Wednesday, February 11th, 2009
I’ve been driving an electric car for the past 10 years. It’s fast and reliable, and it’s very gentle on Mother Earth. Ten years ago, we electric car owners were considered weird ducks. Today, everyone is eagerly awaiting the new generation of plug-in hybrids. Ah, what a difference a decade makes.
When the auto industry began to seriously focus on the prospect of producing electric cars, you can easily trace the path that their thinking took (I call it “auto-think”). First off, they took one look at lead/acid cars like my Sparky and immediately crossed them off the list of viable options. A 40 mile maximum range, a 4-hour recharging time, and, for some of them, a 25 m.p.h top speed restriction. Dead on arrival, right?
Well, not so fast, guys. To begin with, Sparky can blow the doors off your Toyota. He’s very, very fast (you other electric car driver know what I’m talking about), and he can cruise the freeway with the best of them. The only thing he can’t do is drive from Olympia to Seattle (65 miles) without stopping. Range — -that’s the single reason why the auto industry went looking elsewhere for an answer to its gas problem.
Like every lead/acid driver, I have spent considerable time thinking about the range issue. How can I get from Olympia to Seattle without stopping (or stopping only for a few minutes — -like for a cup of coffee or something)? Let’s address the second idea first.
There is a little-known phenomenon in the electric car world called “dump charging”. It’s used in the electric vehicle racing circuit where a quick charge is needed for the next race. It is simply a DC to DC charge (one set of batteries simply “dumps” its charge into a depleted set of other batteries). It takes about 7 minutes to accomplish, and restores the depleted batteries to about 95% of capacity.
Now let’s assume, for example, that I left Olympia with the morning commute, headed for Seattle. I’d be looking for a charge along about the time I hit the Tacoma Mall (about 35 miles from my house). For years now, I have looked over at the Krispy-Kreme outlet at the Mall and thought, “If only they had a set of batteries over there, I could scarf down a couple lemon-filled donuts while Sparky took a dump.” What would happen, I have thought, if not only Krispy-Kreme, but Starbucks, and Jack-in-the-Box had DC charging stations all over the place? I could go anywhere and everywhere in my spiffy little bug.
But actually, there’s a better way. Think: bumper cars.
We’ve all ridden in bumper cars at the fair. What a great way to release all that pent-up aggression. But did you ever wonder why those cars had antennas sticking out of them? When I was a kid, I always thought that it was strange — -there weren’t any radios in the bumper cars, and the antennas were always too tall for the ceilings. It wasn’t until much later that someone explained to me that there was another antenna dragging on the floor under the car, and that that was how the car ran — -that it takes two wires to make their motors run (one from the floor and one in the ceiling).
Actually, in Seattle, we have busses that operate that same way, only they go around town with their two antennas attached to a pair of overhead electric wires.. Those busses have been crisscrossing the city since long before I was born (1945).
That all started me thinking: why don’t they install a couple of electric wires of some sort along the freeway from Olympia to Seattle — -or all the way from Seattle to Portland, for that matter? Or everywhere the freeway goes. You could start small — -Tacoma to Seattle, for instance. Sparky’s batteries can get me from my house to Tacoma. From there, I’d just hook up and head for Seattle. It would be great! As demand increased, you could extend the lines in both directions — -say, even to Canada.
And here’s the really cool part: not only would the freeway lines allow Sparky to make it all the way to Seattle, but Sparky’s batteries would get recharged in the process (very quickly if the power supply were DC). That means that I could leave my house and hook onto the freeway grid within 35 miles. I could then drive to Seattle, unhook, and go anywhere within a 35 mile radius without needing a grid — -farther if there were a Krispy-Kreme out there offering a dump charge. Heck, I could even drive to Arkansas once they extended the grid there.
Come on, it can’t be all that hard. I mean, aren’t we going to create some fancy new electric grid anyway? We don’t have to extend the Sparky grid everywhere right away (though we would over time) — -we could start slow and grow. And we wouldn’t end up becoming slaves to Bolivia.
Bolivia? What does that have to do with anything?
Well, guess what, Yankee fans? Our great auto industry channel-lock thought process is about to switch our present pusher/addict balance of trade from the middle east to a land-locked little country in South America. It’s all because of something they have and we don’t:
When the auto thinkers decided that the lead/acid range issue was too much of a problem, they started to look for a battery that could give you much more mileage. That line of thinking leads to just one place: the lithium-ion battery — -you know, that expensive little thing that runs your cell phone and your computer and occasionally catches on fire. It’s the only battery now available that offers the promise of extended range in an electric car. One electric car, the Tesla Roadster, claims a 220 miles/charge range. But that battery pack can set you back a lot of money when it has to be replaced.
But the auto thinkers have struck a compromise: they’ll get you 40 miles on a smaller lithium battery pack, and then a good ol’ gas engine will kick in and take you the rest of the way. It’s the logical end product of the auto-thought process. They’re hoping that you and I will be happy thinking we’re really helping Momma Earth by cutting down on our gas consumption, and at the same time, the auto companies will be able to keep building gasoline engines. The problem is that the Suadis will just keep pumping it out of the ground because our ever-growing population will rise up and take up the slack. End result: nothing really changes — -except the climate.
But what does all this have to do with Bolivia?
Well, Bolivia happens to be where the lithium is. And guess what? Just like the Middle East, the Bolivians don’t like us very much, either.
The sad truth is that most of the world’s lithium is found in just one place, Bolivia. Kind of sounds like oil all over again, doesn’t it? To be sure, it can be found in other places (like Tibet — -maybe that’s why the Chinese decided to annex the country and kick out the Dali Lama). We even have some here at home, but not very much. You can read about this most vexing question in a recent New York Times article. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/03/world/americas/03lithium.html?_r=1
My point is this: we need to rethink this whole electric car thing. We have an entire infrastructure already pumping out lead/acid batteries — -made by American workers, I might add (did I mention that lead/acid batteries are one of the most re-cycled products around?) And since they are only planning on getting 40 miles from the lithium pack in the new hybrids, why not settle for the same thing from lead /acid?
And where do we find the energy source for Sparky’s new freeway grid? Well, I know of a nuclear power plant about 93 million miles away that can supply our entire planet with an endless flow of truly clean energy (did I mention that it already comes in DC?).
So, perhaps we should all stop and think this thing through before we rush out and embrace the auto-think solution to our energy problems.