Plugging In

Electric cars are luring green-focused drivers away from conventional vehicles, but infrastructure roadblocks make this alternative a question of practicality.

Suddenly electric cars have moved from oddity on the auto show circuit to commuter car status in suburbia.

Increased consumer concern over greenhouse gases coupled with technological breakthroughs has given birth to an era of innovative car development not seen since the earliest days of the automobile. Major automakers – responding to consumer demand – are developing vehicles achieving new benchmarks for fuel efficiency and emission reduction.

But do electric vehicles really hold the answer to short-circuiting petroleum dependency and combating pollution, or are consumers plugging into an empty promise?

Growing Interest

Although this latest surge in popularity may have you thinking electric cars are a new technology, a few prototypes can be traced as far back as the 1830s. As the turn of the century neared, electric cars were outselling their steam and gasoline-powered counterparts. But fame was cut short. America’s improved highway system lured drivers to gasoline-powered cars that could go the distance. The discovery of crude oil in Texas coupled with Henry Ford’s launch of mass-produced internal combustion engines meant electric cars could no longer compete on a cost basis. With few exceptions, electric cars went from leader to novelty for most of the 20th century.

Today, the popularity of electric cars has resurfaced.

“There is a great deal of interest,” confirms Art Wheaton, Auto Industry Expert, Industrial and Labor Relations School, Cornell University, Buffalo, N.Y. “They have been around for more than 115 years. Now they are the hot topic for auto makers to boost their green credentials.”

But despite this new-found popularity, Wheaton is quick to add that the infrastructure to support electric cars will need massive investment to make electric cars practical.

Wheaton says electric cars weren’t able to gain ground over the years because there is little infrastructure for recharging, something he says can take up to 16 hours with standard household outlets.

“To reduce charge times requires an electrician to rewire the electric service in the garage for up to 240 volts,” Wheaton notes. “Recharging at a gas station would require regulatory changes. Only electric companies are legally allowed to charge for electricity. Just figuring out how to pay for the charging is a major hurdle.”

But despite these infrastructure roadblocks, consumer interest has grown. To understand the attraction of electric cars, it’s helpful to understand how they work. Glenn Bower, Automotive Faculty Advisor, University of Wisconsin, Madison, explains that every electric vehicle has three primary components: a traction battery (a high voltage battery with a significant amount of energy storage), a traction motor and a motor controller.

“The motor controller ‘chops’ the DC voltage from the traction battery and creates AC voltage with the assistance of a large capacitor bank. The AC voltage drives the electric motor,” explains Bower.

Electric cars also make use of regenerative braking, which means excess AC voltage created during braking is converted into DC voltage which charges the traction battery for reuse during acceleration.

Technological advances haven’t focused on the traction motor, however. Instead, the focus has been on battery chemistry and downsizing the semi-conductor devices used to switch electric power. These advances have allowed the motor controllers to operate at higher temperatures and take up less space.

But those advanced batteries contain lithium as one of their major components. The lithium is being coupled with several different types of compounds, most often cobalt and iron-phosphate. Bower says although these new battery types out-perform their predecessors, they also require highly sophisticated monitoring and active management circuitry.

Wheaton sees an additional issue with the new batteries, one that could tarnish a green image.

“Electric batteries also require rare and exotic materials, such as lithium, that are potentially as problematic as our dependence on oil,” he warns. Replacing a dependence for one foreign commodity with another.

One of the other criticisms of electric cars is range. With all-electric vehicles, walking to a nearby station for a gallon of gas is no longer a remedy for a car out of energy. Towing becomes the only alternative. Many auto manufacturers have answered this concern by developing hybrids, cars which use an electric motor side-by-side with a gas combustion engine.

Another option

On a hybrid, the electric motor produces fuel savings by kicking into use when the car is idling, backing up, maneuvering in slow traffic, and helping the gas engine maintain speed during acceleration. The hybrid doesn’t need to be plugged in because its battery is constantly charged by the car’s actions, although it typically has a shorter all-electric range than an all-electric car. A hybrid has the ability to switch to a gas combustion engine to go longer distances.

So-called “plug-in” hybrids add the ability to recharge at home, typically overnight. These cars let the electric motor do most of the work, with the gas engine taking a back-up role.

So does exchanging gasoline for electricity result in a greener car? Neil Chambers, owner of Chamber Designs, New York, N.Y., a green consulting and design firm, says no.

“Plug-ins will make us more dependent on grid source electricity which will make us more dependent on large-scale infrastructure,” he says. “I also have found that plug-ins will most likely result in more carbon emissions than if we continued using petroleum-based individual transportation.”

Choosing Sides

It’s the debate over how green today’s electric cars really are that has many choosing sides. In direct contrast to Chambers’ predictions, proponents say electricity is the cleanest available energy source, with electric cars offering greater fuel efficiency – particularly for short trips where the electric motor can do all the work – and fewer pollutants released into the atmosphere from coal-generated electricity than from the equivalent tailpipe emissions of a conventional car.

While it’s true electric vehicles produce no tailpipe emissions or greenhouse gases where they are operated, Bower also points out that the majority of the electricity in the United Sates is produced by coal-fired or natural gas-fired power plants.

“They emit smog-producing pollutants and carbon dioxide just like piston-powered cars. So, it is a matter of controlling where the pollution will occur,” Bower explains.

Bower says electric vehicles also become problematic in very cold or very hot climates.

“In addition to having to heat or cool the batteries, the stored energy normally used for commuting will be consumed heating or cooling the passenger compartment. It is estimated that this could cut your usable driving range in half in extreme cases,” he adds.

