Electric Vehicles Work, Major Advancement Highlights Need for Better Policy

For years we have been hearing how "batteries are too expensive or not sufficiently long lasting" for electric cars.

This was always incorrect. Well over half a century ago it was not clear if the major power source for vehicles was going to be electric, gasoline, or something else. The reason gasoline happened to take hold was because it was ridiculously cheap, while the enormous environmental (and later national security) costs were a) considerably lesser,and b)otherwise simply not integrated into the prices, or considered.

An electric car that could meet the performance/expectations cost that consumers have come to expect, could have been built at any time. The answer, at least until gasoline is no longer available, was simply to put a genset auxiliary motor on board; to power the vehicle, and to simply recharge the battery, if or when the charge gets too low.

The idea behind this is to capitalize on the increased efficiency -- and thus decreased pollutants, decreased electrical power generation source CO2 output (even when the electrity is produced by fossil fuels), and reduced fuel costs -- of electric motors over over internal combustion engines. (This improvement, albeit less, is still present even when the power plant source electrical generation is fossil fuel based, due to the enormous inherent inefficiencies in internal combustion engines.)

The Chevy Volt, due out late next year, is the first modern, mass production vehicle to utilize this very simple and highly practical concept. A concept that allows for reliance upon more efficient electrical power for short trips (in the Volt's case, 40 miles or so), while not otherwise limiting vehicle range.

For many drivers, most of the normal usage can be covered via charge, as the average commute in the U.S is less than 40 miles. For those times when additional range is needed, the auxiliary engine kicks on to maintain a constant level of battery charge. (During which time, in the Volt's case, the vehicle is still reasonably efficient, gaining an estimated 48-50 m.p.g., which blows away most other cars on the road today).

Moreover, if vehicles are charged at night, the energy and environmental gain can be much higher, as plants typically don't "shut down" at night due to great efficiency losses, and sometimes burn extra capacity to keep the cycle going. This is otherwise a complete net loss in terms of energy, pollution, and CO2 emissions, since it is essentially energy that is being "burned off." Here that same energy would go toward charging batteries of cars, that in essence, from an efficiency and enviromental standpoint, will be running on "free energy" (and, since electrical charging costs are typically very low at night, very low dollar cost energy to the end use consumer as well.)

Of course, more promisingly, if the energy production comes from cleaner and renewable sources, then the net efficiency, environmental, and carbon output gains are greatly magnified. And one of the main arguments for electric cars is being to inspire greater accompanying development of these capacities --

For example, a windfarm, already built, running excess power at night, might charge a car that the next day will essentially be driven with the only net result of that car's usage, in terms of energy loss of pollution, being the release of particulate matter from its tires. That is, close to zero net energy usage, and otherwise zero polluting car, in terms of its usage. This is an extraordinary improvement over typical vehicle miles driven today.

Sure the Volt's pricing point seems too high (and likely is), but this is the first time it's really been done; it was GM that did it -- a company that we just had to heavily bail out; and again, the true benefits of this car's decreased energy and environmental footprint are not being integrated into its costs structure so long as highly damaging gasoline -- in environmental, climate change, and national security terms -- remains relatively inexpensive.

So why wasn't this done before? For the same reason that the benefits of the Volt are largely being missed. There was simply entrenchment of the idea of almost complete reliance upon gasoline. Again, more importantly, the enormous external costs of gasoline usage are not properly factored into its price, and this is still the case today (even as, with climate change, its already large costs are increasingly rising). In effect, gasoline usage, because its real costs are not utilized into its cost structure is still, in theory, very heavily subsidized.

But now there may be a simpler, better, and additional answer to the already fallacious assertion that "batteries are too expensive or not sufficiently long lasting," while creating the potential for far more impressive electric capabilities and costs. As noted on this site,and elsewhere:

A Swiss company says it has developed rechargeable zinc-air batteries that can store three times the energy of lithium ion batteries, by volume, while costing only half as much. ReVolt, of Staefa, Switzerland, plans to sell small "button cell" batteries for hearing aids starting next year and to incorporate its technology into ever larger batteries, introducing cell-phone and electric bicycle batteries in the next few years. It is also starting to develop large-format batteries for electric vehicles.

A practical series of lithium ion batteries in an electric vehicle -- that is sufficient to power the car at least a few hundred miles -- for the most part represent the bulk of the cost of an otherwise practically made electric vehicle. Reducing the cost by half would make even advanced battery technology vehicles practical in terms of cost alone; and would, obviously, greatly extend what are already decent ranges for such vehicles as well.

