Electric Cars? Not So Fast! – Maybe it’s Time to Rethink Some of Our Preconceived Notions about Reducing Oil Consumption
Recently I wrote a post on the Keystone XL pipeline. It took quite a bit of research. I read many articles written by people on both sides of the issue. One thing I noticed was that a good percentage of the people who opposed the construction of the pipeline, said that we would be better off decreasing our oil consumption rather than increasing our oil production. They say it like it is an indisputable fact and a foregone conclusion. The sentiment is often thrown in at the end of an argument against oil production, consumption, or transport, but is it correct?
Sometimes an idea gets repeated so often, that we forget to question if it is actually true. Should we be focused upon reducing our oil consumption? If so, how? There are lots of ways to do it, but will we actually be better off if we pursue them? Let’s look at some of the most common ideas for reducing demand for oil.
Use less – Simple as that. No need to wait for advancements in technology, nothing to buy, everybody just do their part and use less oil. There are some problems with that though. First of all, how do you get people to comply? Liberals are way ahead of us on that one. Just tax ‘em. The liberal cure all for everything.
Obviously if gas is more expensive, people will use less, but what won’t they be doing because of it? Joy riding makes up a very small percentage of driving. If people are in their cars, they’re probably going some place to do something and that something usually involves spending money. Back when I watched the main stream media, it seemed like every Christmas season they would report doom and gloom for the retailers, (Of course that was back during the Bush Administration) saying sales were expected to be down one or two percent. My point here is, one or two percent is a significant amount for some parts of our economy. Having people cut down on their driving by say, 10 percent or more, can’t help but have a negative influence on consumer spending simply because they would be staying home more. It could be like having a disappointing Christmas shopping season all year, every year.
Also if we choose to reduce our oil consumption via increasing fuel taxes, it means less money for businesses to invest and hire people. Between the drain on economic activity from increased taxes and decreased consumer spending, one must think twice before pulling the “decrease oil consumption lever”. I’m not saying that it is absolutely not a good idea; I’m just saying that it is not as though it wouldn’t have any negative consequences.
Electric Cars – To be fair, I have to admit my bias here. I have been against electric cars since the first time I ever heard a set of dual pipes with glass packs when I was about eight years old. That being said, most everything pro-electric car you’ll ever read or hear comes from people who are equally biased in the other direction, for whatever reason. Here is the most fair, objective, and unbiased analysis of electric cars that I have ever read. http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/08/mpg-for-electric-cars/
I didn’t just put that link there to show that I spent some time doing research. Click on it and read it! I guarantee that it will be worth your time. If you think electric cars are a good idea, there’s a good chance it will change your mind. If you think electric cars are lame, it will give you all the ammunition you need to win any argument on the subject.
“OK, I read the linked article.” (Some of) you are saying, “What can you possibly add to it?” Plenty. That article makes an assessment of electric cars from a mathematical standpoint. I’m going to point out their real world shortcomings and why for practical matters, they are never going to play any large part in reducing our oil consumption.
There are only two markets for electric cars. 1) The guy who wants to prove to everyone who doesn’t already know, that he is the biggest weenie in town, and 2) urban and semi-urban fleet vehicles. Why?
Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I was a salesman at a Chevrolet dealership. Those were the final days for carburetors on new vehicles and many customers were buying their first fuel-injected cars. Although some old school hot-rodders may disagree with me, electronic fuel injection was the best thing that ever happened to passenger cars. It did what many people considered impossible up until that time. It increased power, gas mileage, and decreased emissions simultaneously.
A four cylinder fuel-injected car of the early 90’s could out-perform a similarly sized V-6 carbureted model from the early 80’s, and could hold its own against many V-8 from that era, but customers weren’t having it. Not even a test drive could convince them to step down to a lowly four cylinder. We sold about 200 cars a month, and the vast majority of cars we sold, with the exception of the smallest models (Cavalier) were V-6’s and V-8’s. Most of our customers had a perception of four cylinder engines being weak and not durable, and no factory rated horsepower claims or warranties were going to convince them otherwise.
What I’m trying to say is that the perception of power was more important in customers minds than any actual horsepower figures, and that is still true today. When it comes to electric cars, their gasoline-powered counterparts not only have a greater perceived power, they in general, have a greater actual power, much greater. Now if it was that difficult to convince a customer to switch from a 6 to a 4, imagine how hard it will be to get them to switch from gas to electric. Nearly impossible.
You might think that perceived power is just a cultural thing and with the passage of time, attitudes will change and sales of electric cars will substantially increase, but I’m here to tell you that they won’t. It is true that there are many other criteria used to evaluate automobiles besides horsepower. Unfortunately for the electric car, it doesn’t do well in almost any of them.
I mentioned that there is a market for electric cars as fleet service vehicles, but the reasons for this are the same reasons that they are in general, poor choices for passenger cars. Let’s look at the area where electric vehicles shine the brightest – forklifts.
The indoor warehouse is the ideal place for an electric forklift. They have zero emissions (which is extra important indoors) and the heavy batteries are actually a benefit. Forklifts need to be extra heavy in order to counter-balance the loads they lift and carry. A warehouse environment is also great for electric vehicles because they are out of the weather and floors are level. There are generally no or very slight inclines, but the biggest reason that electric fork lifts are ideal for indoor warehouse use is a deal-breaker for electric power when it comes to being practical for a passenger car. What do I mean?
