10.27.12

Electric Vehicles – The Promise and the Problems

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:56 pm by Administrator

Most people who think about what a sustainable energy future would look like see a big role for electrically powered vehicles; and with good reason.  The days of the internal combustion engine are numbered.

Oil is a non-renewable resource and it will inevitably run out.  Maybe not in 30 years, maybe not in 130 years, but sooner or later all of the oil that can be discovered will have been extracted and used up. It’s as simple as that.

As someone that worked in the oil industry for more than 20 years it makes me a bit sad to think of a world without oil.  It is, in a way, another example of human greed destroying something that nature created.

Over a period of tens of millions of years plants lived and died, decayed and were transformed by heat and pressure into peat moss, then coal, then oil, and finally natural gas.  It would be fair to say that the hydro-carbon resources of the earth represent a giant natural battery that has been charged by the power of the sun over the past 100 million years or so; a battery that we will have drained in a matter of less than 200 years.

Nothing epitomizes our profligate use of this precious energy resource more than the automobile.  Starting near the beginning of the 20th century the automobile completely and irrevocably changed human society.   Human settlements were rapidly reconfigured to meet the needs of these mechanical marvels.  The spaces between buildings, formerly places where people could meet and interact, became, quite literally, kill zones to be traversed by humans as quickly as possible at considerable risk to life and limb. The pollution created by tailpipe exhaust fumes eventually overwhelmed mother nature’s ability to provide clean air so that the inhabitants of cities like Los Angeles, Mexico City, and more recently Beijing have sometimes been unable to venture outdoors without risking serious health consequences.

This has led some people, such as ardent bicycle riders, to brand automobiles as unnecessary, perhaps even evil.  I do not share that opinion.

Automobiles have given us the freedom to experience the world as never before.  Where previously a person might live their entire life within a long day’s walk from where they were born, today a family can visit half a continent on a single vacation.  Automobiles allow us to live where we want to live, work where we want to work, and play where we want to play.  And who can deny the allure of a beautiful sports car or the excitement (and terror) of driving a twisting mountain road.

Automobiles truly represent the best and the worst of human innovation and technological achievement.

So the challenge is this.  How do to retain the positive aspects of owning automobiles while reducing the negative impacts on the environment?

Better public transit and much better financial and technical support for car-pooling are part of the answer and will be covered in a future blog.  But the most important change will be moving from internal combustion to electric powered vehicles.

That transformation has been edging towards a tipping point for more than a decade.  Continual improvements in battery technology have been the key.  The refinements to lithium-ion battery technology at the start of the 21st century finally allowed for the development of  a high capacity rechargeable battery with enough energy storage to make electric vehicles practical.

The Toyota Prius, a hybrid vehicle that uses both internal combustion and electric engines has sold more than 2.8 million units since its global rollout in 2000.

The Nissan Leaf has sold more than 38,000 units and the Chevrolet Volt hybrid has sold more than 30,000 units.  Both were introduced in 2010.  As battery prices continue to fall and mass production reduces manufacturing costs electric vehicles will become more and more competitive.

So one might conclude that the world is unfolding as it should and electric motors will replace the internal combustion engine just as surely as the steering wheel replaced the buggy whip.

But there is a dark cloud associated with every silver lining.  In the case of electric vehicles that dark cloud takes the form of very large lithium-ion batteries that will lose their ability to hold a full charge over time.  Anyone that has ever owned a laptop computer or a smart phone might question GM’s estimate that a Chevy Volt battery will only lose between 10-30% of its charging ability after 8 years (Toyota Prius batteries have had a remarkable track record but they are nickel metal hydride).  But if we accept GM’s longevity estimate then these batteries will be swapped out after 8 years.

In a purely electrically powered vehicle it might well turn out that advances in battery technology will entice owners to replace their batteries even more quickly.  The performance of these vehicles in terms of range would get a big boost if the trends in energy density and cost for lithium ion batteries continue as they have for the past 10 years.

And finally, every manufacturing process produces defective units that don’t meet the required specifications.

Considering all of these factors the reality is that there will soon be 10’s of thousands of used but still useful automobile batteries becoming available every year.

That reality is the focus of research being undertaken at the University of Western Michigan.  The “Green Manufacturing Initiative” has developed a detailed proposal (http://www.wmich.edu/mfe/mrc/greenmanufacturing/pdf/MAREC-poster.pdf) which would see post-consumer and factory reject batteries being used to provide storage for excess wind generated electricity captured in off-peak demand time periods.

Visualize the “human battery” scene from “The Matrix” but substitute mattress-sized lithium ion batteries for the human “energy slaves”.  It might seem a bit weird but that is what makes this concept a “Black Swan”.   And, believe it or not, the economics of this scenario actually make sense.

Electricity generated at night very often cannot find a market and actually causes major problems for regional grid operators (I will be posting a blog on this topic in November).  As a result it is almost worthless.  If this energy was stored in the battery bank it could be sold the next day during peak demand times for a net price of $40-$50/MW-Hour or more.  That is enough revenue to cover the costs of constructing the warehouse and operating it.

This is definitely a “Black Swan” that deserves financial support.

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