Believing in the electric car

Electric cars are finally breaking through – perhaps. The electric car is ready, but there is a lot of work to be done before they become successful: habits must be changed and investments must be made for a completely new infrastructure. In this article, it is argued that it is important to make this choice rather sooner than later, and that we must live up to it.

Cars are here to stay, for now

The cities, suburbs and countryside have been rebuilt for the car. Without a car, it’s difficult to organise “normal” family life. Wrong and right choices have led to this situation. Does the current situation lead to a maximisation of “happiness” for society as a whole, and does it even lead to optimal mobility? Individual households don’t have any other choice but to use cars, and the road is still a tragic commons.

Rebuilding a new incentive system leading to a more balanced approach to mobility is a very long-term project. Meanwhile, the earth is burning and climate change could well end the world as we know it. The most urgent fight concerning mobility is to convince the world that liquid fuel (even ethanol) must be replaced by electricity. We already have the science, so it is safe to predict that this will happen. However, it is difficult to predict when. This article deals with accelerating this transition.

Elements of the discussion

Muddling the margins: Energy efficiency

Just after the first oil crisis, in 1976, Volkswagen produced the rabbit Diesel. A small car with a fuel consumption of (as I remember vaguely) 4 liters/hundred km (60 mpg). Now 30 years later, the latest Prius with hybrid technology is hailed as a very fuel efficient car, consuming 5l/100km or 55 mpg.

The golf diesel was a light car. The Prius has a lot more power and possibilities. Moreover, the standards for measuring fuel consumption have evolved. However, in general, with the liquid fuel-based cars, the future is not much different from the past. This is caused by some basic flaws in the process: Heat engines use the “carnot cycle” meaning that efficiency is limited by the first and second law of thermodynamics. Current motors have an efficiency of about 25 %. In very good situations, like a power plant, with economies of scale in a very controlled environment, the efficiency of transforming heat to useful power can be brought up to 45 %. Electric cars don’t face this limitation. The efficiency of an electric motor is already between 79 and 90 %. Including a loss of 10-25 % in the battery, it beats petrol engines hands down, even when starting from liquid fuels in a power plant.

Just like the metric system, the cost of changing from one system to another can be prohibitive, even when everybody knows the alternative would be more efficient to run. Investing in the electric car requires guts, but we’d be investing in the inevitable.

Independence from an energy source

The current paradigm for cars is limited to only one energy source–liquid fuel–with the option to use some limited mixtures like ethanol. This means that choosing your engine defines what energy source you will use for the lifetime of the car, whatever the pricing or scientific advances bring. Transforming alcohol to hydrogen or to petrol comes at a high cost and is inefficient. An electric car, however, uses the mix of the day your utility decides on,  based of the price/tax rate of the day. You can even opt for your own preferences: pure coal or only wind power. The electric car creates a much more efficient energy market and it will be easier to fight monopoly suppliers, compared to the current OPEC-based economy.

Distribution systems

The distribution system for fuel cars, with carbon based fuel, or even hydrogen, is ridiculously complicated, cumbersome, and even dangerous.

  • The fuels can burn and even explode easily. This is good when inside the motor (it’s internal combustion, after all) but transporting the stuff is risky. Moreover the stuff is poisonous when spilled and when inhaled, before and after combustion, for people and for the environment.
  • It needs to be delivered to points of sale all over the country in trucks, covering every patch of the road network. Honest. Not a lot of improvements to this system are expected. We might not want bigger or more trucks. So part of the fuel is used to truck the dangerous liquid around. Did I say it can burn and explode? Unloading the trucks is cumbersome to say the least.
  • Putting the fuel from the local tank in the car is another awkward process, where some dangerous volatile and explosive gasses escape inevitably. The thought that the engines waiting to be filled are combustion engines is not reassuring. Did I say the liquid burns and explodes?

The distribution system for electric cars would be totally different.

  • There would be a grid covering every patch of the country. You can plug your battery in whenever, wherever you want. The charging of batteries is expected to increase in speed and efficiency fast.
  • Loading the energy is just plugging in a well-protected cable.
  • If loading the batteries is too slow for your taste, you can just replace the empty battery by a full one. We do it all the time with our cameras and flashlights, if we agree on a standard of size, form and electrical properties, we can do it for our cars too. A machine will do this for us, as the batteries can be somewhat heavy (several hundred kilograms). A system where there are 3 qualities of batteries at the stations which moves the quality up at predictable intervals, would work to make the system ever more efficient.
An additional point that is often forgotten in calculations of efficiency of energy use of electric cars is that it runs on waste energy. Power plants are not just switched on and off at will. They produce more or less the same amount of energy day and night, whether there is demand for it or not. This means that we can charge the batteries with the electricity which would otherwise be wasted. Even crazier, these stacks of batteries can help to make the grid more effective, by selling electricity back to the grid during the peak hours at a higher price.

Bio fuels

Bio fuels are not relevant to the equation if we are looking for energy efficiency and environmental gains. They occur mostly in an environment of pork-barrel politics or protectionism.

Firstly, using bio-fuels in a power plant and bringing the electricity to the car will always be more efficient than putting them parallel or mixed with the other combustible liquids in the trucking system. You can even use raw switchgrass instead of transforming the biomass to ethanol (with loss).

Secondly, it is not because they have “bio” in their name that they are better for the environment than fossil fuels. It looks like the use of bio fuels from corn or from recently won tropical forest is even more damaging to the environment than fossil fuels. All externalities should be added to their cost.

