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Published on March 9th, 2014 | by Guest Contributor

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Electric Vehicles: Their Beauty Is In Their Future

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March 9th, 2014 by
 
Xyntéo’s head of innovation, Rick Wheatley, blogs on the importance of seeing the future potential in today’s innovative technology.

Tesla Motors, the mercurial Silicon Valley electric car company, recently revealed that it exceeded 2013 Q4 revenue guidance considerably. Despite an array of teething issues, mostly concerning charging, the car and the company seem unstoppable.

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Success like this seems to amplify the volume of the ‘How environmentally friendly is the electric vehicle (EV)?’ debate. In my view the answer is clearly ‘very’, largely because, in the words of the inimitable Dr Seuss, ‘It’s not about what it is, it’s about what it can become.’

The phenomenal performance of Tesla is arguably predicated on ‘first principles’ thinking; a technique promoted by entrepreneur Elon Musk – the company’s founder. The idea is that you start out with the fundamentals you know to be true and work up from there, in effect creating an environment that encourages and enables serial innovation.

In the case of the motor trade, and perhaps mobility in general, a good first principle to start with is: burning stuff is bad. Every time we burn a fuel to generate energy there are negative side effects. And the more we burn, the worse the side effects. The uncomfortable fact is that every gasoline or diesel vehicle produced today represents a long-term commitment to burning fossil fuels throughout the lifetime of that vehicle. Every one of these cars exacerbates the problem and locks us into undesirable side-effects. Given what we know about the effects of vehicle emissions on the climate and public health, it’s clear we need to find a new way to move around – and EVs represent a clear step forward.

But that doesn’t stop people criticising them. One of the main arguments against EVs is that in many countries the electricity is produced by burning coal. While it’s true that this makes the cars running in these countries less clean, the fact is that EVs can immediately become more environmentally friendly on the day a change is made to the fuel used to generate the electricity. An EV can improve with the evolution of the low-carbon energy mix. A fossil vehicle cannot.

Another common argument is that the production and disposal of EV batteries isn’t environmentally efficient; a point that, while true today, must be viewed from a longer-term perspective. This is a ‘don’t throw out the baby with the bath water’ situation – if we don’t invest in and scale the fossil-free technologies we’re developing today, like EVs, the potentially ground-breaking technologies of tomorrow become less and less likely. The imperfect solutions of today are stepping-stones toward the better solutions of tomorrow, so we need to encourage and invest in today’s innovators.

It is true that there is a willingness to cling to business-as-usual – and use innovation to attempt to negate seemingly no-brainer first principles like ‘burning stuff is bad’. Some of us have lived in the hope that our command of technology might produce solutions that enable us to carry on as we are. Innovations like carbon capture and storage, digital particulate filters and ultra-efficient, direct-injection, internal-combustion engines come to mind. But each of these solutions have in fact created new problems for us and allowed us, for a time, to fool ourselves into believing that we wouldn’t need to change. Our ‘burning stuff is bad’ first principle, therefore, seems more and more inescapable as time passes – and innovation that uses it as its seed becomes ever-more important.

It’s time to resist the comfortable pull of the past, stop wringing our hands and enjoy victories like Tesla’s in the pursuit of more sustainable transportation. We need to embrace innovations that confront resource scarcity and disrupt business as usual. Until we clear our desks of the clutter of old ideas and tired norms, we won’t be able to reinvent growth in the way that we need to – truly solving the problems that threaten our shared and prosperous future. The beauty of the EV is in its future. Let’s not knock it down today.

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  • Rudolf Zölde

    Pioneering
    technologies.
    The
    new real electrical power gain is a quantum leap in the electronics
    world with high gain due to increased power for each power source and
    is an efficient use of energy for electric vehicles, photovoltaics,
    aerospace.
    INNOVATIVE TECHNOLOGIES – RZ-IT
    Rudolf Zölde
    Tel
    / Fax: +34 965832368
    rz.neueenergien@gmail.com

    http://www.rz-innovatec.com

    (german)

    Zukunftsweisende
    Technologien.
    Die neue reale elektrische Leistungsverstärkung
    ist ein Quantensprung in der Elektronikwelt mit hohem Gewinn durch
    erhöhte Leistung für jede Stromquelle und ist eine effiziente
    Nutzung von Energie für Elektrofahrzeuge, Photovoltaik, Luft-und
    Raumfahrt.

