12.03.2015 - by Tom Saxton
Bill Gates is Wrong About Electric Vehicles

In a recent interview in the Atlantic, We Need an Energy Miracle, Bill Gates made some statements about our transition to a zero-carbon energy economy and electric vehicles which need to be corrected.

On the subject of existing technology and efficiency gains, Gates said:

But what we’re asking ourselves to do here is change energy and that includes all of transport, all of electricity, all of household usage, and all of industrial usage. And those are all huge areas of usage. And somebody ll say to you, “Well, hey, lighting, LED technology, is going to reduce energy consumption from lighting by over half.” That’s true; it’s a miracle, it’s fantastic. But unfortunately, there’s no equivalent in many of these other things, like making fertilizer or making electricity in a general sense. There’s opportunities to conserve that are really good. But the world is going to consume much more energy 30 years from now than it does today.

Like LED light bulbs compared to incandescents, electric vehicles are over twice as efficient as comparable gasoline cars. From an energy efficiency standpoint, the EPA rates the two best selling all-electric cars, the Nissan LEAF and Tesla Model S, at 114 and 101 MPG-equivalent, respectively. That’s about three times the efficiency of the average passenger car in the US (36 MPG) and twice the efficiency of the best hybrid (50 MPG). It’s just physics: electric motors are far more efficient than internal combustion engines.

Further, electric cars aren’t just more efficient, and thus less expensive to operate, they are actually better than gas cars. They offer smooth, instant acceleration and a quiet ride that just can’t be matched in a gas car. They are also far more convenient to fuel. Like your cellphone, you plug them in overnight to have a full charge in the morning. People don’t realize how inconvenient going to a gas station is until they experience the electric alternative.

Later, Gates mentions electric cars by bringing out a tired argument that is both misleading and irrelevant.

People think, Oh, well, I’ll just get an electric car. There are places where if you buy an electric car, you’re actually increasing CO2 emissions, because the electricity infrastructure is emitting more CO2 than you would have if you’d had a gasoline-powered car.

This argument has been throughly discredited. In their 2012 report, State of Charge, the Union of Concerned Scientists state: “There are no areas of the country where electric vehicles have higher global warming emissions than the average new gasoline vehicle.” In a more recent study, they found that over the full vehicle life, from manufacture to disposal, electric vehicles generate half the emission of the average comparable gas car.

Even if Gates’ statement were true, it’s beside the point. As he strongly argues, we need to stop burning fossil fuels to produce electricity. We also need to stop burning oil for transportation. Making each of those transitions is vital to humanity and each will take decades. We cannot wait to do one before we start working on the other.

Electric vehicles have the compelling advantage that they can run on any source fuel which can be turned into electricity. Whether we transition to a zero-carbon economy by conversion to current, proven technologies like wind, solar, and geothermal, or some new technology, electric vehicles enable efficient, zero-carbon transportation on our existing low-cost power distribution infrastructure. Regardless of the specific technology, electric cars get cleaner in lockstep with our grid getting cleaner.

We don’t need an “energy miracle” to dramatically reduce our reliance on oil for personal transportation. Electric cars are practical, affordable, available today, and getting better every year.

9 comments on “Bill Gates is Wrong About Electric Vehicles”
  1. Dennis Rowan says:

    Tom, You know more about EVs than Bill Gates. Bill Gates announced he is investing 2Billion for renewables. 1 GW of Renewabes integrated into EVs charges around 500,000 EVs. If you take the energy from renewables and put it into buildings you don’t save nearly as much money or carbon. Putting the renewable energy into EVs is the best use of renewable energy.
    I think you and I have about one degree of separation from Mr Gates and his Billions of investment dollars. He admits he doesn’t have the answers and is asking for informed proposals for renewable energy.
    Mr Gates is a systems thinker and when he understands better that a system composed of fleets of EVs utilizing Renewable energy solves many of the problems he articulates in the Atlantic article he will fund such ventures. ( I am hoping mine is one of those ventures)Then he can say with certainty, my foundation has invested in a renewable energy to EV grid that reduces transportation GHG emissions by 98% over the current USA light vehicle transportation fleet.

  2. Anonymous says:

    For cryin’ out loud: I’ve been driving all EV since ’98, with solar since 2000. *Don’t* tell me that’s not better than an ICE. ‘Tis. Real world experience vs Gatesy equivocation. I win! The world wins!

    1. Battery Boy says:

      Bill Gates? The guy that that copied CP/M, made a few changes and called it MS-DOS? The guy that didn’t do anything creative?

  3. ModernMarvelFan says:

    I think the author has been a bit overly negative here. Here are some facts to reflect that:

    “This argument has been throughly discredited. In their 2012 report, State of Charge, the Union of Concerned Scientists state: “There are no areas of the country where electric vehicles have higher global warming emissions than the average new gasoline vehicle.” In a more recent study, they found that over the full vehicle life, from manufacture to disposal, electric vehicles generate half the emission of the average comparable gas car. ”

    Nobody drives an “average” vehicle. In that UCS study, the lowest equivalent emission level is about 36mpg with the most intense coal powered electricity region. If you drive a higher mpg hybrid, then you can do better than the 36 mpg equivalent. So, it is very dependent on the region and the vehicle you drive.

