Slowly, very slowly, electric cars are making their way into the market place and onto our roads. The other day I saw a Chevrolet Volt proudly displaying a bumper sticker that read “I burn electrons” and it made me pause to reflect about electric cars. For some time I’ve thought about electric powered cars and know that undoubtedly they are the way of the future. With fossil fuel resources continuously being depleted and the atmosphere’s chemistry being perhaps critically altered we have no choice but to change the way our vehicles are powered. Electric vehicles offer so many advantages: few moving parts, minimal maintenance, no oil changes and high torque. Very low energy consumption at idle is a particularly compelling benefit for both one’s wallet and our atmosphere.
But are electric cars all they are cracked up to be? There are some serious issues to consider. Perhaps the biggest is that while the “I burn electrons” bumper sticker is cute, it is untrue. Electricity is not an energy source but a conveyer or currency of energy (the same is true for hydrogen). Electricity must be created from an energy source therefore electric cars really “burn” whatever creates that electricity. Currently in the US, half of the electricity comes from coal, a fuel far dirtier than the oil that electric cars so happily no longer burn. In BC we are blessed with clean hydropower but we have few rivers left to dam and dammed rivers have huge environmental consequences.
What will happen when all cars are electric? Where will the extra electricity come from? Sure, at this time, one can happily plug in their electric car without overloading the grid, but at some point this will no longer be possible. Cars and trucks use enormous amounts of energy; if every vehicle were suddenly electric we would not be able to power everything.
Another area of concern is the tax revenue from gas sales. Some portion (though arguable not nearly enough) of gas tax is used for road maintenance. How will roads be paid for when increasing numbers of cars are electric? Will it be reasonable that gas and diesel powered vehicles subsidize electric cars?
While I’m all for the potentially clean future that electric cars provide it will certainly shake up my industry: auto service and repair. I can imagine that in the fully electric car future that only 1/3 or 1/4 of today’s auto service facilities will be needed. Many repairs that currently keep us going will no longer be required: oil & coolant leaks, emission system repairs, oil changes, fluid flushes and tune-ups just to name a few.
Electric cars currently have a very limited market: they are very expensive to buy and their driving range is severely limited, making them a choice only for drivers who use their cars for short trips. This is where the Chevy Volt is great: because it also has a gas engine it makes the vehicle useful for long trips.
Where I believe the electric car will shine is when we create our electricity (and we will need a lot of it) from a clean source. That won’t likely be from solar or wind, though they will play a part. Most likely it will be nuclear, and while it isn’t trouble free it’s clean, global warming free and tremendously powerful. This puts the whole electric car debate into a bigger picture: not only must we make the vehicles, but we must simultaneously change our infrastructure, and that will be a big challenge.
There are many forces that conspire against this change but overall it will be worthwhile. Just imagine a world where electricity is created without burning something that creates CO2 and where cars run on electric motors. Our cities will have clean air and the stench of vehicle exhaust will be non-existent. Now that’s an exciting future!