Friday, January 18, 2008

So who really did kill the electric car?

The idea that someone 'killed' the electric car, both in the early years of the 20th century, and in more recent incarnations, has lasted a long time. Distrust of oil and automobile companies, based on real history helps to keep idea going, but it also draws strength from a desire to believe that the technology for a low-cost, pollution-free form of luxurious personal mobility already exists. If the perfect, non-polluting car really exists, and only a conspiracy by "evil oil companies"™ and other vested interests (cue Dick Cheney) keeps it from us, then we can hope to drive cars and breathe the air as well. I have written before about some of the fallacies involved in such thinking. I now want to suggest a more disturbing possibility: we may never have an economically or politically viable electric car, simply because an electric car would have to use a fungible energy source.

By fungible, I mean that you can use electricity for a wide variety of purposes: home heating, cooking, powering appliances, and powering vehicles. Gasoline, on the other hand, only works for one purpose: powering light duty engines. That makes it very useful for cars and light trucks, and essentially useless for anything else. When you fill up your SUV, you don't have to wonder if you (or anyone else) could have used that energy for cooking or heating. That matters, because the energy a car uses can power a lot of air conditioners, stoves, and washers. According to a report on the US Department of Energy web site, in 2001, 107 million US household used 29 kilowatt hours per day. An average car uses about that much energy in a single hour of driving. That means a two-car, two-commute family will see its electrical consumption triple or quadruple when it tries to charge two electric cars.

We can, in theory, operate central power generation systems that emit less pollution than gas-powered cars do, using carbon sequestering systems, geothermal, wind, and nuclear power. But to do that, we have to build a huge amount of infrastructure. To power automobile traffic in Toronto alone would take something like 10,000 windmills. It would cost a lot less to build a "green city" based on active (human powered) and public transit.

Maybe we already have most of the electric cars we need. They just run on subway (and trolley) rails, rather than on rubber and asphalt.

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