Biofuels versus electric vehicles

2009-05-09

in Economics, Politics, The environment

Ottawa River turtle

A study published by Science Expressed and discussed on Grist concludes that growing biomass for electricity production, and then using it to run electric vehicles, is more effective per acre than growing crops to produce liquid biofuels for internal combustion engines. This is true even if the liquid fuels are so-called ‘second generation’ or cellulosic biofuels, which it is hoped will provide an improvement over the poor climate change and energy security benefits of fuels like corn ethanol. The study estimates that the miles of travel enabled per acre are 81% greater when growing biomass for electricity, compared with cellulosic ethanol.

It seems like the most probable path to de-carbonized transport is the conversion of all short and medium-range vehicles to electric power, with liquid fuels reserved for vehicles that must travel long distances, aircraft, and vehicles operated in remote areas. Producing energy from biomass has another potential advantage, if carbon capture and storage (CCS) proves viable. By adding CCS to biomass-fueled power plants, net reductions in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide could be achieved.

In time, it seems likely that the many government policies promoting the widespread use of biofuels were an ineffective response to both concerns about climate change and about energy security. In particular, ‘mandates’ that a certain fraction of vehicle fuels be biofuels do not necessarily do a good job of aligning outcomes with climate change objectives, since they are insensitive to both the lifecycle emissions associated with the fuels and to the economics of producing them.

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{ 46 comments… read them below or add one }

Emily May 10, 2009 at 1:37 am

An lovely turtle!

Milan May 10, 2009 at 10:56 am

It’s a shame I accidentally underexposed it by a stop.

I will keep an eye out for future turtles to expose properly.

Tristan May 10, 2009 at 4:57 pm

I don’t think its underexposed.

Milan May 10, 2009 at 9:53 pm

The meter was set at -1 for all the photos I shot that day. I increased the brightness and tweaked the levels in Photoshop, but there is still a lack of shadow detail.

If you look at the original histogram, there is nothing at all in the rightmost third.

. May 11, 2009 at 1:16 pm

A bad idea, plus lots of cash

The bad idea is this: growing crops to ferment and distill them into ethanol for internal combustion engines. A few days ago, the EPA revealed that by its calculations, use of corn-based ethanol will actually raise greenhouse gas emissions over the next 30 years compared to gasoline. And then Friday, Science published a paper by Stanford academics claiming that it makes much more sense to burn corn to produce energy for electric cars than it does to convert corn into ethanol. And it’s not even close. Get this:

“Bioelectricity was the clear winner in the transportation-miles-per-acre comparison, regardless of whether the energy was produced from corn or from switchgrass, a cellulose-based energy crop.”

Did you catch that? “[W]hether the energy was produced from corn or from switchgrass…” That means that even cellulosic ethanol, which the industry gas been holding up as a just-around-the-corner panacea for 20 years, looks like a bad idea. The analysis strongly suggests that the government should be pushing the auto industry in the direction of electric cars, not ethanol-guzzling flex fuel ones.

. May 28, 2009 at 7:03 pm
. June 1, 2009 at 3:53 pm

GM says bankruptcy won’t affect the Volt, but how much say does it have?

By Darren Murph on Volt

As General Motors finally caved this morning, waved the white flag and filed for bankruptcy, those following electric cars immediately wondered what this all would mean for the long-awaited Volt. For years now, GM has steadfastly affirmed that it was moving forward with production regardless of what else was going on within the company and the economy at large. According to Technology Review, a GM spokesperson confirmed again this morning that “the filing will have no impact on the company’s plans to start selling the Volt at the end of next year.” That said, we have to wonder how much such a statement really means; reports have stated that the US government may up holding as much as 60 percent of the company, and if the primary goal is to bring the outfit back to profitability as soon as possible, Obama and Company may not feel that pouring even more into the high-priced Volt is a good idea. In related news, we hear Tesla is still taking orders…

. August 21, 2009 at 1:37 pm

Start with what is known about the [Chevy Volt’s] traction system. GM reckons the platform needs only 25 kilowatt-hours of energy to cover 100 miles of city driving. At 11 cents a kilowatt-hour, that would cost $2.75 for 100 miles. If petrol costs $3 a gallon (as regular does today), then the Volt would be able to travel 109 miles for the same price as that of a gallon of petrol.

What if the owner does 50 miles between charges instead of 40 miles? Then the Volt’s 1.4 litre petrol-engine has to kick in to cover the extra ten miles—not to drive the wheels directly, like the Prius’s engine does, but to recharge the battery, which then feeds juice to the electric motor, which, in turn, drives the wheels.

If that were an efficient way of delivering torque to the wheels, all cars would have electric transmission systems instead of mechanical ones. They don’t, for good reason. So expect no more than 20mpg for a car the size and weight of the Volt when running under petrol power. In that case, the fuel used for a 50-mile journey would be half a gallon and the efficiency would be 100mpg. (Alternatively, you could take the figures for the price of motoring given above, and calculate an efficiency of 58mpg.) Go 60 miles and it would drop to 60mpg using the first measure, or 44mpg using the second.

. September 2, 2009 at 12:14 pm

To summarize, the biofuel pretenders fall into several broad categories. The big ones are:

* Hydrogen

* Most would-be cellulosic ethanol producers

* Most would-be algal biofuel producers

* Most first generation biodiesel producers

This isn’t to say that none of these will work in any circumstances. I will get into that when I talk about niches. But I will say that I am confident that none of these are scalable solutions to our fossil fuel dependence. The problem is that political leaders have been, or are still convinced that there is great potential for some of these and we waste billions of dollars chasing fantasies. This is a great distraction, causing a loss of precious time and public goodwill as taxpayer money is squandered chasing schemes that ultimately will not pan out.

. September 11, 2009 at 11:49 am

Electric cars
Charge!

Sep 3rd 2009
From The Economist print edition
Carmakers are shifting towards electric vehicles. Policymakers must do their part, too

GREENS may not like it, but once people have enough to eat and somewhere tolerable to live, their thoughts turn to buying a car. The number of cars in the rich world will grow only slowly in the years ahead, but car ownership elsewhere is about to go into overdrive. Over the next 40 years the global fleet of passenger cars is expected to quadruple to nearly 3 billion. China, which will soon overtake America as the world’s biggest car market, could have as many cars on its roads in 2050 as are on the planet today; India’s fleet may have multiplied 50-fold. Forecasts of this kind led Carlos Ghosn, boss of the Renault-Nissan alliance, to declare 18 months ago that if the industry did not get on with producing cars with very low or zero emissions, the world would “explode”.

