Monthly Archives: May 2011

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.