Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Longest Tailpipe

EV's are zero emission vehicles.  The cars themselves emit nothing when driving.  Of course that power in the battery had to come from somewhere, and depending on how it's produced there will be some emissions.  Detractors call this the "Long Tailpipe" argument.  It's usually based on the viscerally unpleasant image of "Plugging in to a lump of Coal".  Coal looks dirty, it's dark and dusty, coal mining is ugly, coal plants have stuff coming out of the stacks, all around nasty.  However, these same people rarely if ever address the fact that the gasoline in your tank has large energy inputs, and therefore emissions, before it even gets into your tank.  Oil drilling isn't any better than coal mining, (BP oil spill anyone?),  and the refining process takes vast amounts of energy, including electricity.  Depending on the base stock refining a gallon of gasoline can take around 7 killowatt hours of energy to produce.  That means an EV with an average use of 200 watt hours per mile can drive 35 miles on the same amount of energy used to create a gallon of gas.  Then it has to be pumped, trucked, and pumped again to get into your tank, all using energy and all creating emissions.  Exact numbers are hard to pin down, but generally the worst numbers for a coal powered EV are still better than the best numbers from a conventional car when the full supply chain is taken into account.  It's also much easier to control and monitor the emissions from a single power plant than millions of unregulated vehicles in various states of repair.  The reality is that the average grid mix is around 48% 45% 40% coal powered so the real world numbers are much better for EVs, and as we improve our grid they will get even better.  EV's also allow you to create your own power at home through solar, wind, and micro hydro, all truly zero emissions.  Try refining your own gasoline at home with zero emissions.  The longest, dirtiest tailpipe still belongs to ICE vehicles. Besides, which vehicles would you rather be surrounded by when stuck in traffic?

EV's Use Resources. ICE's don't?

One of the constant anti-EV arguments I see is that EV's require a large amount of rare resources.  The REE bogeyman, (Rare Earth Elements), frequently raises it's ugly, misguided head.  "China is using up all the rare earth magnets so we can't build electric motors!"  Scary stuff right?  Except for the minor point that you don't need REE's to build electric motors.  The fastest production EV in the world, the Tesla Roadster, doesn't use them, their upcoming Model S sedan doesn't use them, the EV1 didn't use them, the BMW MiniE doesn't use them, and my home conversion doesn't use them.  REE monster, slain.

How about that giant battery pack?  All that lithium!  Well, lithium batteries don't use all that much lithium, and there is plenty of lithium on the planet.  Right now there are lithium mines sitting idle here in the US, not because they don't have lithium, but because the price is too low to make it profitable to mine.  There is plenty of aluminum for hundreds of years by all accounts.  Copper less so but still over 100 years of known deposits with new discoveries happening quite often.  The plastic cases and separators are petroleum based, but if we stop wasting oil by burning it there will be more than enough for batteries.  Finally, none of these resources are destroyed in a battery.  Once it's actually dead all those resources can be recovered.

Now let's look at resources used in an ICE that aren't in an EV.  500+lb of aluminum and steel in a conventional motor and transmission are replaced by less than 200lbs of aluminum, steel, and copper in an electric motor and single speed gear reduction.   We can also subtract the exhaust system, including platinum catalyst in the converter, and copper or aluminum in the radiator.

In the end vehicles of similar weight, be they EV or ICE, will use a similar amount of resources.  EV's just move that weight more efficiently and cleanly.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A LEAF Is Cheaper Than A Corvette