Cars already contribute around 10% of the man-made greenhouse gases that are responsible for climate change. In big cities, especially those in fast-developing countries in Asia and Latin America, gridlocked traffic is responsible for health-threatening levels of local air pollution. To its credit (and under increasing pressure from legislators), the car industry is heeding Mr Ghosn’s call. Biofuels have fallen out of favour because of concerns that those produced in rich countries are not particularly green; but huge efforts are being made to develop cleaner conventional engines and, at the same time, move beyond them to electric, battery-powered vehicles, which produce fewer emissions even when the generation of the electricity needed to charge them is taken into account.

. September 17, 2009 at 11:18 am

Car firms disagree about electric future

By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News, Frankfurt

Frankfurt’s city streets may not be the best for testing cars, yet accelerating between the traffic lights in a Tesla offers a powerful insight into the electric future that most players in the motor industry are raving about.

Tesla says its new electric roadster accelerates from 0-100 kilometres (0-60 miles) per hour in four seconds and can go on cruising for almost 400 kilometres.

But it also comes with a 99,000 euros ($146,000; £88,000) price tag.

Plans are under way to bring electric cars to the masses, however, with most carmakers at the Frankfurt motor show displaying concepts to illustrate how they see the future.

“The electric car will account for 10% of the global market in 10 years,” predicts Carlos Ghosn, chief executive of alliance partners Renault and Nissan in a BBC interview. “It is time for zero emission motoring.”

Renault-Nissan are investing some 4bn euros in its electric vehicle programme, where some 2,000 engineers and development staff work to make the firm the world leader in this area, observes Global Insight analyst Tim Urquhart.

“Renault is basically betting the future of the company on its bold electric passenger car strategy,” he says.

“The cost of developing, marketing and implementing the related infrastructure will mean that there will be little room for error.”

. September 17, 2009 at 1:31 pm

The electrification of motoring
The electric-fuel-trade acid test

Sep 3rd 2009
From The Economist print edition
After many false starts, battery-powered cars seem here to stay. Are they just an interesting niche product, or will they turn motoring upside down?

IN 1995 Joseph Bower and Clayton Christensen, two researchers at the Harvard Business School, invented a new term: “disruptive technology”. This is an innovation that fulfils the requirements of some, but not most, consumers better than the incumbent does. That gives it a toehold, which allows room for improvement and, eventually, dominance. The risk for incumbent firms is that of the proverbial boiling frog. They may not know when to switch from old to new until it is too late.

The example Dr Bower and Dr Christensen used was a nerdy one: computer hard-drives. But unbeknown to them a more familiar one was in the making. The first digital cameras were coming on sale. These were more expensive than film cameras and had lower resolution. But they brought two advantages. A user could look at a picture immediately after he had taken it. And he could download it onto his computer and send it to his friends.

Fourteen years on, you would struggle to buy a new camera that uses film. Some of the leading camera-makers, such as Panasonic, are firms that had little interest in photography when Dr Bower and Dr Christensen published. And an entire industry, the manufacturing and processing of film, is rapidly disappearing.

Substitute “car” for “camera” and you have a story that should concern thoughtful bosses in the motor and oil industries. Internal-combustion engines have dominated mechanised road transport for a century, but the past year or so has seen the arrival of a dribble of vehicles driven by electric motors. That these are the products of small, new firms, or of established non-carmaking companies, supports the Bower-Christensen thesis. But next year the big boys, encouraged by legislative pressure to produce low-emission vehicles, will leap out of the boiling water and join in. Their progress towards greenery will be an important theme of the Frankfurt motor show this month.

Bold claims are being made. Carlos Ghosn, who leads the Renault-Nissan alliance, thinks 10% of new cars bought in 2020 will be pure-battery vehicles. A report by IDTechEx, a research consultancy based in Cambridge, England, reckons a third of the cars made in 2025 will be electrically powered in one way or another. If that trend continues, liquid fuels might become as obsolete as photographic film.

goidcc October 23, 2009 at 1:15 pm

I’m not sure if electric-cars are better than biofuel based vehicles. Especially, if biofuel plants use residual to generate additional electricity.
The study needs to the whole infrastructure which is already available for biofuels — the current fossil fuel pipelines.

There is no way an electric car can compete with internal combustible engine!

Milan October 23, 2009 at 1:19 pm

How do you figure? Electric motors can be just as powerful, and they are far more efficient.

Batteries are also getting better all the time.

. October 30, 2009 at 10:31 am

Renault’s electric-car gamble
Mr Ghosn bets the company

Oct 15th 2009
From The Economist print edition
The French carmaker aims to be the first big producer of zero-emission vehicles

At Frankfurt, Mr Ghosn presented what he described as a complete range of affordable purely electric cars. There was a largish family saloon (the Fluence), a supermini-sized hatchback (the Zoe), the Kangoo Be Bop ZE and a wacky two-seat urban runabout (the Twizy). These were not mere show cars intended to test the reaction of potential customers. All are destined for production within two or three years. Mr Ghosn made no apologies for the silly names, but he promised that the cars would cost no more to buy than similar diesel-powered cars—after factoring in government tax breaks for zero-emission vehicles that in many European countries will be worth about €5,000. Their expensive lithium-ion battery packs will be leased. As long as owners drive at least 12,000km a year, overall running costs will be equivalent to, or lower than, a petrol or diesel-powered car.

. November 4, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Ethanol

“Ethanol is difficult to scale up to become a major gasoline substitute. Ethanol production requires a large amount of corn to produce relatively little gasoline. Ethanol production requires 2.8 bushels of corn per gallon of ethanol. At present, approximately 25% of US grown corn produces 7 billion gallons, or 3.3% of the energy content of gasoline (and only 1.5% of all US finished oil products) consumed in the US. If the entire corn crop was used to produce ethanol, it would only offset 6% of total US oil consumption.”

