By Peter Lindfield, published in the Telegraph-Journal 7th September 2012
Are we ready for electric cars? After a number of false starts, they’re now available for sale in North America – the Nissan Leaf, the Mitsubishi i MiEV and the Ford Focus Electric are members of a growing roster of electric-only vehicles produced by major auto manufacturers. They join hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius, which hedge their bets by having both gasoline and electric propulsion.
Pure electric vehicles and hybrids are popular, at least in principle, because compared with conventional internal combustion engine automobiles, electric vehicles have the key benefit of significantly reducing local air pollution.
But are electric cars ready to replace their gasoline- or diesel-powered counterparts? And are we ready to transition to vehicles that will require a substantial and expensive support structure to sustain? The answer to both questions is a resounding no.
Electric cars are not ready for prime time. Despite their potential benefits, the pervasive use of electric cars faces several hurdles and limitations. The future of electric vehicles ultimately will depend on the cost and availability of batteries with much higher specific energy, power density and longevity than is the case today.
The cost of their lithium-ion battery packs adds $4,000 or more to each vehicle, requiring many miles of operation before that cost can be recouped in conventional fuel savings. If history is any indication, many owners will have traded in their car before achieving break-even.
Driving on battery power won’t take you far either. Most electric cars can travel less than 300 kilometres before needing to be recharged, which can require six hours or longer. The expression “range anxiety” figures prominently in their drivers’ lexicon. The operating range of conventional internal combustion engine vehicles now routinely exceeds 1,000 km; you will need to stop for other reasons before the fuel runs out. The technology infrastructure is still only minimally equipped to support millions of charging stations. The network of residential, commercial and government facilities to recharge electric vehicles won’t be an inexpensive proposition.
And since electric vehicles need to be recharged, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions at the point of operation doesn’t necessarily mean a free ride. Electric power needs to be generated at power plants that may burn coal or oil. In many regions, the limited availability of sufficient electric power may present problems.
Across Canada, many power generating plants already operate at peak capacity at least part of the time, and adding additional capacity to manage the draw of electric vehicles will require the rethinking of power grids and power usage patterns. Admittedly, many electric car owners will recharge their vehicles at night when load requirements are lower, but we don’t yet have a clear understanding of the implications of the added cost and how it will be borne.
Currently, big-money support for the transition to electric vehicles is a two-nation race. The U.S. and China have independently established policies and economic incentives to overcome existing barriers to fund more cost-effective battery technology and the further development of electric vehicles. The U.S. government has committed $2.4 billion in federal grants to fund the development of electric cars and batteries.
Electric vehicles would also lessen American dependence on foreign oil and directly address the ongoing American concern about vulnerability to oil price volatility and supply disruption. China recently announced it will provide funding of $15 billion to initiate the development of a competitive electric car industry.
The era of the conventional internal combustion engine isn’t quite over.
Innovations such as electronic engine management and advanced materials and assembly methods will mean that internal combustion engines will achieve increasingly better fuel economy even as more stringent emissions standards are applied. The application of innovation and technology may extend the lifespan of these engines for another 20 years.
Even so, the gasoline or diesel powered vehicles’ days are numbered, and the development of an efficient, cost-effective battery will change the world. Most communities across Canada are wholly unprepared for the eventual changes that electric vehicles will bring.