Category Archives: Vehicles

Can the Electric Vehicle Replace Liquid Fuels?

Electric cars are making headlines all the time theses days.  Governments are promoting electric vehicles through tax credits, loan guarantees, and regulation.  For many it seems like the age of the electric car is finally coming upon us (especially with vehicles like the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf on the market).  It seems to me that electric cars are getting disproportional amount of attention when you consider that there are other options for future transportation.  I believe that we cannot replace the vast majority of our liquid transportation fuel with electricity.

Why I Believe Liquid Fuel is Still in the Future of Transportation

With electric vehicles usually comes increased electrification of society. Unfortunately, that does not mean that all vehicles can use electricity as their main energy source. There are some major points that I think people overlook when considering electric vehicles:

  1. Large vehicles (like semi-trucks) will still need a liquid fuel to power combustion engines
  2. Electric vehicles take too long to charge, and do not offer long distances
  3. Electrical demand will require more power generation and eventual grid upgrade(s) (smart grid)

In order to power large engine driven equipment like dump trucks, front end loaders, boats, etc…, we will need a liquid fuel source because no technology exists to power these pieces of equipment using electricity (batteries).  Perhaps you’re wondering if these pieces of equipment be powered using batteries.  The answer is possibly in some cases, but it is unlikely that we will see batteries powering a large barge going to the other side of the world anytime soon.  These types of vehicles need to be able to refuel quickly and have the ability to run for a long duration, something that electric vehicles do not currently offer.  It is because of these types of heavy duty equipment that we must still use liquid fuels and combustion engines for the foreseeable future.  If we must continue to use liquid fuels for the above equipment, why not also use liquid fuel for average cars too?

Can you imagine trying to drive form Michigan to Florida with a Nissan Leaf?  With a maximum of roughly 100 miles, it would take a VERY long time to go such a distance (not that it doesn’t already).  In order to travel long distances you must have a vehicle that can obtain an energy source very quickly (like getting fuel at a gas station).  It is this type of situation that has made Chevy engineers put a combustion engine in their ‘electric vehicle’ (the Chevy Volt).  When a person needs to go somewhere, they usually cannot afford to wait around for several hours before traveling.  The convenience of electric vehicles is not quite there yet.  For many, the distance issue may not be a problem on a daily basis, but on some occasions a different form of transportation will be needed (train, plane, combustion based automobile).

If electric vehicles take off, the demand on the electrical grid to power these vehicles will also take off. If the electrical demand rises, the use of fossil fuels in the power generation sector will have to rise too.  I know many electric vehicle advocates promote renewable energy to generate power, but the simple fact is that without a smart grid it is more likely we will see a larger proportion of fossil fuels being used instead.  In order to minimize the power loss, and because the current grid doesn’t offer the control to distribute electricity efficiently enough, fossil fuels will continue to see high usage.  Fossil fuels have the luxury of being placed closer to high power demand locations than alternative energy installations.  The lack of a smart grid will equate to little renewable energy buildup in comparison to what we really need.  This is not to say that renewable energy generation won’t increase, but rather that large renewable energy sources will remain few (in comparison to what we need and expect in order to replace fossil fuels and keep up with demand).  For example, large wind installations have been delayed or even cancelled due to the lack of quality grid infrastructure (see previous posts, Advancing Wind Power and The Power Grid Unable to Meet Our Needs).  I believe that the use of electric vehicles will be fine with our current system for a while, but eventually the need to implement a smart grid system will become a necessity.

Conclusion

Electric vehicles offer only one possible benefit at this time, reducing the use of oil.  The likelihood of electric vehicles reducing the use of oil, or even fossil fuels, is pretty low at this point.  Electric vehicles use batteries which require the use of rare earth minerals, manufacturing, transportation, and proper disposal.  All of these requirements take energy that requires the use of oil and/or fossil fuels.  When you factor in the use of fossil fuels on our nations electric grid with the fact that batteries require a fair amount of energy to produce and dispose of, the benefits of these electric vehicles really comes into question.  It seems like fossil fuel usage is being moved from the transportation sector to other sectors like manufacturing or electricity generation.  With the invention of other storage techniques, increased usage of renewable energy via the smart grid, or a low energy method to produce and handle batteries, we might see more benefits to the electric vehicle.  Until these things happen I don’t see how going to buy a Nissan Leaf or a Chevy Volt is going to help reduce fossil fuel usage, reduce oil consumption, or produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

 

Note: The Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt are the two mainstream vehicles currently available so I am using them as examples.

