Smarter Living: Getting About
Just How Practical Are Electric Cars?
It's only taken a century since the demise of the earliest battery-powered vehicles in the early 1900s for electric cars to hit the mainstream. In 2011 Oregon launched the installation of 1,100 charging stations and Chicago launched 280. Meanwhile we have a number of electric models to choose from.
The star of the moment, the Nissan Leaf, hit the road at the end of 2010, doesn't use an ounce of gasoline, nor do its reviews indicate that it runs like a little antique. Meanwhile, the Chevy Volt, a new plug-in hybrid, hit the mass market in 2011.. In the next five years, 30 to 40 new models of plug-in vehicles (PEVs) will be released by a number of major automakers and start-up manufacturing companies.
"Car companies know that to be competitive going forward and to meet long-term standards—not just in the U.S. but in Europe and increasingly in Asia—PEVs will need to be part of their technology portfolio," said Simon Mui, a scientist on clean vehicles and fuels for the NRDC.
And now, a whole lot more people are talking about electric vehicles, which produce no tailpipe emissions, and, depending on what sources your local utility uses for electricity, may allow you to run your car on wind or solar power.
But people are also asking questions. Where can I charge my car? Can I afford it? What will it do to my electricity bill? Can't it fry the grid? According to the experts, you shouldn't fret about these issues. It all may be a little behind-the-scenes, but battery companies like EnerDel and A123, software companies like Intel and Microsoft, local utilities, the Obama administration and Congress, and charging equipment companies like Coulomb Technologies and Ecotality are all working to make it as easy as possible to go electric.
The Environmental Protection Agency has determined that the Leaf can get the equivalent of about 99 miles per gallon (its range typically being about 75 miles on one charge) while the Volt can get about 93 miles per gallon equivalent in electric mode (on which its range is about 35 miles, after which you can switch to hybrid mode and cruise for about another 300 miles on a mix of gas and battery power). This may not sound like much oomph on electricity, but the truth is, according to NRDC's EV experts, including Mui and Max Baumhefner and Luke Tonachel, more than 90 percent of gas-powered cars only travel 80 miles or less per day. More than likely, "range anxiety" shouldn't be an issue for you.
Furthermore, according to pilot programs, most people with PEVs are plugging in overnight at home, not out on the road, even as there are major efforts and investment to develop a reliable EV infrastructure. Sure, this may mean your electricity bills will go up. But the math shows that in addition to tax rebates that can reduce the upfront purchasing cost of an EV by nearly a quarter, the amount you'll save on gas will more than make up for the expenses.
It is true that if you live out in the exurbs and commute long distances daily or only have one car and a hankering for road trips, the PEV may not be for you. Yet. As technology progresses and the cars of the future become the cars of the present, charging stations could begin to outnumber gas stations—particularly since they can be anywhere the grid extends.
At the forefront of this infrastructure development are charging equipment companies like Coulomb Technologies, behind the system known as ChargePoint, and ECOtality.
Coulomb, with $37 million in federal dollars, has established ChargePoint stations throughout the country, and although there is a distinct abundance in some places (like the Bay Area) and a dearth in others (like, well, all of Wyoming), the company plans to have about 10,000 operating by 2011, selling them to municipalities, gas stations, Starwood Hotels and Whole Foods Market. The ChargePoint website lets you know where to find available stations, and the swipe of an RFID-based ChargePass lets you recharge your juice on your credit card. Each station determines the price of its electricity, although many are still free.
As for the competition, ECOtality scored a $115 million federal grant to establish 15,000 charging stations in 16 cities in six states across the country, installing them at no charge to the customer in public locations and residences. This month, with the delivery of the Leaf, the first residential charging stations will be established, and all stations will be installed by the end of next summer.
If you're worried about frying the grid with all these new stations going up, so far blackouts are very unlikely. Most people charge up at home at night in off-peak hours when energy is in abundance.
"Through the Coulomb ChargePoint Network, utilities can use programs to ensure that charging will only happen when energy is plentiful," said Coulomb Technologies founder and CEO Richard Lowenthal. "Utilities can encourage drivers to charge during off-peak hours by offering lower rates during those times, saving drivers money. If people charge at off-peak times there is plenty of energy in the grid for charging vehicles."
And as "smart" technology develops, tracking supply and demand of energy use on a wireless system connected to the utility, this will become less and less of an issue. Mainstream adoption of PEVs may even help usher out the old electric grid into obsolescence and usher in the nationwide smart grid, the ultimate in energy- and cost-efficiency. And that would benefit you whether you own a car or not.
last revised 8/22/2011