Should America dig deep and go electric? That is a complex question, well worth exploring in depth. But with talk of a major investment in infrastructure to spur the weak United States economy, this may be the very best time to move to an electric car economy.
This week the Financial Times featured an article doubting the feasibility of implementing an electric car/recharging system (to replace gas automobiles) in Europe, suggesting greater fuel efficiency standards and use of hybrid vehicles instead to solve transportation problems there:
[The report] concludes that there is not much future in the much vaunted developed of all electric-powered cars. Instead, it suggests that the traditional combustion engine powered by petrol, diesel, ethanol or new biofuels still offers the most realistic prospect of developing cleaner vehicles. Carbon emissions and fuel consumption could be cut by 30-40 per cent simply by improving the performance and efficiency of traditional engines and limiting the top speed to about 170km/hr. Even that is well above the average top speed restriction in Europe, with the notable exception of Germany. New so-called “stop and start” mechanisms can produce further 10 per cent reductions that can rise to 25-30 per cent in cities. Enhancements in car electronics as well as the development of more energy efficient tyres, such as Michelin’s new “energy saver” technology, are also expected to help reduce consumption and pollution. Overall, the Syrota report says that adapting and improving conventional engines could enhance their efficiency by an average of 50 per cent. It also argues that new-generation hybrid cars combining conventional engines with electric propulsion could provide an interesting future alternative. The report warns that the overall cost of an all-electric car remains unviable at around double that of a conventional vehicle. Battery technology is still unsatisfactory, severely limiting performance both in terms of range and speed. The electricity supply for these batteries would continue to come from mostly fossil sources. [Emph Added].
There are several systemic problems that must be resolved regarding the electric car economy: battery technology must improve significantly for performance; charging architecture must be developed to make it easy to recharge cars after long commutes; national power grids must be able to handle dramatically increased loads; and the electric car must be a viable alternative to other private transportation options. Despite the hurdles to moving away from a petroleum-based transportation system, some companies and countries are nonetheless moving forward with electric cars. Thomas Friedman (yes I know I take some cheap shots at him here, but it is all in good fun) details some efforts by foreign companies to develop an electric car system that are occuring right now:
The Better Place electric car charging system involves generating electrons from as much renewable energy — such as wind and solar — as possible and then feeding those clean electrons into a national electric car charging infrastructure. This consists of electricity charging spots with plug-in outlets — the first pilots were opened in Israel this week — plus battery-exchange stations all over the respective country. The whole system is then coordinated by a service control center that integrates and does the billing. Under the Better Place model, consumers can either buy or lease an electric car from the French automaker Renault or Japanese companies like Nissan (General Motors snubbed [The Better Place’s owner]) and then buy miles on their electric car batteries from Better Place the way you now buy an Apple cellphone and the minutes from AT&T. That way Better Place, or any car company that partners with it, benefits from each mile you drive. G.M. sells cars. Better Place is selling mobility miles. The first Renault and Nissan electric cars are scheduled to hit Denmark and Israel in 2011, when the whole system should be up and running.
Making the United States viable for electric technology would no doubt be a costly endeavor, and its execution poses several inherent social, economic, and political risks risks. But the rewards of the switch could be equally great as well. Switching to an electric car economy would dramatically decrease the amount of oil this country imports. A dramatic decrease in American oil demand would likely cause the price of oil to drop significantly worldwide, and the numerous authoritarian oil-exporting regimes would have less money to finance terror, or even a security apparatus to shackle their citizens, and would be compelled to reform. Could/Would Iran finance Hezbollah if oil was at ten dollars per barrel?
Demand for batteries could spur an entirely new industry in this country, generating thousands of manufacturing jobs. Likewise, the need for increased energy output would require an investment in new power plants (by necessity many nuclear plants, not just the unproven wind and solar plants that Friedman touts in the article), something our antiquated and overtapped power grid sorely needs this very moment. Over the long term, increased energy production and a decrease in oil prices would lower overall energy costs, which would dramatically help Americans on a fixed income (reduced heating bills in the Northeast, for starters).
So think big, and think about an electric car economy, new administration. This is the kind of visionary infrastructure investment that could dramatically change the security and economic status of the United States, much more so than a nationwide big dig.
Post Script: Friedman, who has supported the auto bailout in earlier columns, interestingly concludes his Better Place-espousing column with this jab at the Big Three:
Do not expect [movement to an electric car economy] to come out of Detroit. Remember, in 1908, the Ford Model-T got better mileage — 25 miles per gallon — than many Ford, G.M. and Chrysler models made in 2008. But don’t be surprised when it comes out of somewhere else. It can be done. It will be done. If we miss the chance to win the race for Car 2.0 because we keep mindlessly bailing out Car 1.0, there will be no one to blame more than Detroit’s new shareholders: we the taxpayers. [emph. added]
UPDATE: Pres Elect Obama is apparently going to propose a stimulus package that approaches $1 Trillion in January, according to this report; that should be more than enough to at least get America started on the electric car economy, no? There might even be enough plata left after working energy independence issues to invest in a bunch of really dumb programs that do not help anyone, or have no lasting positive impact on the country, so everyone could be happy.