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EV To Be, or Not To Be–That is the Question?

December 23, 2012

DSC00110f-viWhat has not been said of Electric Vehicles? A Google search of “EV” results in 71,900,000 hits. Talk of hybrid electric vehicles (HEV), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV), and all-electric vehicles (EV) have given society both hope and confusion.

Depending on what you read and hear, it’s highly questionable if EVs are truly gaining traction. If gaining traction means slowly nudging forward towards the industry’s overzealous market projections, then one could say the industry is growing. But overall, it is safe to say EV sales have been disappointing and well short of expectations.

Customers are caught between a rock and a hard place between the cost, range, and recharging time of EVs and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb climate change, which is here and now and getting worse before our eyes. Yet, sometime in the future, in one form or another, EVs have to be successful. Our future depends on it.

Today, the lines are drawn between the technologists who developed the advanced battery technologies powering EVs, the environmentalist who look at EVs as a salvation to global warming and a cleaner environment, the marketers who see EVs as the next major paradigm shift and a huge market opportunity, and finally the consumers who a sit on the sidelines knowing that EVs pose many economic and unanswered questions.

Anyone, other than those in the O&G industry, would be foolish to support the ongoing use of fossil fuels in the transportation sector. Those against finding a cleaner and more economical solution are as illogical as a member of the NRA still supporting retail sales of assault weapons with +30 cartridge magazines.

One item needs to be cleared up, that is EVs claim of zero-emissions. In of themselves, battery powered vehicles do not emit pollutants. However, electrons flowing out of rechargeable batteries are generated at the utility level primarily from greenhouse emitting coal and natural gas, see following chart.[1] So from a life cycle perspective, EVs are not zero-emitting vehicles.

The hope that clean sources of energy from solar, wind, hydro and geothermal will replace dirty fossil fuels to generate electricity remains bleak in the near and not too distant future. U.S. net electricity generation from renewable and clean sources of energy showed only a 2% increase from 1993 to 2011 and is projected to increase only another 3% by 2040. Without exception, a sad state of affairs!

Net Electricty Generation by Source AEO 2013

Safety of EVs remains another concern. Long battery runtimes have been achieved by packing more active material into a cell by making the electrodes and separator thinner. This enabled a doubling of energy density since lithium-ion was introduced in 1991. Battery developers are not foolish and have engineered-in safety systems, which prevent them from getting too hot or over-charged. The lithium-ion cells have to be pushed to extreme lengths to get them to overheat, break or explode–lengths well beyond their safety limits.[2] The concern stems from the limited time EVs have been in the field. Testing technology under pristine or controlled conditions is one thing, operating in everyday situations by the general public is entirely an entirely different matter.

According to UL’s report Powering the New Generation of Electric Vehicles, “Beyond the technical sophistication of electric-powered vehicle propulsion, EVs require a complex system of electrical and electronic components to support the recharging of the vehicle’s on-board batteries. On the other side, an electrical system is required to provide the requisite power to recharge EVs. These on-board and off-board systems and components must be designed to integrate seamlessly with one another to ensure a safe, convenient and trouble-free experience for consumers. On-board and off-board charging systems typically include some or all of the following individual components” [3]: EV on-board and off-board components” [3]:

New Generation EV

On the Utility side, an article “Utilities Conflicted Over Electric Cars” stated [4]:
“….. electric car charging at 120-v will draw about 1500 watts of power, similar to a large microwave oven, or small air conditioner. Both the LEAF and VOLT will also charge at 3300 watts (240-v) potentially exacerbating the concern.
“….. By itself this draw will have a negligible effect on the grid. What the electric companies fear, however, is clustering of EV owners within certain neighborhoods, potentially taking own local transformers.”
“….. “nightmare scenario” is described as a hot summer afternoon when a cluster of EV owners come home to their neighborhood, turn on their air conditioners, microwaves plasma screen TVs, and plug in their electric cars all at the same time.”
“….. doubling the load of a conventional home, It’s a big problem.”

