Saturday, October 22, 2011

Plug-in Electric Cars - Solution or Posturing?

I've written about electric cars before; I don't believe that these things are going to solve very many problems. note: I'm talking about the no-gas, plug-in variety here, not those battery/gas hybrids that you currently see driving around.

I've made the point that we cannot simply convert all of our transportation network to electricity and expect to keep motoring; there isn't enough electricity to do this without making some very difficult decisions about new sources (lots of big dams, or a nuclear plant - renewables can't provide enough).

I recently came across this article, which points out a few more reasons why you shouldn't expect electric cars to catch on any time soon.

Here is a summary:
- electric cars are simply too expensive, and the author of the article gives reasons why the price will not come down. A huge portion of the cost ($10-$15k) is in the batteries, and the problem with these is the large amounts of metals they require (30% of the cost). These are commodities that are not going to decrease in price as demand increases. And, since they require oil to extract, the cost of the batteries is dependent on the price of oil.
- electric cars are currently sold with large subsidies, offered both by governments and by the car companies themselves. Neither are economically sustainable, especially once sales increase.
- charging infrastructure is going to be very expensive to retrofit. If you have a garage, you can put a plug there, but if you are parking in the street or in a parkade, then this is much more difficult to arrange.
- Maintenance costs and resale values of these vehicles suck. Batteries last a mere 4 years, so buying a used car means you'll soon have to shell out $10k for a new battery.

The article points out that today's hybrids, with their much smaller batteries, make more sense from a cost perspective. Because of their much lower costs, they will (in fact, have already) achieve more market penetration, thus displacing more oil than pure electric cars likely ever will.

My conclusion: fully electric motors are great for public transportation and freight, where you can run overhead lines or 3rd rails and thus avoid the big batteries. They are also good for small devices that don't go far - scooters, carts, bikes. Small, cheaper plug-in cars (ie. not the Chevy Volt) can be used in specific situations, like in fleets with central management and constrained driving ranges (think golf course, university campus, downtown city core). But full plug-in car technology can't be economically scaled up to our current use model of 30+km private commutes and cross-country holiday drives. So, for instance, demanding that developers put charging stations in every parking spot in an apartment block is probably not a good idea.

Another interesting point that the article makes is that electric cars will not slow down oil consumption. Here's the argument:

If you buy a fully electric car, it may slow down your personal consumption, especially since the high cost of the car will additionally curb your ability to spend on other consumer durables made using oil. But your lower use will not keep any oil in the ground. There are not enough of you to affect oil prices in any meaningful way. Below a price of about $120-$150/bbl, demand for oil is increasing, driven mostly by demand in developing countries, because economic growth in our current world economy requires growth in energy use. (Above a sustained $120-$150/bbl we enter a whole new world, and it probably isn't one where we'll be worrying about what car to drive.)

The real reason why plug-in cars are a consideration at all is that governments and car companies can use them to make it look like they are doing something to address environmental and/or oil supply concerns. I'll let you judge the reality.

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