Downey, Morgan. Oil 101. p.193 hardcover

Biodiesel

“It takes about 7.3 pounds of soybean oil to produce one gallon of B100 biodiesel. Soybean oil is the most commonly produced oil in the US with approximately 17 billion pounds of soybean oil currently produced each year… If the entire US soybean oil production was diverted to replace middle distillate then it could only replace 13 days of current annual US distillate demand. One has to be realistic, therefore, about the current capacity of soybean oil production and accept that biodiesel is not a realistic alternative for mass scale implementation.”

Downey, Morgan. Oil 101. p.213-214 hardcover

. November 12, 2009 at 6:35 pm

The pros and cons of biofuels
Ethanol tanks

Oct 22nd 2009 | LONDON AND NAIROBI
From The Economist print edition
More suggestions that biofuels are not an environmental free lunch

ONCE upon a time, biofuels were thought of as a solution to fossil-fuel dependence. Now they are widely seen as a boondoggle to agribusiness that hurts the environment and cheats taxpayers. A report commissioned by the United Nations endorses neither extreme. It gives high marks to some crop-based fuels and lambasts others. Meanwhile, two papers published in Science, a leading research journal, provide further reasons for caution. One suggests that the knock-on effects of growing biofuel crops, in terms of displaced food crops and extra fertiliser (an important source of a greenhouse gas called nitrous oxide), make the whole enterprise risky. The other points out a dangerous inconsistency in the way the Earth’s carbon balance-sheet is drawn up for the purposes of international law.

The UN report gives ethanol from sugar cane (which Brazil makes) a clean bill of health. In some circumstances it does better than just “zero emission”. If grown and processed correctly, it has “negative emission”—pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere, rather than adding it. America’s use of maize for biofuel is less efficient. Properly planted and processed, it does cut emissions; done poorly, it is more polluting than petrol. As to biodiesel palm oil grown on cleared tropical forest, when the destruction of the trees and release of CO2 from the cleared soil are accounted for, the crop is filthy—and worse than that if the forest was growing in peat, as is often the case.

The amount of ethanol produced for transport tripled from 17 billion litres in 2000 to 52 billion litres in 2007 and is set to rise further. But the world’s population is also rising, so competition for land between fuel and food is hotting up. This competition is the subject of Jerry Melillo’s paper in Science. Dr Melillo, of the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, and his colleagues have attempted to model how an expansion of biofuels might change world agriculture during the 21st century. They concentrate on the likely future—cellulosic biofuels made from whole plants such as fast-growing grasses, rather than the food-cum-biofuel crops of today. They reckon Africa is the best place to grow biofuels, and the one that will lead to most carbon capture in the long run. But they also show that the widespread growth of biofuel crops is likely to cause a net global release of greenhouse gases during the first half of the century, as land is cleared and fertilisers are scattered liberally. In the right circumstances the CO2 account, they reckon, could move into profit by mid-century, but the nitrous oxide account never does.

. November 20, 2009 at 12:26 pm

For the Volt, How’s Life After 40 (Miles)?

By LINDSAY BROOKE
Published: November 19, 2009

It takes a few laps of Milford’s twisty, undulating 3.7-mile road course to deplete the remaining eight miles of battery charge. With the dashboard icon signaling my final mile of range, I point the Volt toward a hill and wait for the sound and feel of the generator engine’s four pistons to chime in.

But I completely miss it; the engine’s initial engagement is inaudible and seamless. I’m impressed. G.M. had not previously made test drives of the Volt in its extended-range mode available to reporters, but I can see that in this development car, at least, the engineers got it right.

I push the accelerator and the engine sound does not change; the “gas pedal” controls only the flow of battery power to the electric drive motor. The pedal has no connection to the generator, which is programmed to run at constant, preset speeds. This characteristic will take some getting used to by a public accustomed to vroom-vroom feedback.

A few hundred yards later, as we snake through the track’s infield section, the engine r.p.m. rises sharply. The accompanying mechanical roar reminds me of a missed shift in a manual-transmission car. For a moment the sound is disconcerting; without a tachometer, I guess that it peaked around 3,000 r.p.m.

I asked what was going on.

“The system sensed that it’s dipped below its state of charge and is trying to recover quickly,” Mr. Posawatz said. “The charge-sustaining mode is clearly not where we want it to be yet.”

Immediately the engine sound disappeared, although it was still spinning the generator. A few times later in our test, the generator behaved in similar fashion — too loud and too unruly for production — but there is time for the programmers to find solutions. Volt engineers are revising the car’s control software, which will have the effect of “feathering” the transition from the nearly silent all-electric mode to the charge-sustaining mode, when the generator will be operating.

. February 19, 2010 at 2:50 pm

Car Bodies Could Store Energy Like Batteries
by Sarah Parsons, 02/08/10

As battery manufacturers race to produce more efficient lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles, some scientists are looking to make the cars themselves a power source. Researchers are currently developing a new material that can store and release electrical energy like a battery. Once perfected, scientists hope the substance will replace standard car bodies, making vehicles up to 15 percent lighter and significantly extending the range of electric vehicles.

The miracle material is part of a $4.5 million project at London’s Imperial College. The strong yet lightweight substance charges much like a battery, storing energy and releasing it when necessary. Researchers say that because the material is durable, it can be used to replace metal car parts like the wheel well and roof. That way, the car body itself could serve as an extra source of energy for electronics like GPS units or replace the car’s battery entirely.

Scientists say they are developing the material to save weight and volume in vehicles. Replacing metal parts with the lightweight substance could reduce cars’ weights by about 15 percent and create a roomier ride for passengers. But the technology could boost electric vehicle development, too. By pairing lithium-ion batteries with car bodies that produce power (or just relying on the bodies themselves), EVs will be able to drive further on a single charge, making them more attractive to drivers. With any luck, this substance will add even more incentive for people to ditch their gas guzzlers in favor of eco-friendly EVs.

. March 30, 2010 at 2:14 pm

The Volt is an intriguing car, perhaps the most exciting thing Chevrolet has produced in years (next to the new ZR-1, of course), but ultimately it is just a car and we’re left wondering how much of an impact it will have in a segment dominated by the Prius — especially after Toyota’s plug-in model is released. That the Volt will let most commuters get to work and back without burning a drop of E85 is hugely appealing, but there are two big questions left unanswered: what will the real-world mileage be once you do have to dip into the dino juice, and just how much will the thing cost.

