If you want to start a fight among car enthusiasts, bring up the topic of electric cars. Many enthusiasts reviled battery-powered vehicles until 2008 when the high-performance Tesla Roadster changed the idea that electric cars were simply glorified golf carts. Since that time, the concept of the electric car has become a political football; and most particularly during the first six months of 2011, the future of an electrified transportation system in America has seen ups and downs. High points include Nissan’s launch of its all-electric LEAF, Chevrolet’s launch of its plug-in hybrid Volt, MINI’s ongoing research project with 600 electrically powered MINI E models, and BMW’s announcement of a new sub-brand called BMW i that will begin selling electric vehicles by 2013. In addition, Fiat will have an electric version of its diminutive 500 model by next year and even staid Rolls Royce showed off its electric concept vehicle at this year’s Geneva Auto Show. Other positives have shown up on two wheels as more than half a dozen electric motorcycle manufacturers have hit the streets with everything from sport bikes to commuter machines to off-road dirt bikes.
As enthusiastic as vehicle manufacturers appear to be to jump on the electrification bandwagon, the beginning of 2011 has also seen some setbacks to the rosy future envisioned by electric vehicle fans. Power outages last winter caused by severe snow and ice storms that ravaged much of the U.S. highlight some of the serious reliability issues that face America’s antiquated and decrepit electric power grid. Questions about the future of nuclear electric power have been raised worldwide due to the earthquake and tsunami disasters in Japan and subsequent failures of safety systems at the Fukushima reactor complex. Meanwhile, an uncertain regulatory climate has resulted in the cancellation of electric-power generating wind farm projects, funding for solar power research has been cut, and vocal factions within congress have made their opposition to any alternatives to fossil fuels abundantly clear. On top of this, the Chinese government in late 2010 began to curtail export of the rare earth elements that make efficient electric motors powering electric vehicles possible. More than 95 percent of these materials currently come from regions within China’s control, allowing them a strategic and pricing monopoly.
In many ways, the least critical part of an electrified transportation system is the electric vehicles themselves. This may come as a surprise in light of the seemingly limited 70- to 100-mile range of the Nissan LEAF or the 25-50–mile electric range of the Chevrolet Volt, before the on-board gasoline engine kicks in to help get you home. Both vehicles use the latest in lithium-ion battery technology (similar to those in your laptop computer or smart phone), allowing electricity storage rates of four to six times the energy stored in a traditional lead-acid battery on a power-to-weight basis. Still, an equivalent weight of gasoline holds 50-70 times the energy stored in those expensive lithium-ion batteries, so it’s easy to see why a couple of gallons of gasoline can easily surpass the range provided by even the highest technology batteries. Battery technology continues to improve, increasing both energy density and reducing costs, promising better performance and range as new models emerge, but it’s hard to beat a gallon of gasoline when it come to energy content.
While these ranges may seem short, studies at Ford Motor Company have shown that a 30-mile all-electric range will satisfy 60 percent of all vehicle travel. The problem is that drivers are terrified of being caught away from home with a depleted battery so that the projected range must be significantly farther than reality dictates. You might commute 10 miles each way to work Monday through Thursday without a problem, but on Friday you might decide to hit that movie 20 miles across town, and your 30-mile electric range will leave you stranded. If an alternative existed (i.e., efficient public transportation via light rail), you might leave your car home for longer trips, but that would require a transportation infrastructure that simply does not exist in most American cities and suburbs.
Adding more vehicle range by increasing battery capacity results in more weight and higher costs, eventually making electric vehicles cost-prohibitive. In fact, in a recent Department of Transportation (DOT) study of how carmakers will attain 36 miles per gallon by 2015 and how much it will cost, all manner of efficiency tweaks to the internal combustion engine were considered. Conspicuously absent were battery electric hybrids and fully electric vehicles. The reason? The DOT calculated that the cost of the technologies in these vehicles would be too expensive to use in mainstream vehicles and that they would remain in their own niche into the future, despite the requirements for increased Corporate Average Fuel Economy numbers.
Another issue is that the electricity used to charge electric cars must be generated somewhere. As of 2009 that meant using coal (44%), nuclear (21%), natural gas (23%), hydroelectric (7%), or renewables like wind and solar (less than 4%). Coal, by far the dirtiest—yet cheapest—fossil fuel, is being replaced with natural gas because it is much cleaner, with half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal. The U.S. has several new domestic sources of natural gas coming online, although potential water pollution issues result from its production. The problem is one of power generation, but the power grid and infrastructure that delivers the electricity from far-flung power plants to cities and suburbs is old and already at its limits—adding the need to charge a fleet of electric cars will require serious upgrades or even a full makeover. According to a report sponsored by the Edison Foundation, America’s electric power grid needs investments totaling between $1.5 and $2 trillion between now and 2030 to maintain the present level of electric power service. Finding funding for such large-scale infrastructure projects has become less likely in the current deficit-reduction Congressional environment.
