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Wednesday
Mar242010

Has the Plug-In Vehicle’s time ended before it began?

I am still skeptical about plug-in electric vehicles (PEV).. It is hard to get any range beyond that needed for mid-distance commuting from them. A simple calculation converting kilowatts to horsepower will show you that they will always take too long to charge, at least using anything that looks like today’s plugs. Power management, including brake harvesting, introduces possible software errors. Regulatory barriers and privacy concerns have taken the shine off of the solution. Maybe their day has already past, before it ever came.

The enthusiasm for PEVs was always driven a boundless optimism. The electric grid had large safety margins during the day, and surpluses every night. Why, PEVs could use that surplus energy at night, without increasing current infrastructure. No one would mind the long overnight charge cycle to get cheap clean transportation. But this model fails in several ways.

Household wiring, and household plugs, assume intermittent use. Unlike industrial wiring, home wiring assumes that while you may cycle a load, you will not use it continuously. Neighborhood distribution assumes the same, with the mismatched cycles of each house blending into a predictable load at the level of the neighborhood. Electric cars, especially more than one, will overload the capacity of almost any house when plugged in for hours. A neighborhood filled with such cars will require substation upgrades. PEVs would require significant upgrades to each house and each neighborhood.

Americans love cars because they let us get up and go at any time. We love the freedom of going without planning/ Long charge times will limit that freedom, perhaps enough that drivers would prefer public transportation to PEVs. We will want fast charges exactly when power is expensive. PEVs will require planning, and budgeting for each trip.

We see in the travails of Toyota the perils of software solutions in cars. Even if the wild ride of the Prius in California is a hoax, it can’t be proved. If it could be proved, it would have to be proved to a jury. Sooner or later, the complex software systems needed to support battery life management and brake harvesting and other closely tuned programs will become a liability, even if only in the minds of a jury—and then in the minds of several more.

This complexity is necessary to deal with one fact: we have no idea how to get the energy density we are used to out of batteries. Chemical energy is lighter, denser, and quicker to refill. We don’t want to use oil. Corn ethanol probably uses more petroleum than it produces. Even Americans cannot eat enough fried food to run our country on biodiesel from waste cooking oil.

Solar thermal power may provide a way out.

We know how to ferment just about any organic material into ethanol or diesel. With a few exceptions, doing so requires high temperatures, perhaps even steam. Making steam and hot water is expensive. Once again, we have a process to make fuel that uses more than it makes.

Solar thermal concentrates the suns heat. Solar thermal generators gather heat to generate electricity just as coal generates electricity. Solar thermal could supply heat for biomass fermentation without fossil fuel or electricity. Across the country, entrepreneurs are beginning to experiment with this approach to deliver a more cost competitive renewable energy product.

Cheap, plentiful biodiesel from waste changes everything. Cheap, plentiful biodiesel can get us off of fossil fuels. Cheap, plentiful biodiesel may give us the powerful engines that so many want along with clean consciences.

If that happens, the plug-in electric vehicle era may end before it begins.

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Reader Comments (2)

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April 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertshun2010

Toby,
I think you sell the PEV short, and you just ignore the PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle). PHEVs are already formally available by adding a battery pack to a Prius, and that is with less energy dense NiMH batteries rather than promised Li ion batteries. They offer, admittedly for more money and complexity, essentially unlimited range (wherever gasoline is sold), albeit at a little higher cost than electricity. Should plans change and the battery run down, or not start out fully charged, the backup engine kicks in to save the consumer from inconvenience or his own poor planning.
It can be argued that, in the short run, PEVs have a great niche as the second car for middle class two car families living many suburban and urban lifestyles. Families want one car for long trips, and this can be a conventional gas guzzler or PHEV (OK, maybe larger than a Prius.) For very many of us, 40 or 50 miles of EV range will work fine with just a little planning. (Dear, can the car pool drive you on Thursday so I can have the PHEV? You know your 150 mi/day commute is not working for us anymore.)
OK, PEVs will need some infrastructure changes, but one would think power companies could accept this as a cost of increasing sales to customers and taking a petroleum avoidance credit for the privilege. This would likely not happen overnight and seems a small price to pay for keeping off-peak electrical sales up while actually enabling consumer conservation - EVs with regenerative braking can double energy efficiency over standard cars. And PEVs and PHEVs really can be almost perfect load levelers if one has a smart grid connection.
If the US ever adopts a real energy policy (and repeals the 11th Bill of Rights guaranteeing unlimited cheap energy to all citizens), or if the third world’s burgeoning middle class really does double the number of cars on the road in a maxed out petroleum supply age (just about now), the economics of $4-8/gal gas will encourage some of us to try slightly altered lifestyles.
The wild ride of the CA Prius is a real concern, but Americans accept 40K/year vehicle deaths with equanimity, as a cost of freedom and convenience, and have probably already largely accepted it as a minor glitch. Modern gas powered cars also have computer problems.
The low energy density of batteries is an issue, but new Li ion batteries are better, and research should someday enable a practical rechargeable metal-air battery. And if we were really worried about carrying around extra weight, we wouldn’t drive SUVs, or we would adopt Lovins’ light weight, but higher initial capital composite technologies.
Biofuels have a place, but, as Elon Musk (Tesla Motors) observed, ‘A person might use 3,000 calories in a day, but a car would use 300,000. Cars take a lot more energy than people do.’ (A gallon of gas is about 31,000 calories.) With plants generating biomass at less than 2% efficiency, before conversion to biofuel, even 25% replacement of petroleum may be a chimera. At the end of the day, we can chose how, but we will also have to use less energy, a lot less, for transportation.

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Pinschmidt

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