Will electricity save the car?

Nov 29, 2013 by Peter Pudney, The Conversation
The 2011 Tesla Roadster Sports could hit 100 km/h in less than four seconds and be charged from a standard power point.

Cars defined the 20th century … [They] shaped the wars that were fought, the way cities developed and how people and goods were moved around … [As] we look to alternative technologies to fuel more than a billion cars and trucks on the world's roads, the most efficient transport solutions are more likely to re-power these vehicles rather than replace them.—Sparking an Electric Vehicle Debate in Australia, by the Energy Supply Association of Australia.

It is undeniable that cars played an important role in shaping life in the last century. But is the Energy Supply Association - the peak lobby group for Australia's big electricity and gas generators and suppliers - right to assume that will continue?

Will cars, even electric ones, survive the 21st century?

Sparking debate

Released today, the ESAA's Sparking an Electric Vehicle Debate paper explores the potential of plug-in to contribute to the transformation of transport in Australia. (A forthcoming paper will consider the potential for natural gas vehicles.)

The paper gives a comprehensive summary of the potential benefits of electric vehicles, and the barriers to adoption.

Some of the compelling benefits of electric vehicles include:

  • no CO2 emissions from driving, when charged from renewable energy sources (more on that shortly)
  • no smog-producing exhaust
  • smooth, quiet acceleration
  • significantly lower energy costs, even when charged using renewable energy
  • lower maintenance costs.

The paper goes on to describe why we need to look beyond internal combustion engines to power our cars - including to save money on fuel, noting that " have equivalent fuel costs of approximately 3 cents per kilometre, compared to 10 cents per kilometre for conventional cars".

What's holding back the electric car?

Electric vehicles have their advantages, but do these outweigh the disadvantages? Buyers are still hesitant. According to the report:

plug-in vehicles still only represent around 0.2 per cent of the global car fleet

the 'tipping point' for adoption may be two decades away.

The barriers to the adoption of electric vehicles include high purchase price, "range anxiety", long recharge times, lack of charging infrastructure and uncertainty of resale value. Some of these barriers are problems of perception.

But a massive shift is needed, given there are 16.6 million vehicles in Australia alone.

What could drive major change?

The ESAA paper suggests several options for encouraging the uptake of electric vehicles, including:

  • subsidies
  • use of transit lanes and dedicated parking spaces
  • support for infrastructure providers
  • partnerships with long-distance travel providers, such as airlines, railways and car hire companies
  • partnerships with electricity companies, which could use electric vehicles to help stabilise the .

Mandatory vehicle CO2 standards would also help. Since 2011, the previous federal Labor government had been discussing mandatory CO2 emissions standards for cars, to apply from 2015, but that plan wasn't enacted before the election.

Financial incentives such as purchase price subsidies, discounts on registration costs and tax incentives are possible, but unlikely. If they are used, the value of incentives should be commensurate with the benefit to society of each electric vehicle.

Plugging cars into the power grid

Members of the ESAA - which include major electricity and gas companies such as AGL and Origin Energy - would benefit from the ability to sell more electricity during off-peak times.

Directly controlling when cars are charged would also allow electricity system operators to improve reliability without having to increase the capacity of transmission and distribution systems. These two factors combined would reduce the network costs per kilowatt-hour of electricity delivered.

But we would need to change the way we use and pay for electricity, including needing all states to start allowing time-of-use pricing of electricity (that is, paying more when demand is highest, and less when it's lower), as well as incentives for participating in demand management schemes.

International standards that would allow transfer of energy from vehicles back to the electricity grid are progressing, but slowly.

Ultimately, more flexible pricing of electricity and more flexible control of electrical loads such as electric vehicle chargers would enable greater use of electricity generated from renewable energy sources.

Electricity emissions

Electric vehicles have no CO2 emissions when recharged from renewable energy sources. But determining CO2 emissions when electric vehicles are charged from non- is not so straightforward.

CO2 emissions from conventional cars are measured as a sample car is driven on a dynamometer, following a standard speed cycle. Electric cars are evaluated using the same test cycle, but the energy required to recharge the car is measured instead of CO2.

To determine CO2 emissions, you need to take into account both the emissions from the car and the upstream emissions used to produce the generator fuels.

The National Transport Commission's Information Paper on CO2 emissions from new Australian vehicles 2012 reports that the average CO2 emissions for new cars in 2013 was 199 g/km. You need to add about 8% to this to account for CO2 emissions from the production of petrol or diesel fuel, giving a total of 215 g/km.

The emissions associated with the use of electricity in Australia can be found in the National Greenhouse Accounts Factors, July 2013. The average for Australia is easy to remember: one kilogram of CO2 for each kilowatt-hour of electricity delivered.

Emissions vary across Australia because of the different mixes of energy sources used: for instance, they're highest in Victoria, which relies heavily on burning high-emission brown coal, and lowest in Tasmania, which can draw on more hydro-electric power.

