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To EV or Not to EV, That Is The Question

Some heavyweights who know a thing or two about transportation are having a pointed online debate about whether or not electric vehicles should receive support from the federal government.
Terry Tamminen, who was Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency under Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, threw down the gauntlet last month in an editorial in which he stated that “it’s time to dump the battery-powered car in the same policy landfill as corn-based ethanol.”
Tamminen went on to make several arguments as to why batteries are not the answer for clean transportation. This elicited a point by point response from CalCars founder Felix Kramer.
Here, we put their arguments back to back to contrast their opposing positions.
TT: First, (Energy Secretary) Chu admitted to Congress that it would take billions of R&D funding and many years to develop batteries that are practical for cars in everyday use. He was being optimistic, given the laws of physics – – there’s only so much you can reduce the weight and charging times for batteries, not to mention the scarce and toxic materials needed to produce them. And car engineers spend lifetimes taking a few pounds out of a car to make it more fuel efficient, regardless of how it is powered. Why would we want a fleet of inefficient cars that carry around half a ton of excess luggage?
FK: 1. Batteries will always be too heavy; materials are scarce and toxic. This sounds like a comment from before 2006. Batteries are improving steadily in “energy density” and cost — by 7-15% a year, with occasional faster leaps as technologies shift. Automaker and battery makers have concluded that the supposed “lithium shortage” doesn’t exist. Nickel-metal hydride and lithium batteries are approved for landfill (not toxic) and can be recycled. The battery and motor of an EV is not always heavier than the larger engine and gas tank while you benefit from up to four times greater efficiency of an electric motor over and internal combustion engine.
TT: Second, this notion that battery cars require no new infrastructure is nonsense. A recent article in Science magazine highlighted the need for more powerplants, transmission lines, and home/office chargers to serve even a small % of the transportation fleet, if it was dependent on battery recharging. As an example, the Tesla battery sports car takes 37 hours to recharge with normal household current and 8 hours if you install a special high-voltage charger that costs thousands of dollars. Moreover, on a hot July day in California, if even a few hundred thousand of the state’s 30 million vehicles were attached to the grid, the overloaded system would routinely blackout unless it was upgraded at the cost of billions. Battery car enthusiast Shai Agassi announced he intends to bring his battery cars to San Francisco and would build 250,000 charging stations around the Bay Area alone – – does that sound like new infrastructure to you?
2. We’ll need a giant new infrastructure; charging takes too long; we’ll get overloads and blackouts unless we spend billions of dollars to upgrade the power grid. Plug-in hybrids need no new infrastructure. According to a study from the Pacific National Lab, today’s grid has capacity to recharge 84% of today’s cars if they all plugged at night. This applies to all-electric vehicles charging at night as well, which will be true for most vehicles used as families’ second cars. Price signals will disincentivize daytime charging on late summer afternoons when the grid is at capacity. And the Tesla Roadster’s high-power charger takes under four, not eight hours to recharge (see
TT: Third, range matters. Yes the average commuter may only need 30 or 40 miles a day, something they can get from batteries today, but many people live in multi-family apartments and have no access to a charger on a daily basis. Many more can only afford one car and want one that can go longer distances when needed. I recently drove 150 miles to Palm Springs from Los Angeles in my hydrogen powered electric car (the hydrogen is converted to electricity by the fuel cell, which powers the same electric motor as a Tesla or any other electric car). I refueled in 7 minutes and was ready to return that afternoon. The Tesla or any other battery car available today would still be at the recharging station 30 miles short of Palm Springs, not to mention the problem of getting back in the same day.
Battery enthusiasts say we will have swapping stations, so in a few minutes you can drop off discharged batteries and pick up full charged ones. Maybe, but then every car will essentially have to have multiple sets of batteries made for it, so there are enough to go around at swapping stations awaiting the need. What does that take in terms of resources and greenhouse gas pollution in the manufacture (and ultimate disposal) of all of those batteries?