Even an improvement of 50%, at half cost,would reduce the cost of a 200 mile range lithium ion vehicle, by thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars, while extending the vehicle's range to close 300 miles. This firm is claiming a 300% energy storage improvement.

The problem with zinc-air batteries has been the ability to re-charge them:

Unlike conventional batteries...zinc-air batteries rely on oxygen from the atmosphere to generate current. In the late 1980s they were considered one of the most promising battery technologies because of their high theoretical energy-storage capacity...The battery chemistry is also relatively safe because it doesn't require volatile materials, so zinc-air batteries are not prone to catching fire like lithium-ion batteries.

Because of these advantages, nonrechargeable zinc-air batteries have long been on the market. But making them rechargeable has been a challenge.

The company believes that it may have solved this problem. Even if it has not, by taking zinc-air batteries through over 100 charge cycles, it has moved us a lot closer.

They will begin by making tiny batteries, such as for hearing aids, and working on larger batteries, such as for electric bicycles and cell phones, in the next few years. The company is "also starting to develop a large-format battery for electric vehicles."

James McDougall, [ReVolt's] CEO, says that the technology overcomes the main problem with zinc-air rechargeable batteries--that they typically stop working after relatively few charges. If the technology can be scaled up, zinc-air batteries could make electric vehicles [far more practical].

Of course, the sooner our policies reflect the realities of our enormous reliance upon foreign oil (which in turn is just slightly less oil than is used by our transportation industry alone), the more market incentive there will be to move in this less destructive direction, than the path, in terms of environmental damage and excessive greenhouse gas emissions, that we are currently on.

The more incentive, the faster and more practically such developments and growth will occur, and the more market innovation, further multiplying the process, will follow. That starts with good policy, which means no more subsidization of destructive of oil and gasoline (or even coal, frankly); but instead, penalties ("disincentives"), with revenues to in turn be utilized toward the promulgation and reward of cleaner alternative end usage.

End market usage motivation is critical here, because that targets the neeeded result -- clean energy -- without trying to micromanage the means to get there. It's less government command and control intervention, with more positive market effect. On the flip side, it is even more effective to inspire better end use decisions via the penalization, or tax, of the utilization of any finite, environmentally destructive, polluting, heavy greenhouse gas emitting, and national security compromising fossil fuel.

Unfortunately, "tax" has become a bad, or loaded word, in America. But this is all semantics. Every time a drop of oil, drop of gasoline, or crud of coal is utilized, it is a far greater tax that is being imposed in the form of these various, and very real, albeit not immediately measureable harms. Thus it's not so much a tax, as it is a re-balancing of the natural market imbalance when such an enormous externality -- as exists in the case of the continued use of fossil fuels -- accrues. To not address the problem, inane and almost meaningless rhetorical slogans such as we hear from the likes of AEI and others aside, is rather foolish head in the sand behavior, as we very slowly begin to undermine the very world in which we live. The only real question is how best to achieve the necessary (and rather quick) transition over to clean, renewable (and "growh generating"), energy sources.

But this misnomer idea of a "tax" comes in, and it reframes the entire debate: since tax is an easy, appealing sounding, one second sound bite, and the far more important overriding concepts above, regarding how these destructive fossil fuels are in effect being heavily subsidized (which in pure economic terms amounts to a tax upon everything else) is not.

So it's not a question of "tax" or "no tax." (Hence, along with the fact that "penality" is a negative connotation word,one of the reasons why the more accurate term "disincentives" should be used).

It's a question of how we stop using fossil fuels. 1) Let the market do it with the proper policy incentive. This is something, so long as all of the heavy external costs of these fossil fuels are not integrated into the pricing structure, it by definition can't efficiently do completely on its won. And this is why excessive fossil fuel over reliance has led to the wildly destructive results, and hidden pollutions and health care and quality of life costs and other environmental harms, that we are very slowly starting to see today. Or 2), alternatively, simply regulate and proscribe the detrimental behavior.

It seems sensible all around to let the market inspire it. Thus the issue needs to be framed in terms of market solutions, properly motivating the market so that the excessive external costs are no longer being ridiculously subsidized, versus government command control solution, which will never fly because it is "too much government telling people what to do."

The first approach described above -- raising revenue off of harmful fossil fuel activies and thus taxing all other behavior and income earning, less, as a result (while some on the far right nevertheless still jump and up and down and screams "tax" while not understanding the issue) -- does not do tell people what to do; it is less onerous; it is far more efficient; and it is much easier to explain.