I Sing the Auto Electric
There are two major things the peoples of the world can do to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and protect the environment, and they don't involve wind or solar power. The first is to build new nuclear power plants, as people in Europe, Asia and elsewhere are doing apace. The second is to insist that your next automobile is either a pure electric or a plug-in hybrid. Auto manufacturers from Detroit to Shenzhen are racing to bring new vehicles to market, while forward looking cities like New York and Paris are installing recharging stations in anticipation of the electric future. As stated in The Energy Gap, electric and hybrid vehicles are the only way to cure the world's fossil fuel addiction.
While there are a plethora of alternate energy sources to choose from for generating electricity, powering factories or heating homes, the same cannot be said about transportation. With the exception of some lightweight local rail that is electrically powered, practically all human transportation relies on fossil fuels. This dependence on burning hydrocarbons to get from place to place throws a major kink into plans for building an import independent, greener future. Though some propose powering land vehicles and even airplanes using hydrogen, there is no realistic hope of creating a hydrogen economy for decades, if ever.
Electric vehicles have been around for more than 100 years. In 1900, there were a total of 2,370 automobiles in New York, Chicago, and Boston. Of these, 1,170 were steamers, 800 were electrics, and only 400 were gasoline powered. The first gas electric hybrid had already made its debut. At that time it was not clear which form of vehicular power would come to dominate the automotive market. Each of the three types of automotive power had distinct advantages and shortcomings. Today, we are poised to revisit the question of automotive power. It may well be that humanity's 100+ year love affair with the internal combustion engine is coming to an end.
The 1900 Lohner-Porsche serial hybrid.
Recently reported in IEEE Spectrum, a Coulomb Technologies charging station has been installed in New York City. It is the first of 100 to be deployed in the coming months across the city's five boroughs. New York gets about 40% of its electricity from nuclear power and hydropower plants, so the power used to run the expected hoards of electric vehicles (EV) will only be partially green. Regardless, the switch to electrics should reduce air pollution in, as former mayor Ed Koch put it, “the city where the future comes to audition.”
New York City is not alone in planning for an electric automotive future. Car Charging Group Inc., has announced it has partnered with national parking company, LAZ Parking NY/NJ, LLC, to provide charging stations for electric vehicles at LAZ Parking locations throughout the New York and New Jersey metropolitan areas. Backed by government funding, expect to see charging stations spring up in other states.
The 2010 Nissan Leaf electric car.
The US Department of Energy is a major funder of the $230 million EV Project, the largest deployment of electric vehicles and chargers in history. Nissan, which makes the all electric Leaf, and Chevrolet, maker of the Volt plug-in hybrid, are partners in the enterprise as well. The project will put nearly 15,000 ECOtality charging stations in 13 cities in five states: Oregon, Washington, California, Arizona and Tennessee. And the electric boom is not limited to the US.
Renault-Nissan will hold large-scale tests for its new electric cars in the Paris and Milan regions next year, ahead of planned mass production in 2012. Start-up Better Place has launched battery exchange programs in Isriel, Denmark and China. In partnership with the Japanese Ministry of Economy, it recently demonstrated the world’s first switchable-battery electric taxi cabs in Tokyo. The complete Better Place solution integrates charge spots, in-car software, operations centers, cars, and batteries, in addition to switch stations, all managed as an intelligent network. By year-end, Better Place will test all components of its solution in Israel as the company continues to gear up for commercial launch in Israel and Denmark in late 2011.
Competing with Better Place's battery swapping technology, Coulomb Technologies has announced that it will set up nearly 5000 electric vehicle charging stations in nine US metropolitan areas: Austin, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Orlando, Sacramento, San Jose/San Francisco, Redmond, Wash., and Washington, D.C. Reportedly, Coulomb provided 700 such stations to 130 customers worldwide in 2009.
Drawing on $15 million of US government stimulus money, the $37 million project will install recharging stations with hose-and-nozzle type plug built to the SAE J1772 standard. The network of stations, known as ChargePoint America, will be available to any plug-in EV driver, with no down payment. Cars like the Chevrolet Volt, the Ford Transit Connect Electric, and the Ford Focus Electric can be recharged at the stations, along with the forthcoming electric version of Daimler’s Smart ForTwo. Expect the battle between recharging technologies to rage for several years.
If this sounds like nothing but hype, think again. Electrics and hybrids were everywhere at last year's Detroit Auto Show (see the slide show). And it wasn't just the familiar manufacturers trying to catch the green wave. Green start-ups, like Tesla, with its electric Roadster, and Fisker, with its sleek Karma plug-in hybrid, received far greater visibility than expected. The same applied to Chinese manufacturers BYD and Brilliance as well. Want further proof that this isn't just rampant speculation or a flash in the pan?
Back in 2008, fabled investor Warren Buffett bought a 10% stake in BYD Co. Ltd., a Chinese company in the forefront of electric automotive development. MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., a subsidiary of Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and owner of the Portland-based electric utility Pacific Power, said it agreed to buy 225 million shares of Shenzhen-based BYD—a $230 million investment.
China's BYD and Warren Buffett want to sell you a car.
“We are thrilled to be partners with BYD and the people of China,” Buffett said in a news release. MidAmerican Chairman David Sokol said they are attracted to BYD’s commitment to make a “dramatic environmental impact with their products.” BYD is considering Portland as a test market for its electric automobiles. If the “Sage of Omaha” thinks EV technology is a good investment there is probably something to it.
Is an EV right for everyone? Probably not. But they will work for more people than many expect. The Chevy Volt is designed to allow someone who drives less than 40 miles a day to commute without using a single drop of gas. Which means, that for more than 75% of America's daily commuters, a Chevy Volt will use zero gasoline and produce zero emissions. While daily mileage varies, the majority of motorists in Europe, Japan and the US could use EVs, and plug-in hybrids would work for everyone else. For more information see “Plugging In To Hybrid Happiness,” or chapter 13 of The Energy Gap, “The Transportation Conundrum.”
Some auto enthusiastas have bemoned the advent of hybrids and electric vehicles, claiming that they will take all the fun out of driving by killing performance. Not so. Porsche has re-defined what hybrid performance can with its 918 Spyder Concept. it's a 500-horsepower, 78-mpg, 9,200-rpm 3.4-liter V-8 hybrid all-wheel-drive sports car capable of 3.2-second 0-60 mph, 198 mph top speed and a 16-mile all-electric range. Electric motors on the front and rear axles contribute 218 horsepower to the mix. The show car is also drop dead gorgeous, as can be seen by the picture below (more photos here).
The Porsche 918 plug-in hybrid supercar.
As Porsche president and chairman Michael Macht said in the press release announcing its approval for production: “Production of the 918 Spyder in a limited series proves that we are taking the right approach with Porsche Intelligent Performance featuring the combination of supreme performance and efficient drivetrain concepts. We will develop the 918 Spyder in Weissach and assemble it in Zuffenhausen.” Unfortunatly, Porsche had put a 1,000-buyer limit on the 918 Spyder and media reports in Europe have suggested the price could exceed $600,000.
Personally, I long for the day when electric cars and plug-in hybrids are widely available—even if I will never own a Porsche 918. With a plug-in hybrid, I would be able to do my daily commute of ~15 miles without ever firing up the IC engine. No longer would I have to spend money on petroleum; no more subsidies to the petro-thugs and hydrocarbon despots of the world. The future can be clean and green, in more than one sense of the term. So, with apologies to the late Ray Bradbury, I sing the auto electric.
Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.
Some electric vehicles even look futuristic.