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Page added on March 7, 2013

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The Peak Oil Crisis: An Electric Car in Your Future?


Every now and again some good news shows up, so this week I am going to share it with you. It has to do with electric-powered cars.

Now hybrids have been on the market for a decade or so and modern battery-only models for about three years. While the hybrids are selling pretty well, sales of battery-only models have been way below expectations. The reasons for this are simple. For the most part battery-only cars cost more than similarly powered internal combustion vehicles; they have limited range which may be sufficient for most trips, but leave people in fear of running out of power; the time it takes to recharge a battery is far longer than the refilling of a gas tank; and finally there are limited places where they can be recharged unless one has invested in a home recharging station.

These factors have led to a spate of recent stories in motoring magazines and the mainstream press saying electric cars are a lost cause and that even 10 or 20 years from now they will never amount to more than a few percent of cars on the road. Despite this gloomy assessment, car manufacturers in Asia, Europe, and the U.S. continue to spend billions developing new models of electric cars that soon will be on the market. Are these industrial giants as stupid as the commentators make out, or perhaps are they taking a longer view than just current sales figures?

The trump card of the electric car is simply that it does not use gasoline or diesel as a source of power. Even the partially-electric hybrids use fossil fuels much more sparingly. One can talk about the carbon emissions from coal-fired electric stations used to charge electric cars, but this is a manageable problem within the foreseeable future. Stories disparaging electric cars never mention where the cost and availability of gasoline likely will be in the future. Oil prices have been increasing at about 7 percent a year for the past decade and there is no reason, short of a major economic depression, why such increases will not continue.

Gasoline and diesel prices in non-subsidized and heavily taxed Europe are already approaching $10 a gallon. There is little reason to think that gasoline prices in the U.S. which are already in the vicinity of $4 a gallon will not be markedly higher, perhaps even unaffordable, before the decade is out. At say $10 a gallon, calculations concerning the economics of electric cars change markedly, even with expected improvements in conventional car mileage.

In Europe, which at the moment is taking the dangers of global warming more seriously than other parts of the world, much of the impetus for building electric cars is to comply with the increasingly tough emissions standards. Even in California current and future emissions rules are making electric cars an attractive option for manufacturers and are part of the reason they continue to be developed in the U.S.

A recent study concluded that the price of a mid-range car in the U.S. is now about $32,000 making the cost of buying and operating such a vehicle prohibitive for a family of median income everywhere except the Washington, D.C. region. Part of the ever-increasing cost of new cars is the drive for better fuel economy from internal combustion engines. Unless the economy recovers markedly in the next few years, sales of standard sized cars are likely to decline rapidly in the US making smaller cars and perhaps alternatives to the internal combustion engine more attractive.

If the electric car batteries were much cheaper, the range longer, and recharging faster and more readily available, such vehicles just might catch on as an attractive option in the face of ever increasing gasoline costs. This is where the good news comes in, for in the last year what may prove to be highly significant advances in battery technology have been announced and partially verified.

These new battery technologies offer the prospects of greatly lowering the cost of batteries, increasing the range of electric cars, and even offering an affordable way of storing intermittent power generated by wind and the sun.

The first announcement came in February 2012 from a start-up in California, called Envia, which announced that they had developed a battery cathode made of manganese for lithium ion batteries that would allow electrical energy to be stored at a density of 400 watt-hours per kilogram as compared to 100-180 watt-hours in current batteries.

This announcement was followed shortly by one made in March of last year from another California startup, CalBattery, who said they were developing a new lithium ion battery anode material that would allow electric cars to go three times further at a battery life-cycle cost 70 percent less than that of current batteries. Last October CalBattery announced that independent tests had verified that their new silicon-graphene anode material was showing an energy density of 525 watt-hours per kilogram which should clearly allow three times longer ranges for electric cars – provided of course that this new anode material can be introduced into batteries that will last long enough to useful.

Last week Volkswagen announced that they are going into limited production with their XL1, a two seat car that has been under development for a decade. The latest iteration of this highly streamlined car is a diesel powered hybrid which is supposed to get some 261 mpg on diesel fuel when the hybrid electric boost is considered. While a car that is made largely of carbon fiber, magnesium and aluminum is likely to be too expensive for the mass market, it gives a strong indication that light, hyper-aerodynamic cars can be built that will consume very small amounts of fossil fuels – or electricity.

These recent announcements suggest that the technology is available to keep motorized societies running a while longer without ever increasing quantities of fossil fuels and their accompanying carbon emissions.


6 Comments on "The Peak Oil Crisis: An Electric Car in Your Future?"

  1. GregT on Thu, 7th Mar 2013 3:54 am 

    The electricity where I live, comes almost entirely from hydro electric dams. As clean and renewable as it gets. We have been told that by 2020, half of all of our electricity will need to come from conservation. Where is the extra electricity going to come from to power millions of electric vehicles? Coal?

  2. BillT on Thu, 7th Mar 2013 5:25 am 

    1. The local electric grid cannot handle many hybrid cars.
    2. They start at $30,000 stripped down, which means that you need to make $60,000+/year to afford one. That eliminates 80% of potential buyers and as income erodes, the number to ever buy ANY new car will shrink to zero.
    3. Total hybrid/electric sales in the last 8 years in the US totaled 2.5 million cars or about 1% of the total cars on the road in the us.
    4. Even if 5 million were sold per year, that means a turnover of about 40 years. Personal motor vehicles will be gone long before even 20 years passes.
    5. Maybe the new batteries would be better used in stand-alone PV electric systems? That’s where I am putting my money.

  3. Kenz300 on Thu, 7th Mar 2013 5:29 am 

    It is time to end the oil monopoly on transportation fuels. All auto manufacturers are introducing electric or hybrid vehicles. This is the future.

    As batteries continue to improve and charging times decrease people will be more willing to give them a try.

    Second generation vehicles are already hitting the market with lower prices, improved technology and better mileage.

  4. J-Gav on Thu, 7th Mar 2013 12:43 pm 

    Nice idea but if you go for an electric car, make sure it’s bright yellow – like a lemon. The grid’s already on the verge of going down and an electric fleet would push it over the edge. Not much danger of that however since, as BillT says, there won’t be enough people with the money to buy them. Maybe for buses, taxis and municipal fleets to get around town … if any towns have the money to buy them, that is.

  5. Kenz300 on Thu, 7th Mar 2013 2:43 pm 

    Electric vehicles are the future. They are growing in acceptance and auto manufacturers are making improvements to the technology with each new version to come out.

    Wind and Solar energy keeps dropping in price and is now cost competitive with fossil fuels.

    They are being added to the grid faster and in greater quantity than fossil fuels.

    As solar becomes integrated in building systems like roofing shingles and window glass it will become common to generate a portion of you energy needs at home and also provide emergency back up power in the case of a power outage from the utility. It will also provide power for that electric or hybrid vehicle.

  6. GregT on Thu, 7th Mar 2013 9:34 pm 

    The manufacturing of electric vehicles, wind turbines, solar panels, roof shingles, and glass are all completely dependent on OIL. As is almost all of our technologies.

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