Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Electric Car Fantasies and Other Government Run Debacles

I attended a pleasant and slightly inspiring Science Café talk last night at the Irregardless Cafe.  Rogelio Sullivan, Associate Director of the Advanced Transportation Energy Center gave a short overview of the conditions and challenges surrounding the development of electric cars, and then fielded questions from the crowd.

My own interest stems from a general curiosity about the subject from my childhood years. Battery operated cars, hovercraft, monorails... this was the stuff of Popular Mechanics/Science/Electronics. Well, it was popular. It has just never proven realistic in an engineering sense.

Quite the contrary in fact has happened. One thing that stood out above all else, at least to me, was how often Diesel power came up. Sullivan mentioned it first, alluding to concerns over diesel emissions, and saying that the US market never embraced Diesels. I have heard those templates repeatedly, that we don't want Diesels and they pollute -- I've heard them so often that I believe they are clichés to those who repeat them. 

During the meeting, several more people asked pointed questions about the safety of electric cars, as well as about the economics, environmental impacts. Diesels came up again and again. On any one of the issues, a pure electric car would be marginal, but most electrics fail miserably when you consider more than a few of the issues together. For instance, Sullivan pointed out that it could take decades to migrate the electric grid to renewable and/or nuclear sources, and in the meantime electric cars would be generating pollution through the coal- and gas-fired generators currently supplying the grid. In contrast, renewable Diesel is here now, and requires no disruptive infrastructure changes.

After the meeting I remarked to Mr. Sullivan that something seems to be missing in the explanation as to why Diesels are not here. I have yet to see a credible analysis of the economic trade-offs between small diesel engines vs. electric, that shows the electric vehicle (EV) emerging as a better fit solution. Pollution management nightmares created by huge numbers of spent battery packs containing heavy metals, explosive risks of novel high energy density battery technologies, poor end-to-end return on investment, chicken-and-egg problems for bootstrapping supply stations, high immediate manufacturing costs,  ultra-short travel ranges... the vision of a pure EV is a REALLY LOUSY PROPOSITION. 

The old saying is "that dog won't hunt" but in this case it has been clear for years that this particular dog has no legs to stand on. One wonders why academics keep shoving the poor thing out into the field. No amount of government subsidy game playing is going to put legs on that poor crippled hound.

That, by the way, is not to suggest that Mr. Sullivan's discussion was not balanced overall. As he observed, we will end up with a mix of technologies on the road, including hybrids and diesels. It is just my prediction that on balance, large scale use of purely electric vehicles will prove to be a dangerous and uneconomical boondoggle.  Renewable biodiesel would be a far wiser path to follow.

In all, it was a satisfying night. I was hoping for something deeper, more material, but that was an unreasonable expectation to place on an open invitation event.

By the way, if you've been to Irregardless before, you know the food is high quality. It isn't a value-priced menu but it is quite reasonable for a nice night out. You should check out the remodeled interior. It is a wonderful venue for this kind of talk. The event was sponsored by the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and the Sigma Xi society.

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