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Keeping The Electric Cars On The Road

Companies / Electric Cars Apr 21, 2013 - 10:45 AM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


Even if a large number of electric car producers - like Tesla Motor and Fisker Automotive - have major problems producing their cars, in the Fisker case having developed the ultimate dangerous car, the Karma which can burn under water and is banned from sale at present, the urgent pitch for all-electric cars continues. Favoured themes are that "we" must wean western society off oil and save the world's climate with "zero emission" cars (needing no fossil energy to produce, running on roads built with recycled bottle tops and organic household waste!), but the basic reason is a lot simpler.

Carmakers are on a losing streak almost everywhere and talking up a big new business bubble that can rake in funds from big government looks like the best way out.

Michael Levi writing for Bloomberg, 18 April, lauds Ford for its first all-electric car. The Ford Focus Electric is described as so "peppy" or preppy some trial users were unable to stop themselves from tipping their test cars on their sides and off Ford's test track, presumably with joy. Manufacturers like Ford are still coming back from their near-death experience in 2008-2009, on the back of massive government handouts and bailouts. They see the end of the road for replacement car buying bulge fed on cheap credit and the fear of rising gasoline prices, which stampeded buyers into dumping their older large cars, and buying a new more economical, smaller car. Not electric, of course.

Ford Focus Electric chief engineer Kevin Layden is quoted by Levi as saying “It’s a nondisruptive technology,” because: “We’ve got the infrastructure required to support plug-in hybrids and battery electric vehicles.” The rationale continues that unlike cars powered by fuel cells or natural gas, which will require whole new fueling systems, electric-powered vehicles can use the power plants and electric grid that are already there.

The USA's current 99.8% fossil fuelled car and light vehicle road fleet of around 200 million vehicles could be taken as the sales goal for all-electric purveyors. We could take what seems a modest goal, but is wildly unattainable, of a 10% penetration of this fleet, needing 20 million all-electrics. Assuming this fleet only utilised "slow charge", low-power recharging at around 4 kW per car, for a typical 6 - 7 hours for each full charge, the total maximum power drain for this 10% slice of the car fleet, on charge, would be 80 000 Megawatts. When the charging moves up to 30-minute "fast charge" at 50 kW, this needs 12.5 times more power.

Taking the nuclear lobby's claimed "clean, green and low emission" atomic alternative, this comes in at around $8000 per kW or $8 million per Megawatt in the US today, using EIA data.

If you think windpower would be more "ecological" that surely comes in a lot cheaper on capital cost, but you need the baseload capacity to cover irregular wind output.

This concerns a 10% slice of the current US car fleet hypothetically being replaced by all-electrics.

Fudging the numbers is easy, and the Leydens or Levis of this world are past masters at this rhetoric. Not all cars would ever be on charge at the same moment - like Sunday evenings before the Monday trundle to work. Not all of them would need a complete recharge, but this does not reduce the peak power drain, and amount of new power capacity needed to cover it. Smart grids and super grids might somehow supply a "quick fix" silver bullet, of what kind we are not sure. City car parks could be covered with glorious and massive arrays of solar panels - who pays for them we do not know - and of course they would be useless at night. The rhetoric continues with pious hopes of unexpected, difficult, and necessarily high cost battery storage R&D breakthroughs.

All-electric eyes are riveted to sales of the partly-electric, mostly fossil fuelled Toyota Prius which has beaten pessimistic forecasts, at the launch of its prototype in 1995, that it would be a short-term fad. Hybrid cars led by the Prius are now already mainstream, although their actual sales volumes should not be overstated. While the Prius and other hybrids use surplus thermal engine energy to recharge its onboard batteries, the "next stage" will theoretically be a jump to plug-in hybrids, with a higher electricity-to-fuel ratio, using more elctricity for average road trips, keeping the gasoline or diesel engine around for longer trips. After that, the (r)evolutionists say, we move on to "pure electric" cars.

While the Prius has been sold for about a decade, the idea of hybrid cars using twin fuel and electric engines is a lot older. The first patent for a hybrid dates from 1905, and one commercial model was sold in the US before 1910. The basic concept hasn’t changed since.

