The Peak Oil Crisis: An Electric Car in Your Future?

March 6, 2013 6:02 PM13 comments

Every now and again some good news shows up, so this week I am going to share it with you. It has to do with electric-powered cars.

Now hybrids have been on the market for a decade or so and modern battery-only models for about three years. While the hybrids are selling pretty well, sales of battery-only models have been way below expectations. The reasons for this are simple. For the most part battery-only cars cost more than similarly powered internal combustion vehicles; they have limited range which may be sufficient for most trips, but leave people in fear of running out of power; the time it takes to recharge a battery is far longer than the refilling of a gas tank; and finally there are limited places where they can be recharged unless one has invested in a home recharging station.

These factors have led to a spate of recent stories in motoring magazines and the mainstream press saying electric cars are a lost cause and that even 10 or 20 years from now they will never amount to more than a few percent of cars on the road. Despite this gloomy assessment, car manufacturers in Asia, Europe, and the U.S. continue to spend billions developing new models of electric cars that soon will be on the market. Are these industrial giants as stupid as the commentators make out, or perhaps are they taking a longer view than just current sales figures?

The trump card of the electric car is simply that it does not use gasoline or diesel as a source of power. Even the partially-electric hybrids use fossil fuels much more sparingly. One can talk about the carbon emissions from coal-fired electric stations used to charge electric cars, but this is a manageable problem within the foreseeable future. Stories disparaging electric cars never mention where the cost and availability of gasoline likely will be in the future. Oil prices have been increasing at about 7 percent a year for the past decade and there is no reason, short of a major economic depression, why such increases will not continue.

Gasoline and diesel prices in non-subsidized and heavily taxed Europe are already approaching $10 a gallon. There is little reason to think that gasoline prices in the U.S. which are already in the vicinity of $4 a gallon will not be markedly higher, perhaps even unaffordable, before the decade is out. At say $10 a gallon, calculations concerning the economics of electric cars change markedly, even with expected improvements in conventional car mileage.

In Europe, which at the moment is taking the dangers of global warming more seriously than other parts of the world, much of the impetus for building electric cars is to comply with the increasingly tough emissions standards. Even in California current and future emissions rules are making electric cars an attractive option for manufacturers and are part of the reason they continue to be developed in the U.S.

A recent study concluded that the price of a mid-range car in the U.S. is now about $32,000 making the cost of buying and operating such a vehicle prohibitive for a family of median income everywhere except the Washington, D.C. region. Part of the ever-increasing cost of new cars is the drive for better fuel economy from internal combustion engines. Unless the economy recovers markedly in the next few years, sales of standard sized cars are likely to decline rapidly in the US making smaller cars and perhaps alternatives to the internal combustion engine more attractive.

If the electric car batteries were much cheaper, the range longer, and recharging faster and more readily available, such vehicles just might catch on as an attractive option in the face of ever increasing gasoline costs. This is where the good news comes in, for in the last year what may prove to be highly significant advances in battery technology have been announced and partially verified.

These new battery technologies offer the prospects of greatly lowering the cost of batteries, increasing the range of electric cars, and even offering an affordable way of storing intermittent power generated by wind and the sun.

The first announcement came in February 2012 from a start-up in California, called Envia, which announced that they had developed a battery cathode made of manganese for lithium ion batteries that would allow electrical energy to be stored at a density of 400 watt-hours per kilogram as compared to 100-180 watt-hours in current batteries.

This announcement was followed shortly by one made in March of last year from another California startup, CalBattery, who said they were developing a new lithium ion battery anode material that would allow electric cars to go three times further at a battery life-cycle cost 70 percent less than that of current batteries. Last October CalBattery announced that independent tests had verified that their new silicon-graphene anode material was showing an energy density of 525 watt-hours per kilogram which should clearly allow three times longer ranges for electric cars – provided of course that this new anode material can be introduced into batteries that will last long enough to useful.

Last week Volkswagen announced that they are going into limited production with their XL1, a two seat car that has been under development for a decade. The latest iteration of this highly streamlined car is a diesel powered hybrid which is supposed to get some 261 mpg on diesel fuel when the hybrid electric boost is considered. While a car that is made largely of carbon fiber, magnesium and aluminum is likely to be too expensive for the mass market, it gives a strong indication that light, hyper-aerodynamic cars can be built that will consume very small amounts of fossil fuels – or electricity.

These recent announcements suggest that the technology is available to keep motorized societies running a while longer without ever increasing quantities of fossil fuels and their accompanying carbon emissions.

