Electric vehicle capabilities way ahead of policy, infrastructure needs

Jan 24, 2011 David L. Chandler

The technologies needed to begin seriously weaning the U.S. transportation system away from petroleum and toward alternatives such as hybrid and pure electric vehicles have made great progress, but harnessing them on a scale that would significantly lower greenhouse-gas emissions or oil imports is complicated by issues of choosing the right policies and of implementing needed infrastructure improvements.

This was a clear message from a high-level panel of experts who met last year at MIT to discuss the issues in a one-day symposium, whose conclusions were released as a report on Jan. 13 by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI).

The impetus for moving transportation systems away from petroleum is twofold, as MITEI Director Ernest Moniz explained in introducing the report: to reduce the nation’s dependence on oil imports, and to reduce the that contribute to global climate change.

MIT Institute Professor John Deutch, who with Moniz was co-chairman of the symposium, said there were some clear areas of agreement among the group, who represented a diversity of fields and areas of expertise: “The predominant view was that if you had a strong carbon policy, many of the steps that would have to be taken” to reduce petroleum dependence would happen naturally. But given the present political realities in the U.S., he said, “We’re not going to have that, so the most desirable policy option is not in front of us.”

Another area of agreement, he said, was the need for a strong government policy in support of research and development in this area. While panelists disagreed on exactly how far such subsidies should extend into actual manufacturing, he said, there was a strong endorsement of continued government support for the development of petroleum-free transportation technologies. But much more than that is needed, he said. While it would be technically feasible to reduce U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions by 50 percent by mid-century, he said, the likelihood of the government enacting and maintaining the necessary policies over that period of time is “quite dim” due to political forces.

One key enabling technology involves modernization of the nation’s electric grid, enabling more real-time monitoring and dynamic control down to the level of individual buildings, because patterns of usage could change significantly if the recharging of electric vehicles grows at a rapid pace. At the same time, the batteries in electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles could be used as an extra short-term backup system, storing from the grid when there is an excess and delivering it back when needed, in order to flatten peaks in electricity use. This could eliminate the need for construction of some new power plants, but only if changes are made to the grid infrastructure to enable such uses, said Marija Ilic, a visiting professor in the MIT Engineering Systems Division.

John Heywood, the Sun Jae Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering and former director of the Sloan Automotive Laboratory, said the report does a good job of summing up the complexities of the decisions facing this country and the world. In terms of figuring out which technologies — plug-in hybrids, fuel cells, biofuels or something else — would make the biggest dent in petroleum use, “the technology hasn’t developed enough to have clear answers,” he said. “We don’t know yet where we’re going to end up.”

All of the transportation technologies, both the conventional ones and the newer ones, are improving all the time, Heywood said, and the newer ones are getting better faster. But for now, those in the industry tend to see electrification — whether through plug-in hybrids or pure — as just a niche market, primarily because such vehicles are too expensive in their current form, and petroleum currently is not expensive enough.

Heywood said that recent developments in automotive technologies have improved fuel efficiency on average by about 1 percent per year, whereas projections of economic and population growth suggest worldwide fuel usage is increasing by about 2 percent per year — a disparity that is clearly not sustainable.

Yet-Ming Chiang, the Kyocera Professor of Ceramics at MIT and co-founder of battery company A123 Systems, said that battery technology has been improving faster than expected, as shown by the fact that projections of future battery costs have been dropping steadily. In addition, he said that automotive use is far more demanding than other applications, so even when batteries are no longer suitable for use in a car they could still have value for other applications such as backup power supplies for homes — potentially easing the cost further by providing a secondary market. “There will still be value after it’s ended its automotive life,” he said.

Moniz said he came away from the symposium more optimistic about battery technology and the prospects for significant reductions in battery costs, but more aware of the complexities involved in policy issues and in questions about how to develop the infrastructure changes needed for a significant shift away from petroleum.

On the policy front, the speakers agreed that the present situation consists of a hodgepodge of specific legislative incentives such as tax breaks, national standards such as vehicle-efficiency levels, and a wide variety of state regulations. “There really isn’t a defined national policy” with regard to curbing use or fostering an electrified future, Heywood said, “and we desperately need one.” He added, “If you really want change, it’s got to be pulled and pushed by broader policies with bite.”


This story is republished courtesy of MIT News (web.mit.edu/newsoffice/), a popular site that covers news about MIT research, innovation and teaching.

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User comments : 16

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TabulaMentis
not rated yet Jan 24, 2011
One fast solution would be trolley cars, trucks, buses and trains.

Columbus, Ohio still has a lot of the old trolley lines lingering around from their hay day.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (3) Jan 24, 2011
Is this not the reason Obama appointed the CEO of GE to a top govt post?
The GE TV commercials of GE electric outlets at the beach could be a giveaway.
toyo
5 / 5 (6) Jan 24, 2011
Back in 2007 the USA was spending well in excess of 300 billion dollars per annum in crude oil imports.
With a little creative accounting one can work future savings of a substantial proportion of this money into a current account to fund the upgrade of electricity distribution subsystems and the roll-out of electric "vehicle filler stations" across the nation.
Incidentally also:
- creating jobs
- reducing poverty
- solving the 'financial crisis'
- etc etc.
Javinator
5 / 5 (4) Jan 24, 2011
Unfortunately projects like massive infrastructure changes require large amounts of capital for long term payback (assuming there will be a payback at all).

