Monday, May 23, 2011

Electric Cars Alone Solve Nothing

There was a time when, in my view, the subject of this article would have seemed too trivial to bother with – how naive I was.  Thanks in large part to misinformation campaigns by oil pushers, the public at large remains grossly oblivious to climate change issues. 

When false science permeates the media it leads to confusion among many, which can lead to frustration on their part.  The long-term consequence of misinformation is an apathetic society.  Apathy is a sad but accurate description of how a large proportion of the North American population feel about climate change.

The electric car on its own is not really a green solution.  Traditional gas-guzzling cars have internal combustion engines that convert fossil fuels into energy to power them, while outputting significant amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the process.  Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, so-named because it transforms the Earth’s surface into a greenhouse, trapping sunlight in, and gradually causing the surface temperature to increase.

What many fail to recognize is that an electric car, which requires no fuel, does require electrical energy; the first law of thermodynamics stipulates that the energy must come from somewhere.  Electric car batteries are charged by plugging them into the local electrical grid, like a cell phone battery.  The big question is then what powers your grid?  Globally, the answer is fossil fuels 70% of the time.  If you live in an area that is powered by coal for example, you are no further ahead environmentally by swapping for an electric vehicle.  You are simply diverting the CO2 spewing from your car engine to your local power plant.

On the other hand, if you live in an area that gets its power from a non-fossil fuel source (nuclear, hydro, solar, wind...), then you are indeed reducing your carbon footprint effectively.  If you are in this 30% minority, you should commend your government for it.  If we are serious about curbing our carbon output, then as electric cars are phased onto our roads, fossil fuels must be phased out of energy production.

As an engineer, I prefer the electric car over the internal combustion version on many levels, but mostly because the design is simpler.  Electric cars have far fewer parts, and thus require less work to assemble and less effort to maintain.  On the flipside, some parts are incredibly expensive.  In particular, the car battery remains a cost issue.

The car battery is at the center of the electric car debate as many key parameters are directly affected by its design.  Fuel-powered cars can drive around 600 km on the highway with one tank of gas.  Also, they can be refuelled in about five minutes.  Optimizing these two parameters has been the primary goal for electric car technology over the past decade, and major strides have been made.  30 km on one charge has been increased to 150 km for more recent designs – not ideal for a long road trip, but completely adequate for all other purposes.  Also, batteries can now be charged in minutes instead of hours.

Car performance is another issue that driving enthusiasts bring up.  The reality is that 98% of the population have no need to get to 60 mph in less than 10 seconds.  What today’s auto consumer wants is a car that gets them from A to B safely and affordably.  If two cars are virtually equal in these two regards, the public will choose the one that is more environmentally friendly.  Unfortunately, only the aforementioned 30% of people are in a position to make this choice and have it mean something.

The coming decade will bring a Honda Civic-like car that plugs into the electric grid for all of its power.  Once they are mass-produced on the same order as combustion cars, and battery technology matures, the electric car price will be similar to that of the gas-guzzler.  Couple that with the rising oil prices (and dwindling supply), and it is not far-fetched to predict that half of the cars on the road will be fully electric by the year 2030.

You may have noticed that I did not bring hybrids into this conversation.  While they represent a useful technology, I tend not to support overly complex designs.  Buying one car with two energy systems is like buying a 2-in-1 VCR/DVD player.   Having twice the number of parts can lead to twice the amount of repairs.

What we need to make a real dent in our carbon dioxide emissions are power plants that do not emit them.  Only then can electric cars be considered green.  I stated this point to some friends of mine recently when a car commercial came on during some sporting event.  The notion had never occurred to them, and so I thought it was a worthy one to pass on to my readers. 


jp said...

Exactly! We still need to focus on renewable sources and cleaner ways of generating power. Electric cars answer nothing, while they do fill in a large part of the puzzle.

g4hsean said...

This is actually something i have realized too about electric cars. The only thing that people seem to tell me when i bring electric cars up in a conversation is that you pay more for an electric car per KM then you do for a gas guzzler at 1.45 a litre. That really shot down my spirits for supporting electric cars for now. I would like to know what you believe on this subject of electric cars costing more than fuel guzzlers.

I think a really good documentary that i saw last month might just add to this debate. The name of the documentary is "Who Killed the Electric Car?" that i watched on netflix.

g4hsean said...

Today i had an interesting conversation with an old aeronautic engineer named Bob who used to work at prat and Witney some time ago and my father a diesel engineer. We got onto the topic of electric cars and an interesting ideal came up when analysing the electric car. My father brought up an interesting point on why electric car makers dont attach alternators to all four weel's to recharge the batteries which run the actual cars when driving them. He believed it would be a super efficient way to up the amount of distance the car could go before needing a recharge. I added to that ideal and said why not add solar panels to the car to charge it while it is parked in your driveway or while you shop. Then Bob said even if car producers dont add those things to a car, why not have a small engine power a generator to charge your battery when it detects that it is getting low while you drive. He noted that it wouldn't take much gas, a liter would suffice to power the recharge system. All these ideals really had me thinking back to this post you maid on electric cars and an alternate source of recharge energy.

I really would like to see if any of these ideal would actually work and if it would be plausible to prolong the distance travelled by an electric car. I would like to hear what other people think on this topic and what ideals might overcome the disadvantages of todays electric cars.

Floyd said...

I don't think that batteries mean the future for electric cars. Maybe the wireless electricity will be the solution for charging problems. It's very hard to store electricity. But we have a possibility to create a new system of transportation which could produce and share the electricity for cars using a wireless electricity network built in our roads...