  • http://www.plugngo.us Richard Awni

    As with all changes for the better, it is more about a series of little steps that add up to big changes. Solar has become mainstream, Tesla keeps charging forward with quarterly gains and leading car sales in the US. Happening now is global acceptance of electrics. Consumers here in the USA can without a huge outlay buy an Electric bike that suffices for more that 80% of local errands like shopping, commuting to work even for short distances applies in a majority of households. When the kids go to college an e-bike is a much more economical answer and many other small solutions like these can go a long way.

  • JamesWimberley

    The carbon footprint of an ev is the average over its life. Since this is at least 15 years for modern cars, the footprint of a car bought today can be roughly estimated using the carbon intensity of its electricity supply in 2020. The US government target for then is 20% renewable, plus another 15% or so low-carbon nuclear; many other advanced countries have higher renewable targets, and/or higher hydro legacy power. The market is outstripping the path to these targets.

    The number will be increased locally by intelligent load management, for example, overnight chargers that respond to signals about the availability of cheap wind energy. And a residential ev owner, or employer or retailer offering daytime charging, can ramp up the number yet more by investing in distributed solar and storage. All in all, it’s reasonable to assume an > 50% lifetime renewable supply. The declining fossil part will be produced in large fixed plants which are twice as efficient thermally as mobile ICEs.

  • Jonas Johan Solsvik

    Well spoken

  • Will E

    My garage has solar already and is waiting for an EV. no coal involved. buy and burn. buy a radio and burn it. buy a house and burn it. buy a tv set and burn it. buy a sofa and burn it. bad economics. buy gas and burn it buy diesel and burn it. burning stuff is bad. just plain stupid. and change is so easy and makes a lot of money.

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      ~40% of EV owners in California have solar. that’s pretty huge.

  • Doug Cutler

    Love the Dr. Suess reference. Could become a standard rebuttal point when defending EVs. I’m not so sure about the “bad to burn things” as a universal. Certainly bad to burn fossil fuels but what about carbon neutral or carbon negative biofuel?

    • Steve Grinwis

      A powerplant that burns biomass and buries biochar is carbon negative.

      • Bob_Wallace

        A power plant that burns the tops of plants and leaves the root structure below ground is carbon negative.

        Switchgrass and other perennial grasses are promising options.

        • sault

          “A power plant that burns the tops of plants and leaves the root structure below ground is carbon negative.”
          I hear cows can do a good job in this regard. What’s the feasibility of grazing them and then burning the dried-out…stuff that comes out of the south end of a north-bound cow?

      • Bob Fearn

        Not quite. Burning anything produces soot, soot is black, black absorbs heat, heat = a warmer planet.

        • Bob_Wallace

          That doesn’t make biofuels carbon positive.

          Soot is a different issue.

    • J_JamesM

      Well, at any rate, despite the fact that chemical fuels are very energy dense compared to modern batteries, burning them simply can’t hold a candle to the raw efficiency of electric motors.

      • Doug Cutler

        Agreed, imminent developments in battery tech should give us the means to replace internal combustion with EVs for passenger vehicles over the next 20-30 yrs. But that still leaves heavy transport and air flight. Perhaps if something like lithium air tech pans out at its hi-end potential of 5-15 times current battery energy density that could handle a lot of long range trucking but there are still some technical issues to work out.

        Carbon neutral or negative biofuel could still play a role in air flight. The idea is getting consideration in certain aviation quarters. What would help is a price on carbon reflecting its true global cost thus giving biofuel a better chance to compete.

        • Bob_Wallace

          We could move long distance heavy freight to electrified rail. Then use battery powered trucks for “the last mile”.

          Someone has already built a 100 mile range 18 wheeler prototype and we’re using electric trucks to move shipping containers in ports.

          EV trucks would lend themselves very nicely to battery swapping. Put the swapping stations at the rail head and, if necessary, along routes where trains can’t reach.

          Then move moderate range travel to high speed rail. It’s so much nicer than flying.

          Not overnight solutions, we are talking about major transformation in how we do things and workable routes off fossil fuels.

          • Doug Cutler

            Is anyone currently making moves or plans towards electrified rail? Who’s doing the electric truck?

          • Bob_Wallace

            In the US? We have some electrified rail. A number of our diesel locomotives are hybrid and could probably be converted.

            Europe has quite a bit of electrified rail. Russia converted the entire Trans Siberian railway (twice the distance as a US coast to coast) to electricity.

          • Doug Cutler

            Hmm, Russia . . . .