FK: 3. Range matters: yes, most average commutes are 30-40 miles/day, but cars need to be able to drive 300 miles between refills. And people who live in apartments don’t have access to a charger. PHEVS l have that range by definition: when the battery is depleted the engine powers the car for hundreds of miles. The forthcoming Chevy Volt 40-mile electric range matches the drive cycle of 78% of vehicles. Tamminen has forgotten his approving quotation (page 152 of Lives Per Gallon) of Ed Begley, Jr. saying “The detractors of electric vehicles are right. Given their limited range, they can only meet the needs of 90 percent of the population.” The first buyers of plug-in cars may be drivers with garages, but the charging infrastructure is starting to arrive: The New York Times Real Estate Section reports that building management company executives say they want to be ready for the coming wave of customer demand to charge in their high-rise apartments: (see
TT: Fourth, size matters. There’s a reason that battery cars so far are all small. Tesla chose the sports car because it was cool and would brand their company, but also because it is small and light which helps with range (even so, the range is far less than 200 miles). Other car companies toying with battery cars are focused on very small sedans for the same reason. Anyone who needs a larger car or truck will have a very long wait to get one powered by batteries.
FK: 4. Only small, light cars can be battery powered. While it is true that until recently, most EVs were small and underpowered, the coming wave of luxury sports cars has proven that EVs can outperform gasoline cars. The vehicles continue to be designed to be as aerodynamic as possible because that makes sense for any vehicle however it’s powered. And Tamminen gets the size issue exactly wrong. The larger vehicles have plenty of room for batteries and, and they’re the gas-gulpers. IF you switch around the usual way of looking at miles per gallon into gallons per mile, this becomes obvious. Our 50 MPG Priuses converted to 100 MPG PHEVS use 1 gallon per hundred miles instead of 2–saving 1 gallon. A 15 MPG truck that becomes a 45 MPG PHEV saves over 5 gallons per hundred miles. That’s why CalCars is now focusing largely on pickups, SUVs and trucks, including conversions of already-built vehicles.
TT: Finally, how the electricity is produced will determine how clean battery power is, which is also true of hydrogen production. The need to build all of the new infrastructure, batteries (maybe multiple sets), and charging stations has to be added into that lifecycle analysis, otherwise we’re making the same mistakes we made with ethanol – – a mirage of sustainability by looking only at the end use.
FK: 5. Plug-in cars are only as clean as the electricity they run on. This is true, but on today’s national grid (50% coal), an electric mile produces only half the CO2 of a gasoline mile. Tamminen acknowledges this is true for hydrogen as well…not entirely, since some hydrogen (an energy carrier, not a source) comes from reforming natural gas, which is still high in CO2. For hydrogen made electrically from water, multiple studies have shown the original electricity used to make the fuel carries a vehicle three to four times further if it’s put directly into a battery rather than cycled through hydrolysis, fuel transportation, compression, and fuel cells before they get to the electric motor that powers the car. If we ever get hydrogen created directly from the sun and algae, we’ll still be decades away from having a full infrastructure for its use.6. Plug-in advocates aren’t looking at the cost of the entire infrastructure, just at the end use. Tamminen forgets about the ability of PHEVs and many EVs to come to the market with no new infrastructure. In contrast to this, all the hydrogen vehicles he so strongly supports need a new infrastructure, and it’s largely because of that fact that Energy Secretary Steve Chu and may others have concluded that even if multiple technical and cost issues involving hydrogen and fuel cells are solved, other solutions that are much closer are more deserving of support and incentives. Some day we might have hydrogen providing the range extension fuel for PHEVs, but even cellulosic ethanol is generally seen as arriving far sooner than hydrogen.The biggest refutation of Tamminen comes from the growing stampede among national governments and automakers to bring plug-in cars to market. They are starting with substantial tax incentives until costs decline with economies of scale — but the gap needed to bridge is in the $5-$10,000 range, one-tenth or less the amount needed to subsidize Tamminen’s preferred hydrogen cars.

You can read more about CalCars’ new ICE conversion initiative. For more on the pro-EV side of the argument, check out the response of Paul Scott of Plug-in America.
Article appearing courtesy of the Matter Network.
[photo credit: Elsa Wenzel, jurvetson]

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Written By

Derek lives in southwestern New Mexico and digs bicycles, simple living, fungi, organic gardening, sustainable lifestyle design, bouldering, and permaculture. He loves fresh roasted chiles, peanut butter on everything, and buckets of coffee. Catch up with Derek on Twitter, Google+, or at his natural parenting site, Natural Papa!


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