Sunday, September 26, 2010

Thoughts on Electric Cars

When Henry Ford built the Model A like this one, he built it to run on the petroleum that was in abundance in America at the time, and was a fuel that was convenient to deliver to and use in cars. Something will probably replace the gasoline-burning internal combustion engine. But what? This car, by the way, once belonged to the novelist Irving Bacheller, and was restored by my friend Ken Kraft. The photo was taken by my friend Thad Seymour, in Winter Park, Florida. Wasn't the rumble seat a cool idea?

Is there an engineer out there who can help me? I need someone who knows how to draw up a nice big fat equation.

If everyone in America with a vehicle run by an internal combustion engine, suddenly took it to a junk heap and bought an electric vehicle, where would all the power come from to run all these new millions of electric cars? How much wattage would it take?

We have coal fired power plants, and oil fired power plants, and out here in the West we have some hydro power from dams. Not one of these kinds of power plants creates power without some kind of environmental impact and many people oppose building more of them.

Nuclear power, which is the cleanest form of power we can produce (that's debatable I know, but let's say it is the cleanest to the air you breathe) is no longer a factor in the U.S. It takes years and years and years to get a nuclear plant approved and constructed and billions and billions and billions of dollars, and none are in the pipeline that I know of, in spite of President Obama's guarantee of more than $8 billion dollars to jump start the process. We could debate why this happened (I think we can blame a confluence of factors from Jane Fonda to the environmental movement's confusion of nuclear energy with nuclear weapons: but that, as they says, is another story.)

The point is, we are where we are with regard to power plants in the U.S. Thus, I would very much like to know where all this electric power is going to come from to operate all these wonderful electric cars we are supposed to drop everything and design-build-drive, and how the power generation it will take to do this will impact: 1) the air we breathe; 2) the surrounding environment; 3) the electric bills we pay, which are already quite high; and 4) the power grid, which is already working at pretty close to capacity.

Has anyone thought of this, of is it just me? I mean, sometimes in the East, when the summer is really hot and everyone is running his air conditioner, they have rolling brown-outs. How will the grid handle all these cars charging all the time? Power isn't generated out of the air, unless you have a wind farm and the one on the hills just above San Francisco Bay would, as I understand it, charge up about one car.

It would seem someone who knows how to do these kinds of equations could take the number of cars in the U.S., take the number of miles driven by those vehicles, and take the comparable electrical needs of one electric-car-mile, and figure out how many more kilowatt hours of electricity we are going to need to power the vehicles of 300 million Americans, and where oh where we are going to get it.

But these are just my thoughts this morning, on reading Tom Friedman's latest column about how far behind the Chinese we are in the development of the electric car. I'm always amused when he compares us unfavorably to China, a nation run by dictators who throw anyone who disagrees with them in prison; with a nation like China which is so polluted, Olympic athletes going to Beijing had to bring their own oxygen; with China, whose rivers are so filled with sewage that diners visiting China regularly return home with hepatitis.

China is a nation with no environmental laws, no labor laws, no minimum wage, no OSHA laws, and health care that would not meet our minimum standards. Comparisons between the U.S. and China are ludicrous. We could certainly "compete" on any level with China if we wanted to be like China, which thank goodness we do not.

So, I hope someone out there will help me with this equation I need. How many more power plants would it take? And how long would we have to wait to bring them online? So that each of us could then be patient enough to wait around for our cars to charge up so we can drive another 100 miles and wait all over again.

This s why Henry Ford tossed out the electric car idea a hundred years ago. It wasn't practical. And it isn't practical now.

I have a niece who has a hybrid vehicle and some very good friends who have one too and the idea behind the hybrid is fantastic. The hybrid takes the convenience of petroleum power and stretches it further by having the vehicle charge its own battery, which is then used to get the maximum miles out of one gallon of gas. Ingenious. Not one extra power plant needs to be built for this and each hybrid on the road reduces vehicle emissions by a measurable amount.

You can always save fuel by motorcycling. But ever since my friend Steve almost died on one of these things I am not as fond of them as I used to be.

I believe it will be just such an innovative idea that will lead to the next advancement in the mass-produced personal vehicle. Not an idea from the past. But an idea for the future. And where do really good ideas come from? They come from places where they have always come from: places where a free market rewards creativity and encourages the free exchange of ideas. This would not be China.

And if you don't believe me, just picture everyone on your street, in your town, in your state, in your nation, on this planet, arriving home one evening and plugging in their automobiles simultaneously on the first full evening of electric-vehicle-commonality. The sound you will hear will be the sound of this planet's power grid crashing, a sound that will make traffic noise in Rawalpindi sound like music to the ears.

Click here for a good piece about what killed nuclear power in America

Add to Google Reader or Homepage

Subscribe to Robin Chapman News


Jon said...

Yes electric cars are not really viable without a breakthrough in energy generation. Then we would need to replace our electric grid to handle the load.

With current technology the best auto solution is diesel for high mpg. Don't think Porsche has a diesel, sorry.

Robin Chapman said...

Oh dear. That's a heart-breaker!

Jon said...

Well ther is one Porsche diesel, but I think you would probably want sportier.

Robin Chapman said...

Yes, you are right. With a Porsche, as in love, it should be all or nothing.

Devon C. said...

We've had the very same discussion at our house, the tunnel vision of environmentalists. Nothing wrong with environmentally friendly, but you've got to look at the whole picture. Nuclear power is probably the way to go, and it requires a specific plan for waste, you can't just dump nuclear waste into rivers or air. But ahh yes, our pres. all words no substance. The diesel thing is a good thing, but a person we know with a little diesel Jeep only about 4 years old only getsd 20 miles a gallon. It's not for lack of maintenance it's because the engines are designed to be environmentally friendly which caused a huge reduction in the number of miles from a gallon of diesel. As far as wind farms, they still need more thought from our inventors as I heard on NPR, the cost to produce wind energy is so high that it's not practical. So there's my two bits. Evenutally things will change or something new will be invented, because this is after all... America the land of endless opportunity.

Robin Chapman said...

Yes, I mean what are people thinking? Israel is trying to go all electric in its vehicles for obvious reasons. But it is the size of the state of New Jersey and has a population of about 6 million people. So the situation is entirely different. The big picture suggests we need to think of something new, and I suspect, like you, it will come along.

Anonymous said...

i think you should find and buy back the 1959 oldsmobile. :) LOL

Robin Chapman said...

Yes, and then I would also have a place to live when I become homeless. That car was sooooo rooomy.

Jay W. said...

Hi from FL Robin -

A US DOE study looked at this exact question and found that current electric grid could support a switch of 70% of our cars/light duty trucks to plug-in electric vehicles. You can see that info here:

"Mileage from megawatts: Study finds enough electric capacity to “fill up” plug-in vehicles across much of the nation"

It mentions existing capacity as sufficient for 100% cutover to electric cars in Midwest and East. The Pacific NW has some constraints that currently wouldn't cover 100% cutover.

Robin Chapman said...

Thanks for some real info on this. What the DOT is telling us is that the grid would be at least 30% short to supply the country, though it would vary from region to region. Not a good sign. In Israel they planning to go all electric, for obvious security reasons (they don't want to import any more petrol from Arab nations who hate them) but Israel is the size of New Jersey, so their problem is a little easier to solve. I think something else will come along before the US makes any big step toward this ...