National Commentary

The Peak Oil Crisis: An Electric Car in Your Future?

Every now and again some good news shows up, so this week I am going to share it with you. It has to do with electric-powered cars.

Now hybrids have been on the market for a decade or so and modern battery-only models for about three years. While the hybrids are selling pretty well, sales of battery-only models have been way below expectations. The reasons for this are simple. For the most part battery-only cars cost more than similarly powered internal combustion vehicles; they have limited range which may be sufficient for most trips, but leave people in fear of running out of power; the time it takes to recharge a battery is far longer than the refilling of a gas tank; and finally there are limited places where they can be recharged unless one has invested in a home recharging station.

These factors have led to a spate of recent stories in motoring magazines and the mainstream press saying electric cars are a lost cause and that even 10 or 20 years from now they will never amount to more than a few percent of cars on the road. Despite this gloomy assessment, car manufacturers in Asia, Europe, and the U.S. continue to spend billions developing new models of electric cars that soon will be on the market. Are these industrial giants as stupid as the commentators make out, or perhaps are they taking a longer view than just current sales figures?

The trump card of the electric car is simply that it does not use gasoline or diesel as a source of power. Even the partially-electric hybrids use fossil fuels much more sparingly. One can talk about the carbon emissions from coal-fired electric stations used to charge electric cars, but this is a manageable problem within the foreseeable future. Stories disparaging electric cars never mention where the cost and availability of gasoline likely will be in the future. Oil prices have been increasing at about 7 percent a year for the past decade and there is no reason, short of a major economic depression, why such increases will not continue.

Gasoline and diesel prices in non-subsidized and heavily taxed Europe are already approaching $10 a gallon. There is little reason to think that gasoline prices in the U.S. which are already in the vicinity of $4 a gallon will not be markedly higher, perhaps even unaffordable, before the decade is out. At say $10 a gallon, calculations concerning the economics of electric cars change markedly, even with expected improvements in conventional car mileage.

In Europe, which at the moment is taking the dangers of global warming more seriously than other parts of the world, much of the impetus for building electric cars is to comply with the increasingly tough emissions standards. Even in California current and future emissions rules are making electric cars an attractive option for manufacturers and are part of the reason they continue to be developed in the U.S.

A recent study concluded that the price of a mid-range car in the U.S. is now about $32,000 making the cost of buying and operating such a vehicle prohibitive for a family of median income everywhere except the Washington, D.C. region. Part of the ever-increasing cost of new cars is the drive for better fuel economy from internal combustion engines. Unless the economy recovers markedly in the next few years, sales of standard sized cars are likely to decline rapidly in the US making smaller cars and perhaps alternatives to the internal combustion engine more attractive.

If the electric car batteries were much cheaper, the range longer, and recharging faster and more readily available, such vehicles just might catch on as an attractive option in the face of ever increasing gasoline costs. This is where the good news comes in, for in the last year what may prove to be highly significant advances in battery technology have been announced and partially verified.

These new battery technologies offer the prospects of greatly lowering the cost of batteries, increasing the range of electric cars, and even offering an affordable way of storing intermittent power generated by wind and the sun.

The first announcement came in February 2012 from a start-up in California, called Envia, which announced that they had developed a battery cathode made of manganese for lithium ion batteries that would allow electrical energy to be stored at a density of 400 watt-hours per kilogram as compared to 100-180 watt-hours in current batteries.

This announcement was followed shortly by one made in March of last year from another California startup, CalBattery, who said they were developing a new lithium ion battery anode material that would allow electric cars to go three times further at a battery life-cycle cost 70 percent less than that of current batteries. Last October CalBattery announced that independent tests had verified that their new silicon-graphene anode material was showing an energy density of 525 watt-hours per kilogram which should clearly allow three times longer ranges for electric cars – provided of course that this new anode material can be introduced into batteries that will last long enough to useful.

Last week Volkswagen announced that they are going into limited production with their XL1, a two seat car that has been under development for a decade. The latest iteration of this highly streamlined car is a diesel powered hybrid which is supposed to get some 261 mpg on diesel fuel when the hybrid electric boost is considered. While a car that is made largely of carbon fiber, magnesium and aluminum is likely to be too expensive for the mass market, it gives a strong indication that light, hyper-aerodynamic cars can be built that will consume very small amounts of fossil fuels – or electricity.

These recent announcements suggest that the technology is available to keep motorized societies running a while longer without ever increasing quantities of fossil fuels and their accompanying carbon emissions.