Thus, the idea that we will soon have millions of electric cars driving on American roads runs into to three harsh realities—the present state of America’s electrical grid and infrastructure, the high cost of electrical vehicle technology, and the public fear that they will be left helpless on the side of the road.
Rage against the machine
In reality, the problem with electric cars today is not their limited range or the high costs associated with longer-range batteries. The problem is a societal one that lies with more than a century of dominance of fossil fuels in transportation and power generation. We have created a monster.
If you walk out the front door of your house or apartment and look around, you will see a world that was created to satisfy the needs of our transportation system. Garages and driveways or parking lots dominate the immediate landscape. They are connected to neighborhood streets that further connect to suburban roadways, urban arterials, freeways and interstate highways. The infrastructure is geared to moving vast numbers of private cars and commercial vehicles, each with a single or perhaps two occupants, over distances varying from less than a mile to across the country. Overhead and beneath the ground is an equally complicated grid of power lines that carries electricity from power generating stations and sites to substations and ultimately to the electric power plug in the home. In many ways, it is a magnificent system, designed by far-sighted people in the 1930s (rural electrification) and 1950s (Interstate Highway Act), and it has placed the United States at the pinnacle of modernity.
If you were an alien visiting our planet from afar, you might be excused for believing that the entire human population on Earth was simply part of a colossal machine. This vast enterprise has a simple purpose: to dig deep below the Earth’s surface, drilling oil and gas wells in some of the most inhospitable places on our planet, strip mining coal from huge gashes in the Earth or turning over mountaintops to reach the black rocks, and then burning these remnants of plant life in machines great and small in a desperate attempt to return all of the carbon dioxide, captured during photosynthesis by these plants over hundreds of millions of years, back into the atmosphere. For more than 250 years we have become increasingly successful at finding these plant remains, no matter how deep they hide or how difficult they are to retrieve. By burning them in power plants, industrial processes, ships, aircraft, buses, trucks, cars, motorcycles and small labor-saving devices, we trade the hydrocarbons that have stored ancient sunlight in exchange for heat, or light, or motion.
Now, however, we are finding that we’re running out of our supply of the fossilized plants. On the short term (over the next 10 years), oil will become even more scarce, gasoline prices will continue to climb higher, and our carefully orchestrated car-based transportation system will begin to break down. On a longer time scale (say, 40 to 60 years), we must find an alternative to the monster we have created over the past 100 years.
Pick the right tool
The problem with electric cars is not that they don’t work—it’s that they don’t work in the transportation system that currently exists. If we had urban and suburban transit systems that would allow an alternative to the personal automobile for longer trips across town, across the state or across the country, electric cars would only be needed to go from your home to the nearest transportation hub. The limited range wouldn’t be a problem. The roads would be less crowded, at least outside the major metropolitan areas, as most people would travel by high-speed rail rather than drive a car. The family car won’t disappear; it will simply be used less as smaller electric vehicles take up the day-to-day duties. If you need to travel someplace not served by commuter or light rail (remember that this is a big country and not every rural area can be served), your traditional family car will get you there and back. For those who are car or motorcycle enthusiasts, this would be a wonderful thing—you would have your electrically powered city car or bike for local commuting, and you could still have a sports car powered by fossil fuels or biofuels for track days and weekend fun on less crowded roads. This can only happen if we develop a robust and reliable electric power grid. Our present oil-based transportation system, though it has created problems associated with air and water pollution, crowded highways, safety and health issues, and can be said to threaten our ability to maintain our national security, has the advantage of working in times of emergency and crisis. Until we have a transportation system that provides the same peace of mind as a full tank of gas in the family car, we can’t say we have developed a valid replacement for the status quo.
Transportation all comes down to transferring energy. When we walk, we transfer the energy from sunlight stored in plant and animal tissue into the contraction of our muscles to propel us forward. Early man learned that riding was easier than walking when the muscle power of an animal was used to augment transportation or plow a field. The invention of the wheel made it possible for animals to carry heavy loads over long distances, greatly multiplying the effectiveness of the energy from sunlight stored in grasslands and animal feed.
The wheel was a big step forward, but was really the only significant progress made in transportation from the dawn of man until about 250 years ago at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. We got a big boost, particularly in the past 100 years, from the vast deposits of relatively accessible fossil fuels. We have built a robust transportation system around the immense energy contained in a gallon of gasoline. It’s been a good run, but now our easy access to gasoline is ending and we need to make changes.
It’s taken a while, but we’ve also finally figured out how to store enough electricity in a small battery to make electric cars viable—but only if we completely revamp the entire transportation system, the ways that we generate electricity and the nation’s entire electric power grid. Even harder, we need to convince the public that this new transportation system is robust and won’t leave them stranded. It’s a tall order to think we can do all of that at one time, but the technology exists today to make a significant leap forward. At this point we are only being held up by our inability to recognize the inevitable and commit to a stable and long-term electrified transportation future.