Has the Plug-In Vehicle’s time ended before it began?
Wednesday, March 24, 2010 at 10:58PM
Toby Considine

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.

Article originally appeared on New Daedalus (http://www.newdaedalus.com/).
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