Purchase price

If strong arguments on both sides of the green coin have left consumers bewildered, the opportunity for fuel savings seems more straightforward. Some consumers seem willing to pay more upfront – 2011 electric vehicle prices range from around $32,780 for the Nissan Leaf to $87,400 for the luxurious Fisker Karma – for greater savings over the life of the car.

And that higher purchase price can be offset with a $7,500 federal income tax credit, as well as state rebates and tax credits, such as the $5,000 rebate for California residents. Consumers can also receive a federal tax credit for installing a home charger through 2011, at 30 percent of costs up to $1,000.

The list of 2011 most fuel-efficient cars is dominated by all-electric and hybrid vehicles, with the 2011 all-electric Nissan Leaf topping the list, posting a 99 mpg fuel equivalent with a 100-mile range, although some industry experts favor lower-priced hybrids sporting 40 to 50 mpg ratings as a better value.

A real savings?

But will savings be short-lived? Bower says electric cars can be a good alternative for commuters who usually drive less than 50 or 60 miles a day. But he cautions that even if electric cars catch on with consumers, only about 15 to 20 percent of the vehicles in any area could be converted to electric without dramatically impacting the electric power distribution system.

“These vehicles would need to charge at night when demand is low. After the 20 percent market penetration point, additional power plants and/or power distribution systems may be necessary,” he explains. “Getting government approval for such construction is at least a 10-year cycle. Building new power plants is resisted heavily by the people living in the vicinity of the proposed sites.”

Bower points out that while electric vehicles can currently be charged at night, during off-peak hours, and enjoy a discounted rate, as more and more electric vehicles use the grid, the demand for electricity will increase – along with the rate.

“At some point, the government will also have to apply a usage tax to electric vehicles – and all other renewable sources which currently don’t pay road tax – as road taxes from gasoline will decrease. This will significantly increase the operating cost of the electric vehicle.”

It may be uncertainty surrounding after-market costs such as these that are keeping some consumers from making the switch to electric cars. Results released in January of a survey by the IBM Institute for Business Value showed 40 percent of drivers would pay up to 20 percent more for an electric-only vehicle compared with a similarly-featured gas, diesel, or hybrid-powered vehicle. Nineteen percent said they would be likely or very likely to make the switch to all-electric at their next vehicle purchase.

However, price of the home charging installation often required to support electric vehicles could be a deterrent. Only 13 percent of drivers said they would consider spending more than $1,000 to retrofit their residence to support recharging an electric vehicle. According to industry estimates, retrofitting to a 240-volt outlet accessible to vehicles averages between $1,000 and $2,000. The survey polled 1,716 U.S. drivers.

In addition, two-thirds of consumers expect a price discount on their electricity for charging at home overnight. This expectation could mean more public charging will be required or an increased burden placed on utilities for time-based pricing to encourage home charging.

Personal use only

Bower adds that since the weight and volume of batteries is still significantly higher than that of the chemical bonds of gasoline and diesel fuel, electric vehicles are best reserved for personal use.

“Delivery trucks and over-the-road vehicles have too high of a power and daily energy demand to make electricity viable. They cannot just pull into a truck stop and charge a 100kw-hr battery in 15 minutes. Likewise, this would be 2,000 to 3,000 lbs. of batteries, so swapping them would also take specialized equipment and a significant amount of time,” he explains.

Paying the price

John O’Dell is founder of Edmund’s Green Car Advisor and a member of the National Research Council’s Committee on Transitions to Alternative Fuels and Vehicles. He is much more optimistic about a future in electric cars and points out that while initial purchase prices may be higher, there are other savings to be had in addition to fuel efficiency.

“Very low maintenance costs: no engine maintenance, no spark plugs, no oil to change and no transmission to maintain. And because regenerative braking systems use motor resistance to slow the cars, the mechanical brakes last much longer, reducing expense for costly brake jobs and brake rotor replacement,” he notes.

In addition, O’Dell says the convenience of refueling at home, being insulated from rising gas prices and knowing you’re helping the U.S. kick its foreign oil habit are other good reasons to make the switch.

But those advantages will come at a cost, admits O’Dell.

“We need a national system of so-called rapid chargers that drivers can use, as we now use gas stations, to quickly refill depleted batteries. The more convenient these chargers become, the easier it is to use a battery-electric car for all travel,” he says. “This is the only significant infrastructure change I’m aware of – other than the need by power utilities to upgrade their systems to avoid charging overload, but system upgrades to keep pace with progress is part of the utility’s job.”

Are we likely to see such an infrastructure?

“Yes, although it will take time,” says O’Dell. “Pure capitalism will make it happen as entrepreneurs and established fuel providers see the numbers of EVs growing, they will see the opportunity to make money by offering rapid charging outlets.”

Bower paints a different picture and points to alternative liquid fuels as more likely options for fueling America’s future.

Not only are ethanol and similar liquid fuels more readily available and economical for the average driver, but they offer the versatility needed for situations – both commercial and personal – where long-distance driving is necessary, a scenario that has sparked concern for electric cars.

But Bower maintains that perhaps the biggest obstacle to the advancement of electric cars remains lack of volume. Yes increased electric car production means incresased environmental concerns linked to the need for dditional electric generation and eventually, disposal of more batteries.

“Because there will be large amounts of elements, metals and compounds in each battery, the recycling system will have to account for ensuring that these batteries get proporly recycled,” he explains.

The hype around electric vehicles has sparked great interest in electri cars. However, with alternative liquid fuels that can fulfill consumers’ practical needs today and into the future, will electric cars continue to carry this attraction? Or will cost-conscience, convenience-minded consumers decide to pull the plug?




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