Make no mistake about it. We love plug-in electric cars. The electrification of the personal transportation device has the potential to bring about great change, with the promise of more jobs and less pollution. Economic renewal in a cleaner world is a lofty and worthwhile goal for all, regardless of political affiliation.
2010 is shaping up to be the year remembered as the launching point for high-volume production of highway-capable electric vehicles (EVs). We can expect to see the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, and Coda sedan enter production, among other vehicles. Other plug-in electric cars from major manufacturers will soon follow.
Governments around the world have committed massive amounts of funding to the electrification of the automobile. This influx of capital is allowing the business world to ramp up at a torrid pace. That said, this is a long road, with a tough grade to climb.
This post, which will be updated as conditions and information warrant, shares notes gleaned on the realities of EVs from a number of industry conferences. While we encourage the adoption of EVs, we are realists, not cheerleaders.
The Building Blocks:
Lithium – There is no worldwide shortage of the basic elements required for the state-of-the-art lithium ion battery packs. Lithium is abundant, although there are scant resources in the United States. The lion’s share of the world’s lithium can be found in Bolivia and Chile.
Battery Supply – Demand for finished lithium ion battery packs is likely to exceed supply until a sufficient number of factories are built and are brought online. Demand for lithium batteries may rise from 2-4x over the next ten years, due to EV production.
Battery Cost – The cost of the Lithium Ion battery pack can currently vary from 25-50% (approximately) of the total cost of a highway-capable EV, depending on vehicle range and technology. Stakeholders are betting heavily that increased production will lead to lower battery costs.
Battery Recycling – Lithium batteries are touted to be highly recyclable, both for their basic elements, as well as for use in less-stressful energy storage applications.
Battery Swapping – No EV manufacturers have committed to a domestic battery swapping scheme (a la Better Place).
Rare Earth – The DC brushless motors used in most electric cars contain rare earth magnets. All of the world’s current rare earth magnet production is based in China. The United States has not produced rare earth magnets in half a decade.
Electric Vehicle Charging – Electric vehicle owners must forget about the gas-and-go fueling convenience they’ve come to expect with their oil-based transportation devices. A stop to recharge will require a significant investment of time.
There are three tiers of charging:
- Tier 1 – Home-based, via 120 Volt line. Charging takes place overnight, in a roughly 10-12 hour span.
- Tier 2 – Home-, Fleet- or Public-based, via 240 Volt line. Charging in a 3-6 hour span.
- Tier 3 – Fleet- or Public-based, via up to 500 Volt line. Fast-charging in 30 minutes or less.
(Times will vary, depending on factors that include the specific charging device and size of vehicle battery pack.)
While most home garages have 110V outlets, 220V outlets are not common. The installation of a 220V line and charger adds to EV acquisition cost. 500V quick charging is not practical for home use.
High-powered commercial quick chargers will be located in enclosed areas, to minimize the possibility of electrocution due to wet environments. It is likely that consumers will not be allowed to handle the quick charging equipment themselves. For safety reasons, conditions may suggest using robotic arms or attendants in rubberized suits.
Public-charging dramatically alters the refueling venue. EV drivers will not sit around waiting for half an hour (or more) at a typical service station. Quick charging may be handled with concierge-like arrangements at dining and shopping destinations, as well as at sporting and entertainment venues.
EV Infrastructure – For EVs to become hugely successful, we must have sufficient public infrastructure to encourage rapid adoption and minimize the effect of range anxiety.
EV Acquisition Costs – The majority of consumers will not be able to afford to buy EVs, given current costs and the economic climate. Battery packs may be leased separately from the vehicles to reduce initial acquisition costs. Government purchase subsidies will be needed for the near future to stimulate demand.
Geographical Considerations – EVs are best suited to temperate climates. EV drivers north of the frost line can expect significantly reduced vehicle range, due to environmental conditions. Cabin heating, seat heaters, defrosters, and the like will reduce range due to increased draw on the battery.
We are here to share truth, not spew venom. Plug-in electric cars are one – yet mighty – arrow in the quiver in the quest for domestic energy independence.
If you are in the industry and seek to clarify any of these points, please jump in … we absolutely welcome the participation of those who truly know. This is, as the saying goes, a living breathing document, without political ambitions.
- by Daniel Gray
January 30th, 2010
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