Thursday, April 16, 2009

Electric la-la land

The news that the government is to offer incentives to people to buy electric cars (from 2011) has been greeted by fairly uncritical press coverage.

Most of the problems with electric cars are well documented, however. They lack the range of a normal, internal combustion engined car and can not be "refuelled" anywhere near as quickly. As a result, electric cars are all but useless for any significant journey.

But there's more to it than even that. Apart from the obvious fact that these cars still require something to produce the electricity they use, there is the issue of the batteries they employ. Anyone who owns a laptop or even a mobile phone will know that these batteries quickly degrade and lose efficiency. When I first got my previous laptop it could run for almost 3 hours from a 100% charge. By the time it was replaced three years later it could barely manage one hour. My current laptop is one year old and already has lost around a fifth of its efficiency (down from 5 hours to 4).

As I understand it, the average lifespan of these batteries is around 4-5 years. After that they have to be replaced - and for these electric cars that is an enormous cost. It's a little like having to replace the engine of a standard car every five years!

What this means is that these cars will have virtually no value second hand other than as parts bins. If you own one of these cars from new, you won't be able to sell it after three years for the sort of money you'd get for a three year old petrol car - and if petrol engined cars are still available, you won't be able to sell it at all. You'll be faced with a £5000 bill for new batteries (plus whatever it costs you for disposing of the toxic waste that constitutes the old batteries) or scrapping the car - which will still cost you an arm and a leg.

And all of this supposes that we're going to have a plentiful supply of electricity to charge these cars - but with our energy supply policy in complete disarray this is far from certain. Chances are that you'll be plugging your electric car in overnight only to find, come morning, that there's been a power cut and the damn thing won't start.

I have nothing against electric cars per se, but until they are really viable and practical alternatives to internal combustion engined cars then it strikes me as daft to pursue such a policy. Even more so when far more practical and realistic alternatives are becoming available through hydrogen fuel cell cars.

I'm all for anything that moves us away from dependency on energy supply from unstable and, frankly, beligerent oil states. Believe me, I will be as happy as anyone when we can tell the Saudis and the rest that they can shove their oil where the sun don't shine, but for God's sake keep it real.


Chalcedon said...

Thought you might like this. I wonder how much a car full will cost though? staff and news service reports
updated 10:29 a.m. ET Dec. 13, 2007

TOKYO - A new battery that can be recharged to 90 percent capacity in under five minutes and lasts 10 years will start shipping in March, Toshiba Corp. announced this week, hailing it as "a new energy solution" for cleaner transportation.

Toshiba plans to initially make the quick-charging Super Charge ion Battery for electric bikes, forklifts, construction machinery and other industrial use. It can work in temperatures as low as minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit.

A newcomer in rechargeable batteries, Toshiba said the lithium-ion battery could be used in hybrid and electric cars by 2010, Mochida said.

Stan said...

It's an improvement, but it still only has a lifespan of 10 years - and I expect it will still lose half its efficiency inside 5.

Dave H said...

This is a crap techie comment: I was amazed to learn that lithium ion rechargable batteries lose their capacity mostly not from the charge/discharge cycle, rather through age, continuously from the point of manufacture.

Apparently optimal life is achieved by maintaining them at a 40% charge and a few degrees above freezing. Handy if the contents of your fridge require a rechargable source of electricity, I suppose.

Similarly when installing solar panels I was gladdened by the manufacturers advice to avoid locations where they may become warm, since this lowers their efficiency. Would that include locations that, for example, er, receive direct sunlight?

Someone's making a fortune out of selling us chocolate teapots.

Stan said...

I didn't know that, Dave - thanks for the insight. I guess that explains why my new laptop's battery life started to degrade virtually from the moment I got it.

The solar panels advice is strange but, somehow, not surprising.

Chalcedon said...

Well guys, it's a start with these new batteries. Surely though if there is a huge production, relatively, re these types of batteries the cos of replacement should reduce so even if they do degrade re charge capacity these can be replaced. It's nowhere near perfect but it is a start. Of course battery tech is crucial but research has languished and looked more at exotica such as sodium sulphur technology.

bernard said...

Another crucial point about electric cars and one totally missed by the media is: there is no such thing as a free lunch when it comes to energy consumption. It's the first law of thermodynamics in that in order to use energy it first has to be generated...unless of course it is free to start with, ie solar, wind, nuclear, etc.
A battery powered car, hooked up to the National Grid, will require the equivalent amount of energy to carry four people over a set distance, that an internal combustion engine does.
Since most power stations are coal or gas (not nuclear, which is free energy) then it stands to reason that more fossil fuel will have to be burnt to meet the demand of millions of charging batteries.
The cities may be freer of pollution but the overall carbon footprint from power stations will be the same as petrol driven cars.