25 Sep 2008: Report

Revenge of the Electric Car

After years of false starts and failures, the electric car may finally be poised to go big-time. With automakers from GM to Chrysler to Nissan preparing to roll out new plug-in hybrids or all-electric models, it looks like the transition from gasoline to electricity is now irreversible.

by jeff goodell

The recent high-profile unveiling of the Chevrolet Volt, the hybrid electric car that General Motors hopes will roll into dealer showrooms in late 2010 and rescue the automaker from near-bankruptcy, felt like the opening credits of a movie we’ve seen before.

After all, there’s nothing new about electric cars, hybrid or otherwise – 100 years ago, there were more electric cars on the road than gas-powered ones. Henry Ford even bought an electric car for his wife, Clara.

But the story of the 20th century (or one chapter of it, anyway) is the story of the triumph of the internal combustion engine. Periodic attempts to revive the plug-in cars have met with failure, or have been willfully squashed (check out Chris Paine’s excellent 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?).

Chevy Volt
Chevrolet
The Chevrolet Volt, the hybrid electric car that General Motors hopes will roll into dealer showrooms in late 2010.
Shortly after the Volt was introduced, GM executive Bob Lutz nearly killed GM’s born-again mojo when he admitted in a TV interview that when it comes to global warming, “I don’t believe in the CO2 theory.” So much for enlightened corporate leadership. But does that mean the Volt is just a repeat of the same old movie?

No. For one thing, GM – which lost $15 billion in a single quarter this year – isn’t the only company betting its future on electric cars. Virtually every carmaker in the world, from Chrysler to Nissan to Chery, the upstart Chinese automaker, has announced plans to shift away from internal combustion engines toward electric drives.

Today’s hybrids follow the model of the Toyota Prius, which uses batteries and an electric motor to assist the gas engine. Tomorrow’s plug-in hybrids – starting with the Volt – will flip this around, using the electric motor as the primary drive, with the gas engine on board simply as a range-extending generator to charge up the battery. If you drive less than about 40 miles a day, you’ll never need the engine – the gas station will be replaced by the outlet in your garage.

Some carmakers, including big players like Nissan and Silicon Valley start-ups like Tesla Motors, are moving straight to all-electric cars. Within the industry, there is much debate about the virtues of plug-in hybrids vs. all-electric cars, but either way, says Willett Kempton, who has been studying electric cars for more than a decade at the University of Delaware, “the transition from gasoline to electricity is now irreversible.”

In the world today, electrons are easier to come by than hydrocarbons. To get oil, you have to drill thousands of feet below the surface of the earth – often in a hostile nation – pump it up, refine it, ship it (via pipeline or tanker), then store it until somebody comes along with a thirsty SUV. All in all, an expensive and rigid system. Electrons, on the other hand, come from many places: wind turbines, solar panels, hydroelectric dams, nukes and even burning coal. This simple fact upends everything. With electric cars, we’re not dependent on sheiks in the Middle East. We’re dependent on our own ingenuity.

A secondary virtue of the shift from atoms to electrons is that an electric motor is three to four times better at converting energy into motion than an internal combustion engine. In fact, the amount of electricity it takes to push an electric car down the road is surprisingly small.

“In a typical day, an electric car uses about as much electricity as four plasma TVs,” says Mark Duvall, the head of the electric car program at the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, California.
In a typical day, an electric car uses about as much electricity as four plasma TVs.


This means that, for the foreseeable future, we don’t need to add a lot of generating capacity to the grid in order to meet the demand for electric cars. (Mike Morris, the chairman and CEO of American Electric Power, believes that up to 20 percent of the U.S. vehicle fleet could be switched over to plug-in hybrids without overtaxing the existing grid.) And higher efficiencies all along the energy supply chain mean that switching from gas to electric cars does not simply shift pollution from the tailpipe to a distant power plant.

Even on a grid that’s 100 percent coal-fired, overall CO2 emissions – that is, including pollution from mining and burning coal – with a plug-in car would be lower than overall emissions from a similar-sized car with an internal combustion engine.

According to a recent study by the Electric Power Research Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council, widespread adoption of plug-in hybrids could reduce annual emissions of greenhouse gases by more than 450 million tons by 2050, the equivalent of taking more than one-third of today’s cars and light-duty trucks off the road.

Of course, the cleaner the grid, the lower the emissions. But electric cars can help here, too.

One of the big problems with renewables is intermittency: The sun doesn’t always shine, the wind blows at the wrong time. For electric cars, this is not a problem.

In Texas, for example, the wind blows most strongly at night – exactly when the power isn’t needed. But what if that power could be used to charge electric cars sitting in the garage?