 

 

Transportation: Future Energy Source(s)

Oil is continually becoming more scarce and more expensive to acquire, because of this finding a substitute is very important.  Unfortunately, there has yet to be a feasible substitute for oil, so we are faced with a future that will probably involve several different alternative fuels.  T. Boone Pickens recently released a new video outlining his plan, and mentions that he sees a world with multiple energy types for transportation.  This made me think and as I thought about this it began to make more and more sense.

We currently have no energy source that is adequate to replace oil, so we will have to use many different energy sources for particular uses.  This means, we could end up seeing electric vehicles for in-city driving or local commuting and hydrogen, fossil fuel, and/or alternative fuel vehicles for a multitude of uses.  Each energy type will play a role in our future, depending on geological location and vehicle usage.  Vehicles that are used for heavy loads may operate on diesel or natural gas, and vehicles that are used for every-day city driving may be electric, hybrids or alternative fuel powered.  Using multiple energy sources will complicate the consumers purchasing decisions, because consumers will need to choose vehicles based on energy type and predicted usage.

Our energy future must rely on sources of energy other than oil, and because of this we will see several different energy sources emerge.  Consumers will need to have a basic understanding of energy.  Energy will play a MAJOR role in the majority of our future decisions. In addition to alternative fuels, I also believe we will see an increase of rail-based transportation being used.  Rail transportation is generally energy efficient and relatively convenient.  Using energy without thought will become a thing of the past.

Here are my thoughts, i look forward to seeing some of your thoughts/comments below.

What About The Electric Car Buzz?

Recently there has been a lot of buzz surrounding electric cars, like the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf.  Electric cars have been idolized as the cars of the future, the perfect balance of usefulness and cleanliness.  The interesting thing about the electric car though, is that it has been around since the beginning of the automobile.  Electric cars aren’t anything new and breathtaking; the only thing that could be new or breathtaking about an electric car could be some of the technological advancements that are being put to use.

The electric car has been competing with the combustion engine since the beginning. Initially the electric car had a decent market share but as the combustion engine advanced and oil prices lowered, so did the number of electric cars.  The combustion engine has been able to offer everything that consumer’s desire:

  • Long range
  • Convenience
  • Speed
  • Power
  • Affordability
  • Durability

Some of the above bullet points might be debatable, but if you look at the overall history of the combustion engine I think all of these items hold true.  The combustion engine is not without negatives though.  Some of the more widely known are:

  • Pollution
  • Low efficiencies (i.e., fuel economy, energy efficiency, heat, etc…)
  • Wear and tear (i.e., spark plugs, cylinders, etc…)

Overall the combustion engine has and continues to offer many positives that are cheaper and better than anything else currently available.

What is it about the electric car that brings so much excitement and hope?

The electric car has enormous potential, but the problem is that it has a ways to go before that potential can be achieved.  Some of the known potentials of the electric car include things like: being clean, reducing oil usage and getting its energy from renewable sources.  Some of the biggest challenges for the electric car are, battery longevity and reliability, energy consumed to manufacture and dispose of vehicle components, and the integrity of the electric grid.

Fundamentally the electric car hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years, but there are some advancements in battery technology, energy conservation and regeneration that are helping to improve their viability.  In my opinion one of the single most exciting things about the electric car is that the electric motor can achieve 90% energy conversion efficiencies.  This number is amazing when compared to a typical internal combustion engine, which has efficiencies of about 15-20%.  This type of efficiency gain could drastically reduce the overall energy usage of a vehicle.

What sort of drawback does the electric car have?

Up to this point, electric cars have only used batteries as a means to store energy (besides a few experimental vehicles using other storage methods).  Your typical lithium-ion battery has a charge/discharge efficiency rating of roughly 80-90%, which makes the battery a decent storage medium for vehicle applications.  While there have been some improvements in battery technology over the years, batteries still have their share of problems like weight, susceptibility to climate change, durability and expense.  Many of these problems we have personally experienced in our daily lives in devices like cell phones and laptops.

The batteries in the Chevy Volt for example, are estimated to last up to 100,000 miles or 10 years. At which point the cost to replace the battery is estimated to be in the $2,000-$3,000 range, although current costs are actually around $10,000.  This seems unfeasible for typical consumers, not to mention the complete waste of energy and resources used for manufacturing and disposing of the battery.

Conclusion

While the electric car has the potential to be something really great, the battery is a bit of drawback at this point.  Hopefully researchers can continue to improve battery performance or develop other technologies to use as the storage medium instead.  Another key very important thing to consider is where the electricity to charge these electric cars comes from.  Again the electric seems ideal but once you consider the big picture it is far from ideal…at least at this point.