Thirdly, bio-fuels should be treated as a commodity, like fossil fuel, and as a commodity chances are slim that they will be good business in agriculture. At least not with a growing human population to be fed.

Fourthly, as a strategic option for independence from producers of oil, it could be an option for wet, sunny countries (such as Brazil) but in general it is a wasteful proposition compared to energy efficiency and direct power generation from the sun, wind and water.  I can think of better uses for corn, sugar, palm wine, and rum (alcohol from sugar cane) other than filling my car.

The added value uses of bio-fuels reside probably more in the use of all kind of side-products, residues and stalks than the transformation of high value harvests like maize cobs or palm nuts. Even if the direct transformation to energy of a full crop would be economical, it would probably involve the use of perennial plants, that cover the soil for the totality of the growing season, with an efficient  photosynthesis system (such as C4-grasses). Examples would be elephant grass or sugar cane.

Changing batteries or charging them, it does not matter

The “better place” batteries can be changed in a few minutes. The Tesla batteries in 5 minutes. However, with the newer battery technologies that are available now, and will come on the market shortly, battery recharging might become a matter of minutes instead of hours. If a break of ten minutes is imposed only every 300 kilometers, this might be an acceptable safety measure against overstretched drivers. It is not a showstopper. Even the old, trusted lead-acid batteries might be up to the task in such an environment. With a leasing model for the batteries, they can improve independently from the cars they are used in, and the combetition between battery – utilities can drive the price down and the charge up.

The silent, clean  thing

Cars are not only using costly and imported oil. They make noise, causing a rise in stress levels in the cities with their never ending roar, and they bring sooth in the air, causing thousands of deaths, more than those caused by accidents. The noiselessness might be dangerous for pedestrians though, who now routinely adapt their behavior based on the auditive signals they intercept. With the ubiquitousness of MP3 players, and artificial noise made by electric cars, this argument becomes less relevant.

The pollution is not just moved to the power plants: you can switch your electricity generation to alternative sources easier than car motors, so it is easier to stimulate a change at that level: solar cells, tidal energy, and what more, can all play a role.

The cost of fuel in a shrinking economy

In the slow economy, the cost of petrol based fuels is very low. The price of an electric car and the batteries, the initial investment cost, is higher than the price of the combustion engine. The financial benefits are indeed mostly in the mileage per dollar. The initial investment cost can be prohibitive if the petrol based fuels are cheap. This investment costs will fall importantly with mass production and scientific research. As the electric car complies with important recognized objectives of the governments in the west, such as diversification of fuel dependency, carbon reduction and health improvement, it is acceptable that the government steps in with temporary subsidies to create a sufficiently large market, and to take take this initial hurdle.

And the light shone in the darkness

I saw a Tesla driving. It was like the flight of an owl. The sheer silence, contrasted with the power of movement was eerie. The Tesla is an all electric  sports car, with properties of sports car, a price like a sports car, but extremely low power needs. No kidding. Attacking the market from the top.

The electric car is here. The combustion lobby did not want to build it. The ebay-founders instead of the big car companies financed it. Tesla motors is not (yet) under bancrupcy protection, while the combustion car lobby is scrambling for government aid.

What can we do?

Breaking technological monopolies

In general, it is bad practice for a government to make technological choices: the government should set objectives on energy use, or pollution, and let the market, combined with (stimulated) research, come up with unthought solutions. However, sometimes we are locked into a bad technology, because the cost of switching is too high to take as a single consumer or private company. This is where there is a role for the government in breaking the technological monopoly and level the laying field. This kind of hurdles have been taken before, with massive layoffs and assets becoming garbage overnight, but also with a jump in quality of life, new employment and productivity: e-mail overtaking the fax and telegraph, Switching from MsDOS to Windows, from horses to cars.
If only the bump of the initial investment can be taken, electric cars could win out in the market space, as they consume less and pollute less. Once mass produced, the price of the cars would be low enough to make them affordable and competitive.
A working distribution system for the electricity has to be created that can compete with the current technology. Once the field is level, the market will drive out the inefficient and polluting systems. Leveling the playing field is a task for the government or the electric car industry as a whole: they have to provide the initial investment to make the switch. This means creating the standards for batteries, so all cars can use the batteries from all providers. The standards should leave room for innovation inside the battery, but standardize the connection to the grid, the connection to the car and how they fit to the car, to make switching a quick process. Once these elements are standardized, batteries could be offered more as a lease to car owners, with options between different providers, than as a straightforward purchase. Don’t forget that these batteries can make the energy grid more efficient, by absorbing electricity at night, and giving it back at peak needs. They even can make alternative energy options more attractive, by spreading production and consumption better over the day.
Moreover, a network of charging/changing stations must be built as before the car makers can make the cars, otherwise the cars would be useless.

Individual contributions

Do not worship false idols, know that every stage is a stage towards the full electric car. Don be sidetracked by false profets, who dont understand the second law of thermodynamics.
Plan to buy as your next car an electric car, and therefore wait another 2 or 3 years to buy your new car. If you are a decision maker on corporate or local government level, broadcast your decision to buy only electric cars in 3 years time. Even make it a legal requirement. Write cars off only after 5 to six years, so that the cost of purchase is easier offset by the cost of fuel over the lifetime of a car.
Support legislation for standardizing car batteries, making the playing field for competition level amongst car factories and battery producers, moreover putting a leg up for a distribution system.
by Sam Gardner
This entry was posted in General Commentary, Political Commentary and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Believing in the electric car

  1. Mick Hanson says:

    Great post. I’ve been searching for this exact info for a while now. I’ll bookmark it in the public bookmarking sites to get you more views.

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