Challenges of the electric age

- Will electric vehicles save the planet? Will they save the automotive industry? Will they save Chevrolet? Will plunking a lithium-ion battery into an automobile like the much-touted Chevrolet Volt make a difference?

As with many technological fixes, experts say the answer seems to be sort of, but maybe not exactly how we think.

While environmentalists and auto industry executives see electric vehicles as the panacea to what ails their respective interests, not everyone is convinced the power source – lithium-ion batteries – is a long-term solution. Critics say that while the battle against CO2 emissions is well served as more electric vehicles and hybrids hit the road, a new host of issues arise.

The benefits of lithium-ion batteries, though, are undeniable.

According to Chevrolet's projections, the Volt, scheduled to appear in 2011, will travel up to 65 kilometres from a single battery charge. It will also travel more than 483 km with its fuel-powered engine generator. Using gasoline to recharge the battery, the Volt averages about 100 kilometres per litre.

Many commuters will make it to work and back on a single charge, and to the cottage and back on the fuel-powered generator. At the average cost of electricity, a typical Volt driver would pay about $2.75 to travel 160 km. A trip from Toronto to Ottawa and back would cost about $16.

While the Volt will use gas more efficiently than hybrids that switch to gas-power when the battery runs out of juice, the Nissan Leaf is powered solely by a lithium-ion battery that is supposed to deliver twice the range of conventional batteries. A single charge will take the Leaf up to 160 km and produce zero emissions. However, to go any farther, the Leaf's battery will have to be recharged or swapped out for a fully charged one (which makes a 450 km trip from Toronto to Ottawa much more of an adventure).

Ontario, which expects electric vehicles to make up one in 20 vehicles by 2020, has announced plans to integrate electric vehicle recharging stations into government and GO Transit parking facilities and is working with Better Place, a Palo Alto, California company, to build a network of electric vehicle charge spots and switch stations, says Mark Ingram, senior communication officer with the ministry of economic development and trade.

Similar initiatives across North America will help boost the sales of electric vehicles.

However, there is still debate over whether electric vehicles will dramatically stem climate change, boost overall automotive manufacturing or save Chevrolet. For instance, the Volt will reduce emissions and the Leaf will be emission free but they both require electricity, the production of which produces CO2.

“Nothing is perfect,” says Dr. Jon Hykawy, a lithium analyst with Toronto-based Byron Capital Markets. Dr. Hykawy, who holds a PhD in physics and an MBA, says the U.S. consumes 9 million barrels of motor gasoline per day, equivalent to 11 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy. The U.S. electrical grid, on the other hand, produces 13 billion kWh of energy per day. In short, if every automobile owner drove an electric vehicle, the grid would need double the capacity.

Yet even in its dirtiest form, electricity from the grid is about 60 per cent cleaner than gas.

In addition, there were some concerns that demand for lithium might outstrip supply by 2013 without massive investments to ensure the supply continues. Lithium is mostly produced now in South America now but China is expanding production. While there could be boom-bust cycles of supply in the medium-term, the supply concerns have abated. While the price of Lithium might experience some pressure as production grows, lithium only accounts for about 3.5 per cent of the cost of batteries, so even a doubling of price would have a modest impact on the price of lithium powered vehicles.

For those reasons, Dr. Hykawy is a proponent of EVs. “They make sense because you are not going to eliminate the personal vehicle in North America in the short run.”

Lithium batteries are not a panacea to what ails the auto industry – an economic recovery is more crucial – but Dr. Hykawy sees them as more than an interim step as we move towards a more renewable energy source because there is no other energy source on the horizon that can be used in affordable, mass produced vehicles.

Virtually eliminating the personal vehicle is what has to be done if society wants to stem global warming, says Ian Bruce, climate change specialist with the David Suzuki Foundation. Bruce would like to see “sustainable cities, compact cities designed more around people and less around cars.” That means far less urban sprawl, greater densification and vastly improved public transit.


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