That last question is the most important, and it’s the one that nobody from GM wanted to touch. The initial goal was to have it sell for $30,000 or less, but it’s unclear whether you’ll have to factor in the $7,500 electric car federal tax credit to hit that mark. We’re guessing you will, and for this car to be worth $30k it’s going to have to put out some fantastic real-world efficiency numbers. Unfortunately that’s the kind of info we can’t glean from a half-mile test drive, and early 230mpg EPA ratings sound a bit… optimistic.

Chevrolet is still planning on selling the Volt in limited test markets (California, Michigan, and Washington DC) before the end of the year, so we’re guessing it’ll be at least another six months before we get the answer to either of those questions. It certainly is an entertaining drive and, if it can provide a solid value proposition not just for those looking to make a difference environmentally but also for folks just looking to save some cash, GM could have quite a winner on its hands here.”

. May 10, 2010 at 10:13 am

Electric cars
Hub of the matter
Putting electric motors into the wheels of cars is the way forward

Apr 22nd 2010 | From The Economist print edition

At this week’s Deutsche Messe technology show in Hanover, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute displayed an electric vehicle which they are using as a test platform to investigate new vehicle systems. It includes electric hub motors, which they have developed to be markedly more powerful than any such motors currently available. The motors have all the necessary power and control systems integrated into the wheel hub, greatly reducing the number of connections between the hub motors and the rest of the vehicle.

Because hub motors can deliver power independently to each wheel, tricks like four-wheel-drive are possible. With software monitoring each wheel, stability and traction control can also be built-in. Besides dispensing with the traditional engine bay on a car, hub motors save space and weight because there is no need for a mechanical transmission, with its driveshafts and differential units.

. September 2, 2010 at 11:09 am

“Planes fly on jet fuel made from oil, ships run on bunker fuel made from oil, and, most importantly, motor vehicles run on gasoline or diesel made from oil. And with good reason: oil packs about four times the energy density of natural gas. And it carries about 20 times the energy density of the lithium-ion battery found in an electric car.

That’s a key reason why neither electric- nor natural gas–powered cars have made any sizeable inroads into the North American vehicle market. The 110,000 or so natural gas–powered vehicles in the U.S., most of them urban buses, remain an insignificant fragment of a 250 million-vehicle market. And the story isn’t any different with electric powered cars: GM doesn’t expect to sell more than 10,000 of its heralded Volt next year.

Another reason is the absence of a fuel distribution system. Outside of urban centers, there are few gas stations that supply natural gas, which means that, at best, the fuel can only be used for urban commutes. To build a national distribution system for the fuel would require subsidies that far exceed anything already squandered on encouraging home-grown ethanol production.”

. October 27, 2010 at 2:25 pm

In a lecture in February of this year, John Sterman, a professor of management and engineering systems at MIT, presented a sobering scenario. He pointed out that there is a huge latent demand for mass mobility as the global population is on track to hit nine billion by 2050, with most of that population residing in cities.

It is clear to Sterman that we need to think differently about how we transport goods and people in urban areas. People need access to goods, services, people and opportunities. Transportation systems, as we know them today, will simply not sustain the world’s growing population.

This speaks directly to perhaps the biggest problem with transportation today: a dependence on oil. “There are two things we can do to deal with this problem,” says Richard Gilbert, a transportation and energy consultant based in Toronto. “Keep internal combustion engines but get them to run on something other than oil — which we haven’t had much success with — or adopt another means, which essentially means electric motors, our most viable alternative to the internal combustion engine.”

From where he sits, Mr. Gilbert believes the future lies with electric vehicles that get their power while they are in motion, much like Volkswagen’s electric trams in Dresden. “The vehicles are connected to and get their power from the grid.”

. November 2, 2010 at 10:17 am

Plug-in cars

SIR – In regard to your article (“Highly charged motoring”, October 9th), transport accounts for around 21% of British emissions, of which road transport makes up over 90%. If Britain is to reach its 2020 carbon-reduction targets, it is vital it acts now. With this in mind, I cannot see the sense in the argument that because the national energy supply is not yet entirely renewable, action on electric vehicles should be delayed. When the process of changing the way our electricity is produced is completed, it would be rather backwards if vehicles were still entirely dependent on oil and gas. Electric vehicles have the potential to revolutionise world transportation. Government investment to stimulate demand now will lead to far greater rewards down the line.

Neil Bentley
Director
Business Environment
Confederation of British Industry
London

SIR – You missed one role that electric vehicles could play in the fight against climate change. It is true electric-vehicle subsidies are an expensive CO2-abatement measure and investing in renewable energy generation sounds more cost-efficient. However, renewable-energy output is usually intermittent and therefore relies on some sort of energy storage. This is where an indirect advantage of electric vehicles comes into play. They could provide a distributed storage resource to balance the volatility of renewable energy.

Marina Gonzalez
Zurich

SIR – Your article left out an irony. Environmentalists generally object to battery-powered devices and for good reason: batteries require mined minerals, employ manufacturing processes that leak toxins into local ecosystems and leave behind an even-worse trail of side effects upon disposal. Though when it comes to the largest mass-produced battery-powered gadget ever created—the electric car—environmentalists cannot jump from their seats fast enough to applaud it.

Ozzie Zehner
San Francisco

* SIR – You defended petrol-engine cars in the suburban environment based on the “final 1% of journeys” which you presumed included the annual holiday trip of the nuclear family and its luggage to the distant coast. This rather ignores the possibility of urbanites occasionally hiring a heavy-duty petrol car to satisfy this and other 1% requirements while their own electric vehicle looks after the vast majority of other journeys. An added benefit of this combination of electric-car ownership and petrol top-up hire would be the more efficient utilisation of larger, and generally more environmentally damaging, petrol vehicles that currently litter suburban residential areas and quietly decompose between their brief school-run and supermarket duties.

Paul Bullen
London

. November 12, 2010 at 10:32 am

The future of biofuels
The post-alcohol world
Biofuels are back. This time they might even work

Oct 28th 2010 | London and san francisco

MAKE something people want to buy at a price they can afford. Hardly a revolutionary business strategy, but one that the American biofuels industry has, to date, eschewed. Now a new wave of companies think that they have the technology to change the game and make unsubsidised profits. If they can do so reliably, and on a large scale, biofuels may have a lot more success in freeing the world from fossil fuels than they have had until now.

