Costly, toxic and slow to charge? Busting electric car myths

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Electric cars will change the way we travel, yet they seem to polarise: people either love them or hate them. Why is this?

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The Conversation

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Cars are the second most expensive investment after the family home, a status symbol and, in some cases — just visit a major motor show — a love affair.

Yet electric cars seem to polarise: people either love them or hate them, with little room for indifference. Why is this?

Electric cars will change the way we travel and the close relationship many of us currently have with our cars.

Most articles published about them seem to draw criticism. Sometimes this is justified, but — as I have seen with myrecent articles on The Conversation — this criticism is mostly unfounded. This article responds to some common questions that readers have raised.

CLAIM: Electric cars have a limited driving range

This is true for petrol cars too. The question, then, is to what extent electric cars’ usability is limited.

Electric cars can travel an average of 150km on a single charge, whereas the average daily distance driven (for any car) is just 32km. The problem is not so much about limited range, but range in combination with a relatively long charging time.

Tesla Motors has just recently demonstrated the feasibility oflong distance travel with their Model S car. They completed the journey from Los Angeles to New York – a distance of more than 5500km – in just over 76 hours, including charging. This was made possible by the long range of their electric vehicles and a network of high-powered charging stations, which already exist in the US and are currently being installed in Europe.

And if 150km per day limits your lifestyle, there are plug-in hybrid cars available. One example is the Holden Volt, which can drive about 70km electrically on battery before switching over automatically to run on a petrol generator where longer distances are required.

CLAIM: Electric cars always take hours to recharge

Electric cars can be slow-charged from a standard power point at home or work, a process which takes about 10 hours.

But there is a much faster option: they can be charged to 80% capacity in around 20 minutes at a DC fast charging station. This, of course, requires the kind of infrastructure that is widely available for petrol cars now with petrol stations, but still only available in limited areas for electric cars. (These are examples of some DC stations, but mostly slower AC charging stations in PerthBrisbaneMelbourne and other Australian capital cities.)

Around 20 to 30 minutes on a DC charger is still longer than 5 minutes on a petrol pump – but the gap is closing.

CLAIM: Electric cars are expensive

Electric cars are more expensive in the upfront purchase price than their petrol/diesel counterparts. But one also has to consider the much lower running cost and almost negligible service costs over the years of ownership.

If one charges an electric car at home from an existing solar photovoltaic system, running it is virtually free of cost, as well as free of emissions.

Over 5 to 10 years of ownership, purchase price plus running cost for electric and petrol/diesel cars will even out; after that, electric cars will be cheaper. Electric vehicles are also expected to drop in price over the next few years.

 

An electric car charging station at EMC Solar in West Perth, powered by solar panels. Thomas Bräunl
Click to enlarge

 

CLAIM: They’re more polluting than modern petrol cars

According to most studies, emissions of the most fuel-efficient new petrol cars are on par with average power generation emissions for electric cars charging from the “dirty grid” in most countries (predominantly using power from burning coal and gas).

However, electric cars can be driven completely emission-free in a number of ways. These include home-owners charging their vehicle from a solar PV system; paying for green power through an electricity retailer; or charging at an electric vehicle charging station that either has direct solar PV feed-in (much like our UWA/REV installation of EMC Solar in West Perth, shown above) or that is offset with grid-connected solar PVs.

As this article on The Conversation pointed out, public charging usage is almost exclusively during sunshine hours.

Another opportunity for electric cars to increase the amount of renewables on the grid is the use of wind energy at night. Wind energy can often not be used at night due to lower energy demand and base-load requirements of conventional power plants. If a large number of electric cars were to charge at night, existing renewable wind energy could be used instead of being wasted.

As for air pollution, widespread adoption of electric cars would significantly improve air quality within our cities.

 

A smoggy day on the road to Los Angeles. Shepherd Thomson/Flickr

 

CLAIM: They require more energy than they save

There is very little variation between petrol/diesel and electric cars in terms of the energy requirements for material and production.

Manufacturer BMW has even gone a step further to eliminate emissions from its production of electric cars, with four wind turbines feeding power directly into its new US$540 million Leipzig factory.

CLAIM: The batteries are toxic and don’t last

Standard batteries used in modern electric cars are either lithium-ion, lithium-iron-phosphate or lithium-iron-cobalt. These battery types are non-toxic.

Useful battery life for electric vehicles is around 10 years, after which the battery capacity will be reduced to 85%, which is considered to be the limit for use in an electric vehicle.

After that, batteries will be good for another 10 years for things such as home energy storage, which would allow the use of locally generated solar PV electricity at night. After this time, the batteries are almost completely recyclable.

Electric car manufacturers today provide a general battery warranty for eight years.

Busted

For those looking for answers about electric cars, I hope I’ve been able to clear up some of the most common myths around them. If not, add your comment below and I’ll try to address your question.

Today’s electric cars may not be suitable for everyone’s lifestyle and budget, while there are still factors limiting the number of people buying electric vehicles, including the lack of charging infrastructure. Because of this, Australia will take longer than other countries to adopt this technology.

Still, love them or hate them, electric cars are coming — and this time, they are staying for good.