“The utility infrastructure was built for something completely different. Neighborhood concentrations pulling new EV loads at 6 p.m. on still-hot afternoons could be disastrous for local distribution grids.” That’s one reason he’s hoping to see continued, and expanded, federal incentives to build out infrastructure for electric vehicle (EV) charging. Targeted charging technology would let utilities “talk” to chargers and spread out the demand and underpin the incentives to integrate an array of “smart” technology across the electricity system.”[5]

Another form of EVs that is starting to emerge is hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. (FCV). FCVs run on hydrogen gas rather than gasoline. Fuel cells convert hydrogen gas stored onboard with oxygen from the air into electricity to drive the electric motor that propels the vehicle. “FCVs have greater range and shorter refueling times than battery-powered ones and can be used in large vehicles like trucks and SUVs. But the processes used for extracting and transporting hydrogen can be energy intensive and rely on fossil fuels. Besides the high price of FCVs, one major barrier to wide-spread adoption of fuel-cell cars is the need for a network of refueling stations, which according to analysts cost upward of $1 million each to build. But hydrogen-powered cars cannot exist without hydrogen filling stations, and vice versa.’[6]

In closing, society needs EVs but EVs must deliver what society needs. The goods are just not ready. More time is needed to develop an EV that gives consumers what they value and what they can afford.

Shakespeare said it best some 410 years ago in Hamlet “What feast is toward in thine eternal cell, You…. Are here arriv’d,…. High on a stage be placed to the view; And let me speak to the yet unknowing world, How these things came about…. Of accidental judgments…. And, in this upshot, purposes mistook Fall’n on th’ inventors’ heads: all this can I (“EV”) Truly deliver.

References:
[1] AEO2013 Early Release Rollout Presentation, Paul J. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies Johns Hopkins University, December 5, 2012, Washington, D.C., http://www.eia.gov/pressroom/presentations/sieminski_12052012.pdf .
[2] Lithium-ion Safety Concerns, Battery University, http://batteryuniversity.com/learn/article/lithium_ion_safety_concerns .
[3] Powering the New Generation of Electric Vehicles: Issues and Challenges, UL, http://ul-energy.com/fileadmin/user_upload/files/New_Generation_EV.pdf .
[4] Utilities Conflicted Over Electric Cars, November 24th, 2010, http://gm-volt.com/2010/11/24/utilities-conflicted-over-electric-cars .
[5] Utility Nightmares Of Electric Cars, by Margaret Ryan, July 25, 2011 http://energy.aol.com/2011/07/25/utility-nightmares-of-electric-cars .
[6] Hydrogen fuel-cell cars look to overtake electric autos, by Vanessa Ko, for CNN, November 26, 2012, http://edition.cnn.com/2012/11/25/business/eco-hydrogen-fuel-cell-cars/index.html

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 26, 2012 8:12 PM

    Dear Barry,

    Thanks for this post. I was looking around the web to find a good credible overview of US sentiment about the electric car.

    I have some questions following up on your post:
    – what do you think the role of the utility company should be in regards to electric vehicles (should they be able to decide when and where a consumer charges their vehicle?)
    – what are the chances in the US for solar to car? And by what year do you think it is feasible for consumers?
    – do you think individual energy consumption (in kWh) will rise in the future?

    Hopefully you can answer these questions or give me hints towards where i can find the answer.

    Kind regards,
    Tim Kreukniet

  2. December 27, 2012 11:26 AM

    Tim,
    Great questions! Why don’t you post them in the Group and see what you get. A Google search can go a long way.

    Bottom line is, it seems Teslar is the last man standing. Besides range and safety, is cost. It something can deliver what the customer wants at a competitive price, with proper marketing it can be a success, solar included.

    In developed regions, energy consumption is either flat or seeing a slight decline, much due to energy efficiency in the transportation industry. Developing nations are another story. Per capita energy consumption is projected to rise at a rapid pace.

    Barry

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