Sunday, March 24, 2013

Battery power still several years away

Battery power is still said to be the coming thing, although not just yet. Critical mass for electric cars may be less than five years away, say some experts, when economies of scale will make the product cheap enough to stand on its own feet without government subsidy.
Others say that by cutting weight out of vehicles and adding so-called range-extenders, viable electric cars will soon be a success, even though they may look more like frogs on steroids than normal cars.
In Europe and perhaps in America too, another looming obstacle to electric cars — on top of the fact that they are probably twice as expensive as they should be with half the needed range — is the fear that government regulation to clean up electricity generation and close down dirty coal-fired power stations may cut supply to dangerous levels just when the public will be seeking to plug in their new electric cars to the national grid.
The Renault-Nissan alliance, the electric car's biggest proselytizer, is now pulling away from its claim that global sales of battery only vehicles would hit 10 percent by 2020. The U.S. has backed off from a target of one million zero emission vehicles by 2015. According to Automotive Industry Data, 1,746 electric vehicles took to Western European roads in January for a market share of 0.2 percent.
Sales of battery-only electric cars have stalled on takeoff in Europe and the U.S., and climate change realist Bjorn Lomborg, author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist" and "Cool It," had some harsh truths for their supporters. The fact that they are actually not very "green" probably hit home hardest. In an article in the Wall Street Journal and an appearance on Fox News, Lomborg pointed out that a regular battery car like the Nissan Leaf already had a virtual 80,000 miles on the CO2 clock while sitting in the showroom, mainly because of the energy intensive methods used to produce the battery.
This compares with under 40,000 miles worth of CO2 for a comparable car with an internal combustion engine (ICE). During its lifetime, a battery-only car may start to narrow the gap with ICE cars, but this will be slowed if the electricity is generated by coal, oil or even natural gas. Nuclear, hydro or renewable electricity generation is required for green targets to be achieved, and that only really happens in France, with its high proportion of nuclear generation, Switzerland's hydro output and Denmark's wind power.

Power loss with age

End of life recycling of batteries and other components is another huge penalty for the so-called "green" solution. Lomborg said for electric cars to win the "green" race they need to clock high mileage, but another inconvenient fact stands in the way: Batteries lose power with age, and a Leaf's range will be cut from the 73-mile U.S. rated initial capacity to about 55 miles after five years.
Peter Fuss, a partner at the Ernst & Young consultancy's Global Automotive Center in Frankfurt, Germany, insists that despite this sputtering start, electric cars will have their day in the sun. Fuss concedes that battery-only cars have yet to achieve a significant advantage over conventional cars, and that this has been made more difficult by the huge improvements made over the last 10 years or so which have seen ICE cars increase their efficiency by about 30 percent, while weight has been taken out too.
"The latest Range Rover is about 400 kilograms (880 lbs.) lighter than the previous model," Fuss said.
Fuss expects European and Chinese governments to continue to push car manufacturers to produce electric cars to avoid dependence on imported fuels. He said the U.S. has much more time to do this because of recent new supply discoveries.

Huge investment

"Manufacturers now have a big incentive too because they've spent a lot of money. Vehicles like the BMW i3 and i8 and Chevrolet Volt represent a huge investment," Fuss said.
The BMW i3 is a battery-only city car made with high-cost, low-weight materials which goes on sale later this year. BMW has said it will also be available with a range-extender option — a small gasoline engine which takes over for an empty battery. The BMW i8 is a plug-in hybrid sports car. The Chevrolet Volt is also an electric range-extended vehicle.
Fuss said costs of electric vehicles will soon benefit from increased economies of scale, and that will give demand a shot in the arm.
"In a short time we will see costs start to come down. By after 2016 or 2017 we will see economies of scale with a positive impact on price reduction. Improvements in battery range will come after 2020, but range is not a major issue because of range-extenders," Fuss said.
Nicolas Meilhan, analyst with Frost & Sullivan in Paris, said current electric cars fail to make a compelling case for buyers, but if manufacturers design lighter vehicles to make allowances for battery limitations and use range-extenders, the public will pay attention.
"People will buy either because a car performs better for the same price or because it is cheaper. But they won't buy if it doesn't perform as well or is more expensive. People won't pay for reduced performance. If you add a range extender there starts to be a business case, and that's why the Chevrolet Volt is selling three times more than the (Nissan) Leaf in the U.S., even if it is $5,000 more expensive. It's as simple as that," Meilhan said.

Micro car

Cutting weight is the key to successful electric cars, and Peugeot-Citroen, in which General Motors has a 7 percent stake and an alliance agreement, has a concept car incorporating some key elements.
"The Peugeot BB1 is an example of the car of the future. It is a micro car with range extender, and it is cheap and versatile. It is well suited to the city, but such micro-cars are also popular in rural areas of France," Meilhan said.
The BB1 has four seats with electric motors in the wheels to save space. Rather than offer a big, heavy battery with a range of about 150 miles, Meilhan said, better to slash its size and weight by about three quarters for a 40 mile range, and add a range extender.
Dr. Peter Wells of the Centre of Automotive Industry Research at the Cardiff Business School agrees that the environmental case for electric cars has been undermined by the energy cost of mineral extraction to make battery packs.
"It makes no sense to have electric cars running around when electricity is generated by coal, petroleum or gas, to be honest," Wells said.
Wells said electric cars would make a huge contribution to local air quality, and their long-term role in reducing CO2 and climate change shouldn't be overlooked, but there is a more imminent problem which must be solved if electric cars are to succeed: power generation.
"The power generation infrastructure is causing growing concern. There's a gap emerging between demand and supply as dirty power stations are closed down, and within five years there's a crunch point coming. Just as electric vehicles start to become popular, there won't be the power available unless this is managed. People will be coming home, plugging their cars in just when everyone else is plugging in their kettles and putting the TV and dinner on. This needs to be tackled by governments. Germany is now building coal-fired power stations again," Wells said.

Languishing sales

He said electric car sales have languished, and there doesn't seem much likelihood of acceleration soon.
"There have been some significant niche applications, but we are a long way off approaching critical mass or even five percent of (global) sales and unless some very dramatic new technology is deployed I can't see this changing quickly. We're looking at a 10 to 15 year ramp-up period and that looks too slow for the industry and for climate issues," Wells said.
Although Lomborg, using data from a report from the Journal of Industrial Ecology, pointed out big shortcomings, he hasn't consigned electric cars to the waste bin just yet. Their time may yet come.
"The electric car might be great in a couple of decades but as a way to tackle global warming now it does virtually nothing. The real challenge is to get green energy that is cheaper than fossil fuels. That requires heavy investment in green research and development. Spending instead on subsidizing electric cars is putting the cart before the horse, and an inconvenient and expensive cart at that."
Neil Winton, European columnist for Autos Insider, is based in Sussex, England. Email him at

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