 

Source: The Conversation. Reproduced with permission

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8 Comments
  1. Peter Campbell 5 years ago

    Re driving range, the application that makes immediate sense is to replace one car in a two car family where one car never leaves town. That was us 5 years ago when I converted a car with a dead engine to electric drive. That car has less range than any of the commercial electric cars but it has allowed us to avoid using petrol for 10,000km per year of city driving.
    A plug in series hybrid such as the Mitsubishi Outlander is the solution for someone wanting one vehicle to do everything.
    Re hours to charge, it is rarely relevant how long it takes to charge from fully empty to completely full. Instead what matters is that you can get a useful amount of charge in an hour or two from a normal power point. How long does it take you to charge your cordless phone? Do you run it right down before needing it to be completely full? Anyway, the car is always full in the morning.
    Re expensive, I just bought one of the new, ex-demo Mitsubishi iMiEVs for $24K. I think there are some left on Carsales and it doesn’t cost much to have one trucked to you. If you are in Canberra I am happy to give you a test ride if you are serious about getting one trucked here. Now my wife and I both commute by EV and leave the petrol car at home.
    Re more polluting, I pay a few cents extra per kWh for GreenPower which can be tax-deducted (www.climatechest.org.au). Even on non-GreenPower various studies put an EV about on par with a similar fossil fuel vehicle, but petrol is getting harder to extract with worsening emissions while the electricity grid is getting greener. My EVs are cheaper to run than any petrol car I could buy.
    Re battery life, my home converted car has done almost 50,000km/5 years on lithium batteries with no reduction in their performance compared with when they were new. I expect to get plenty more use out of them, eventually in a stationary application with home PV or load-shifting.

  2. Bill Gresham 5 years ago

    Good article Thomas, but I am yet to meet a really serious “electric car hater”. I bought an iMiEV in November 2013 ($23,990) with some trepidation as it is my only car, but all a waste of good worry. There is clear instrumentation telling me my remaining range and warnings when it is getting low. I was also concerned about so few public charging points (in the ACT), but now I realise that I probably wouldn’t use them if they did exist. I just recharge at home. Even with paying a Green Power premium (I have 100% GP via CCC) it is laughably cheap. I also have roof-top solar PV which produces more power than we use – to date. I don’t expect to get a bill for fuelling my car – ever! What’s not to like about that?

  3. Stan Hlegeris 5 years ago

    As with so many issues relating to energy and the environment, facts aren’t enough to persuade those who resist.

    When you say electric cars cause polarised reactions, you should probably be more precise and note that some MEN greatly dislike electric cars. Have you ever come across a woman who feels strongly negative about them? There may be plenty of women who don’t care either way, but there are few Tesla- or Leaf-haters among them.

    I speculate that the unspoken explanation is this: all those negative men remember that when they were young the greenie/leftie sorts were more likely to have girlfriends.

    The negative men don’t dislike electric cars because of their performance. But they will for a long time continue to dislike the men who do like them.

    • Peter Campbell 5 years ago

      With the local branch of the Australian Electric Vehicle Association I took my converted electric car to a static display at Summernats, not my usual habitat at all. The petrol heads were all very polite and seemed quite impressed and taken with the idea of a flat torque curve available from zero revs. In my quite modest conversion, not built particularly for performance, I nonetheless can take off with wheels spinning and never use less than 3rd gear. In 1st gear there would be way too much torque. We had a DVD of Youtube clips of ‘White Zombie’, a converted old Datsun leaving big american muscle cars for dead in drag racing. EG: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xy3Po20XLlg and lots more where that came from. White zombie has a similar motor to me but doubled up and a controller that can deliver twice the current. Double the current gives 4 times the torque for this type of motor and then White Zombie has two of those so it must be at least 8 times the torque. Then it has fancier batteries.

      A nice thing about electric cars that is often not appreciated is that there is little efficiency penalty for performance. If you want a performance V8 you pay a penalty in lousy fuel economy when all you are doing is driving sedately to the shops. In an electric car you can have that performance and it is still very efficient in ordinary use.

      When seeing my converted car with respectable performance and recognising themselves in the White Zombie videos, the Summenats crowd seemed to decide we were OK, perhaps the way of the future. Some said they would miss the noise of a motor but they seemed to recognise that noise is not necessary for performance, only part of the nostalgia aspect of their chosen hobby.

  4. David Osmond 5 years ago

    Someone driving about 20,000 kms per year will use about 1,400 L of petrol costing about $2,200. Those driving EVs will use about 2,400 kWh of electricity, which on green power in the ACT costs about $550. So you’ll be saving over $1,500 per year in fuel costs. If you’re happy with a 8 year pay back period, then that means you can afford to spend an extra $12,000 on the EV. So in financial terms, that ex-demo iMiev for $24k equates to a $12k conventional petrol car. Or a brand new $40k Nissan Leaf is comparable to spending $28k on a petrol car.

    • Miles Harding 5 years ago

      Of course, if you talk to the Mitsubishi sales office, they will try to sell you the came car for $50K, which is definitely on the wrong side of ever achieving total cost parity.

      The intangible benefits of EV ownership almost always get lost in the numbers and dollars.
      They are much better to drive in towns and cities. They are quiet and smooth in a way that is impossible to achieve with an ICE. The regen braking makes one pedal driving (with an eye in the rear view mirror) a reality.

  5. Andrew Tovey 5 years ago

    All good points but you forget a big one. The tech is moving forward so fast that a vehicle you buy now will be virtually obsolete in about 5 years. Petrol engines haven’t really changed in decades, but EVs are evolving at a rapid rate. Combine that with the price tag and the investment seems a little daunting, despite the other benefits. I’m not saying there’s no way around this but I do think that it’s a factor that is influencing people.

    • Peter Campbell 5 years ago

      Re ‘virtually obsolete’ It really doesn’t matter if the car does all you need it to do and you expect that to remain the case for a decade or more. My home converted one is still as good as it was 5 years ago and I expect it will be good for another 5 years at least. I would now recommend people to get an iMiEV for similar money to what my conversion cost, mainly because the commercial car is newer and more refined without the quirks of a one-off conversion. I say get an EV as soon as you can afford one (~$24K at the moment for an ex-demo iMiEV) and it will do what you need (for now, ~100km range as a town car).

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