National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: The Electric Car: Part II


Unless we have an economic depression far worse than most currently believe is likely, the chances are good that within the next five years a combination of emissions restrictions and falling oil supplies is going to make gasoline too expensive for routine use in private automobiles.

The manufacturers recognize this and are rushing to produce pure electric or plug-in hybrid cars that will draw most of their energy consumption from the electric grid. The following is the second part of a discussion of a recent announcement by Nissan that they will be introducing the first full size electric sedan in the U.S. late next year.


The new Nissan five passenger sedan with a claimed 100-mile range is to come equipped for three charging options: Level I which is 120 volts; Level II which is 240 volts; and Level III which is a 480 volt fast charge. The first thing to note is that moving a five passenger sedan 100 miles with at least some accessories turned on is going to take a considerable amount of electrical energy. You are not going to get this amount of energy through an extension cord and a standard household circuit in a big hurry. Nissan will only say that a complete recharge can be accomplished with a 120 volt circuit overnight. Others put the time at 14 hours, think 5 p.m. until 7 a.m. on the charger before your car is ready to go again.

For this reason, Nissan is recommending that home owners install a 240 volt, 40 amp, charging device which will cut the recharge time down to four hours. Four hours is also practical for a workplace recharge or even an evening in a parking garage.

The third option, Level 3 (480 volts) offers all sorts of interesting possibilities for extending the range of electric vehicles. Nissan says that their forthcoming vehicle can be recharged to 80 percent of a full charge in 26 minutes with a 480 volt 90 kilowatt charging station. Any attempt to charge a battery beyond 80 percent capacity at this rate of charge would harm the battery and will not be allowed by the vehicle’s battery management system.

Eighty miles of driving for 26 minutes of charging is certainly not 300 miles of driving in return for pumping gasoline for five minutes, but it is not the end of the world either. Presumably, if all one was trying to do was ensure that you make it home without running out of battery, 10 or 15 minutes of high-speed charge could give you 30 or 40 worry-free miles. If we ever get to the point where fast rechargers are installed along our Interstates, a trip across country could consist of an hour or so of driving followed by half an hour of recharging. It is not what we are used to, but it might be restful. Nissan points out that the average stop in a fast food restaurant is 20 minutes.

If you run out of electricity, you would have to do the same thing you do now when you run out of gasoline – call somebody. It would not take too much to imagine that the major highways would have recharge trucks that could respond to a cell phone call, fire up a diesel generator and fast charge the battery enough to get to the next charging station.

Operating an electric car would be similar to piloting an airplane. Aircraft manufacturers publish elaborate charts showing how many minutes a plane can fly under a wide variety of conditions such as altitude and power settings. For an all-electric car, the principles would be the same. You will need to plan ahead and if you need to stretch your range there are numerous things you can do such as slowing down, turning off the heat, or air-conditioner to prevent an otherwise uneventful trip from turning into a time consuming headache.

GPS and wireless would be of great use in range-challenged vehicles. GPS devices can already tell you how far to go to the next gas station. A little tweaking of such systems should allow one to not only locate a commercial recharge station, but also reserve a slot for your expected time of arrival.

For those of us living in the Washington Metropolitan Area, you should know that Nissan is already starting to plan for electric vehicle recharging facilities in several cities across the country including Washington. Last week, the mayor of Washington announced that the District of Columbia in conjunction with Nissan was planning to install “hundreds” of recharging stations across the city. The Council of Governments has put together a coalition including the District, College Park, Alexandria, Falls Church, Prince George’s, Montgomery, Arlington, Prince William, Fairfax and Loudoun counties that have committed to buying the new Nissan electric car and charging stations. All this is contingent on the award of a federal stimulus grant that the local governments have applied for.

Many are skeptical that the electric car will replace the internal combustion car on a one for one basis. In the U.S. we currently have 250 million that would need replacing and it is extremely unlikely that this is going to happen in a big hurry. We are heading into an era of economic scarcity that could last for a long time.

This does not mean however, that electric cars will not come onto the market and in quantity. Some say there will never be enough lithium, but there are other chemistries that can serve adequately.

There is no way of knowing how many electric cars will ever be made and sold. It is difficult to conceive, however, that the age of the electric car will never start and that millions will not be made and sold around the world. The flexibility of the motor vehicle is too important to civilization and unless something better comes along, some electric cars are likely to be around for a long time.