White Tigers, Nuclear Power and an EV World

By Bill Moore

Posted: 28 Mar 2011

There's been a fair amount of speculation of late about the fate of electric vehicles in the wake of the ongoing nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, which is threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions of Japanese. Any crippling of the nuclear power industry, so the logical goes, will mean that few if any more fission power plants will be built, especially in China and India, where the majority of electric power is produced from dirty fossil fuels: coal mainly. As a consequence, consumers will be forced to charge their cars from electric power generated by carbon-intensive fuels, resulting in little, if any improvement in air and water quality, not to mention reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, mercury and sulfur dioxide, just to name a few.

Fissionable nuclear power, as opposed to the still unattainable dream of fusion power -- harnessing the power of the stars -- it is argued, produces little if any carbon dioxide, while offering a relatively small environmental footprint, for the power plant, at least, compared to the vast fields of wind turbines, hydro dams and solar panels needed to generate a comparable among of electricity, and then only sporadically. Nuclear power is dependable, dispatchable, and relatively affordable, advocates argue. If all the nuclear waste generated around the world the last 50 year were stacked together -- not a particularly smart idea from a physics point of view, of course -- it would occupy an area the size of an American football field: 360 feet by 160 feet, to a depth of five feet. At least that's what the nuclear scientists told me at Idaho Falls National Laboratory a couple years ago. What it isn't, however, is safe or completely manageable.

Nuclear power is a lot like the white tigers Ziegfried and Roy used to keep as pets and as part of their highly popular and lucrative Las Vegas show. That is until a seven-year-old male tiger named Montecore attacked Roy Horn, nearly killing him on October 3, 2003. That was the last day of their Las Vegas act. That one accident cost the Mirage Hotel and Casino an estimated $50+ million dollars just in lost ticket sales alone. The losses in gambling revenue, hotel and food & beverage sales are incalculable.

Nuclear power is an unpredictable white tiger, one that may seem perfectly safe for years, even decades, until that one inexplicable moment when it turns wild. But is the fate of the electric car linked to it? Long term? No. Short term? Maybe, yes.

What do I mean by that? If we learn anything from Fukushima, it is (1) that we can't depend on these so-called 'atoms for peace'; and (2) electric car technology may become even more important moving forward.

Nuclear power, like coal-fired plants, generate what is called base-load power. That's the average amount of electricity a community or the grid uses over a 12-month period, with generation capacity adjusted towards heavier summer air conditioning loads in North America. And like coal, n-plants aren't easily dialed up or dialed down in the amount of power they produce. Once they are turned on, they have to remain turned on.. and running full tilt, not just for efficiency and safety reasons, but also for economic ones. The fuel for a nuke plant represents the smallest component of a utility's investment. The big money is in the capital equipment. These babies are expensive, very, very expensive; in the tens of billions of dollars per unit expensive. They're so expensive that it's nearly impossible to get commercial financing for them or insurance without heavy government subsidies, which is ironic, since those who tend to be in favor of them cry about free markets and socialist government handouts. There's nothing more "socialistic" than a taxpayer-supported n-plant, especially when it has the potential of biting the proverbial hand that feeds it.

Clearly, we really don't want to go on depending on coal -- clean or not -- if we can help it. It's such a 19th century solution, one that seven-going-on-nine billion people can't depend in the 21st century. Furthermore, given the fact that we've yet to sustain working nuclear fusion, depending on it for some great breakthrough any time soon seems pretty much like hoping cold fusion is a reality. So, what do we do for power going forward?

Enter the electric car, or more specifically the technology that makes it possible: batteries and control electronics. In a corner of EnerDel's Greenfield, Indiana battery plant is an area fenced off from the rest of the 200,000 square feet facility. It is there that Ener1 technicians are assembling the first of six energy storage units for the Russian utility FSK. Stacked inside each 40 foot steel shipping container are 17,000 lithium battery cells destined to provide stable electric power to the 2012 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. These are essentially the very same cells used to power Think's city and Volvo's C30 electric cars. Ener1 executives estimate that eventually 60% of the cells they produce will be used for similar energy storage and grid regulation applications. The remaining 40% will go into electric vehicles, and even those will likely find a second and even third life in energy storage devices, the company believes.

Wind's unpredictability and solar's diurnal nature start to become far less important obstacles with the introduction of energy storage units, both utility-scale and residential, like those being developed by Ener1, Electrovaya, Johnson Controls, and others. And it's technology originally intended to solve the problem of electric cars.

But the short term impact of the nuclear disaster in Japan, caused by the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami, could slow the deployment of electric vehicles, largely for logistical reasons. An estimated 20-30% of all microprocessors made in the world come from Japan, and those processors are the key to building not just hybrids and electric cars but also more efficient conventional vehicles. Without those processors, you simply can't build a modern automobile. The earthquake and resulting power outages across Japan are also impacting the large car manufacturer's dense network of suppliers and sub-contractors. Toyota alone is estimated to have lost production of 140,000 vehicles to date, and some are estimating the number for all carmakers could be as high as 5 million units this year.

As carmakers struggle to recover, analysts predict that they will first focus on those models for which they have sufficient parts inventory. The next criteria is to concentrate on those vehicles from which they derive their most profit, followed by those that are least dependent on microprocessors. All this adds up to a picture that isn't all that favorable to cars like Nissan LEAF, which is built just outside the larger Tokyo megaplex. Nissan did announce that it has resumed LEAF production at its Oppama plant, as well as battery pack production at its Zama facility, but cautions that " output is dependent on the frequency of rolling blackouts due to electrical shortages after the March 11 Japanese earthquake." Eventually, the car will be made entirely in the United States for the North American market, though how many parts will be sourced from Japan isn't public knowledge. When American and British "hand-raisers" who have ordered LEAFs can expect to receive them is an unknown at the moment.

Short term, the nuclear crisis in Japan will impact the production of EVs, especially Nissan's Leaf, as well as many other conventional cars, trucks and motorcycles coming out of the Land of the Rising Sun. Long term, however, it will, in my view, serve as a critical catalyst for the deployment of more distributed and renewable energy sources using technology developed and tested in the demanding EV world.

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