The original 1970s appeal of biofuels was the opportunity to stick up a finger or two, depending on the local bodily idiom, to the oil sheikhs. Over time, the opportunity to fight global warming added to the original energy-security appeal. Make petrol out of plants in a sufficiently clever way and you can drive around with no net emissions of carbon dioxide as well as no net payments to the mad, the bad and the greedy. A great idea all round, then.

Sadly, in America, it did not work out like that. First, the fuel was not petrol. Instead, it was ethanol, which stores less energy per litre, tends to absorb water and is corrosive; people will use it only if it is cheap or if you force them to through mandatory blending. In Brazil, which turned to biofuels after the 1970s oil shocks, the price of ethanol eventually became low enough for the fuel to find a market, thanks to highly productive sugar plantations and distilleries powered by the pulp left when that sugar was extracted from its cane. As a result Brazil is now a biofuels superpower. North American ethanol is mostly made from corn (maize), which is less efficient, and often produced in distilleries powered by coal; it is thus neither as cheap nor as environmentally benign. But American agribusiness, which knows a good thing when it sees one, used its political clout to arrange subsidies and tariffs that made corn-ethanol profitable and that kept out the alternative from Brazil.

. November 12, 2010 at 10:34 am

A large shift to electric cars would put the kibosh on the biofuel market as currently conceived by most of its supporters; but it would not necessarily kill the principle of using plants to convert sunlight into car-power. The goal of reducing emissions needs low-carbon generators to power the grid the electric cars draw juice from. Put the energy crops in generators instead of distilleries and off you go.

Richard Hamilton, the boss of Ceres, says he is indifferent as to whether his grasses end up in petrol tanks or power stations. Others think making them into electricity might be a better answer anyway. A study published last year by Elliott Campbell, of the University of California, Merced, and his colleagues suggested that turning crops into electricity, not fuel, would propel America’s cars 80% farther and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions even more. Electrons are easy to transport and burning uses all of the fuel value of a plant—including that stored in the lignin which current processing methods find hard to deal with.

. December 5, 2010 at 6:29 pm

“Jonathan Fahey writes for AP that as the first mass-market electric cars go on sale next month, the power industry faces a huge growth opportunity, with SoCal Edison expecting to be charging 100,000 cars by 2015 and California setting a goal of 1 million electric vehicles by 2020. But utility executives are worried that the difficulty of keeping the lights on for the first crop of buyers — and their neighbors — could slow the growth of this industry because it’s inevitable that electric utilities will suffer some difficulties early on. ‘We are all going to be a lot smarter two years from now,’ says Mark Perry, director of product planning for Nissan North America. When plugged into a home charging station the first Leafs and Volts will draw 3,300 Watts and take about 8 hours to deliver a full charge, but both carmakers may soon boost that to 6,600 Watts. The Tesla Roadster, an electric sports car with a huge battery, can draw 16,800 Watts. That means that adding an electric vehicle or two to a neighborhood can be like adding another house, and it can stress the equipment that services those houses. The problem is that transformers that distribute power from the electrical grid to homes are often designed to handle less than about 12,000 watts so the extra stress on a transformer from one or two electric vehicles could cause it to overheat and fail, knocking out power to the block.”

Tristan January 7, 2011 at 8:29 pm

There is some useful data for thinking about electric vehicle power consumption on the wikipedia page for the Ford Ranger EV, 1998-2002. According to the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory Advanced Vehicle Testing, the 98 lead-acid Ranger EV ran 115 miles on 28kw/h, which amounts to 0.24 kwh per mile. Some clever math works that out to 15.1 kw/h per 100km. Power in B.C. at the expensive rate (“Step 2”) is 8.27 cents/kwh, so that means 1.25$ to travel 100km, comparable to a vehicle which achieves 1 liter/100km (beyond anything currently commercially available).

The more interesting and important question, however, is how much more power is needed on the grid if everyone starts buying EV vehicles. If an average household travel 100km per day by car that might be expected to increase their energy bill by 15kwh/day, or 5475kwh/year. To put that into perspective, according to answers.com an “electrical engineer for a power company” claims :

“on average a house that is 1600-2000 square feet and having electric appliances except for the furnace use an average of 1500Kwatt-hours per month making 50 Kwatt-hours per day and a total of 18,000 Kwatt-hours per year.”

http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_much_electricity_does_an_average_2-story_3-bedroom_house_use_per_day_per_month_or_per_year

If this is reasonable, we might expect adding electric cars to increase household electricity consumption by something in the range of 25% – no small margin.

Milan January 8, 2011 at 6:18 pm

The difficulty of producing enough renewable energy to power a society worth of electric vehicles has come up before: “[B]uying a car and traveling 50 km per day in it means adding 40 kilowatt-hours per day (kWh/d) to your energy consumption. By contrast, surrounding all of the United Kingdom with wind turbines – with 15 per km of coastline, extending 4 km out to sea – would produce 16 kWh/d for every UK resident, if the wind was blowing all the time, and probably about 1/3 of that in actuality.”

It may well be that the future involves less and slower travel.

. February 13, 2011 at 9:48 pm

The power of the press
A new process will make solid-state rechargeable batteries that should greatly outperform existing ones

ELECTRONICS made a huge leap forward when the delicate and temperamental vacuum tube was replaced by the robust, reliable transistor. That change led to the now ubiquitous silicon chip. As a consequence, electronic devices have become vastly more powerful and, at the same time, have shrunk in both size and cost. Some people believe that a similar change would happen if rechargeable batteries could likewise be made into thin, solid devices. Researchers are working on various ways to do this and now one of these efforts is coming to fruition. That promises smaller, cheaper, more powerful batteries for consumer electronics and, eventually, for electric cars.

The new development is the work of Planar Energy of Orlando, Florida—a company spun out of America’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in 2007. The firm is about to complete a pilot production line that will print lithium-ion batteries onto sheets of metal or plastic, like printing a newspaper.

