Is the Electrification of Transportation a Good Thing? (Part 2)

minus oil nissan leaf photo

Electric Cars are Coming - Is it a Good Thing?
In part 1, we looked at why it's important to get our cars off oil and what the first part of that transition might look like. Today, we look at the next phase, the electrification of transportation. Is it a good thing? Why? Isn't it just moving pollution around because of all those batteries and coal plants? Let's have a look.

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty, with permission.

Looking in the Crystal Ball

Purists on both sides make extreme predictions: either everything will change and cars will disappear, or nothing much will change and for decades to come we'll stick with the status quo. I don't think that either of these scenarios is very likely.

In my crystal ball (always take any prediction with a grain of salt), I see that the world will keep urbanizing and fewer people will drive or even own cars in urban areas because of various factors like improvements to public transit, congestion charges, higher fuel costs, better urban planning, more and safer bike lanes, etc. Ideally, most cities will become like Hong Kong and the vast majority of trips will be done using public transportation. But even after such massive changes, we'd still live on a planet with hundreds of millions of cars. People living in rural areas (whether in Iowa or China) will never have access to a subway or bus rapid transit, and even people living in urban areas will sometimes need to do things that can't be done with transit (that's what car-sharing is for). That's why we need to figure out how to keep the benefits of the automobile for those people while minimizing the downsides for the environment.


Photo: General Motors

The Electrification of Transportation

I believe that the best way to reduce the footprint of cars is to go electric. There are serious challenges, and it won't solve all our problems, but I think it's a realistic way forward from where we are now. Let's look at the main questions this raises.
The Environmental Footprint of Electric Cars
Many people are worried about the environmental cost of manufacturing electric cars. They look at those big batteries and concluse that an electric vehicle (EV) must have a much bigger footprint than a conventional gasoline or diesel vehicle. But it turns out that, according to most mainstream life cycle analysis (LCA) studies, around 80% of a car's footprint is produced by usage (burning fuel), not by manufacturing or disposal. So if we want to make cars greener, that's the low hanging fruit, and we can improve things for the remaining 20% too: Used EV batteries can usually still hold 50-80% of their charge, so they could be used to store wind or solar power. After that, they can be recycled and turned into new batteries (so the lithium isn't lost). The manufacturing plants can be powered by renewable energy, etc.

SAE J1772 electric car plug photo

A SAE J1772 connector.

But most importantly, the cars themselves can be powered by renewable energy. If we compare the life of a gasoline car that might drive around for 20 years, burning thousands of gallons of non-renewable oil, to an electric car that might drive around for the same number of years on electricity generated by a hydroelectric dam or a wind turbine, it's easy to see that even if the manufacturing of the EV was a bit worse (you have to make the battery, electric motor and power electronics, though you don't have to make a gas engine), you still come out far ahead.

Even in cases where the electric car is charged using electricity produced by natural gas or coal you still come out ahead, though to a lesser degree, because electric motors and power plants are more efficient at converting fossil-fuel energy into mechanical force than an internal combustion engine (almost 3/4 of the energy in a gallon of gas is wasted as heat).

We need to clean up the power grid to combat global warming anyway, so if at the same time it helps cleans up the transportation sector (#1 in oil usage) because it is electrified, that's a very good thing. The fact that for a number of years some EVs will be powered by coal is deplorable, but on balance electrification is still worth it.

tesla model s electric car with roadster photo

The Tesla Model S electric car next to the Tesla electric Roadster. Click the image above to see our Tesla Model S slideshow.
Impact of Electric Cars on Power Grid
Others are worried about the impact of electric cars on the power grid. It's going to overload, they say. But according to various studies, the current power grid can easily handle millions of electric cars even without building new power plants, and as it gets smarter thanks to internet-like technology, it'll be able to handle even more cars. This is mostly because EV adoption will be gradual, giving utilities enough time to adapt, and most EVs will be charged at night when the grid has a lot of spare capacity. If you want more details on this, check out these posts:

i-miev mitsubishi electric car naias 2010 photo
Photo: Michael Graham Richard Affordable Electric Cars? Range Anxiety? Another frequent objection is that electric cars will stay too expensive and range-limited to ever take over petroleum-powered cars. If electric cars are so good, why haven't they taken over yet?

First, we must remember that at the end of the 1990s a barrel of oil was selling for less than $15, and that for over a decade before that it was selling under $25. This makes it a lot harder to sell vehicles that are fueled by alternatives to oil. If we go father back than that, we simply didn't have battery technology with high enough power-density to make a viable mainstream EV.

As for the future, there's little doubt in my mind that electric cars will be competitively priced and have adequate range. It might take a few more years, which might seem like an eternity for those of us living in Internet-Time, but when you mix cutting edge technology with heavy manufacturing, things tend to take a while.

EVs have been following a similar trajectory to other technologies (look up the early days of the telephone, television, computers, cell phones, etc). They've started expensive and not quite fully developed, and they are rapidly getting better and coming down in price. It didn't take that long between the $100k Tesla Roadster in 2008 to the $32k Nissan LEAF in 2010-2011, and while they are different cars, it still shows a rapid democratization of EV pricing (also remember that electricity is less expensive than gasoline).

Nissan is said to be working on a new version of the LEAF with twice the range, and Tesla's co-founder claims that by 2020 electric cars will have a range of around 500 miles. There's also slow-but-steady progress on hypercapacitors. They could one day replace batteries in EVs and allow unlimited charging and discharging, extending the life of vehicles and allowing parked cars to act as a buffer for the power grid.

So to answer the question in the title of this post, I think that the electrification of transportation is a very good thing and one of our main tools to get off oil. It's not sufficient by itself - we'll also need more walking, biking, public transportation, telecommuting, etc - but I doubt that we can succeed if we don't go electric rather soon.

For more, see the rest of our MINUS OIL series!

Is the Electrification of Transportation a Good Thing? (Part 2)
Electric Cars are Coming - Is it a Good Thing?In part 1, we looked at why it's important to get our cars off oil and what the first part of that transition might look like. Today, we look at the next phase, the electrification of transportation. Is it

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