    Also, Bill Gate isn’t just talking about Americans, but the world audience. In countries such as China and India where the coal powered plants dominated electricity generation, a cleaner burning gasoline engine or higher mpg hybrid can indeed be better in equivalent emission level.

    I do agree that cleaning up power plants are easier than cleaning up millions of cars. The electrical grids will get cleaner over time. But we shouldn’t jump in so quickly to criticize Bill’s comment without looking at situation and facts.

    “Electric cars are practical, affordable, available today, and getting better every year. ”

    There are currently no affordable long range EVs today. Chevy Bolt with 200 miles range won’t be released until 2016 at earliest. Until then, we don’t have “good enough” solutions yet. Sure, there are cars such as Chevy Volt or Ford C-Max/Fusion Energi that can give us a balance of EV driving and extended range, but those type of vehicles are still limited in terms of choices (although the new Volt is very nice but still too small for larger families). Until then, many consumers just won’t switch. So, it is up to the automakers and government to come up with better solutions so the movement can pick up speed on its own.

    1. Tom says:

      I understand Gates is talking about a global audience, but we have to get rid of those coal plants everywhere, not just in the US. That’s going to take time, decades perhaps. Likewise for replacing our gas cars with electric cars. We can’t afford to start making the conversion to EVs until we’ve removed all of the coal plants.

      The 2012 UCS State of Charge study found that in 45% of the US population lives in areas where the emissions associated with driving electric are bettter than the best hybrids, plus another 17% live in areas where EVs match the best hybrids. (See pages 10 and 11.) Since 2012, our grid has gotten cleaner, a trend that must continue. In the more recent study, UCS found that the average US EV driver gets the equivelent of driving a 68 mpg car, well above the best hybrid.

      Since most of our driving is local, EVs don’t have to be long-range to be practical. There are 60 million households in the US that have multiple cars and a garage. 78% of US drivers drive less than 40 miles per day. At the intersection of those two groups are tens of millions of US households that could replace one car they commute in with an EV while keeping a gas car for longer trips, and save money by doing so.

      The vast majority of people who switch to an EV for their daily driving never want to drive a gas car again. If more people had the experience, or heard about it first-hand from friends and neighbors, there would be far more demand for EVs. That’s the basis of National Drive Electric Week and other things we do at Plug In America.

      1. ModernMarvelFan says:

        That is the problem I have with EV supporter who attack others. The #1 market is China. Today, driving a hybrid or high MPG ICE is better than EVs in China with super dirty grid. So, why are you so critical on Bill while what he says have merit?

        The problem is more complex than just simply driving hybrids, high mpg ICE or EVs. As you said, we need all fronts to advances. But saying EV is the only solution is wrong. What about those people who live in condo and apartment who can’t charge? They still matter. So, EVs don’t work for everyone today. There is no need to have a single solution for all. Of course, ultimately, we will stride for the all EV future. But don’t that let to stop people who drives higher mpg ICE. Any steps are better than none.

        There is no need to bash Bill when he isn’t really wrong. Cherry picking US grid data isn’t exactly fair either.

        1. Tom says:

          I’m glad we agree: we want an all EV future. It would help if we could get Gates to support that.

  4. Jim Stack says:

    I would not say Bill Gates is stupid. He is just like most people and doesn’t know or own an electric to actually see the advantages. I’ve been driving electrics for about 10 years. Before that I only owned 4 cylinder vehicles since most have way more power than they ever need. I also used to shut off the engine waiting at a long light or stopping places for 1 minute or more.

    An Electric normally charges Off Peak at night. Many don’t know but most power plants that run on COAL, NUCLEAR and even Hydro that can’t ramp down the power when the demand is low at night. That is why the rates at night are lower. If we don’t use it they shunt it to ground. Some Texas power companies give away free wind power at night since they don’t have a way to store it or ramp it down.

    Electrics and even hybrids use REGENerative braking. This reduces brake wear and actually makes power and puts it back into the battery.

    Gas and Diesel cars idle, waste brakes and make mostly heat so they are 20 to 40% efficient respectivly. An electric is over 80% efficient with very little waste heat made. That’s 2 to 4 times more efficient than a FUEL car. When a gas or Diesel car first starts and is cold it is even less efficient. When they idle they make the most pollution. They have over 2,000 moving parts with high tolerance and compression.

  5. Ted Kidd says:

    Bill Gates is not a first principals thinker. It’s becoming painfully clear he’s a computer geek at the right time, with wealthy parents. Not Elon Musk level intellect.

    Wanting to help 3rd world peoples avoid disease is a poorly considered place to focus energy when this is far from the most significant risk these people face. He’s shockingly late to our energy and climate problem, and surprisingly uninformed.

    “Bill Gates is here to save the day!” Lol.

    Fun seeing leaders in the industry eviscerate him for his simplistic and uninformed opinions.

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