“Thin-film” printing methods of this sort are already used to make solar cells and display screens, but no one has yet been able to pull off the trick on anything like an industrial scale with batteries. Paradoxically, though thin-film printing needs liquid precursor chemicals to act as the “ink” which is sprayed onto the metal or plastic substrate, it works well only when those precursors react to form a solid final product. Most batteries include liquid or semi-liquid electrolytes—so printing them has been thought to be out of the question. Planar, however, has discovered a solid electrolyte it believes is suitable for thin-film printing.

. March 30, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Electric cars
Roll on the posh electrics
Even makers of the most expensive cars are switching to electric and hybrid power

ROLLS-ROYCE’S silver Phantom on display at the Geneva Motor Show had a surprise under the bonnet. In place of a polished, gleaming cylinder-head there were batteries and electric motors to drive the 2.5 tonne aluminium giant. This was just a one-off “concept” car for a world tour to see what the super-rich think of having their everyday transport run on electricity rather than petrol. But less opulent examples of luxury cars going electric were also in evidence. Lexus (the luxury brand of Toyota) showed off seven petrol-electric hybrid models, while Land Rover, Porsche, Mercedes and BMW (the owner of Rolls-Royce) all had hybrids on show.

Until recently only Lexus among the premium brands seemed likely to follow its parent company, which has made more than 2m of its pioneering Prius hybrids since 1997. The Prius itself has evolved, and Toyota now offers an upmarket, seven-seater people-carrier version, with a lighter lithium-ion battery instead of the nickel-metal-hydride technology in earlier models. In Europe one in five Toyota and Lexus cars sold will soon be hybrids, and the Prius is already the company’s best-selling model in Japan.

The Renault “spying” affair
A new twist
Doubts over the supposed foreign espionage at the French carmaker

IN JANUARY Renault, a carmaker in which the French government owns a 15% stake, fired three executives for allegedly selling secrets about its electric cars, after an internal investigation sparked by an anonymous letter. It emerged that a Chinese company was suspected. The executives protested their innocence and sued for defamation.

China’s government denied any spying by its companies. Renault hired private detectives to look for secret bank accounts abroad. Carlos Ghosn, who is chief executive of Renault and its associate company, Nissan, said on French television that it was not technical but business secrets that seemed to have been sold. A government minister talked portentously about economic warfare.

Two months on, however, the affair looks very different.

The motives for any spying had seemed clear: Mr Ghosn is largely betting the future of both his companies on electric cars, with a €4 billion ($5.6 billion) investment to bring four Renault electric models to market to join the Nissan Leaf, which is already on sale.

. April 7, 2011 at 9:53 pm

Battery technology
Highly charged
A powerful experimental battery that can be recharged completely in minutes

ENGINEERS have long dreamed of shortening the time it takes to recharge batteries. Currently, that can be hours. For applications like motor vehicles it really needs to be reduced to minutes. Now Paul Braun and his colleagues at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, have succeeded in building prototype batteries which do just that. Their most successful attempt can be recharged almost fully in a mere two minutes.

All batteries, no matter what their exact composition, work in the same fundamental way. They have two electrodes, an anode and a cathode, that are connected by an electrically conductive material—generally a liquid—called an electrolyte. When a battery is discharging, electrons (which are negatively charged) flow from anode to cathode through an external circuit, where they are put to work, and positively charged ions flow from anode to cathode through the electrolyte, to balance the charges in both electrodes. During recharging, electrons are forced round the circuit in the opposite direction, and the ions, perforce, return whence they came.

Many materials can be used as positive ions in batteries, but lithium has become popular in recent years because it is light and, weight for weight, lithium batteries thus store more energy than any other kind. Before that, nickel-metal hydride batteries were preferred for many applications. Even now, they are cheaper than lithium-ion batteries and they, too, are still widely used. Dr Braun therefore decided to have a go at making rapidly chargeable versions of both.

. June 23, 2011 at 10:11 pm

Tesla has announced that their business model has failed. Their basic idea was to sell a boutique electric car to fund the development of a regular consumer electric car. With this announcement they are saying that they did not sell enough of the Roadster to make producing it profitable. If that is the case, it is only a matter of time until Tesla closes its doors. I thought their approach was the most likely to create a successful fully electric car. Although it is possible that the technology they have developed will allow the existing car companies to develop successful fully electric cars, it is a shame that Tesla has failed to become a successful car manufacturer.

. July 3, 2011 at 10:30 am

Better still, by being able to tolerate temperatures that cause permanent magnets to break down, an induction motor can be pushed (albeit briefly) to far higher levels of performance—for, say, accelerating while overtaking or climbing a steep hill. Hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius or the Chevrolet Volt have to rely on their petrol engines and gearboxes for extra zip. By contrast, the Tesla Roadster uses just one gear—such is the flexibility of its three-phase induction motor.

In moving to a pure induction design, Toyota will be taking a page out of Tesla’s book, in both senses of the name. Weighing in at 115lb (52kg), the Roadster’s tiny three-phase induction motor is no bigger than a watermelon. Yet it packs a hefty 288 horsepower (215 kilowatt) punch. More impressively, the motor’s 295lb-ft (400 newton-metres) of torque is available from rest to nearly 6,000 revolutions per minute, which eliminates the need for a conventional gearbox. The result is a motor that is light, compact and remarkably efficient.

Overall, the Tesla Roadster achieves a battery-to-wheels efficiency of 88%. That is three times better than a conventional car. With its vast engineering resources, Toyota could well do even better. And somewhere, Nikola Tesla must be smiling.

. July 30, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Electric cars
Highly charged
The future of electric cars is in China

CHINA has lots of people, not much oil and rulers who love big projects. Small wonder that makers of electric cars see it as the market of the future. The Chinese government wants to have 500,000 electric cars, lorries and buses on Chinese roads by 2015 and 5m by 2020. It is providing customers with subsidies worth up to 60,000 yuan ($9,250) and other incentives, too. If it carries on doing so, electric cars and plug-in hybrids could account for 7% of new-car sales in China by 2020, says a forthcoming report by the Boston Consulting Group. That would make China the biggest market for electric vehicles, by volume, in the world.

Foreign firms are salivating. But they are also nervous. “The price for market access has gone up,” says Michael Dunne, the president of Dunne & Co, a car consultancy in Hong Kong. Foreign producers are being told about new “draft” rules which mean they must share more intellectual property and branding rights with their Chinese joint-venture partners, he says.

