Sunday, August 19, 2012

Question: Why Electric?

Good question.

It seems that most electric car proponents are what we generally call "tree huggers." I can tell you that I certainly do not fall into that category. I do agree that we need to take care of God's green earth as best as we can. However, I do not necessarily agree that this means reducing our carbon dioxide production as much as possible for the purpose of "saving our planet."

What it boils down to is the viability of each and every energy option. Currently, gasoline is the most economical way to power a car when the convenience that it provides is taken into account. Our current price of fuel is still quite cheap. But we all know that the price of fuel will continue to escalate, eventually reaching a point that prohibits its consumption altogether, leading to more viable energy options.

Take current vehicle options as an example: the Chevy Volt (starting at $43K) versus the Chevy Cruze ($20K, similarly equipped). If you drive the Volt solely on electricity from your home charger, it will cost you $1.79 worth of electricity per 100km, using EPA ratings and an electricity price of $0.08/kwh. The Cruze with cost you $9.26 worth of gasoline per 100km, using the combined EPA rating and a gasoline price of $1.25/L. Using simple math, it will take 307,898 km of driving the Volt (on electricity only, never using the range extending gasoline engine) to offset its $23K price premium. And I would argue that by then, the Volt's lithium battery pack will have packed it in a long time ago.

Another example: the Nissan Leaf (starting at $38K) versus the Nissan Sentra ($23K, similarly equipped). The Leaf will cost you $1.69 worth of electricity per 100 km and the Sentra will cost you $9.79 worth of gasoline per 100km. That difference will take 185,185 km to offset the price premium. That's not so bad, but at that point I wonder how much longer the Leaf's battery pack will last. Only time will tell.

Since the mid-1990's, we started to hear about hydrogen, and how it is the next "real" answer to the car problem. What most people fail to see is how much energy is used by producing the hydrogen in the first place. Commercially produced hydrogen is made from natural gas, and the process produces ridiculous amounts of carbon dioxide. Sure, a hydrogen car itself does not pollute, but the making of hydrogen pollutes like crazy. You have to view the whole thing in terms of "well to wheels" instead of just "gas pump to wheels."

Electricity isn't perfect either. Most power in North America is produced by coal and natural gas, so producing electricity pollutes as well. However, thanks to a huge flaw in the internal combustion engine, it is still a more viable option (pollution wise) to use electricity for power.

What flaw? The gasoline engine's flaw is efficiency, or lack thereof. The average gasoline engine in a car is approximately 30% efficient, at best. That means of all the available energy in a litre of gasoline, only 30% is turned into useable power. The rest goes out the tail pipe and radiator as wasted heat, and that is under ideal conditions. By comparison, an electric car can be over 75% efficient in turning electricity into useable power.

Let's pull out a chart, shall we? Keep in mind that I stole this out of a publication by Tesla Motors, a current producer of electric cars.
When keeping the "well to wheels" idea in the picture, you can see that the worst polluter is the natural gas car, followed by the hydrogen fuel cell car, the diesel car, the gasoline car, the gasoline electric hybrid car and finally the electric car. When we consider that most electricity consumed here in Western Canada is hydroelectric, the electric advantage is substantially larger!

Now, this chart is a comparison of greenhouse gas emissions, which I am not too interested in. While I can admit that human produced carbon dioxide may be accelerating global warming, I see the whole global warming principle as a politically and financially tainted movement that tossed science out the window a long time ago.

What I am interested in is the viability of each type of energy. As we saw in our car comparisons above, the cheapest form of energy is not yet a viable option in a vehicle. But a second cheap option is natural gas fuelled vehicles. Since natural gas is not tied to the price of crude oil and since it is available in abundance, it is a cheap energy source. Natural gas conversions are available for almost any vehicle. One could even set up a natural gas fuelling station in their own garage if they wanted to. But..well...that's still boring. I want to build something different and exciting, not something that drives and sounds the same as everything else on the road.

And while mass produced electric cars are not yet financially viable, I think EV conversions are - especially my electric car (and especially if it actually works!) because of my unlimited source of free battery cores, keeping in mind that batteries are always a consumable item because even the best ones do not last forever.

But that's still not why I am building an electric car. The true reason is that I am doing it for fun and nothing more. Apparently there is a phenomenon known only among EVers called the "EV grin." It is the ridiculous smile that you can't wipe off your face the very first time you drive your newly converted electric car, and for years I have wanted to experience it!

That's all for now.

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