrical grids are mostly moving towards reducing their reliance on fossil fuels and increasing their renewable energy production. Car manufacturers are also accepting the fact that electric cars are less polluting and that producing more EVs will help reduce total carbon emissions.

As it currently stands, Electric vehicles as they currently stand are far less polluting than their combustion engine counterparts. As the technology becomes more mainstream, it is likely to become even more efficient and sustainable. Larger economies will benefit EV manufacturing by providing better infrastructure, more efficient manufacturing techniques, recycling options and reduce the need for the mining of new materials. Electric vehicles are not a panacea but combined with greater deployment of renewables and the decarbonization of the electricity grid they offer a pathway to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.