America Prepares for the Electric Car

Last Friday, Nissan concluded its cross-country media tour in New York City, after two weeks of showcasing its new fully electric vehicle: the Nissan Leaf.  The Leaf gets 100 miles to the charge and has a top speed of 90 mph (1).  Unlike gasoline-hybrid vehicles like the Prius, the Leaf is to be priced for middle-income consumers and will hit mass markets in December 2010.

As fully electric and hybrid-electric cars gain traction in the US and elsewhere, the question must be raised: is America ready for a large-scale electric car infrastructure?  Many cities are welcoming the arrival of electric cars by encouraging the installation of fueling stations and electric-car compatible buildings.  A recent New York Times article reports that “The San Francisco building code will soon be revised to require that new structures be wired for car chargers. Across the street from City Hall, some drivers are already plugging converted hybrids into a row of charging stations.”  West coast cities like San Fransisco, Portland, and San Diego seem to be on the forefront of instituting electric car infrastructures.  These cities will provide valuable lessons to other American cities on do’s and don’t’s of electric car infrastructure.

But important concerns remain.  First, can the electric grid handle such an increase in demand for electricity?  A recent study by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory predicts a best-case and worst-case scenario for the increased power plant capacity that would need to be installed to accommodate a fleet of US plug-in electric hybrids.  The worst case scenario–that in which all plug-in users refueled at exactly 5:00 pm–required installation of about 160 new power plants nationwide.  The best case scenario–that in which all users recharged between 10:00 pm and 5:00 am–required no new power plants.  The best case is certainly good news, but is unlikely without strict enforcement.  The most likely scenario is probably somewhere in the middle of the two.  Cities and states will have to deal with this increase in demand if they are serious about making places accessible for electric cars.

With all this concern about increased power plant capacity, we must ask ourselves whether electric cars are indeed cleaner (from a CO2 emission perspective) than conventional internal combustion engine vehicles.  Estimates vary, but a calculation using figures from the DOE’s Carbon Dioxide Emissions from the Generation of Electric Power in the United States and efficiencies from typical electric and standard vehicles shows that an electric vehicle emits about half the CO2 per mile as does a conventional vehicle.  In addition, electricity has the potential to become completely clean (no CO2 emissions), while gasoline does not.  Finally, even the big two conventional sources of electricity–natural gas and coal–are domestic resources (2), making the US less dependent on foreign sources.

Finally, though electric cars and plug-in electrics are a promising future transportation option, they require government incentives to help get them off the ground.  Nissan recently closed a $1.4 billion loan from the US DOE for a plant in Smyrna, Tennesee that will produce lithium ion batteries for its fleet of Leafs (Leaves?).  The Department of Energy also gave a grant of $98 million to the EV infrastructure provider ETec that “will provide an unprecedented number (6,510) of public charging stations across the 5 participating markets and will provide home charging stations for up to 4700 Nissan Leafs sold in those markets” (3).  The five regions are Seattle, Oregon, Tenessee, Arizona, and San Diego.

The next few years will be very interesting in terms of the takeoff and unforeseen challenges of an electric car infrastructure.  Main concerns are impact on power plant load and whether cities can provide refueling stations for users.  Despite challenges, electric cars provide an exciting alternative to conventional vehicles.



2.  Dr. Michael Webber.  University of Texas at Austin.  Energy Technology and Policy.  Lecture 4: 28 January 2010.  “Fossil Fuels.”



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