Electric Cars for Everyone? Not Quite Yet!

By David Rogers

I do not subscribe to the mainstream global climate change theories. There are more holes in the current narrative than a factory full of Swiss cheese. But that does not mean that the environment is not important. It is, and our stewardship over the environment should always be of primary concern. To this end, I have added to my collection of vehicles a fully electric car and an electric motorcycle. Who can argue with zero emissions?

They are interesting machines, making instant power and torque and functioning with the reliability of a Blend Tech blender. But unfortunately, they are nowhere near ready for prime time. We are still years away from mainstream electric vehicles. There are two main reasons for this.

Arguments against electrics often include a lack of convenience. My little six-year-old electric car only has a maximum range of about eighty miles. Good for a day or two of commute but little else. On the highway, it would be threatened with battery extinction trying to make it to downtown Salt Lake and back. The motorcycle adds twenty to thirty miles or so to that maximum, but the point remains. Currently, there are electric cars that can go two hundred plus miles, but range anxiety is not the primary concern.

Neither is operational energy cost an issue. A standard 25 mile per gallon car costs between ten and twelve cents per mile in fuel depending on gas prices. The equivalent electric bill would amount to around five to seven cents per mile based on a thirteen-kilowatt battery going sixty to eighty miles. While this might be helpful to a commuter on a budget, it is not a game-changing difference.

What does constitute a major problem is the current state of our power grid. Our electric infrastructure is dated and barely sufficient for current industrial and residential loads. Just ask the many California residents that experience rolling brownouts. If fifty million drivers suddenly converted to battery-powered cars, the stress on our electric grid would be overwhelming.

My electric bill averages a usage of thirty kilowatt-hours per day for a mid-sized suburban home. An electric vehicle recharging every night would add twelve to fifteen-kilowatt hours daily. That is a 40 – 50% increase in consumption. Multiply that by half to two-thirds of the households in the state and you have a grid melting scenario. The costs to beef up our power infrastructure to accommodate such loads would be significant. And that does not even consider all of the charging stations that would have to become as common as a corner convenience store.

And of course, we would have to find a way to generate all of that extra power. Solar, wind, geothermal and other renewables on a mass production basis are a ways off, and nowhere near as cost-effective to this point as coal and natural gas. So to run zero-emissions cars we are faced with the prospect of adding numerous fossil fuel power plants. Not a good tradeoff in my estimation.

The other issue is battery technology and cost. Most provident consumers would find it mandatory to lease a new electric car (at stiff monthly rates despite tax incentives), since it costs more than the car is worth to replace a defective battery and electrics have limited resale value after about three years. While battery technology continues to progress, the price of new cars with batteries of moderate range are significantly higher than their gas engine equivalents, with top-performing luxury cars like Tesla easily approaching six figures. The lithium and cobalt used in modern batteries are costly and somewhat rare. And then there is the down-the-road question of what to do with all of the batteries when they finally do expire. They are not exactly landfill-friendly.

These real-world issues are rarely addressed in the political discussions of such solutions. The emotional appeal for a cleaner environment often overshadows these more practical (and cold and analytical) considerations. But they are real word limitations. And they are limitations that will take years and a few major technological breakthroughs to move into the realm of practicality.

For the time being, my electric vehicles are a fun novelty, not an antidote for environmental worries. In actuality, the little electric is in the stable to extend the service life of its larger, more well-appointed gas-powered brothers. I find electrics intriguing and would love to see practical solutions to make them a more viable option. But for now, I will luxuriate in the sound of good old fashioned internal combustion power, and look forward to a future where such innovation will be practical for everyone.

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