Adding more vehicle range by increasing battery capacity results in more weight and higher costs, eventually making electric vehicles cost-prohibitive. In fact, in a recent Department of Transportation (DOT) study of how carmakers will attain 36 miles per gallon by 2015 and how much it will cost, all manner of efficiency tweaks to the internal combustion engine were considered. Conspicuously absent were battery electric hybrids and fully electric vehicles. The reason? The DOT calculated that the cost of the technologies in these vehicles would be too expensive to use in mainstream vehicles and that they would remain in their own niche into the future, despite the requirements for increased Corporate Average Fuel Economy numbers.

Another issue is that the electricity used to charge electric cars must be generated somewhere. As of 2009 that meant using coal (44%), nuclear (21%), natural gas (23%), hydroelectric (7%), or renewables like wind and solar (less than 4%). Coal, by far the dirtiest—yet cheapest—fossil fuel, is being replaced with natural gas because it is much cleaner, with half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal. The U.S. has several new domestic sources of natural gas coming online, although potential water pollution issues result from its production. The problem is one of power generation, but the power grid and infrastructure that delivers the electricity from far-flung power plants to cities and suburbs is old and already at its limits—adding the need to charge a fleet of electric cars will require serious upgrades or even a full makeover. According to a report sponsored by the Edison Foundation, America’s electric power grid needs investments totaling between $1.5 and $2 trillion between now and 2030 to maintain the present level of electric power service. Finding funding for such large-scale infrastructure projects has become less likely in the current deficit-reduction Congressional environment.

Thus, the idea that we will soon have millions of electric cars driving on American roads runs into to three harsh realities—the present state of America’s electrical grid and infrastructure, the high cost of electrical vehicle technology, and the public fear that they will be left helpless on the side of the road.

Rage against the machine

In reality, the problem with electric cars today is not their limited range or the high costs associated with longer-range batteries. The problem is a societal one that lies with more than a century of dominance of fossil fuels in transportation and power generation. We have created a monster.

If you walk out the front door of your house or apartment and look around, you will see a world that was created to satisfy the needs of our transportation system. Garages and driveways or parking lots dominate the immediate landscape. They are connected to neighborhood streets that further connect to suburban roadways, urban arterials, freeways and interstate highways. The infrastructure is geared to moving vast numbers of private cars and commercial vehicles, each with a single or perhaps two occupants, over distances varying from less than a mile to across the country. Overhead and beneath the ground is an equally complicated grid of power lines that carries electricity from power generating stations and sites to substations and ultimately to the electric power plug in the home. In many ways, it is a magnificent system, designed by far-sighted people in the 1930s (rural electrification) and 1950s (Interstate Highway Act), and it has placed the United States at the pinnacle of modernity.

By Kevin Clemens
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