The Electric Car: Plug-in to the Discussion

The Electric Car: Plug-in to the Discussion

The modern electric car, or “electric vehicle” (EV), and its zero emissions tag sounds like a dreamy utopian vision.  In fact, it’s easy to overlook that the first small electric vehicles actually originated in the 1830s, predating the diesel and gasoline engines as one of the automobile’s oldest designs.  An EV is essentially an alternative fuel car powered by an electric motor instead of a gasoline engine.  A controller regulates the amount of power given to the electric motor based on the driver’s use of an accelerator pedal.  Energy used is stored in battery packs on board the vehicle, which are recharged by common household electricity.   As investment in research and development continues, the future may include the use of other energy storage technologies.

The electric car regained attention during the late 1990s as the environmental movement began to twinkle in the public eye.  This was especially the case in California, which suffered from some of the worst air quality in the country. To alleviate this, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in Sacramento, CA passed a zero emissions mandate requiring an increasing percentage of cars sold in California to have zero tailpipe emissions.  In 1998 the requirement was 2 per cent, in 2001 it was 5 per cent, and in 2003 it was 10 per cent.  The policy caused much controversy, including Federal Government involvement, and resulted in a set of lawsuits by various automakers concerned about the lack of short term profitability of an electric fleet.  Check out the film Who Killed the Electric Car for details on this situation–while one-sided, it certainly raises some valid questions.

In the meantime, during the zero emissions mandate California saw the re-emergence of a fleet of electric cars from various companies.  While this fleet had all but disappeared by 2004 in favour of the Hybrid, the electric car is again regaining attention around the world.  In Amsterdam, Netherlands, the city will install 45 ChargePoint stations as part of a two-year public demonstration project.  This will be followed by an additional 200 stations by 2012, with the expectation of having enough stations to fuel 10,000 electric cars by 2015.  Similarly, London recently saw its 100th electric car charging station installed by a company called Elektromotive.  This is in accordance with Mayor Boris Johnson’s plan to make London the “electric car capital of Europe”, with 25,000 charging stations in London by 2015 and a requirement that all new developments and 20 per cent of all new car parking spaces be equipped with charging points.  In these areas as well as in North America, automobile companies are coming out with new and improved EV models, with better mileage and more efficiency.

So what is the deal with the electric car?

From the consumer side, EVs are cheap to operate and maintain, not requiring the usual oil changes and other such maintenance costs of an internal combustion engine (ICE).  Of course, the argument that driving the EV car is cheaper is subject to price changes as the market demand for electricity rises.  Another major benefit for countries like the U.S. in adopting EV technology is decreasing dependence on foreign oil — “a matter of national security” as former CIA director asserts in Who Killed the Electric Car.

On the other side of the debate, EV owners face many structural challenges in operating their car.  Electric cars have a limit on how many miles they can drive before needing to charge again.  While the limit is well above the average miles driven in a day and increasing with research, there is still the need for supporting infrastructure within and beyond the market to support electric cars and mitigate their driving limits.  This would include the development of charging stations mentioned above on a wider scale.  Furthermore, the initial investment hurdle make short term profits for producers an issue, creating less incentive for automakers.  The cost of production and in turn, cost of the vehicles, create room for a government subsidy to help develop the market.  In the UK, for example, the government has pledged £250 million in subsidy funding.  If the EV is indeed worth its noted value, such a market intervention can help stimulate the economy.  However, with the financial burden to support the technology, there is quite a bit debate over the value of the electric car.

Turning to the environment, the most obvious benefit of an electric car is its deviation from the use of gasoline to drive.  In countries with low-carbon power sourcing, the replacement of oil by electricity creates significant potential for reduction of carbon emissions.  Many studies that examine the life cycle analysis of the environmental impact of EVs (also called the “well-to-wheel” (WTW) assessment), find a generally lower carbon footprint in electric vehicles than petrol based ones.  However, while the majority of them demonstrate at least some reduction in emissions, the numbers, methods and calculations are highly varied.

In general, a car’s mileage or efficiency is measured in how many kilometres a car will drive on a tank of gas — or litres per kilometre (l/km).  With electric cars, it is the amount of kilometres a car will drive given the amount of kilowatt hours it has to fuel it (kWh/km).

In justifying its £250 million subsidy, the United Kingdom’s Department of Transport refers to several studies on electric vehicles.  The three principle ones by the World Wildlife Foundation, an academic, and a consulting company, find the EV with less of a carbon footprint than a petrol car by a factor of three to four.  Comparing the life-cycle energy requirements of the two, the studies show energy consumption of 16-20kWh/100km for an electric and 60-80kWh/100km for the petrol equivalent.

In a deeper analysis of these numbers, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry Richard Pike notes that a power station delivers an average of just under 36 per cent of the available fuel in a power station as electricity to the end-user.  Reapplying the efficiency loss to the statistics, he finds the differences in the carbon footprint of EVs and petrol cars drastically smaller, raising the question of whether the financial burden of subsidizing the market and funding the infrastructure required for EVs is worth the minimal benefits it will yield.  Similar debates have arisen with regards to statistics in the U.S. and other developing EV markets.

Essentially, the debate is illustrating that the largest factor affecting the environmental benefits of an electric vehicle is the pre-existing infrastructure of a country’s electricity generation.  Not only the source type, but also its efficiency at transporting electricity from the initial plant to the households.  Consequently, countries like France or Canada with a large portion of electricity generated by low-carbon nuclear power or hydro-power, respectively, will see more significant carbon reductions than the transition to electric vehicles in coal-dependent countries like China and the United States.

Does this mean the EV is not worth it?  In spite of some of the data, I’d argue no.

According to Pike, “the complete replacement of all 30 million passenger cars in the UK, which form 12 per cent of the UK carbon footprint, can be shown to lower this figure to just 10 per cent at best.”  While this may not be much, it’s something–although Pike is rightfully concerned about the cost/benefit portion of the analysis.  Similarly, the U.S. Department of Energy finds WTW efficiencies (including all transition stages, from raw materials to motive power at the drive wheels) at 17% for EVs versus just 11% for gasoline-fueled vehicles.  In other words, the EVs can indeed be more efficient in fueling by plugging into the energy grid than using the gasoline burned in an ICE, even if by a lesser factor than it may initially seem.

Ultimately, like any “eco-friendly” product on the market – greenwashed or not – creating a consumer movement from the notion of conserving the environment only helps fuel the demand for more efficient and environmentally sound technology.   Not only this, but behavioural changes from eco-minded individuals can have powerful impact on an aggregate level.  Simple actions of knowing a limit to your daily mileage may cause people to plan their day more efficiently to reduce overall KM drive.  The opposite is also possible — one might get into the habit of driving MORE because it “costs less” per kilometre — but at least the economic conservation of the EV generally comes with a similarly attached environmental conservation awareness.

Moreover, because of this very debate, the transition to electricity for fuel with the attached environmental awareness is and has been encouraging further research and development in the renewable energy sector.  With renewable energy added to the equation, electric cars are starting to look a bit more like that utopian vision after all.  Check out the report from the recent Summit of the U.S Department of Energy on the topic, including the knowledge of over 120 experts in the field here for more information. We may be “miles” away (literally and figuratively), but we’re getting there.

Creative Commons Attribution:Electric car outside the office“, Flickr, renaissancechambara