Electric Cars Still Require Resources


Detroit — Green efforts to starve America of its own mineral wealth — whether tapping Alaskan oil fields or firing coal plants — is popularly sold as necessary to preserve wilderness areas and keep the air clean. But it is also a calculated strategy to wean the country off carbon-rich resources in order to stimulate the production of alternate technologies from wind farms to petrol-free vehicles.

But alternatives are often more dependent on expanding existing technologies than the public knows.

Take plug-in electric cars, for example, which are the hot alternative-auto-technology du jour. (The Department of Energy last week doled out $30 million of your tax money to the auto industry for plug-in research under its new Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV) initiative – on top of the $1 billion the Clinton administration spent on the old Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV), a program former Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham called a failure that “wasn’t cost effective and wasn’t moving a competitive automobile to the showroom.” So, naturally, the feds just changed the program’s name and threw more money at it.)


One of the biggest supporters of plug-ins are electric utilities, which have a self-interest in pushing transportation away from oil infrastructure and onto the grid. The utility industry’s research arm, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), has been working closely with GM and Toyota as they develop their Volt and Prius plug-in models, respectively, each boasting of the potential to drive 40 miles on battery power alone.


But that battery power has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is power plants.


In green California – the largest potential market for plug-ins – 1 million plug-ins (out of 20 million passenger cars statewide) would likely put little strain on the state’s electricity demands. That’s because GM anticipates that those 1 million plug-ins would be charged at night (on average for eight hours, drawing 1 kWh – or 8 kWh total). That load, says a spokesman for EPRI, is the equivalent to one large 1,000-megawatt power plant, but – given light energy use during off-peak, dead-of-night hours – such a two-percent-of-market plug-in fleet would require no additional generating capacity.


But what if plug-in electrics grew to 25 percent of the market?


After all, even at California’s expensive 15-cents a kWh residential power rates, “refilling” a battery car for just $1.20 (15 cents x 8 kWh) every night could be a very popular proposition.


But at 25 percent market penetration, we are now talking about a serious strain on the grid, which means more coal, nuclear, or hydro plants – all of which are as popular with California pols as drilling in ANWR. Says Jim Owens of the Edison Electric Institute: “If you continue the scenario (of plug-ins reaching significant market numbers), then you’ll need more capacity. And California isn’t building any new capacity.”


In other words, even if one of the most promising alternatives pans out, we’re facing the same challenges we face now with our “old” technology and supplies: Planning ahead (six years to construct $2.5 billion coal plants, or ten years for $5 billion nuke plants) to develop the resources needed to fuel tomorrow’s energy demand.

Henry Payne is a writer and editorial cartoonist for the Detroit News.


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