The following compares the CO2 emissions for a fully electric Nissan Leaf and more conventional cars in different parts of Australia.

Grams of CO2 per kilometre

228 Nissan Leaf in Victoria
215 2012 new car average
182 Nissan Leaf in New South Wales
164 Nissan Leaf in Queensland
145 Nissan Leaf in Western Australia
133 Nissan Leaf in Northern Territory
129 2012 "best in class" average
126 Nissan Leaf in South Australia
38 Nissan Leaf in Tasmania

Cars in Australia are subdivided in to fifteen market classes based on vehicle type and size. If each car sold in Australia in 2012 was replaced by the best performer in its class, the average new car emissions would have dropped from 215 g/km to 129 g/km, which is lower than electric vehicle emissions everywhere except South Australia and Tasmania.

Clearly, if we want to do better than conventional fuels, we must use renewable energy to recharge our electric vehicles.

Beyond cars

Replacing combustion engines with electric motors in vehicles can reduce , but it will not solve the other problems associated with cars: high energy use, congestion, and road trauma.

You can't solve mobility problems by giving everyone a car. For instance, in crowded Beijing, vehicle licence plates must be won in a lottery. Even if you win a plate, there are restrictions on which days you may drive.

The ESAA paper gives a good overview of the issues surrounding the adoption of electric vehicles, and will spark some useful discussions. But the report also concedes that it will take three or four decades for widespread adoption of electric vehicles. Can we wait that long?

Electric cars solve only some the problems associated with cars. Change is slow. We also need to start thinking now about what will come after the car, and whether we want cars to define this century as much as they did the last.

Explore further: Energy to power tomorrow's electric vehicles

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1 / 5 (7) Nov 29, 2013
I wonder if anyone, ever, has forgotten to take the garbage out at night, only to realize that in the morning?

I wonder if anyone, ever, will forget to plug in their electric car for charging overnight? I wondering if anyone has ever forgotten to charge their cell phone overnight...

It's probably a better idea to take vast amounts of extra energy with you in your car in the form of gasoline that you will never forget about overnight because it's already in your car.
1 / 5 (7) Nov 29, 2013
The car, like the polar bear, will be fine.

You all need to find something better to do than dancing to algore and the Watermelons.
1 / 5 (6) Nov 29, 2013
"electric cars have equivalent fuel costs of approximately 3 cents per kilometre, compared to 10 cents per kilometre for conventional cars".

That's highly specious.

You have to count the cost of the battery as well, because putting energy through the battery wears it down. Taking plain battery cell prices at $250/kWh and 2000 cycles and 250Wh/km, you must add 3 cents more per km on top of the electricity cost.

But the real problem is that you'll never get to use all the kilometers out of your battery because lithium batteries have limited shelf lifes. They break down slowly whether you drive it or not.

The Tesla Model S battery for example is warrantied to 8 years and costs roughly $30,000 USD. If you manage to drive 15,000 km a year for 10 years before you have to replace it, you end up paying 20 cents a kilometer!

Even if the battery prices were halved, you'd still pay 10 c/km extra in the price of the car just for the battery.
1 / 5 (6) Nov 29, 2013
It's highly unlikely any lithium battery of today's production will last more than 10 years, because they're simply too unstable; the higher the energy density the faster they tend to break down. Ordinary laptop or cellphone batteries for example have lifetimes of just 4-5 years.
not rated yet Nov 29, 2013
The key point is the battery technology, the energy density of lithium battery is still not high enough. Even if the energy density has break through, there won't be enough lithium in the world for every car.
not rated yet Nov 30, 2013
Even if the battery prices were halved, you'd still pay 10 c/km extra in the price of the car just for the battery.

If the current development trends continue, the price per kWh of high density batteries should indeed halve over the next few years. Batteries don't follow Moore's Law - not even close - but the development pace is still pretty swift.

Current batteries are just *just* energy dense enough to be moderately useful in electric cars. But even if we assume that density will stay the same, if price comes down their use will grow dramatically. A Model S might not be able to carry much more in battery weight than it already does, but the Leaf and the Volt certainly could carry more.

That is, of course, ignoring the oft commented on but rather unlikely possibility that there will be a major breakthrough in battery or capacitor technology any time soon.
not rated yet Nov 30, 2013
Tesla has already solved some of the obstacles. (1) Model S range is sufficient. (2) Charging speed (120–135 kW) is fast enough. (3) Tesla charging infrastructure is ready by 2015 in North America and Western Europe.

Still remaining obstacle is the cost issue and today EVs are better performing than gasmobiles only in price category over $50k. But for luxury car price category, it possible to make safer and better handling car using all electric drivetrain.

With zero emission electric cars it is possible to increase greatly the passenger car density by building driving tunnels under the megacities. So perhaps electricity can solve the traffic issue. Also parking problem can be solved with self-parking and vertical parking towers.
not rated yet Nov 30, 2013
Batteries don't follow Moore's Law

Actually lithium batteries are following Swanson's Law.

