Will electricity save the car?

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Cars undeniably played an important role in shaping life in the last century but will cars, even electric ones, survive the 21st century?

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The Conversation

The 2011 Tesla Roadster Sports could hit 100 km/h in less than four seconds and be charged from a standard power point. AAP Image/Tesla

Cars defined the 20th century … [They] shaped the wars that were fought, the way cities developed and how people and goods were moved around … [As] we look to alternative technologies to fuel more than a billion cars and trucks on the world’s roads, the most efficient transport solutions are more likely to re-power these vehicles rather than replace them.

It is undeniable that cars played an important role in shaping life in the last century. But is the Energy Supply Association – the peak lobby group for Australia’s big electricity and gas generators and suppliers – right to assume that will continue?

Will cars, even electric ones, survive the 21st century?

Sparking debate

Released today, the ESAA’s Sparking an Electric Vehicle Debate paper explores the potential of plug-in electric vehicles to contribute to the transformation of transport in Australia. (A forthcoming paper will consider the potential for natural gas vehicles.)

The paper gives a comprehensive summary of the potential benefits of electric vehicles, and the barriers to adoption.

Some of the compelling benefits of electric vehicles include:

  • no CO2 emissions from driving, when charged from renewable energy sources (more on that shortly)
  • no smog-producing exhaust
  • smooth, quiet acceleration
  • significantly lower energy costs, even when charged using renewable energy
  • lower maintenance costs.

The paper goes on to describe why we need to look beyond internal combustion engines to power our cars – including to save money on fuel, noting that “electric cars have equivalent fuel costs of approximately 3 cents per kilometre, compared to 10 cents per kilometre for conventional cars”.

What’s holding back the electric car?

Electric vehicles have their advantages, but do these outweigh the disadvantages? Buyers are still hesitant. According to the report:

plug-in vehicles still only represent around 0.2 per cent of the global car fleet

the ‘tipping point’ for adoption may be two decades away.

The barriers to the adoption of electric vehicles include high purchase price, “range anxiety”, long recharge times, lack of charging infrastructure and uncertainty of resale value. Some of these barriers are problems of perception.

But a massive shift is needed, given there are 16.6 million vehicles in Australia alone.

What could drive major change?

The ESAA paper suggests several options for encouraging the uptake of electric vehicles, including:

  • subsidies
  • use of transit lanes and dedicated parking spaces
  • support for infrastructure providers
  • partnerships with long-distance travel providers, such as airlines, railways and car hire companies
  • partnerships with electricity companies, which could use electric vehicles to help stabilise the electricity grid.

Mandatory vehicle CO2 standards would also help. Since 2011, the previous federal Labor government had beendiscussing mandatory CO2 emissions standards for cars, to apply from 2015, but that plan wasn’t enacted before the election.

Financial incentives such as purchase price subsidies, discounts on registration costs and tax incentives are possible, but unlikely. If they are used, the value of incentives should be commensurate with the benefit to society of each electric vehicle.

Plugging cars into the power grid

Members of the ESAA – which include major electricity and gas companies such as AGL and Origin Energy – would benefit from the ability to sell more electricity during off-peak times.

Directly controlling when cars are charged would also allow electricity system operators to improve reliability without having to increase the capacity of transmission and distribution systems. These two factors combined would reduce the network costs per kilowatt-hour of electricity delivered.

But we would need to change the way we use and pay for electricity, including needing all states to start allowing time-of-use pricing of electricity (that is, paying more when demand is highest, and less when it’s lower), as well as incentives for participating in demand management schemes.

International standards that would allow transfer of energy from vehicles back to the electricity grid are progressing, but slowly.

Ultimately, more flexible pricing of electricity and more flexible control of electrical loads such as electric vehicle chargers would enable greater use of electricity generated from renewable energy sources.

Electricity emissions

Electric vehicles have no CO2 emissions when recharged from renewable energy sources. But determining CO2 emissions when electric vehicles are charged from non-renewable energy sources is not so straightforward.

CO2 emissions from conventional cars are measured as a sample car is driven on a dynamometer, following a standard speed cycle. Electric cars are evaluated using the same test cycle, but the energy required to recharge the car is measured instead of CO2.

To determine CO2 emissions, you need to take into account both the emissions from the car and the upstream emissions used to produce the generator fuels.

The National Transport Commission’s Information Paper on CO2 emissions from new Australian vehicles 2012 reports that the average CO2 emissions for new cars in 2013 was 199 g/km. You need to add about 8% to this to account for CO2 emissions from the production of petrol or diesel fuel, giving a total of 215 g/km.

The emissions associated with the use of electricity in Australia can be found in the National Greenhouse Accounts Factors, July 2013. The average for Australia is easy to remember: one kilogram of CO2 for each kilowatt-hour of electricity delivered.

Emissions vary across Australia because of the different mixes of energy sources used: for instance, they’re highest in Victoria, which relies heavily on burning high-emission brown coal, and lowest in Tasmania, which can draw on more hydro-electric power.