 

  • Ian Brett Cooper

    “One can talk about the carbon emissions from coal-fired electric
    stations used to charge electric cars, but this is a manageable problem
    within the foreseeable future.”

    No. Actually, it’s not. We are at a peak in energy use. We will never be able to power electric cars and the power grid for the 9 million people that are projected to be around in the next 20 or 30 years. Electricity is not a power source – it’s merely a power carrier and renewal energy sources are never going to be able to replace fossil fuels

    We need to power down, live locally and consign the motor car to history’s trash heap. It’s on a road to nowhere – we are destined to take a different route. We can do it the easy way, by voluntarily adopting a sustainable lifestyle, or we can do it the hard way. I prefer the easy way.

    • http://peaksigns.org/ Peak Signs

      Exactly.

    • http://twitter.com/Stuart_Phillips stuart phillips

      Make that 9 Billion :)

  • http://xeeme.com/MrEnergyCzar MrEnergyCzar

    If you have to drive a car to work, get your family set-up with solar and a Volt ahead of the masses that will attempt it…

    MrEnergyCzar

  • don3345

    Typical Liberal nonsense and ignorance.

    Those electric cars also have large, very toxic batteries, which need to be disposed. Also, just where do you think the electricity to recharge the thing comes from?

    Why do you Liberals get so fixated on bad ideas and NEVER consider alternatives You hate fossil fuel so much, mostly irrationally, you neglect to notice that vehicles are running on natural gas, a clean, abundant, domestic power source.

    • http://peaksigns.org/ Peak Signs

      Nat gas is not clean, nor abundant. And it’s not exclusively for the domestic market. In a capitalist system the producers own what they produce and can sell to anyone who’s willing to pay the highest. They are working hard try and get permits to export LNG.

      Also stop painting with a broad brush and over generalizing. That on top of your factually incorrect statements make you look rather foolish and misinformed.

    • Raja Bob

      What truly is irrational is failing to recognizing that fossil fuels are acidifying our seas, contributing to climate instability, require a vast military to secure, and are finite.

      It is also irrational to insist that an existing less costly alternative is too expensive.

      One can lease a Nissan Leaf for $200. a month, which is less than a Corolla lease. The payback period for PV panels to power it is about three to five years. For the following twenty or so years left of the warrantied life of the panels, power costs for an electric car would be zero. Do the math. The total cost of ownership is less.

      Motoring on sunlight. Happening now on roadways near you.

      Personally, I’d rather live where a car is not necessary. I don’t, and don’t have the option to relocate. Since I haven’t been given a viable choice not to have a car, I’m looking forward to my first electric, and my panels to power it. This year is the year I think.

      • mjonesx

        I would have considered a leaf, but I rent and do not have solar panels

    • SteveEV

      How sad. I have been driving thousands of miles each year using a clean, abundant, domestic power source that also happens to be free. The solar collectors on my garage roof have been successfully charging my car for quite some time. Why is it so many are fixated on fossil fuels that will only become more expensive? It seems so irrational to become dependent upon a product with such a volatile price, toxic effluent and finite supply.

  • http://www.facebook.com/claus.geiger.10 Claus Geiger

    To Ian: Here in Central Europe, Germany, atomic power stations are being replaced by wind mills and solar systems. Renewables are now producing more energy than our remaining eight atomic power stations. They will be stopped in 10 to 12 years.

    France is a lot slower in changing, last winter their 50 atomic stations were too weak. It was very cold and French houses are poorly insulated and heated electrically. But we could sell them electricity created by the fierce cold eastern winds coming from Russia and Scandinavia.

    This change is possible and desirable for the whole world. Electric cars and hybrid cars will be loaded while we are asleep.

  • http://www.facebook.com/claus.geiger.10 Claus Geiger

    God provides for those he loves even while they sleep. Psalm 127
    And the sun and the wind won’t send us a bill…

  • mjonesx

    I just had to buy a car. I looked at the Prius C and do not drive at all that much and passed on it. The energy and resources to build it would be on par with the energy to build and run my gasoline model. I agree that gas will be unaffordable in 5-10 years and then i will do without a car. In the meanwhile this will be it for me. I would have kept my 1995 Honda Civic but it was about to die. So, this car is only going to be just commute to work and back each day (about 20 miles, about 37-39 mpg highway)

  • JFallsChurch

    Don’t worry the Obama administration will lead us down the right path on this issue….just look at the Healthcare reform.

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