Tell me what you think:
Can the electric grid handle large numbers of electric cars?
Do you think electric vehicles have the potential to overtake the combustion engine?

Sources:

The Wall Street Journal – The Long Road:Electric Vehicles

Wikipedia – Lithium-ion battery

Fueleconomy.gov – Advanced Technologies & Energy Efficiency

What to do when you’re away from public transportation

Now, I know many of you out there probably don’t live in a large city so; you do not have a public transit system that you can use. I fall into this category.  I live in a small town of roughly 9,000 people.  I have to travel roughly 20 miles from my house everyday when college is in session.  I typically am traveling college related things about six or seven days a week.  This, of course, can add up to a lot of miles per week and a lot of energy usage. So, what types of options are there when public transportation isn’t an option?

There are several options that can be used to help reduce your energy usage:

  • Carpooling
  • Purchase an efficient vehicle
  • Maintain your current vehicle
  • Travel less

Carpooling

Carpooling is an excellent choice if you can arrange travel with someone local.  The biggest problem that I have with carpooling is scheduling.  I am not able to carpool because I usually never know how long I will be at school. The amount of time that I may spend at school will vary day-to-day, it all depends on the schoolwork load that I have.  If I weren’t a student and worked a ‘normal’ job then this would definitely be an option I would consider.  If you live near a work friend, then by all means take advantage of carpooling.  Carpooling reduces the energy used because you are driving one vehicle for two people instead of two cars for two people.  Carpooling reduces wear and tear on your vehicle as well as the amount of gasoline used; all of this will save you money as well.


Purchasing an efficient vehicle

Purchasing a new vehicle can be a good option, depending on the circumstances.  If you are in the market for a vehicle, then by all means buy a fuel-efficient vehicle.  If you are not in the market for a new vehicle, then buying a vehicle is typically not very economical.  Usually the amount of money saved by buying a newer, efficient vehicle, is consumed in the interest on the loan for the vehicle.  If you are can afford to buy a new or used vehicle outright then you might experience a net savings.

I have been debating whether I should buy a vehicle or keep my current vehicle, a 1999 Pontiac Grand AM GT.  I like my car but the vehicle has been very repair prone during its life, plus I have 140,000 miles on the vehicle.  So I started looking at used cars in the $6,000 range.  Here were the two things I was looking for:

  1. Reliability
  2. Fuel efficiency

After spending countless hours researching vehicles I came up with the following vehicles that fit my needs: Mazda3, Honda Civic and Ford Focus.  Now the question was could I find any of these vehicles in my price range and would any of these vehicles actually save me money.

The first thing I looked at was the fuel efficiency of each vehicle, in comparison to my Pontiac Grand Am, as seen below:

Vehicle Comparison

Note: These figures were based on the price of gas being $2.50/gal and driving 18,000 miles annually. Courtesy of Fueleconomy.gov.

The above image has two key items to look at:

  1. Combined fuel economy
  2. Annual fuel cost

If you look at the combined fuel economy I would not see a signficant gain from any of these cars, except the Honda Civic.  The next thing to notice is the cost to drive each vehicle annually, which can be seen on the bottom line of the image.  At most, I could save roughly $600 dollars per year by buying a Honda Civic.

If I were to spend roughly $2000 out of pocket after selling my vehicle, then I would have to keep this vehicle three and a half years before I would begin to see a payback.  Now, granted this does not take into account repairs but these are very difficult to account for.

Again, like I said earlier, depending on your situation purchasing a vehicle could actually be beneficial.


Maintain your current vehicle

Another viable option is to maintain my current vehicle and try to make it as efficient as possible.  This in most cases will be the most cost effective method.  I have actively began to do the following:

  • Eliminate excess weight from the vehicle – I have a audio system in my car so I recently decided to take out my large subwoofers and their box.  I swapped them with a smaller, lighter pair that I have.  This way I can still enjoy my music and reduce weight.
  • Check tire pressure – I check my tire pressure every oil change, but doing it more often is preferred.
  • Slow down – Just driving 5 mph slower can make a significant impact on fuel economy.
  • Cruise control - This keeps your engines work load relatively constant which, increases fuel economy.
  • Idle less – This is actually pretty easy, for example, I have made it a habit to shut my car off when I am sitting in an touch-less car wash.
  • Maintain engine – Keeping up on maintenance intervals and repairs keeps your engine in tip-top shape, which equates to better gas mileage.

