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.

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
The Chevrolet Volt, the hybrid electric car that General Motors hopes will roll into dealer showrooms in late 2010. CHEVROLET

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.