Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What's so green about electric cars?

Doesn't almost 60% of electricity in the US come from coal fired plants? Isn't coal a pollutant? Isn't coal mining often inherently destructive to the environment? Are these snooty people in Prius' just deluding themselves?

Can anyone tell me why electric cars are so great? Why the gubmint is/has been subsidizing their purchase? Why our political class considers them part of a "sustainable" auto industry?

By the way, here at Chez Angus we take our 4 mile commute on Honda scooters when it's warm enough and dry enough and use a Mini Cooper when it's not (we also have a Honda Element for hauling Pluto around and for whenever we need to bring more than a briefcase with us).

15 comments:

Christoph said...

I believe the argument goes that large power plants are more efficient than combustion engines.

By the way, what does your argument have to do with the Prius? As far as I know the idea of hybrids (not plug-ins) is to store excess energy, for instance from braking, in a battery and use later instead of gas. No need to burn coal.

Angus said...

Oh yeah, I think you are right. I was reading this morning about converting Prius' to "plug in" versions and about companies plans to make factory plug in models (chevy volt is an example). But the stock Prius doesn't tap into the grid. thanks.

Paul Ganssle said...

I also always got the impression that it is a pave-the-way sort of situation in that when everyone is driving electric cars, we can switch to solar or nuclear or wind or any other clean power source without having to change the architecture of cars.

Kindred Winecoff said...

it takes a lot longer to get a nuclear plant built and approved than it does to slap an electric engine in a compact; we haven't built one since Three Mile Island. and we don't really have any solar technology that is powerful enough to replace coal.

Chrisoph's argument seems closer to the mark, in my view, but there are still issues. for one, to make electric cars practical we either have to retro-fit all the fuel stations in the country (at great expense) or have everybody buy a generator for their car (at great expense).

for another, there is still a huge trade-off in performance with electric cars. there are a few new models that perform better, but they are well out of the price range of the typical consumer.

Anonymous said...

Also, electric cars that "plug in the grid" would move the polution around--from rich cities to poorer rural areas.

Tom said...

The point of driving a Prius is to look green to your equally superficial friends.

/or, I could be cynic.

br said...

Tom, You're both cynical and correct. Marketing research has shown that Prius' relatively high sales volume is due to the fact that it is distinctly ugly, screaming "I'm irrationally environmentalist" to onlookers. Hybrid versions of existing cars (ex Honda Civic) don't sell well, because they only have a little badge that says, "Hybrid".

Anonymous said...

At the risk of revealing by energy nerd identity, I think I can clear up a few questions. There are 3 main arguments for hybrids and plug-ins:

1) Environmental: Enforcing pollution regulations are difficult when there are hundreds of millions of pollution sources - cars. Some states don't have emissions tests, or only have limited ones, people avoid the tests, etc. So by reducing the "point source" from millions to a few thousand - power plants - it will be easier to enforce regulations. Additionally, most pollution regulations for cars are state based, whereas power plant emissions are usually federally based (although some states like NC have even more stringent ones). So the feds can set uniform standards when most fuel is consumed for electricity production at power plants.

2) Efficiency: Unfortunately for utilities, they can't simply turn off nuke or coal plants at night when there is very little demand. These suckers run 24/7, and therefore they practically give it away for a 1/3 of the day. Even when plants are turned down at night, the less electricity they produce the higher production costs. So by being able to plug-in cars into your wall outlet at night is a huge boon to utilities. They will incur minimal costs for producing more at night to supply increased demand. That's big $!

3) National Security: The thinking goes that since coal is sourced in the US, we will not be dependent on a cartel for physical and financial supply. Also, coal helps with the first point on the enviro, as the US has enforceable regulations for mining. Whereas we get our oil from countries with little, or no, enviro laws.

These are the arguments as I understand them. I'm sure there are more and/or different ones, but these seem to all tie together.

Tim said...

I'm a different geek than Anonymous, for me it's 100% economics. I drive a hybrid AWD Escape (30MPG vs. 22 non-hybrid) and a regular 35yo diesel. I'm a professional engineer, tinker with cars, and want an electric something fierce.

Electrics would save me $ in a few ways. I can charge at home; I never go more than 30 miles in my diesel, so electric would be a direct replacement. Cost of conversion looks to be 10-15k for a pro to do it, less to DIY. This might be incremental to a new car, but most electric conversions are on cars with bad engines (read: cheap) so if I was buying a $20k car it is a wash. Opportunity costs of charging at home versus having to find a station and be late for work/home, and not being subject to the pricing whims of Exxon, Saudi Arabia, and futures traders should probably not be ignored, but I don't have a dollar value.

Running cost beats the diesel and hybrid cold: 4+miles per kWh versus (for similar size) 1.5miles per kWh each. I pay ~.10 per kWh from the electric company, versus .067c/kWh in diesel (last fill at $2.499) or .047c/kWh in gas ($1.599) so I'm looking at 40/22 price efficiency electric versus diesel, or 40/32 electric versus hybrid. My old gas cars will be worse than the hybrid and probably the diesel.

A lot of the benefit is efficiency of an electric motor: you're looking at 5-10% losses electric versus 70-80% losses on an internal combustion engine. As a cheapskate I like that how I drive can impact how much money I spend driving, and that my vehicle itself is operating efficiently.

I am not including the obligatory few-times-per-decade battery replacement costs on the electric, nor the drivetrain maintenance (oil, filters, engine/transmission replacement at 150k) on the gas. Nor did I account for motor failure being much more rare than engine failure: fewer moving parts and less loss of efficiency after aging.

I don't concern myself wrt pollutants of the internal combustion engine vs. a power-generating plant, emissions location, etc.

John Q Public said...

Paul has it right. in my line of work, we speak about "loose coupling" and "tight cohesion."

my interest is also in the cost to run and maintain an electric vehicle and never bother with getting gas again. the downside is not being able to make a 5 hour drive unless i drag a battery trailer.

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electric car conversion said...

I'm going to have to go with the argument about this platform paving the way to future solar, geo, and wind energy usage.

Right now plug-ins will most certainly depend on coal, but in a few years, solar panels on the roof of consumer homes can power them just as well. Or by community windmills or geothermal energy production of any kind...

It's really all about having the CHOICE of where the energy is being produced, because right now, the only choice cars have is from deep in the ground over in Arabia.
:(

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