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.