            Electric Trans Siberian is interesting. I know they have a lot of hydro from the old Soviet era but why do I feel like they’re dragging their heels on other renewables? Could it be they want to keep selling their oil and gas, especially to dependent former satellite states? I know Ukraine situation is incredibly complex but I wonder if Russia, along with many other things, is leery of Western and Northern Europe’s renewable energy bug spreading along its western borders. Don’t feel too well equipped to wade into geopolitics but I still wonder these things.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I have no idea what is happening with renewables in Russia. Perhaps they’re trying to return to their glory days as the USSR, something like our Southern States who seem to be trying to return to Antebellum times.
            Here’s a description of the Trans-Siberian that I found interesting…
            “Along the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway, trains of oil tank cars extend across the landscape for miles. Each tank car, black and tarry-looking, with its faded white markings, resembles the one that follows it… a trainload of these cars defines monotony.

            The Trans-Siberian Railway covers 9,288 kilometers between Moscow and the Pacific port of Vladivostok, or 5,771 miles. In other words, if it were twenty-one miles longer, it would be exactly twice as long as Interstate 80 from New Jersey to California. Laying awake near the tracks in some remote spot at night you hear trains going by all through the night with scarcely a pause.

            (T)he Trans-Siberian Railway is all-electric, with overhead cables like a streetcar line – you find the tracks are empty of traffic only for five or ten minutes at a time.

            Besides oil, the railway carries coal, machinery parts, giant tires, scrap iron, and endless containers … just like the containers stacked five stories high around the Port of Newark, New Jersey, and probably every other port in the world.”

            Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier (2010)

          • JamesWimberley

            “I have no idea what is happening with renewables in Russia.” PV Magazine occasionally has news items. Russia has solar and wind targets, but they are very low. More interesting are local and regional initiatives in areas not blessed by oil and gas. It’s not just Ukraine trying to get some independence from Moscow.
            The main Trans-Sib is indeed electrified, but not all the spur lines, including the important one to Manchuria.

  • Matt

    Wasn’t there a study that showed that even with coal generated electric that EV were better that ICE for environment? So starts better and gets better every time the electric generation base greens more, daily.

    • Bob_Wallace

      There are two studies that find a 100% coal powered EV is a bit worse than a efficient (hybrid) ICE.

      Since most (all?) grids are less than 100% coal we don’t need to worry about EVs being worse.

      • Bob Fearn

        A 100% coal powered EV is not worse that the equivalent ICE vehicle. The EV is invariably lighter, more aerodynamic, has more efficient tires and is driven more reasonably than an ICE vehicle. The most popular ICE vehicle is a rolling brick, AKA as the Ford 150 so ICE vehicles have a lots to answer for.

        • Bob_Wallace

          The data disagrees with you.

          Remember, the comparison was efficient ICE vs. EV. Driving style does not belong in the comparison.

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan
  • Jouni Valkonen

    Good post. I hope that Bob Wallace reads this.

    • Bob_Wallace

      I suppose you’re trying to make something out of “burning stuff is bad”?

      We aren’t going to park all our ICEs and ground all our planes today and then wait for electric replacements.

      Every gallon of biofuel we burn replaces a gallon of petroleum based fuel and means that much less carbon placed into the carbon cycle.

      • J_JamesM

        No matter what, electric powered (passenger) aircraft are simply not going to happen anytime soon. Aircraft have incredibly high lightness and range requirements, which only something as ludicrously energy dense as Kerosene or other chemical fuels can provide.

        Electric and hybrid craft are restricted to relatively slow-moving surveillance drones, cargo airships and small sailplanes.

        So, I agree that while biofuels are not the be-all end-all magic bullet they are sometimes made out to be, they are indeed a crucial foundation to any practical green energy future.

        • Bob_Wallace

          At the least, biofuels are a decent short-/mid-term solution for flight.
          Mid-term we might see hybrid planes that use fuel for takeoff and (mostly) electricity for cruising.

          • A Real Libertarian

            And high speed rail for short distance flights.

          • Ronald Brakels

            Hybrid planes aren’t really going to work at the moment, but there are plenty of options around. With low electricity prices from solar and other renewable capacity it may possibly be worthwhile for airports to produce and liquify hydrogen. Planes would need some pretty big fuel pods to carry it, but the stuff is pretty light and it will work as plane fuel. It would also make it nice to hang around the airport in the summer. But hydrogen seems very unlikely to me. It should be much easier to simply use oil and capture and sequester the CO2 released. If the electrification of ground transport occurs rapidly there will still be a considerable amount of the stuff left and maybe we’ll keep using it in planes as a sort of charity to the J.R. Ewings of the world. And of course there are biofuels and various synthetic fuels. And if you want to get a little crazy there are pie in the sky ideas for beaming power to aircraft.