“Plug-in vehicles are a way of changing from Middle Eastern oil to west Texas wind as a transportation fuel,” says Austan Librach, director of emerging transportation technologies at Austin Energy, a large utility in Austin, Texas, that has long promoted the use of electric vehicles.

In Denmark, 20 percent of the electricity is generated by wind – “it is a perfect match for electric cars,” says Torben Holm, a consultant at DONG Energy, the country’s largest electric power provider. DONG recently announced a deal with Renault and Better Place, a Silicon Valley start-up, to bring electric cars to Denmark. According to Holm, a single 2-megawatt wind turbine generates enough electricity to power 3,000 cars.

In the near term, however, the most important benefit of electric cars is that they will accelerate the deployment of the so-called “smart grid.” In fact, plug-in vehicles may be to the smart grid what Halo was to the Xbox: the killer app that drives everybody to want one.

The problem with our electric grid today is not just that it is big and dirty, but that it is big and dirty and dumb. We burn energy and have no idea where it is coming from.

“The most revolutionary thing about the Prius,” says Dan Dudek, chief economist for Environmental Defense Fund, “is not the hybrid engine. It’s the monitor on the dash that shows you your energy consumption in real time. It turns us all into savvy consumers, because we see the reaction in real time to our driving. Imagine if we had that for the rest of our energy consumption?”

If electric cars are going to work, the grid has to evolve into something that looks more like the Internet, with two-way communication and lots of data and context. For car owners, a smart grid will help them track exactly how much electricity they’re consuming and what it costs (just like at a gas pump). For utilities, a smart grid will help manage demand – preventing big power surges at 6 p.m., when everyone comes home and plugs their car in, is a major concern – as well as open the door to a variety of new services, from innovative pricing packages to energy management programs for your home and business.

But the real promise of a smart grid is the ability to turn electric cars into a rolling fleet of batteries that can be tapped on demand, feeding power back into the grid.
A smart grid could have the ability to turn electric cars into a rolling fleet of batteries that can be tapped on demand.


“For utilities, the economics of vehicle-to-grid are incredibly compelling,” says Willett Kempton.

According to Kempton, the richest market is in frequency regulation of the grid – that is, feeding in small amounts of power to keep the balance between electricity production and demand steady – which he estimates could amount to a market of $10 billion a year in the United States alone.

There is also money to be made in supplying power for peak-load demands on hot summer days, when everyone cranks the A/C.

“In Sacramento, we have 400 megawatts of power that we use four days a year,” says Bill Boyce, the transportation supervisor at Sacramento Municipal Utility District in California. “Instead of keeping these power plants around, what if we could draw that 400 megawatts from parked cars? This is an idea we’re very interested in pursuing.”

So are plenty of other progressive power companies. Southern California Edison, Austin Energy, Duke Energy, Wisconsin Power, Excel Energy, and Pacific Gas & Electric – to name just a few – all have pilot programs to learn more about how to integrate plug-in vehicles with the grid.

Of course, all this is still a long way off.

“It’s hard to overestimate the inertia of the old system, and how resistant many people are to change,” says Tom Turrentine, head of the Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle Research Center at the University of California at Davis. A recent MIT study on the future of the car suggested plug-in vehicles might capture, at best, 15 percent of the light-duty vehicle market (passenger cars and SUVs) by 2035.

One big uncertainty, obviously, is the price of oil – how high will it rise, and how fast? Another is the cost and reliability of batteries. Much of the optimism about electric cars is based on assumptions that batteries will evolve like microprocessors, with rapidly declining costs and rising performance.

But what if that turns out to be a false analogy? The revolution could also be derailed by a VHS-vs.-Betamax-type battle over plug and battery standards.

And in the long run, the happy vision of an OPEC-free world could be tarnished by the monopolistic impulses of electric power companies.

Clearly, dealing with the twin challenges of peak oil and global warming will require far deeper, more radical changes in our lives than simply jumping from gas cars to electric. As for GM’s Volt, despite all the hype it’s getting today, it could look like yesterday’s news by the time it finally rolls into dealer showrooms. But Chris Paine, director of Who Killed the Electric Car?, isn’t betting against it. In fact, he’s already working on a sequel. It’s called Revenge of the Electric Car.

POSTED ON 25 Sep 2008 IN Business & Innovation Climate Energy Oceans Antarctica and the Arctic North America North America 

COMMENTS


This article gives us yet another reason to hope that oil prices stay high and keep on rising. As Mr. Goodell rightly points out, the necessary new technologies will only come about if the market provides the incentives to develop them.
Posted by Alan Freund on 25 Sep 2008


Great article. Actually, I learned a lot about the recent developments in electric auto development that I didn't know (though I can trade the buzz-words with the best of 'em!), so many thanks.

