Friday, August 04, 2006

Who killed the electric car?

This is the title and subject of a new documentary out this week. I haven’t seen it, nor do I plan to- it’s the kind of movie that makes me heave a mighty sigh. Why do we have to assign conspiracy to everything we disagree with or disapprove of?

Don’t get me wrong; from what I’ve read, this is no Michael Moore propaganda piece- the facts are accurate, and not artificially sensationalized. But facts are not truths. Nobody “killed” the electric car, there is no conspiracy to keep electric cars off the market- they simply are not yet a viable option for enough car buyers to sell them profitably. Nor does the nation have the infrastructure to support them if we bought them. Nor would they reduce pollution- they would merely shift it to different venues.

The key log in the electric car traffic jam is the question of infrastructure. We simply do not have the electric generating capacity to recharge millions of electric cars. Depending on size and performance, electric cars need between 12 and 25 kilowatt-hours to fully charge- let’s use 15 kwh for a low average. 15 kwh times 75 million cars (there are actually 400 million cars registered in the US, but only 75 million in use on any given work day) equals one and an eighth billion kwh... on top of what we’re already using! The electric grid doesn’t have even a fraction of that available- the only reason we’re not having rolling blackouts during the current heat wave is that people have learned from past blackouts and are turning their thermostats up and their large appliances off. I think an automobile qualifies as a “large appliance”. Nor are any more power plants being built or even planned- ironically, the same environmentalists who want us to drive electric cars are preventing us from building new generators.

Infrastructure means more than generating power- you also have to deliver it, and we can’t. Every “destination” facility- hotels and motels, convention centers, sports arenas, ball parks, amusement centers, museums, state and national parks, resorts- would need a recharge socket for every parking slot. After all, the entire point of these places is to draw crowds from hundreds of miles away- go to any Cincinnati Reds game and you’ll find the parking lot full of Indianapolis license plates; without a recharge socket, not one of those cars would be there. No tourist attraction could survive depending on only those within round-trip (25-35 miles) range. Each facility would require the electrical service of a major factory, which means tens of thousands of miles of high-tension lines strung through virgin countryside, something else the environmentalists are not crazy about.

The infrastructure question alone means that the electric car can never be the only car in a family; it would have to be a second car, used only for work and shopping trips. Especially in the suburban and rural communities- you’ll notice that all the rave revues electric cars get are from people who live in big cities, where everything is close together. This would keep sales so low that the price per unit becomes unbearable- according to Wikipedia, the cost of the EV1 (the car the movie was about) was $40,000 without subsidies, the Honda EV Plus $53,000, Ford Ranger EV $50,000 without subsidies. In addition, those prices do not include the taxpayer subsidized research that went into the cars mentioned above- I saw one estimate that the true cost of the EV1, including everything that was needed to take concept to street, divided by the number of vehicles actually produced, would have been $900,000 each.

This is why serious environmentalists are concentrating on hybrid and hydrogen technologies instead of battery powered cars. A hydrogen fueled internal combustion vehicle has all the advantages of a gasoline car, the zero emissions an electric car promises but doesn‘t truly deliver, (the power plant that recharges it, at least here in Indiana, belches coal smoke) and no toxic batteries to dispose of in hazardous waste facilities. And, as all the technology except the fuel tank is off-the-shelf, it would be priced competitively with the gasoline vehicle. Is it any wonder car companies are turning their attention there, rather than the EV1? No conspiracy, only reality.


Nate said...

I agree that the hydrogen internal combustion is the way to go. My concern though is in the production of hydrogen. Please inform me if I am unaware of any other processes, but isn't the only way of producing hydrogen through electrolysis? Doesn't this require large amounts of electricity also? In my opinion the answer to this problem would be cheap and abundant electrical power from my local nuclear reactor that hasn't been justified for some reason. It all makes so much sense. Nuclear reactors makes steam, (water) that powers the generators, that delivers electricity, that makes the hydrogen from (water), that combines with oxygen during combustion. The exhaust is (water) vapor that falls as rain (water) and completes the cycle. Clean and easy! Oh yeah, isn't (water) everywhere? I'm sure the environmentalists aren't too concerned about (water)... ()= SARCASM...

Joel Monka said...

I agree that we should have more nuclear power, but electrolysis is not the only way to make hydrogen. In the Civil War, hydrogen filled observation baloons were used, and the hydrogen was generated on the spot by a chemical process. I don't know how comercially viable the process they used would be today.

riftalope said...

Far too many absolutes there. A simple expansion of electric generation is already underway. Solar and wind generation would be farther along if we had electric cars prompting people to augment their homes. The fuels we produce now, along with the others (hydrogen, bio-fuel, wave) can go to power plants with safe and well enforced emission controls. New and efficient gasoline power plants could be built, with exhaust scrubbers and monitoring equipment.
The conspiracy is about protecting the long chain of replacement parts in a combustion engine. Nevermind the needed shift of workers it would take to keep producing electric cars until all the gas users are replaced, and the expansion of infrastructure.
You seem to misunderstand the charging needs of Destination infrastructure too. Not every car will be looking for a full recharge or any charge. That charge being one to four hours. And that infrastructure meaning jobs to put in a few plugs at a time, and not half as hard as they make it out to be.
No. big auto and big oil don't want to change in a way that would lower their control, lower their growth, or worst of all let anybody else in. They shade the information to sew doubt and then hold the doubt up as "obvious" proof that people "don't want" electric cars.

Joel Monka said...

Big auto doesn't care- what skin off their nose if the cars are electric or gasoline? They get to sell cars no matter what makes them work... in fact, they could sell even MORE cars if electric were practicable.

riftalope said...

All indicators say the auto industry (or those at the top of it) care greatly that we not stop using overpriced fuel and parts in perpetual replacement cycles. Why else would GM go through the effort of grinding up all but a few (5?) disabled full electric cars? Find me an EV1 in daylight?
The skin off their nose is control of a layered empire. A car company chief of industry is invested in every material it takes to make a car. They run a chain of plants, but have money down each line coming to make that vehicle. Plastics, minerals, smelting, pressing, shipping... Electric cars shift that chain and that frightens them as sure as an earthquake under a throne. Big auto works on control and limited uncertainty. Remember that this is an industry that continually claims to know what the people do and don't want. Saying it don't make it so.