I want clean air and energy independence as much as anyone. I’m just not sure all-electric vehicles are the way to achieve it.
It’s been an interesting month for electric vehicles. On the way back from ESC and its well-received keynote (video) by Better Place’s Jason Wolf, I read about a renewed effort to put electric motors into automotive wheels and then the very next week Germany committed to having one million electric cars on its highways by 2020. All really exciting, but I’m still not convinced.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to be convinced. I want clean air and energy independence as much as anyone. I’m just not sure all-electric vehicles are the way to achieve it.
My biggest qualm has to do with the fact that electricity doesn’t appear magically at charging stations and that in the end, we’re just shoving the emissions around: out of smoke stack somewhere in the Appalachians, Pennsylvania or Texas, instead of out of a tail pipe. Where’s the big carbon-footprint savings there?
After his keynote at ESC, I asked Wolf this very question (see the video here), along with a few others, such as where the opportunities lay for designers looking to get involved in developing what he calls the third great platform, after PCs and mobile handsets. (View the above videos for insight into those opps).
Granted, the cost of EVs goes down dramatically with Better Place’s plan to remove batteries from the car and make them part of the infrastructure. Wolf puts the cost savings to the car purchaser at 33 to 50 percent. He also claims the rest of the components are just as cheap, if not cheaper. As part of the infrastructure, better ‘smarts’ can be added to the battery over time. This sounds good, but I’m not so happy with his response concerning the pushing around of emissions.
According to Wolf, the increasing use of renewable energy sources such as wind turbines will help supply the battery-charging energy. But those sources are a blip on the overall energy generation map, and while our reliance on coal is on a downward trend, increased demand for electricity by EVs, if they take off, will far outstrip the ability of renewable energy sources to keep up and we’ll fall back to coal again. Or nuclear.
I mention nuclear because despite it’s obvious drawbacks, it becomes more and more attractive in light of the BP leak in the Gulf and in the wake of the recent spate of coal-mining disasters in the U.S. (29 dead), Russia (60), China (21), and now Turkey (30 trapped).
The other advantage to batteries, said Wolf, is that you, “shift the energy from when it’s produced to when it’s needed,” meaning you can charge the battery at night at lower-cost, off-peak rates. Alas, that may lower the cost per kilowatt but it doesn’t actually decrease the carbon footprint. The same amount of energy must still be produced to charge the battery. In fact, that lowered cost may increase the overall amount of energy used and cause a rise in CO2 generated.
I may be missing something, but it’s not immediately clear to me how EVs really help lower emissions unless it’s coupled with a real shift away from coal- or oil-fired electricity generation.
But hey, I don’t want to end on a down note, so let’s assume we do have that massive shift to clean(er) energy sources, then we can get really excited by the technical discussion at the end of the above-mentioned feature in the Economist (of all places): “Hub of the Matter. It’s an excellent piece on the pros of hub motors enabled by a move to EVs, but the discussion after is even more interesting.
As one commenter, ‘bampbs’ wrote: “Back to the future ! I've got to find out more about this.”
I'd love to hear what you think. EVs: Thumbs up or down? Use the comments box below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.