. September 25, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Electric cars

All charged up for sharing

Vincent Bolloré makes a risky bet on electric-car technology

FIFTEEN years ago Vincent Bolloré, a French industrialist, decided to get into the business of electricity storage. He started a project to produce rechargeable batteries in two small rooms of his family mansion in Brittany. “I asked him, ‘what are you doing?’ and I told him to stop, that it wouldn’t go anywhere,” says Alain Minc, a business consultant in Paris who has advised Mr Bolloré for many years. Fortunately, he says, Mr Bolloré continued.

. December 4, 2011 at 9:02 pm

GM offers to buy back Chevy Volts
richard blackwell
From Friday’s Globe and Mail

General Motors (GM-N21.280.321.53%) has stepped up its campaign to reassure customers about the safety of the Chevrolet Volt, its first serious foray into the electric car market.

GM’s chief executive officer Dan Akerson said Thursday that the company will buy back a Volt from any customer worried about the safety of the vehicle, a step further than GM’s offer earlier in the week to provider temporary loaner vehicles to Volt owners.

. December 4, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Batteries just arenít very good energy carriers. My next electric car test was the ultra-cool Tesla Roadster (Leonardo DiCaprio and David Letterman both own one). The Tesla accelerated like a round leaving the muzzle of an artillery gun. Its engine was smooth and silent. But its battery was a massive, leaden presence that defined the car ñ the Tesla weighed about 700 pounds more than the gas-powered Lotus Elise itís based on.

I wanted to take the Tesla up to Blue Mountain to visit a friend and drive the back roads. But I didnít have enough range. If I wanted to refuel, Iíd have find somewhere to plug in and cool my heels for a few hours. Was there a KOA campground nearby? Iíd read somewhere that they now cater to EVs, offering drivers a place to stay while their car suckles from high-power outlets originally designed for motorhomes.

My experiences prompted a research mission into the pros and cons of electric power. I talked to engineers, energy gurus and transportation experts. The bottom line: electric motors are amazing ñ light, efficient and quiet. You can do away with the exhaust system, the spark plugs and the transmission (electric motors are so torquey you donít need one). Compared to an internal combustion engines, an electric motor is beautifully simple, with a handful of moving parts.

When you get down to it, a gasoline-powered motor is a disaster in the making, filled with parts that spin, jerk and accelerate. Itís an unlikely and violent concatenation with a heart of fire, filled with anger and set in motion by fire. But the electric motor is beautiful, with inherent balance and simple design that creates energy without violence.

Brilliant. But then we come to the battery, and things go downhill. Batteries are heavy. They lose energy in the cold. It takes a long time to pump power into them. Imagine the contest between the battery and the gas tank as a boxing match ñ the gas tank weighs a tenth as much as the battery, but it punches just as hard, and it has a lot more endurance. Which would you lay odds on?

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/whats-still-killing-the-electric-car/article2255085/

. March 6, 2012 at 8:34 pm

General Motors’ announcement Friday that it would halt production of its plug-in hybrid car, the Volt, for five weeks figures to threaten President Obama’s stated goal of seeing a million electric cars in the U.S. by 2015.

That goal assumed that the Volt would become the industry leader and that GM would have produced 505,000 Volts by then. Another mainstay of the president’s electric-car plans, Fisker Automotive’s Nina plug-in, is also on hold. The federal government is not advancing new loan payments because Fisker didn’t produce and sell as many of its first-generation cars as it promised.

The government has made several investments to promote the electric car industry, including granting GM $105.9 million to help it produce battery packs for the Volt, and $151.4 million in a grant for LG Chem to produce battery cells for the Volt. The government also gives buyers of electric cars a tax credit.

The company said on Friday it will halt production of the Volt and lay off about 1,300 workers at its Hamtramck, Mich., factory over the next couple of months. The company sold just 7,700 Volts last year, below its 10,000-car target, which was already reduced from 15,000.

. July 2, 2013 at 2:20 pm

The news has not all been bad. Tesla, a Californian maker of battery-powered sports cars, recently declared its first quarterly profit, and repaid its $452m of government loans early. But overall, electric cars, whether purely battery-powered or hybrids that use petrol engines as backups, have been a flop. They are expensive, even with state subsidies, and the all-battery ones have a limited range.

Does this failure matter? Not that much. The main reason why Better Place failed seems to have been bad management. In 2009 it struck a deal with Renault to sell 100,000 electric cars with swappable batteries by 2016; it sold just 1,300. It failed to get other carmakers to make vehicles with swappable batteries, restricting its subscribers’ choice.

Another barrier has been that all cars have been getting greener, driven in part by manufacturers’ need to meet emissions standards. In the longer term a race is on between scientists trying to create low-cost, low-carbon “biofuels”, which could give petrol and diesel engines a new, clean lease on life, and others trying to make electric batteries lighter, cheaper and more reliable. The odds are that pure electric cars, despite their slow start, will be part of tomorrow’s cleaner traffic: they just will not be the whole answer.

. October 5, 2013 at 8:15 pm

Biofuels
What happened to biofuels?
Energy technology: Making large amounts of fuel from organic matter has proved to be more difficult and costly than expected

Making a second-generation biofuel means overcoming three challenges. The first is to break down woody cellulose and lignin polymers into simple plant sugars. The second is to convert those sugars into drop-in fuels to suit existing vehicles, via a thermochemical process (using catalysts, extreme temperatures and high pressures) or a biochemical process (using enzymes, natural or synthetic bacteria, or algae). The third and largest challenge is to find ways to do all this cheaply and on a large scale.

. October 5, 2013 at 8:15 pm

Some observers doubt whether even the most sophisticated biofuels can compete with fossil fuels in the near future. Daniel Klein-Marcuschamer, a researcher at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, conducted a comprehensive analysis of renewable aviation fuels. He concluded that producing first-generation bio-jet fuel from sugarcane would require oil prices of at least $168 a barrel to be competitive, and that some second-generation algae technologies would require crude oil to soar above $1,000 a barrel (the current price is around $110) to break even. Mr Klein-Marcuschamer has made his model open-source in an effort to help the industry find ways to make biofuels more competitive.