The following compares the CO2 emissions for a fully electricNissan Leaf and more conventional cars in different parts of Australia.

Grams of CO2 per kilometre
228Nissan Leaf in Victoria
2152012 new car average
182Nissan Leaf in New South Wales
164Nissan Leaf in Queensland
145Nissan Leaf in Western Australia
133Nissan Leaf in Northern Territory
1292012 “best in class” average
126Nissan Leaf in South Australia
38Nissan Leaf in Tasmania

Cars in Australia are subdivided in to fifteen market classes based on vehicle type and size. If each car sold in Australia in 2012 was replaced by the best performer in its class, the average new car emissions would have dropped from 215 g/km to 129 g/km, which is lower than electric vehicle emissions everywhere except South Australia and Tasmania.

Clearly, if we want to do better than conventional fuels, we must use renewable energy to recharge our electric vehicles.

Beyond cars

Replacing combustion engines with electric motors in vehicles can reduce emissions, but it will not solve the other problems associated with cars: high energy use, congestion, and road trauma (see these articles by Jason ThomsonCatherine Simpson and Paul Tranter).

You can’t solve mobility problems by giving everyone a car. For instance, in crowded Beijing, vehicle licence plates must be won in a lottery. Even if you win a plate, there are restrictions on which days you may drive.

The ESAA paper gives a good overview of the issues surrounding the adoption of electric vehicles, and will spark some useful discussions. But the report also concedes that it will take three or four decades for widespread adoption of electric vehicles. Can we wait that long?

Electric cars solve only some the problems associated with cars. Change is slow. We also need to start thinking now about what will come after the car, and whether we want cars to define this century as much as they did the last.


Source: The Conversation. Reproduced with permission

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  1. Simon Holmes A Court 5 years ago

    in the context of reducing demand and the so called energy death spiral, i’m more interested in the question: will the car save electricity.

    once widely adopted, electric vehicles will create very significant additional demand with the potential to have no impact on the peak demand requirements (in a managed charging environment). this has the potential to wind back the death spiral, and in fact reduce the delivery cost of electrons.

    • RobS 5 years ago

      V2G technology which is already being trialed in several research centers around the world allows EV’s to feed back into the grid in a distributed way at times of peak demand before recouping that charge at times of lower demand, Such technology means not only could EVs wind back the death spiral without affecting peak demand they could do it whilst significantly dropping peak demand.

      • Simon Holmes A Court 5 years ago

        i would have thought that managed charging is the low hanging fruit and has no battery cycle implications — V2G is cool, but we’re a long way from needing it. (that said, the cheapest form of behind-the-meter storage is the one you already own…)

        • RobS 5 years ago

          I’m not sure by what measure you say we are a long way from needing it, V2G essentially plays the role of peaking power plants in helping with peak demand and with intermittent generators with fluctuating output, but by doing it at the point of demand it avoids line losses and so does it more efficiently, now peaking plants are still being added to the grid at great expense every month whilst EV’s already in existence could play that role at only the cost of upgraded grid interface infrastructure, surely cheaper than building whole power plants. I totally agree that managed charging also has huge potential however I see no reason V2G isnt ready to begin rollout and delay or prevent the need for a significant number of peaking and load following power plants

          • Simon Holmes A Court 5 years ago

            discharging imposes a lifecycle cost on the batteries. do you have an idea of what this is in terms of cents/kWh?

            are there really a lot of peaking plants being added to the grid?

            i’d agree that the technology for V2G is ready, i’m just not sure that the business case is there yet.

          • RobS 5 years ago

            Well Teslas battery costs are believed to be somewhere around $400/kwh, lifespan is probably somewhere between 3000 and 5000 partial cycles. If those numbers are correct then V2G discharging would cost on the order of 10cents/kwh in lifecycle cost, very competitive with other sources of peaking power supply. Given that it would seem that offering owners 15-20cents/kwh for their battery capacity at times of peak demand would see a robust market for V2G peak shaving.

          • Simon Holmes A Court 5 years ago

            don’t forget that you need to factor in the cost of the energy as well — so V2G energy possibly costs more than $350/MWh. (yes, i want V2G too, but original point was that the economics are not as compelling as managed charging.)

          • RobS 5 years ago

            The whole point of V2G is to store power when it is relatively abundant and cheap, in some cases wholesale power prices are going negative in high wind areas at night, and sell it back when wholesale prices spike. Here in Australia on summer afternoons we have a few days a year when wholesale prices crack $10/kwh yes that’s ten dollars per killowatthour.

          • Simon Holmes A Court 5 years ago

            careful: over recent years we’ve seen a great reduction in the number of hours of $10,000/MWh pricing. batteries are arbitrage. arbitrage will reduce the frequency and severity of high market price events.

            we both agree that there’ll (eventually) be an opportunity for V2G — however it’s easy to waste a lot of keystrokes on musings backed by lacklustre (or absent) financial models.