In political terms it means that a lot of money was spent during your presidency and the benefits will not be reaped until after it's done (assuming the next president doesn't just cancel your project in the name of savings).
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (2) Jan 24, 2011
Think of the boon to all the various electrical laborers who are currently out of work.

There's an immediate payoff in starting the conversion.
ryggesogn2
1.8 / 5 (5) Jan 24, 2011
Think of the boon to all the various electrical laborers who are currently out of work.

There's an immediate payoff in starting the conversion.

How about all the oil workers being put out of work?

That's the problem with socialism, unintended consequences and poorly invested resources.
trekgeek1
5 / 5 (2) Jan 24, 2011

How about all the oil workers being put out of work?

That's the problem with socialism, unintended consequences and poorly invested resources.


Yeah, that never happens in free markets. I mean, look at the U.S. right now, we have.......... but we................. don't forget............yeah, we screwed ourselves.
Temple
5 / 5 (5) Jan 24, 2011
How about all the oil workers being put out of work?

And what about all the groomsmen and tack shop workers that the automobile put out of work?

Isn't artificially sustaining the wheezing, gasping oil industry 'for the sake of the workers' a form of 'socialism' itself?
ryggesogn2
1.8 / 5 (5) Jan 24, 2011
Isn't artificially sustaining the wheezing, gasping oil industry 'for the sake of the workers' a form of 'socialism' itself?

Where is the artificial sustainment?
The govt PROHIBITS oil drilling, pumping and refining in the USA. How is that sustaining an oil industry?
Why not promote the use of natural gas in the USA? The US has considerable reserves. Honda makes a car that runs on CNG that can be refueled in your garage if you have natural gas at home.
Every time the govt tries to pick a technology, they fail.
tpb
not rated yet Jan 24, 2011
I'll be damned if I'll use up the life of my 10,000 to 20,000 dollar electric car battery to smooth out the grid.
Who is going to pay me for replacing the battery.
TabulaMentis
not rated yet Jan 24, 2011
Isn't artificially sustaining the wheezing, gasping oil industry 'for the sake of the workers' a form of 'socialism' itself?

Where is the artificial sustainment?
The govt PROHIBITS oil drilling, pumping and refining in the USA. How is that sustaining an oil industry?
Why not promote the use of natural gas in the USA? The US has considerable reserves. Honda makes a car that runs on CNG that can be refueled in your garage if you have natural gas at home.
Every time the govt tries to pick a technology, they fail.
I think many people in Utah are using natural gas big time at a cost of around $1.00 per gallon compared to gasoline.
jbeale
5 / 5 (6) Jan 24, 2011
Where is the artificial sustainment?

[...] an examination of the American tax code indicates that oil production is among the most heavily subsidized businesses, with tax breaks available at virtually every stage of the exploration and extraction process. nytimes.com/2010/07/04/business/04bptax.html
yoatmon
not rated yet Jan 25, 2011
Well, e.g to enter London down town with a gas fueled vehicle is an expensive issue. When you get caught doing it anyway, it's even more expensive. You can use public transport to get there but no POV.
How about applying the same lever to New York, Chicago, LA, etc. etc.. I'm sure that would be an incentive to change established bad habits.
TabulaMentis
not rated yet Jan 25, 2011
The article reads: Electric vehicle capabilities way ahead of policy, infrastructure needs.

Except for the batteries that cost somewhere around $10,000.00 each to replace.

Natural gas is an infrastructure that is here and now.

As soon as gasoline prices start to go through the roof, people should start to convert their existing vehicles to run on natural gas.

There is only one problem with doing that; Russia will become richer and may use the profit for wrong purposes.
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (3) Jan 25, 2011
Think of the boon to all the various electrical laborers who are currently out of work.

There's an immediate payoff in starting the conversion.

How about all the oil workers being put out of work?

That's the problem with socialism, unintended consequences and poorly invested resources.

So you want to bail out the oil industry by artificially sustaining an outdated model? Doesn't sound too free-market and entrepreneurial to me.
PinkElephant
5 / 5 (2) Jan 26, 2011
How about all the oil workers being put out of work?
Why would that happen? Oil is used to make plastics, lubricants, etc. Oil will always be needed and useful. It's the height of stupidity, actually, to burn it in extremely inefficient engines when its supply is neither limitless nor ubiquitous.
That's the problem with socialism, unintended consequences and poorly invested resources.
Agreed; let's end socialism for the fossil fuel industry, tax them the same as any other energy modality, and start forcing them to cover the currently externalized costs -- such as those of CO2 emissions, for instance...
The govt PROHIBITS oil drilling, pumping and refining in the USA.
There's a town not too far from me (Martinez, CA) full of refineries. On most days, just driving through on the freeway the air is so foul I have to switch the AC to internal circulation. And that's even with CA's ultra-strict air quality and anti-pollution measures. I pity the people who live there.

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