After more than 170 years, including an aborted effort by Thomas Edison, the electric car finally seems poised for a major breakthrough. Every major car company has either launched an electric car–also known as an electric vehicle, or EV–or is working on one. For the environmental sustainability community, this is very good news, as the EV could greatly reduce greenhouse gases and other pollutants. While there are tremendous reasons for optimism, there is a danger of the electric car’s virtues being exaggerated; it will not be the magic bullet to end all environmental problems, but could represent a huge advance on the road to sustainability.
Two books celebrating the EV have appeared recently. James Billmaier’s Jolt! The Impending Dominance of the Electric Car (Advantage Media Group, 2010) reads almost like an extended advertisement touting the wonders of EVs. Relatively short, clearly written, and with plenty of graphics, the book effectively argues the many virtues of EVs but is uncritical of possible problems. Seth Fletcher’s Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy (Hill and Wang, 2011) is more detailed, telling the story behind the development of lithium ion batteries, the key to making the EV economically viable. For a book this technical, even wonkish, it’s a superb read, replete with anecdotes about fascinating scientific breakthrough, business missteps, and brutal competition. As both works convey, the electric engine is superior to the gas engine—cleaner, quieter, easier to start, cheaper to run, with fewer moving parts to repair—in all ways but one. The electric engine runs only a limited number of miles before needing a long recharge process. The gasoline engine can be instantly filled up, meaning no irritating delays. It is this fact that killed the EV in Thomas Edison’s time and has restrained it ever since.[i]
What has changed is the arrival of the lithium ion battery, which has revolutionized electronics, notably the cell phone, and is now being used in EVs. Of course, a far larger, more powerful battery is needed than for electronics, so the trick is to scale it up. The car company that pioneered lithium ion in automobiles, and spurred interest among the majors, is Tesla. Yet at $100,000, its vehicles are too expensive to seriously challenge gasoline powered vehicles. The two cars currently at the forefront of meeting that challenge are the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, and they take different approaches. The Leaf is 100% EV, meaning that it’s ideal for a local car but questionable for long trips. Still, its range of nearly 100 miles between charges makes it viable for most situations. The Volt has both an electric and gas component; for up to a 40 mile range it’s all electric, at which point the gas kicks in to power the engine. It remains to be seen which model will dominate the electric market, or whether they will coexist.
The EV is clean, but the electricity that feeds the EV comes largely from traditional, “dirty” power plants fueled by coal. Won’t that make it even dirtier than the gasoline engine? The answer is no, but it’s complicated. Total emissions depend on two factors: the energy mix powering the grid and engine efficiency. Electric engines are extremely efficient, while gasoline engines are extremely inefficient. Billmaier shows how a gasoline engine can be as little as 10% efficient when one adds up idling time, braking, and, most important, engine losses. An electric engine, by contrast, can get the equivalent of 150 miles per gallon of gasoline. Regarding the energy mix, currently some 41% of world electricity came from coal, the dirtiest source, with 33% coming from sources that don’t emit greenhouse gases: nuclear, hydro, and renewable (Waterloo Global Science Initiative). Calculating the actual savings in an EV is difficult, since it depends on an array of shifting factors. One blogger argues that, with our current energy mix, gasoline engines produce 21 to 58% more CO2 than do electric (The Energy Blog, 2010). However, in countries with a large renewable and nuclear component, notably in Western Europe, EVs will emit far fewer greenhouse gases. In countries that use lots of coal, such as China, CO2 emissions will be higher. In the long run, with renewable energy likely to rise dramatically, EVs should be increasingly clean (ideally reaching 0 emissions should the grid ever be 100% renewable).
Yet another factor that should increase the efficiency of EVs is the fact that they will likely be charged largely at night, when power is available but underutilized. It’s impossible to power down our large utilities, so much energy is wasted at night. Billmaier illustrates this “well of untapped energy,” which could be stored in the batteries of electric cars. Going even further, an updated smart grid that allowed cars to “sell back” energy at peak times and be charged when excess energy is available would greatly improve efficiency (ProQuest, 2009). EVs could even become the long-sought storage method for intermittent forms of renewable energy, notably wind and solar.
The books reviewed here do a superb job explaining the argument for why we need electric cars today: climate change may soon be irreversible, hostile foreign governments control much oil, and we may already have reached peak oil. Still, they tend to idealize the EV, overlooking some areas that may make it less of the panacea than may first appear. And that will be the subject of next week’s blog.
[i] Also out now is Revenge of the Electric Car, a sequel to filmmaker Chris Paine’s Who Killed the Electric Car, about the destruction of General Motors’ EV1 in the 1990s. If the earlier movie portrayed the auto companies as a selfish, treacherous lot, in Revenge of the Electric Car they, along with smaller entrepreneurs, come across as heroic, even visionary.