    • Malcolm Scott 5 years ago

      Simon, I agree, but do we see any electricity company deals in the market to encourage EV use – NO we don’t. My quick spread sheet suggests that 100,000 EV in Victoria would consume an additional 2% demand on the grid, and with demand management and TOU billing much could be done to soak up surplus generation capacity at marginal cost pricing in either renewables or polluting fossil fuel generated electricity. But we don’t see such initiatives from the electricity companies and so the death spiral just can’t be a problem for us to worry about as we disconnect from the grid.

  2. Motorshack 5 years ago

    Those of us who use bicycles as primary transport are laughing constantly at the idiots driving cars, electric or otherwise. Not only is my carbon footprint very small, but there are at least two other major benefits that cars can never offer.

    First, at age 63, I am still in more than good enough physical condition to ride my bike twenty or twenty-five miles without any problem. In contrast, many people my age weigh three hundred pounds, need a cane to walk, and can barely manage one flight of stairs – all, in large part, the result of driving cars instead of getting some regular exercise.

    Second, a lot more of my money stays in my pocket where it belongs. Even the cheapest car, driven by the thriftiest driver, will cost several thousand dollars a year, and often much more. My bike costs me almost nothing, and the price of one tank of gas will cover all my cycling costs for a couple of years. The price of one set of new tires, or a brake job, will pay for a whole new bike.

    So, good luck with the “car of the 21st century”, but I’ll pass.

    • Simon Holmes A Court 5 years ago

      you’ll find me on a bike most days too mr motorshack — but i think we can all agree that transitioning from petrol to electrons would be of great benefit.

      • Motorshack 5 years ago

        Well, perhaps in the same sense that switching to filtered cigarettes might be an improvement on the unfiltered sort. It still does not make the widespread use of the product a brilliant idea.

        As for addressing me as “mr motorshack”, I have to wonder if you are reacting with exaggerated politeness to my casual use of the word “idiot”. If so, I will certainly grant that I am very direct, and perhaps insultingly so, but what would you call someone who spends thousands every year on a product that damages the environment, degrades their health, and might well kill them violently or cripple them for life (or kill or maim some innocent bystander)? Nevertheless, for the delicate souls in the audience, let us gently hint that automobile transport might be a less than optimum system.

        In any case, I do applaud your willingness to make substantial use of a much better alternative. Now all we need to do is to convince the other billion drivers still clogging the roads and wrecking the planet, and to that end I still see electric cars as a serious distraction from much better solutions.

        • Simon Holmes A Court 5 years ago

          no offense/disrespect was intended by using your name — not sure if you know, but it comes up as “motorshack”. certainly no offence was taken by your directness.

          • Motorshack 5 years ago

            I wasn’t offended, but the use of “mr” was unusual enough to make me wonder what all you had in mind.

            Also, my directness is a result of living in a world full of people who will shoot themselves in the foot ten times in a row, and then offer that as evidence of their brilliant marksmanship. I find such a world far less depressing, and far more amusing, if I just use honest language to describe what I see. That does not usually change anyone’s behavior, but at least its good for a laugh on occasion.

            Finally, for what it might be worth, the screen name Motorshack was originally the name that one of my sons gave to a DIY RV that I once cobbled together from an old, $500 Dodge van. I spent a couple of years living in the thing, and that was actually much more efficient than living in the house I had previously owned, even though on the road it only got about nine miles to the gallon. Given the amount of time I spent parked in the thing, the “gallons per hour”, if you will, was still pretty good.

  3. Chris Fraser 5 years ago

    Support for the motor industry is nothing new for us, perhaps there is an even bigger reason for supporting plug-in EVs due to side benefits of low emissions. If Ford and or Holden are going to free up one of their production lines in 2016, it seems quite a bit of infrastructure is already set up. Would be an opportunity for somebody.

  4. DogzOwn 5 years ago

    ” You need to add about 8% to this to account for CO2 emissions from the production of petrol or diesel fuel” isn’t this usually quoted as 1.4 or 40% extra emissions to deliver your petrol? Also, might be worth remembering that our imported vehicle fuel bill is about $40B/year, as well as foreign exchange cost of another $40B/year for those who keep buying new cars.

    Compared with alternatives, a car at 10litres/100km uses 100kWh/100km. Meanwhile and electric car uses 10kWh/100km. And if we could have maglev train, on pillars every 25m, elevated above Tullamarine freeway, we could ride at up to 400kmh at cost of 3kWh/100km.

    Lets not forget that, without Ford and GM Opel, neither invasion of Poland, nor likelihood of rest of WW2 would have been possible. Homo sapiens or homo cranium up rectum?!?

  5. DogzOwn 5 years ago

    Surely it’s disingenuous to nominate big CO2 emissions for small electric cars because folks who invest in such things will doubtless pay the extra for Green Energy which means Zero CO2.

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