What’s everybody’s favorite time at work? Quittin’ time! Just like with the employees, the end of the day means for the electric forklifts that it’s time to recharge. This can take up to eight hours. We have some forklifts where I work that can recharge in a matter of a couple of hours, but that is really not that big of an advantage. A business that shuts down every night has 12 hours or more of recharge time available, and a business that runs 24 hours per day must still have to deal with two hour recharge time. If this means buying an extra truck, the faster recharge time doesn’t give you much of an advantage over the eight-hour recharge time.
The demands of the family car are nothing like the demands of a forklift which usually operates on a routine schedule. The time that will be spent charging and using a forklift are known in advance and usually don’t vary much. Now consider the family car. One of the most important factors one considers when buying a car besides power is reliability. Most people equate reliability with not breaking down, but there is more to it than that. Reliability means being ready for action at a moments notice. Now imagine that you get that call in the middle of the night – your son’s in jail, your mother’s seriously ill, your sister’s husband left her, or any family emergency – do you really want to have to tell your loved ones that you can’t make it because your electric car is still on the charger? What if your kid’s sick? I guess you could wait for your car to charge. It’s gonna be pretty hard to take her to the hospital on your bike.
An automobile must face a whole host of conditions that the forklift never encounters – steep hills, rough roads, long distances, hours and hours of continuous operation, rain, snow, and worst of all – cold. A battery loses a significant amount of capacity as temperature decreases which decreases the range of an electric car. While we are talking about low temperatures, what about heat? The heater in a gasoline powered uses waste heat from the engines cooling system – essentially free heat, but electric cars don’t produce much waste heat, so heating the passenger compartment becomes a problem. Besides heat, air conditioning, rear window defrosters, headlights, or anything else that uses electrical power can significantly reduce the range of an electric car.
Gas-electric hybrids don’t have many of the problems of pure electric vehicle and are almost ideal for city driving. Just bear in mind that the fuel economy advantage of hybrids over traditional gasoline powered cars starts to disappear as you do more and more highway driving to the point where they are not worth the additional cost. When one takes into consideration the added complexity of a hybrid vehicle, it is easy to understand why traditional gasoline powered cars will be the dominant form of private transportation for the foreseeable future.
Yeah, but what about the environment? Electric cars don’t pollute right? We could be saving the environment and reducing our oil consumption at the same time. I’m sorry to disappoint you but electric cars fail there too. They might be able to reduce our oil consumption, but they won’t reduce our fossil fuel consumption and they are certainly not going to save the environment. (You didn’t read the linked article did you? Well here’s what I thought was the most important part)
In order to deliver 30 kWh to your house to fully charge the Leaf’s 24 kWh battery bank, for example—incorporating the charge efficiency this time, the source of electricity becomes a highly relevant factor. Two-thirds of our electricity comes from fossil fuel plants, typically converting 35% of the fossil fuel thermal energy into electricity. Only 90% of this makes it through the transmission system, on average. If your electricity comes from a fossil fuel plant, the 30 kWh delivered to your house took about 95 kWh of fossil fuel energy. The 73 miles the Leaf travels on a full charge now puts it at an energy efficiency of 130 kWh/100-mi. The MPG equivalent number is 28 MPG. From a carbon-dioxide standpoint, you’d be better off burning the fossil fuel directly in your car.
When a lot of people think of electric cars, they think of windmills and solar energy. What they should be thinking of is steam-powered locomotives. Electric cars ultimately use the same source of power (coal) and for the most part, use technology that is only slightly more modern. They had electric powered cars since the earliest days of the automobile and much of the reasons that they didn’t win out back then are the reasons that they are not going to ever be very popular now or in the near future.
Alternative and renewable energy – Believe it or not, I’m a big fan of alternative and renewable energy. One of my goals is to one day, build my own wind turbine from scratch. It’s totally doable. Check it out. http://otherpower.com/ I don’t have any problem with renewable energy. I do however; have a problem with the government subsidizing it, or anything else for that matter. Subsidizing is a bad idea because it prevents us from finding if something can stand on its own. To be profitable in the free market, should be just as important to a wind farm as how much energy the turbines produce. If the government wants to help the renewable energy industry, it should tell the people that are trying to stand in the way of it’s development to bug off. If some form of renewable energy power plant can be built through private investment, a few protestors should not be able to prevent its construction. I think the private sector should be able to develop renewable energy sources to their maximum potential but even that happens, it will only decrease our oil consumption by a few percent and it’s not going to happen anytime soon.
Should we really be focusing on reducing our oil consumption rather than increasing our oil production? Not yet, not now. Reducing oil consumption is a worthy long or mid term goal, but we need to do everything we can to jumpstart our economy now. Not by some bogus stimulus package, which turns out, to be just a multi-billion dollar government give away, but by real investment that produces real wealth without putting any further burden on the taxpayers. Nothing has the potential to do that like taking advantage of the resources we have right here at home along with reaping any benefits Canadian oil production may provide us, like building the Keystone XL pipeline.
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