It also carries more people and cargo.  So why do EV critics always talk about the higher costs of EV's?  Higher costs than what?  When someone buys a car they have a certain amount they can spend and make their decision within that price range.  Each vehicle is a compromise and does some things better than others.  If cost were the deciding factor everyone would be driving the cheapest vehicle available, yet very few do so.  If you have $33K to spend on a car, the unsubsidized price of a LEAF for those who want the true cost, you look at vehicles in that price range.  In that range you can get an Audi, BMW, Buick, Ford, Hyundai, Infiniti, etc., all with varying degrees of reliability, efficiency, comfort, and perceived value.  There are many reasons buyers will choose one over the other yet they all sell fairly well.  Though I have not driven one reviewers have said the LEAF is a very nicely built, comfortable, quiet vehicle.  It may not possess the luxury cache of some of the others but from an economic standpoint that doesn't put money in your pocket.  What does is driving home in a vehicle that costs substantially less to operate than all other available vehicles.
But what am I leaving out?  Ah yes, the battery!  You have to replace it, right?  Well, it is warrantied for 8 years and 100,000 miles, most people don't keep a car that long.
So it hurts resale value!  Maybe not, we just don't know yet.  We do know that the RAV4EV's which have been on the road for 10 years or so are still running on the original packs with over 100K miles on them.  They rarely come up for sale but when they do they have brought a premium, some selling for around $40K and higher.  Original MSRP was $42K.  How's that for resale value?
So with potentially high resale value and reduced operating costs, EV's are not more expensive than conventional cars, and certainly cheaper, more useful, and a better value, than a Corvette.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Benefits of "Range Anxiety"

One of the big complaints brought up about EV's is their limited range.  Arguments along the lines of "If I can't drive 400 miles on a whim then EV's can't work" are pervasive.  This attitude has grown from the availability of cheap oil in the last 100 years or so and people seem to feel it's something they must have, even though the reality is rarely ever realized.  To cling to this unused "freedom" people are willing to compromise our economy, our environment, our political policy, and our security.  Is the idea of an endless road trip never taken really worth all that?
EV's can't provide that "freedom", not now, maybe not ever, and that's a good thing.  For all of human existence up until the 20th century that "freedom" did not exist and no one suffered because of it.  Unlimited travel transformed our country, and not necessarily for the better.  The US is a wasteful society, consuming 24% of the worlds energy while comprising 5% of the worlds population.  We need to use less.  A vehicle that actually makes us think about our trips before we take them will certainly help in that respect.
I expect that with around a 200 mile range and a network of 15-30 minute charge stations range anxiety will largely disappear, but maybe it shouldn't be so easy to drive 100's of miles on a whim.

The Problem With ICE

My interest in alternative modes of transportation, specifically Electric Vehicles, has many facets.  Environmental problems, national security, efficiency, operational cost, all can be improved by shifting to EVs.  Recently I've been dealing with the shortcomings of the modern ICE vehicle, (Internal Combustion Engine), which help point out the practical long term benefits of EV's.  My 9 year old RAV4 with 80K on it has had the following problems this year that simply would not exist in an EV:

Brake pad and rotor replacement.  An EV uses regenerative braking which puts energy into the pack instead of shedding it as wasted heat through the brakes.  It's very likely that the brakes on an EV could last the life of the vehicle.

Improper shifting of the transmission caused by a faulty computer.  The fix was a new computer, or a rebuild actually.  Luckily I caught the problem before the transmission was damaged, which has happened to many and can lead to a $5K repair.  An EV can be built with a single speed gear reduction and electronically reversed.  No transmission needed.

Failing inspection because of emission sensors.  I've taken it back twice now and the sensors have still not reset and so it won't pass.  The solution is to keep driving the vehicle and keep taking it back until it passes, a huge hassle and waste of time.  Obviously this won't be an issue with an EV, ever.

Potential future problems that an EV won't have to deal with:

Radiator fluid change/flush and radiator replacement.
Exhaust system problems including mufflers, cat converters, and oxygen sensors.
Oil and filter changes.
Air filter replacment.
Fuel filters, fuel pumps, and fuel injector issues.
Any of the many potential engine problems that can develop with 100+ moving parts.

A well designed EV should need nothing other than tire replacement when they wear down.  Eventually a new battery pack will be needed, but at the current rate of battery progress if a second pack is needed it will likely be it's last, as the average lifespan of a vehicle is around ten years.  RAV4EV's  that are over 8 years old with more than 100K miles are still running on their original packs.  Of course a well built EV, using composite construction methods, will likely last much longer, and would be worth putting in an upgraded replacement pack at some point.