Renewables and the Plug-In Hybrid

The movie Who Killed the Electric Car about the the birth, recall and eventual crushing of every last example of the popular but short lived GM EV-1, blamed a variety of culprits for the car's demise.  But as evidenced by the standing room only crowd at last week's and Brookings conference on plug-in hybrids, enthusiasm for the car has returned. 

12 electric vehicles were on display at the conference where a variety of speakers talked about the potential of electric cars, the obstacles in their path and the needed role, if any, of the government.  The moment is auspicious.  The new Tesla sports car which can travel from 0 to 60 in 4 seconds and has a battery range of 240 miles, backed by Vantage Point Capital and Kleiner Perkins went in to production last month.  Meanwhile, the sleek Chevy Volt, a serial hybrid that can travel 40 miles on its battery before using any gas--but uses gas as a backup--slated for production in 2010, is enjoying extraordinary buzz.

Henry Ford thought that that electric engine would eventually beat out the internal ombustion one and electricity is an attractive fuel because it creates no carbon mess--mechanics working on electric cars don't have to wash their hands--and it currently costs only about one fifth as much as gas.  The barriers have always been two fold, the difficulty of storing electric energy in a battery as opposed to the chemical energy stored in oil, and the time needed to recharge--a matter of hours--as opposed to several minutes at the pump.  New battery technologies are on the verge of solving the first problem.  A variety of creative solutions--from swapping out batteries to installing public plugs have the potential to address the second.

However, a key sub-text of the conference last week--that was not addressed--is where will the power come from.  Analysts at Oak Ridge Laboratories and EPRI estimate that to meet future demand for electric cars, if people choose to charge during the day and unless they can be persuaded to only charge at night, hundreds of new power plants will need to be built.

Indeed, electricity demand is rising anyway, just from rising population, new gadgets and fancier living.  And herein lies a potential problem.  There is no obvious solution to the need for more power.  Consider the options: Nuclear power is extremely expensive and may be obsolete.  No plant has been greenlighted in 30 years; the US still has no viable plan for storing nuclear waste as the Yucca mountain plan is stalled; the costs of building a plant have exploded; and the US has not trained nuclear engineers in decades.  Building a new nuclear plant in the US is at least a decade away.

Coal, a fuel almost always preceded by the adjective "cheap" has climbed in price.  Perhaps more significantly, the price of a coal plant has ballooned due to the rising costs of concrete, raw materials, construction labor and compliance making new coal plants an increasingly unattractive economic option.  Banks are also reluctant to finance coal plants due to concern over climate change regulation.  And of course coal creates a lot of CO2.

A few years ago, localized, clean natural gas plants appered to be the future.  But many private investors in gas power plants lost their shirts when soaring gas prices made their plants unprofitable  To the degree more utilities turn to natural gas for electricity generation, this would drive its price up further.
The leaves renewable energy, such as hydro, wind and solar power.  Most of the good hydro sites have been exploited.  Wind, however, has emerged as growing, economic source of power and solar is growing more attractive daily.  Renewables have the advantage of zero cost of feedstock.  The cost consists only of plant and operations.  The key fact to remember is that while renewables only account for a tiny fraction of existing power consumption, they accounted for over 30% of new power capacity last year.

In short, the fates of electric cars and renewable energy are inextricably linked.  For the electric car to realize its potential, renewable power will have to come onstream in a major way.