This wasn't the point of the article, but one problem I foresee with general acceptance of electric cars is the design issues. It IS possible to create a damn good looking electric car (tesla) but I think a lot of people are still thinking along the lines of "Pruis" aesthetics (the recent uproar over the Volt's design change is a good indicator of this).

But, with recent gas prices EVERYONE is thinking in terms of MPG. And online gadgets such as Mini-cooper's carfunfootprint.com site give issues like fuel efficiency and carbon emissions (simplified as "green" scores) a flair and portability that the EPA lacks (though it's hard to criticize them on those grounds). In short, electric cars and hybrids are not quite hippie-mobiles anymore. If we really want to change things we need to start giving electric technology a kind of "sex appeal," if you will.
Posted by dan stanton on 26 Sep 2008


To achieve meaningful GHG benefits from this technology, it will be essential to increase the rate of market penetration. To make these vehicles accessible to more than the current market of Pruis buyers, the industry will need support in offsetting the incremental cost of the battery technology. This could be accomplished by shifting the current tax scheme for funding the national transportation network from taxes on liquid fuels to taxes on carbon emissions. The tex should be set at a level that replaces the current federal gasoline tax with a tax on carbon emitted to provide a meaningful fuel tax benefit for users of the grid as a fuel source. Tax savings would reduce 10-year operating costs by about $1200 to provide a partial operating cost incentive along with the lower electric power cost savings of $2.00 per gallon avoided for a driver who operates solely off the battery. A climate impact fee could be added to the purchase cost of new liguid fueled vehicles to buy old GHG emitters from current owners to increase demand for the new hybrids. Without these kinds of incentives, a 15% penetration rate by 2035 will provide no meaningful GHG benefit.
Posted by Bob Yuhnke on 27 Sep 2008


One of the best essays on the subject to date, and
I've read them all. Good work, Jeff Goodell, I'll
send this one wide.

Posted by Paul Scott on 01 Oct 2008


“It’s hard to overestimate the inertia of the old
system, and how resistant many people are to
change,” says Tom Turrentine, head of the Plug-in
Hybrid Electric Vehicle Research Center at the
University of California at Davis."


Jeff: Do you have this quote right? Did Tom mean
"underestimate" or you are implying that the MIT
study is too conservative?
Posted by APB on 07 Oct 2008



The quote is correct (I double-checked). The
implication is that the MIT study may accurately
reflect the difficulty of shifting our existing fleet
over to plug-in hybrids. In other words, this is
not the iPhone revolution writ large.
Posted by Jeff Goodell on 08 Oct 2008


Very informative and hopeful article. I'd like to see more emphasis on conversion as we have millions and millions of quite serviceable cars on the road (including mine) and if the best ones could be converted, I think it would prevent megatons of waste.

For tips and info about saving money & energy in your home and lifestyle, see my Project HOUSE website (Household Opportunity to Upgrade & Save the Environment).
Posted by Marjorie Campaigne on 29 Oct 2008


If the electric car is really successful and reduces the demand for petroleum the price of petroleum is likely to drop. President Gerald Ford first recognized that dropping petroleum prices could damage the domestic energy industry and proposed various forms of taxes and fees to prevent this.

The supply-demand vs. price curve for petroleum is very steep. Recently, as small reduction in consumption has resulted in a large reduction in oil price. Gerald Ford proposed that any additional tax on oil be revenue neutral, i.e. returned to taxpayers in the form of other tax reductions.

We need to reconsider these issues because any program that significantly reduces oil consumption could reduce prices to the point that the alternative programs are priced out of business. This happened in the 80's to the shale oil industry, which was driven into bankruptcy.
Posted by David Rubin on 29 Oct 2008


Comments have been closed on this feature.
jeff goodellABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeff Goodell's latest book, Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future, was chosen as one of the best nonfiction books of 2006 by Kirkus Reviews. He is the author of three previous books, including Sunnyvale, a memoir about growing up in Silicon Valley, and Our Story, an account of nine miners trapped in a Pennsylvania coal mine. A contributing editor at Rolling Stone, his work has appeared in The New Republic, The Washington Post, The New York Times Magazine, and Wired. His most recent article for Yale e360 was about new coal technologies.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


In Rural India, Solar-Powered
Microgrids Show Mixed Success

As India looks to bring electricity to the quarter of its population still without it, nonprofit groups are increasingly turning to solar microgrids to provide power to the nation’s villages. But the initiatives so far have faced major challenges.
READ MORE