A Model S might not be able to carry much more in battery weight than it already does

Model S battery pack weights 550 km which is similar to similarly powered ICE drivetrain. E.g. BMW M5 weights 2000 kg and Model S weights 2100 kg with better weight distribution. 1000 kg battery pack has the range of 800 km, but 500 kg extra weight will have some penalty on handling.
1 / 5 (6) Nov 30, 2013
All the international yelling, brouhaha, bigoting and punditry, are simply not needed. The electric car will come, whether we do our utmost to further it, or whether we don't give a damn.

All we need is that battery technology advances a couple of steps. And that will happen. Period. But from a global perspective, if it takes two or fifteen years, is not going to make such a big difference. (Al Gore would disagree, but I'm not listening.) And from then on, electric rechargeable vehicles will be the only mode of transport for Arbitrary Routes. (Regular Routes will, of course be serviced by buses, trains and airplanes.)

Since we don't anymore need a huge and heavy engine, the difference between Real Cars and mini cars and bicycles and Segway type transport, will get increasingly blurred. I would also expect that people will not bother owning a car, since you don't drive anymore, and hence, you don't get to abuse the engine and transmission. You'll simply hire a car for the trip.
1 / 5 (6) Nov 30, 2013
"since you don't drive anymore, and hence, you don't get to abuse the engine and transmission. You'll simply hire a car for the trip."

(Ran out of Brevity.)

Since you don't get to abuse the car, all cars will be equally good. In other words, a random car will be as good as any other. Whether you want to get to the office in the morning, like every other day, or if you want to have a bigger car for the weekend trip, you simply enter your wishes on a web site. Come morning, your car-for-the-day will be waiting for you on the driveway. In-car CCTV will make you behave during the trip. :-) Can't barf and blame the next user.


Personally I'm really sad for losing the use of my driving skills. In the future nobody will need a driver's licence. -- Will this be the end of the World Rally Series?

1 / 5 (5) Dec 01, 2013
The car, like the polar bear, will be fine.

You all need to find something better to do than dancing to algore and the Watermelons.

You haven't found anything better to do than post a few quips that you've copied from somewhere.
1.8 / 5 (5) Dec 02, 2013
Actually lithium batteries are following Swanson's Law.

At least on small volumes. The million dollar question is, can the same development be sustained? Lithium prices have multiplied, plus the increasing electricity costs due to renewable power and CO2 taxes etc. and the experience curve effect is technically slowing down, yielding smaller and smaller price drops as volumes increase (diminishing returns).

To get electric cars competetive with internal combustion engines, you have to halve the price twice. First time gets to parity, and the second halving makes it cheaper to drive, unless people start using natural gas to drive, in which case the battery prices have to halve a third time.

not rated yet Dec 03, 2013
Eikka, Tesla has already halved once the battery cost from your figure. The battery cost of Tesla is only $250 per kWh where as battery cost of BMW and Nissan (your source) is $500 per kWh. Therefore only one halving is needed. This halving should be ready around 2016 to 2020. 60–80 kWh EV is cheaper and more practical than gas mobile when the battery price is around $150 per kWh.
1 / 5 (3) Dec 03, 2013
Eikka, Tesla has already halved once the battery cost from your figure. The battery cost of Tesla is only $250 per kWh where as battery cost of BMW and Nissan (your source) is $500 per kWh.

I was assuming the $250/kWh, and the Tesla battery is not "just" $250/kWh but somewhat more.

The problem is that this basic price which applies to the plain battery cells instead of the whole package, is highly misleading. The battery lifetime can be estimated to be just 10 years at any rate regardless of how much you drive, and given the number of miles an ordinary person drives in ten years, the cost per mile will be high.

If you have 85 kWh of capacity and it costs you $250/kWh you pay $21,250
Assume that you drive 15,000 km a year, therefore by year 10 you've gone 150,000 km.
Therefore cost per km equals 14.2 cents plus the 3 cents for electricity which is 17.2 cents.

Then you take into account higher future electricity prices, and you end up with something around 20 c/km
1 / 5 (3) Dec 03, 2013
Of course, if you have to buy a $21,250 battery for a 10 year old car, you'll probably choose to buy a whole new car because you'll probably have to spend the money anyways in repairs to keep it running and road-legal the next ten years. You have to start replacing brakes, shocks, joints, bearings, lights, A/C components...

That's why it's highly likely that the entire car is a total loss in terms of resale value beyond ten years, and the price of the entire vehicle should be counted in the cost of driving, unlike in gasoline cars which don't have such massive expenditures to pay at half-way through their life cycle.

See, the total cost of a car also depends on how long it's going to be on the road. Current car average age is about 10-12 years, because the oldest cars in use are about 20-25 years old. If you want to argue that a more expensive electric car is still cheaper to drive, it has to do the same - but they don't.

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