Mar 5, 2006 (From the CalCars-News archive)
Falls Church News Press
March 2-8, 2006
The Peak Oil Crisis
Your First Electric Car
By Tom Whipple
Whether peak oil arrives with a bang or just sort of sneaks up on us, it is highly unlikely that ten years from now there is going to be enough liquid fuel to power all the world's cars, trucks, buses, planes, trains, and boats. The responses of governments to this situation will vary by political temperament and circumstance. Some will mandate draconian conservation measures, some will impose rationing, and some will let rationing-by-price direct dwindling fuel supplies to those who can afford them.
Judging from the primal screams of "I-can't-afford-to-farm-at-these-energy-prices" that are appearing with increasing frequency in rural newspapers, the issue will eventually come down to eating or driving. This, of course, is not a choice; even the most free-market Congressman will soon get the message that there are priorities for our dwindling supplies of liquid fuels, and that gasoline for the privately owned vehicles ranks close to the bottom of this list.
If world oil depletion comes as soon, and supplies of liquid fuels disappear as rapidly, as some of us suspect, gasoline-powered cars and light trucks will soon be museum pieces. Liquid fuels, be they from conventional oil, tar sands, liquefied coal, or cellulosic ethanol, will be in such short supply, they will have to be restricted to vital-to-civilization uses such as farming, mass transit, railroads, and countless kinds of heavy industrial equipment.
Thus it seems obvious that cars and light trucks will have to run on electricity if they are to run at all. Electricity is nearly universally available. Its availability can be quickly increased either through conservation or by building new generating stations- hopefully using renewable fuels. Unlike hydrogen-powered vehicles, this technology is here now, it's cheap and likely to get cheaper, and significant improvements in electric cars such as much better batteries and in-wheel motors may soon be available.
Anyone who looks into electric car technology soon discovers the Achilles heel is the battery. Until recently, batteries have been heavy, took a long time to charge, and would not give us the hundreds of miles of range we have been accustomed to with liquid fuel vehicles. There is nothing inherently wrong with an electric car once the range is increased, or preferably, the recharge time is reduced significantly. Given that at some gasoline price, electric vehicles are going to be the only affordable means of transportation beyond a bicycle or walking, the chances are they are going to become extremely popular very soon.
Currently, nobody is making electric vehicles beyond the neighborhood variety that have very limited range, speed and comforts compared to gasoline-powered cars. This is about to change.
Many of you are aware that a few years back several major manufactures, including GM, were actually building and leasing in California what a lot of people thought were quite satisfactory electric cars. Why they no longer are available is another story, but it does indicate the manufacturers are perfectly capable of doing so when they perceive that gasoline is no longer affordable for most of their customers.
There are at least four flavors of "new technology" batteries either available or showing promise. The first of these, the nickel-metal hydride battery, is already used to power hybrid vehicles. They work well, but there are better technologies in sight, and some believe there is not enough nickel in world to power all the world's cars with this type of battery.
Just coming on the market in a form suitable for powering automobiles is the lithium-ion battery. These batteries pack in considerable more energy than previous types, but are very expensive at current volumes. A handful of Toyota hybrids are running around with after-market lithium-ion batteries that are recharged by plugging into a wall outlet. These vehicles are capable of going 30-40 miles at moderate speeds on electricity alone or of achieving in excess of 100 mpg when used in conjunction with the gasoline engine. A Toronto firm has started to sell conversion kits for existing hybrids.
Even President Bush recently has been touting the lithium-ion plug-in hybrid as a partial solution to imported oil. Automobile manufacturers, however, claim to be skeptical of the lithium-ion battery's durability in an age when car buyers expect 100,000-mile warranties.
Several manufacturers are working on this technology and Mitsubishi is talking of selling a lithium-ion electric vehicle (in Japan of course) in 2010. Mitsubishi is aiming for a top speed of 93 mph and a range of 93 miles on a single charge. There is even talk of very fast recharge times.
When we move beyond the "available now" category to the "just announced" category, we come to Peoria and Firefly Energy, a spin off of Caterpillar Tractor. These folks have just received a US patent on a completely new form of battery in which the heavy lead battery plates are replaced with lightweight graphite foam. It sounds too good to be true, but Firefly claims their battery can provide the performance of nickel metal hydride batteries at one-fifth the cost and fraction of the weight. If all this pans out, affordable plug-in hybrids and all electric cars just might be available in the near future.
Another interesting battery technology, which has just been announced by MIT, is an improvement on the lithium battery. By modifying the crystal structure, scientists have found that a battery can be recharged ten times faster. This would open the possibility of all electric cars, with a reasonable range of 100 miles or so, that can be recharged in 5 or 10 minutes from an electric outlet. When you look at the alternatives, all this is starting to sound pretty good provided we have enough resources left to build them.
The transition from the liquid fuel cars and light trucks to electrically powered vehicles is not going to be pretty and will take decades. Worldwide, there are now over 600 million cars and over 200 million trucks and buses. When it comes, peak oil will be a worldwide phenomenon and is likely to arrive with little or no warning. Thus, except where governments move to subsidize fuel, prices will inexorably ratchet up and up and up.
At each price increase, some share of the owners of these 800-900 million vehicles (especially those that can not pass along the fuel costs) will park their vehicles and begin a desperate search for alternative forms of transportation.
Sales of liquid fueled cars and trucks will have nowhere to go but way down. Whether the worldwide automobile industry will be able to respond to this challenge is an interesting question. Collectively, we have trillions of dollars invested in the current vehicle fleet. Perhaps with a little ingenuity, some portion of this huge investment could be converted to electric power and not be simply left to rust along the roadside, or on driveways, or in parking lots.
As there seems no realistic alternative, the demand for electric vehicles will quickly overwhelm the ability of manufacturers to produce. As this will be a worldwide problem, filling domestic needs are likely to take priority, so exports may slow for a while. The need for personal transportation will be so great, the manufactures resources so limited, and personal wealth so reduced, luxury vehicles are likely to disappear for a time as the industry strives to produce utilitarian vehicles in large quantities.
Welcome to peak oil!