A Tale of Two Northern European Cities:
Meeting the Challenges of Sea Level Rise

For centuries, Rotterdam and Hamburg have had to contend with the threat of storm surges and floods. Now, as sea levels rise, planners are looking at innovative ways to make these cities more resilient, with new approaches that could hold lessons for vulnerable urban areas around the world.
READ MORE

A Tale of Two Northern European Cities:
Meeting the Challenge of Sea Level Rise

For centuries, Rotterdam and Hamburg have had to contend with the threat of storm surges and floods. Now, as sea levels rise, planners are looking at innovative ways to make these cities more resilient, with new approaches that could hold lessons for vulnerable urban areas around the world.
READ MORE

African Lights: Solar Microgrids
Bring Power to Kenyan Villages

Small-scale microgrids are increasingly seen as the most promising way to bring electricity to the 1.3 billion people worldwide who currently lack it. In Kenya, an innovative solar company is using microgrids to deliver power to villages deep in the African bush.
READ MORE

How 'Third Way' Technologies
Can Help Turn Tide on Climate

In a Yale Environment 360 interview, Australian scientist and author Tim Flannery explains how the development of technologies that mimic the earth’s natural carbon-removing processes could provide a critical tool for slowing global warming.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Reports


Can Large Companies Lead
The Low-Carbon Revolution?

by marc gunther
The dismissal of a green advocate at a major energy corporation and other recent developments raise a critical question: Are big companies too invested in the status quo to be trailblazers in the quest to wean the global economy off fossil fuels?
READ MORE

Once Unstoppable, Tar Sands
Now Battered from All Sides

by ed struzik
Canada’s tar sands industry is in crisis as oil prices plummet, pipeline projects are killed, and new governments in Alberta and Ottawa vow less reliance on this highly polluting energy source. Is this the beginning of the end for the tar sands juggernaut?
READ MORE

In Japan, a David vs Goliath
Battle to Preserve Bluefin Tuna

by winifred bird
A group of small-scale Japanese fishermen are waging an increasingly public struggle against industrial fishing fleets that are using sonar and huge nets to scoop up massive catches of spawning Pacific bluefin tuna.
READ MORE

What’s Causing Deadly Outbreaks of
Fungal Diseases in World’s Wildlife?

by elizabeth kolbert
An unprecedented global wave of virulent fungal infections is decimating whole groups of animals — from salamanders and frogs, to snakes and bats. While scientists are still trying to understand the causes, they are pointing to intercontinental travel, the pet trade, and degraded habitat as likely factors.
READ MORE

Eyes in the Sky: Green Groups
Are Harnessing Data from Space

by jacques leslie
An increasing number of nonprofit organizations are relying on satellite imagery to monitor environmental degradation. Chief among them is SkyTruth, which has used this data to expose the extent of the BP oil spill, uncover mining damage, and track illegal fishing worldwide.
READ MORE

Unnatural Balance: How Food
Waste Impacts World’s Wildlife

by richard conniff
New research indicates that the food discarded in landfills and at sea is having a profound effect on wildlife populations and fisheries. But removing that food waste creates its own ecological challenges.
READ MORE

To Protect Monarch Butterfly,
A Plan to Save the Sacred Firs

by janet marinelli
Mexican scientists are striving to plant oyamel fir trees at higher altitudes in an effort to save the species, as well as its fluttering iconic winter visitor — the migrating monarch butterfly — from the devastating effects of climate change.
READ MORE

Indonesian Coal Mining Boom
Is Leaving Trail of Destruction

by mike ives
Since 2000, Indonesian coal production has increased five-fold to meet growing domestic demand for electricity and feed export markets in Asia. The intensive mining is leading to the clearing of rainforest and the pollution of rivers and rice paddies.
READ MORE

Can Pulling Carbon from Air
Make a Difference on Climate?

by nicola jones
Numerous technologies exist to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and new companies are entering the field. But can CO2 ‘air capture’ scale up from a niche business to an industry that will lower atmospheric concentrations of CO2?
READ MORE

Canada’s Indigenous Bands Rise
Up Against a Tar Sands Pipeline

by jim robbins
TransCanada, the company behind the now-defunct Keystone XL, is proposing another pipeline that would ship Alberta tar sands oil to Canada’s Atlantic coast. But fierce opposition from First Nation communities could derail this controversial project.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter


CONNECT


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

“video
Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

“Battle
The 2015 Yale e360 Video Contest winner documents a Northeastern town's bitter battle over a wind farm.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

“Alaska
A 2015 Yale e360 Video Contest winner captures stunning images of wild salmon runs in Alaska.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado wildfires
An e360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters confronting deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
Watch the video.

e360 SPECIAL REPORT

“Tainted
A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.

OF INTEREST



Yale