          • Jouni Valkonen

            Hydrogen is rather bad fuel because there are all sorts of engineering problems with hydrogen. However, from hydrogen it is very simple to make methane (e.g. sabatier reaction), that is already much easier handled fuel and more over, it is rather simple and affordable to synthesize kerosene from methane — this is already done at commercial scale.

            Therefore, when renewable surplus electricity is cheap and abundant enough that it makes sense to make hydrogen, then it also makes sense to make synthetic kerosene.

          • Jouni Valkonen

            Synthetic fuels are better than biofuels for aviation.

        • Jouni Valkonen

          Elon Musk disagrees with you. He sees that supersonic electric jets are becoming viable within the next 20 years and aviation is mostly electrified in a matter of decades. Well within our lifetime.

          • J_JamesM

            That would hinge on discovering a battery or power source that is either unbelievably lightweight or incredibly energy-dense. Supersonic flight takes an enormous amount of energy, and a Model S battery pack only contains the energy equivalent of 2.5 gallons of gas.

          • Jouni Valkonen

            No, e.g. lithium-sulphur batteries has already high enough energy density for electric jet. And lithium-sulphur batteries are already working in prototypes, but as they have still too short cycle life, there are not many commercial applications, but we have good reasons to assume that they find their way to market in 5 or 10 years.

            The magic trick is that electric supersonic jets can fly at very high altitude at 50 km, where there is hardly any air resistance. This makes them theoretically viable although batteries has much lower energy density than air breathing jets.

            With electric jets the heating of intake air in the compressor due to high mach velocity, is not a problem but it makes electric jet engine more efficient!

          • J_JamesM

            Do you happen to have any links handy? Because I’ve never heard of an “electric jet engine.”

          • A Real Libertarian
          • Jouni Valkonen

            I had in mind similar to this turboarcjet concept, although I had not heard about it but I designed myself basic design for electric aircraft based on Elon’s ideas.

            http://www.solarimpulse.com/timeline/view/6866#.Ux7fA5IaySM

            there is also possibility for hybrid aircraft that there is an electric motor for powering the compressor and in the combustion champer there is only an “afterburner” — no gas turbine. This might be useful that afterburner gives enough impulse for ascend, because electric aircrafts are very heavy. But high altitude cruising can be done only with electric power in extremely high altitude.

  • Robin Meijer

    Excellent post! People go on and on about the negative aspects of BEVs without thought for their future promise, something that needs to be well underlined in media. Energy production, as you say is something they point at. Today our electric vehicles might be driven on coal power. Tomorrow solar. In a short period of time alot of issues can be resolved, and the technology has the advantage of making use of better technologies. An evolution existing cars can’t undergo once they’re on the street.
    Charging might take 20-60 minutes today, but in 5 years time, improvements in charging speed might lower that to the equivalent of filling your tank with gas. And lets not forget, while we can drive long range on the best batteries of today, in the future you might just be a batteryswitch away from that 350+ mile-range battery.
    Companies like Tesla must not be allowed to die. They belong to a small handfull of companies who sticks to their word and whose ambition is more than making money. It’s one of the golden eggs of capitalism.

    • Bob_Wallace

      In the US only 40% of our electricity comes from coal. I’m not sure there are any 100% coal grids in left in the world.

      • J_JamesM

        Even if there were, electric cars there would still be quite efficient. A 95% efficient electric motor doesn’t care where its electrons come from.

      • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

        Even Poland is supposedly down to 80%. (Still, WAY to high.) Think South Africa might top the list.

        • Bob_Wallace

          “Almost 90 percent of South Africa’s electricity is generated in coal-fired power stations. Koeberg, a large nuclear station near Cape Town, provides about 5 percent of capacity. A further 5 percent is provided by hydroelectric and pumped storage schemes.”

          http://www.energy.gov.za/files/electricity_frame.html

          SA does have some renewable and has more planned. So even in the worst case EVs are no worse, probably a bit better than efficient hybrids.

          It appears the 100% coal grid is a myth.

          • Ronald Brakels

            The state of Victoria in Australia probably has the dirtiest electricity in the developed world and quite possibly the world. While it doesn’t have a 100% coal grid it tries to make up for this by having coal plants that are more than 100% awful.

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