Even though my car has lots of miles on it, 140,000, I should be able to get another 60,000 miles out of it, at least.  This should get me through college, at which point I could begin my quest for a newer more efficient vehicle.


Travel less

One of the easiest ways to reduce your energy usage is to drive less.  Now, this method may seem way too obvious but, it is much harder than it sounds.  If you are like me and have somewhere you have to be everyday, then this will consist of less joy rides or consolidating vehicle trips.  I always try to consolidate trips and keep wasteful driving down to a minimum anyways.  The problem is that I, unfortunately, have to be at school every day of the week (when school is in session).  Next time you want to make a trip to town for something ask yourself: can this wait or is there anything else that I need while in town?
If there is anything you feel I missed, leave a comment and we can discuss it.

Also, if anyone has any ideas or suggestions regarding my decision to purchase or keep my vehicle, please feel free to leave a comment about that too.

Coming up next…conserving in your home and what I did to reduce energy consumption in my home.  Make sure to bookmark are site or subscribe to our RSS/Email feed(s).

Transportion With Less Energy (Part 1)

Transportation is one of the largest users of energy in our society.  If you break down transportation even further you will find that privately owned vehicles are the largest users of energy within the transportation sector.  Privately owned vehicles are vehicles owned by people like you and me.

Our society’s infrastructure is largely dependent on people owning their own vehicle.  With the exception of some major cities, public transportation is either non-existent or is dismal at best.  Unfortunately, the United States hasn’t built a very robust public transportation like many other countries in the world.  Typically public transportation in only located around large cities and there is no form of public transportation for longer travels (with the exception of Amtrak).  If you live in a large city then you typically have some options for public transportation:

  • Bus
  • Rail and Train
  • Taxi
  • Water

Public Bus Transportation

Bus systems are very common in cities, even some smaller cities.  Buses offer a good use of resources because you have one bus transporting several people.  This cuts back on energy usage and many bus systems offer decent travel times.  If you can ride the bus it will help save energy and can save you money too.  Often time’s bus fares are very reasonable because tax dollars partially fund most bus systems. Another small benefit is the reduced wear and tear on your vehicle.

Public Rail and Train Transportation

Rail and train transit systems are typically found only in large cities, like Chicago or San Francisco.  Most of the time these rail systems are located within a large city and possibly the cities suburbs.  This form of transportation is very efficient.  Rail systems offer fast transportation times; the ability to transport many people and they typically operate on efficient energy systems using electricity.  I have personally used the Chicago rail system several years ago on a trip and I found it to be a very nice system.  If I lived in that area I could easily see myself using this system for the majority of my in city travel.

Public Taxi Transportation

Taxis are another form of public transit but they are generally privately funded.  I suppose there might be some minute gain in efficiency when compared to everyone driving themselves but this still uses inefficient vehicles to transport just a single person.  The fact that taxis can reduce the amount of vehicles on the road, seems to be the only significant positive to the taxi system.  Several taxi services are looking into increasing fuel efficiency by using hybrid vehicles. This might make the taxi system more efficient but, one can argue that hybrids require more energy to produce than a typical vehicle in the first place.  Also, from my experience taxis usually are not very price competitive so, this makes this a last choice in my book.

Public Water Transportation

Water transportation is very limited and is a niche form of transportation.  When it is available though it can be a good choice both economically and environmentally.  The major downfall that I can see with water transportation is speed.  From my personal experiences, most water systems, like ferries, are relatively slow.

So what should you do if you find yourself out of reach of public transportation?

That we will discuss with my next post.

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Michelin Electric Car Revolution

Michelin, the tire company, has introduced a concept that places an electric motor in each wheel of a vehicle. Each motor is responsible for turning the wheel in which it is located. This allows car designers to use what would typically be a centralized motor compartment for pretty much anything they want. Designers could place batteries in the engine compartment instead of having to find odd battery locations when using the traditional central motor car design. This also allows car designers to not use the engine compartment at all if desired.

Michelin’s 4 electric motor design is reported to be roughly 90% efficient which is a 70% increase over typical gasoline engines. Plus like your typical electrical vehicle each tire’s motor collects unused energy when the vehicle is braking, etc… to recharge the batteries. This design is going to be available in a vehicle from Opel sometime around 2011. Opel’s vehicle is estimated to sell in the $25,000 to $37,000 range.

Could this out of the box design be just what the electric car needs to become mainstream? Who knows but I am truly happy to see a company think outside of the box when designing what many say will be the vehicles of the future.

See Treehuger article for more information.