Hyping Hype

By Bill Moore

Posted: 03 Nov 2010

Have you noticed all the headlines lately about electric car "hype"? I came across more of them last night while scanning my Google news alerts. The clear message here is that we as EV advocates have deliberately over-promised on what electric cars can do, presumably including the extended-range Chevy Volt.

Have we? Take the recent article "5 Reasons Why Electric Cars Will Disappoint," authored by Rick Newman. He contends that they are too expensive, have limited range, are not "environmentally persuasive," that competing technologies are getting better, and that "America is not the right place for them."

About the only point on which I would agree with him is the first one: too expensive. Take this week's announcement from one of the Automotive X Prize winners, Li-Ion Motors, about their new "super car," the Inizio pictured above. It's all electric, can accelerate at warp speed and carries the price tag of Federation shuttle craft.

Like the world needs another expensive toy… batteries included.

No wonder EV World readers -- in an unscientific poll in which 1,357 people participated during the month of October 2010 -- are disappointed with the Automotive X Prize: 43% of them thought it didn't live up to their expectations and 35 % were uncertain. Only 21.7% agreed that it had accomplished its goals of a commercially-producible vehicle capable to achieving equivalent of 100 mpg or better. I don't consider a $139,000 "super car" commercially producible in broadest sense of the word; certainly not the spirit of the Model T or the VW Beetle, which is really what we need.

But what have we "hyped" in this industry? Certainly not range. GM said the Volt will drive 40 miles in 'Electric First' mode. I and my fellow journalist drove it 45. Now what the Nissan LEAF will do, I don't know. Nissan hasn't yet given me the opportunity to find out. But I am sure that when the car starts being delivered, they will, like GM did with the Volt, explain that range will vary due to driving style, terrain, climate, etc. Some will probably get 60 miles on a cold winter day, while others will regularly get 120 miles driving in balmy conditions at steady speeds. That's just the nature of the technology. If you have to drive further than this on a daily basis, buy something else: a diesel Jetta, maybe, but realize that you will still find yourself at the mercy of the global oil market, unless you're seriously into brewing up your own biodiesel from used cooking oil.

How about the environmental question: doesn't an EV really run, in the end, on coal? Doesn't that plug in my garage lead back to a dirty coal-fired thermoelectric power plant in the Midwest? So, how is it any better than gasoline or diesel?

Actually, the electrons surging at the speed of light up and down that wire comes from multiple sources: yes, coal (50% on a national average), but also nuclear, natural gas, hydroelectric, and small, but increasing amounts of renewables: wind and solar. Regionally, some parts of the world are more heavily dependent on coal than others. In my part of the world, about 65% of the electric power running the lights, this computer, and the charging my plug-in Prius in the garage comes from Wyoming coal. Most of the rest is nuclear-generated, with some methane peaking and a bit of wind. Would I like to see less coal, or better yet, no coal? Absolutely. But even at our present power mix, any electric car is still cleaner than a comparable gasoline automobile. I've done the math many times over the years here on EV World and I hate to belabor the issue, but it still keeps coming up, so bear with me.

Now, understand that I am only talking about CO2 at the moment. My local coal plants use scrubbers to capture a lot of the sulfur and other nasty stuff that belches from their smokestacks along the river. The general rule of thumb is one pound of coal can generate 1-1.25 kWh of electricity at the plant, that takes into consideration the plants 30% thermal efficiency. We now know that my wife's car uses around 4kWh of electricity to take her to and from work each day, a round trip of exactly 11 miles, mostly urban driving. So, to provide the electric power to charge the car, the power plant consumes roughly 4 pounds of coal or the equivalent of about 8 lbs of CO2 depending on the BTU rating of the fuel. Prior to our buying and converting her 2009 Prius, she drove a 1995 Honda Accord, which she had to refuel every two weeks or so. Assuming, with weekend shopping trips, she traveled 180 miles during that time and put 10 gallons in the tank at each fill-up, she was getting about 18 miles per gallon. That means, on a daily basis she was burning about 6/10th of a gallon of gasoline on average, generating, as a result, somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 pounds of CO2, four more than using 100% coal.

Now, admittedly, these are not scientific numbers, but generalizations, but still, comparing the two fueling options: electricity from 100% coal and 100% gasoline, the electric option still comes out the winner compared to our previous vehicle. And remember, that only 65% of the local electricity charging up our plug-in Prius each night comes from coal. A large fraction comes from two nuclear power plants in the region with virtually no CO2 emissions and from a small, but gradually increasing fraction of wind. Figuring those into the power mix further reduces our overall carbon emissions. Can we get cleaner? Certainly. In fact, we have to.

So, where's the "hype" in this? Have we over-promised or ignored the short-comings of electric cars? Not here on EV World, we haven't. This isn't our first rodeo, as they say. Electric cars will never be the silver bullet that replaces the ICE-age automobile, just one of the many small bb's that will gradually move us towards a less carbon-intense transportation system.

My sense is that a lot of these journalists writing "hyped" headlines simply haven't personally driven or spent much time with an electric car. I have. I know the numbers, the effect temperature has batteries and range here in the center of the North American continent with all its extremes. But the question I keep coming back to is this, what is our alternative? We can't keep building ICE-age powered vehicles running solely on petroleum or even natural gas; both will eventually be depleted at some point in the future. Fuel cells haven't yet lived up to our expectations, though we keep hoping. Biofuels might be a way forward, but they also require huge amounts of water, itself an increasingly precious resource. What other options have we, I ask, except adjusting our lives to the scale of the available technology?

That's hardly hype. It's more like a cold bucket of ice water about to be dumped on our heads. It's also the promise of a exciting new world of challenges and opportunities, as different as the horseless carriage was in its day, when the nation moved on the power of raw muscle and steam. Yes, it's hard to give up a good thing, but we either make the transition voluntarily with careful, thoughtful deliberation or geology and geopolitics brutally shove us this way.

Me, I've opted, with the help of friends, to accept the former and act accordingly rather than wait for the swift kick in the behind from the latter. If that's hype, then I am guilty.

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