Even if second-generation processes can be economically scaled up, however, that might in turn highlight a further problem. To make a significant dent in the 2,500m litres of conventional oil that American refineries churn through each day, biofuel factories would have to be able to get hold of a staggering quantity of feedstock. Mr Ghisolfi of Beta Renewables points out that a factory with an annual output of 140m litres needs 350,000 tonnes of biomass a year to operate. “There are only certain areas, in Brazil and some parts of the US and Asia, where you can locate this much biomass within a close radius,” says Mr Ghisolfi. “I am sceptical of scaling to ten times that size, because getting 3.5m tonnes of biomass to a single collection point is going to be a very big undertaking.”

. December 28, 2013 at 3:03 pm
. March 17, 2014 at 3:29 pm

Tesla Motors’ share price soared by 15%, giving it a market valuation half that of General Motors, when an analyst forecast that the growing electric-carmaker would recharge the energy industry as well. Elon Musk, Tesla’s founder, is planning to build a $5 billion “gigafactory” somewhere in America’s south-west to make low-cost lithium-ion batteries, which could also help smooth fluctuations in renewable power. See article

. August 25, 2017 at 8:26 pm

The death of the internal combustion engine

It had a good run. But the end is in sight for the machine that changed the world

Today’s electric cars, powered by lithium-ion batteries, can do much better. The Chevy Bolt has a range of 383km; Tesla fans recently drove a Model S more than 1,000km on a single charge. UBS, a bank, reckons the “total cost of ownership” of an electric car will reach parity with a petrol one next year—albeit at a loss to its manufacturer. It optimistically predicts electric vehicles will make up 14% of global car sales by 2025, up from 1% today. Others have more modest forecasts, but are hurriedly revising them upwards as batteries get cheaper and better—the cost per kilowatt-hour has fallen from $1,000 in 2010 to $130-200 today. Regulations are tightening, too. Last month Britain joined a lengthening list of electric-only countries, saying that all new cars must be zero-emission by 2050.

To gauge what lies ahead, think how the internal combustion engine has shaped modern life. The rich world was rebuilt for motor vehicles, with huge investments in road networks and the invention of suburbia, along with shopping malls and drive-through restaurants. Roughly 85% of American workers commute by car. Carmaking was also a generator of economic development and the expansion of the middle class, in post-war America and elsewhere. There are now about 1bn cars on the road, almost all powered by fossil fuels. Though most of them sit idle, America’s car and lorry engines can produce ten times as much energy as its power stations. The internal combustion engine is the mightiest motor in history.

Assuming, of course, that people want to own cars at all. Electric propulsion, along with ride-hailing and self-driving technology, could mean that ownership is largely replaced by “transport as a service”, in which fleets of cars offer rides on demand. On the most extreme estimates, that could shrink the industry by as much as 90%. Lots of shared, self-driving electric cars would let cities replace car parks (up to 24% of the area in some places) with new housing, and let people commute from far away as they sleep—suburbanisation in reverse.

And then there is oil. Roughly two-thirds of oil consumption in America is on the roads, and a fair amount of the rest uses up the by-products of refining crude oil to make petrol and diesel. The oil industry is divided about when to expect peak demand; Royal Dutch Shell says that it could be little more than a decade away. The prospect will weigh on prices long before then. Because nobody wants to be left with useless oil in the ground, there will be a dearth of new investment, especially in new, high-cost areas such as the Arctic. By contrast, producers such as Saudi Arabia, with vast reserves that can be tapped cheaply, will be under pressure to get pumping before it is too late: the Middle East will still matter, but a lot less than it did. Although there will still be a market for natural gas, which will help generate power for all those electric cars, volatile oil prices will strain countries that depend on hydrocarbon revenues to fill the national coffers. When volumes fall, the adjustment will be fraught, particularly where the struggle for power has long been about controlling oil wealth. In countries such as Angola and Nigeria where oil has often been a curse, the diffusion of economic clout may bring immense benefits.

. September 12, 2017 at 8:11 pm

Road bumps for electric cars

Mark Twain once observed that the report of his death was an exaggeration. The same holds for your prediction of the demise of the internal combustion engine (“Roadkill”, August 12th). We agree that over the next few decades battery power will make deep inroads, replacing internal combustion engines in light vehicles. However, 40% of the greenhouse-gas emissions from global road traffic in 2015 came from freight, much of it from long-haul operations.

Successfully electrifying heavy trucks remains unlikely. In America, the average Class 8 truck travels between 300 to 600 miles a day. Shashank Sripad and Venkat Viswanathan have estimated that for a truck with a driving range of 300 miles, the lithium-ion battery system would cost roughly $200,000. In addition, for a truck with a range of 600 miles, the battery pack would weigh over 16 tonnes and would cut the truck’s maximum permitted freight capacity almost in half.

This casts doubt on the feasibility of Tesla’s electric long-haul truck, which is to be unveiled shortly. The bottom line is that it is hard to beat the very high energy density of liquid fuels. In the future, fuels may be made in ways that release no net carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Internal combustion engines will be with us in trucks for decades to come, unless batteries are radically improved or massive investments are made to create a zero-carbon hydrogen fuelling infrastructure.

LYNN KAACK
M. GRANGER MORGAN
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh

We could not disagree more with your assessment of the death of the internal combustion engine (ICE). Electric vehicles that run on batteries are part of the future. However credible studies suggest that 90% of ground-transportation energy will continue to come from hydrocarbon-based fuels (both renewable and traditional sources) in 2040. Moreover, the electrical generation capacities we have at present do not come close to meeting the needs of an all-electric fleet. Nor is battery production emission free.

As well as road freight, vehicles used in agriculture and construction and for long-distance travel will continue to be powered by the ICE. There is little other choice. You also refer to a ban on new cars “reliant on ICEs”, yet many such vehicles will still contain an ICE as a hybrid.

Today’s ICE is a modern machine; there have been huge leaps in technological innovation to increase its efficiency and decrease emissions. Further advances will enable near pollutant-free mobility; future fuels offer sustainable decarbonisation strategies. If we cease to invest in the ICE there is a danger that we will lose the opportunity to improve its technology, especially if electric cars do not meet expectations.

The demonisation of the internal combustion engine makes good politics, but poor engineering.

FELIX LEACH
Research fellow
Keble College
University of Oxford

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