For most of the next 100 years hybrid electric vehicles dimmed or browned out. Engines were complex and expensive, and since hybrids needed two, this added to both cost and weight. After 1975 the now 35-year-old refrain of high oil prices entered the slogan pack for electrics. but hybrids faced the problem of manufacturers seeking to jump one stage further to much higher priced, higher-margin all-electric cars running on onboard batteries. Hybrids were left in the lurch as either too strange for car owners seeking lower fuel costs, or too traditional for people looking for novelty gimmicks.

By the 1970s both in the US, Europe and Japan progress was made, but only at the level of non-commercial prototypes, for example the hybrids produced by General Motors, Renault and Fiat, Toyota and others. All depended on state support for continued development, which proved to be lacking. Major problems adding to the costs of these hybrids included short range in electric-only mode and often extreme car weights and slow top speeds, for example the US Energy department-sponsored Hybrid Test Vehicle (HTV-1) of the 1975-85 period which weighed close to 2 tons and struggled to achieve more than 55 mph at full speed on the flat (but more on long downhill runs!).

In 1993, President Bill Clinton announced the $1.25 billion Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, a research consortium led by the federal government with Ford, General Motors and Daimler-Benz.  Its goal was to create a hybrid able to deliver the equivalent of 80 miles per US gallon, or about 120 kilometres for less than 40 kWh of energy, the same fuel economy that several subcompact "conventional fuel" cars can deliver, today, in highway mode.

This program was terminated in 2001 under G. W. Bush, before the energy economy milestone could be met, but directly related to it, from 1995, Toyota continued developing its Prius. From year 2000 in commercial production, the car was sold in the US and other non-Japanese markets. By 2012, it occupied the No. 1 world sales slot for hybrids, and in some markets today, is close behind leading conventional car models by sales, for example the popular Toyota Corolla.

The success of the Prius was a surprise for other manufacturers, and led to a lot of uncritical "wake up moment" hopes for jumping forward to all-electric cars. This also made a rapid jump back to the critical problems of battery cost, weight and safety - apart from the power capacity problem of simultaneously charging even a small percentage of cars in future national car fleets with increasing numbers of all-electrics. Batteries that can store enough energy to power cars over several hundred miles in a single day simply do not exist.

The battery problem includes being able to supply enough power to deliver repeated acceleration in powerful bursts, climb long uphill routes, and operate at night using lights, in cold conditions using heating, and hot conditions needing aircon - all of which needs additional battery power relative to ideal daytime driving conditions.

Battery tech is the focus of large numbers of hopeful hedge funds and eager "high tech" start ups, but in the real world, which is bound by physics, the lowest cost solution still remains the lead-acide battery, a 19th century electrochemical concept. To be sure, this means high weight and short range. The hailed solutions of lithium-ion (and more exotic, costly and dangerous technologies) all suffer from a variety of handicaps, especially cost and safety. Current small sedan-sized all-electrics, such as the Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt, Renault Zoe and now the Ford Focus all of which retail at around or above $32 500 before state subsidies, suffer from range shortage. The Focus Electric has a range of less than 130 kms (75 miles) on full charge under ideal drive conditions - meaning daytime, not too many hills, no cold weather, nor high heat, which further drains the battery. Most of what look likes its baggage compartment is in fact already taken, by the batteries.

Carlos Ghosn of Renault has repeatedly styled himself as "Father of Electric Cars", and his backup refrain continues to tell us oil prices "will soon exceed $200 a barrel". To be sure, Ghosn remains hopeful, but the real need for electric car makers is State subsidies. Ideal subsidies, makers like Ghosn make a point of saying out loud, would be around $7500 to $10 000 per vehicle sold. In turn this makes it entirely possible for Big Government to give car users a completely free small-sized conventional car - and pocket the change!

Present R&D thinking among the hopeful hedge funds and even more hopeful "high tech" start ups is to develop very small electric cars with the smallest battery possible and, as battery cost falls, gradually increase both the car size and battery size, and lengthen the car’s range. This new-modest approach is however not market friendly, because golf carts were already invented - a long time ago!

Electric car developers and promoters are therefore back to their 1990s mantra: give us more research money and plenty of time. And we will deliver miracles, aided by oil prices exploding, they hope. Battery technology buffs however have few problems listing the 100 main reasons why inexpensive but powerful and safe batteries cannot be made "at least at present". Time ticks by, and sales of "present generation" all-electric sedan cars are abysmal. What the car industry wants are new cars able to be cranked out by the million - but the chance of this happening are as dim as the certain brownouts which would happen when or if millions of electric cars were plugged into charge on a Sunday night.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2013 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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