With the announcement of the list price for the Chevy Volt ($41,000 before tax breaks), the time has never been better to constructively talk about the electric infrastructure that will fuel the Volt and the electric cars of the future.  The Volt joins other mass-produced electric models that are starting to hit the market, including the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla.

What makes the electric car so tantalizing is that it can run on clean energy, and be responsible for far fewer emissions than traditional gas-powered vehicles.  The electricity that we use to power electric cars could come from wind, solar, hydroelectric, or nuclear energy, and never make a substantial contribution to carbon emissions.  Even if the electricity comes from coil and gas power plants, it is still more environmentally friendly than combustion engines, because centrally-generated power is more efficient.

While the question of where we will fuel these cars is tantamount, the question all-too-often glossed over is how to best fuel these cars.  We can measure fuel efficiency for gas-powered vehicles only by miles per gallon.  However, the electric car’s efficiency can be measured not only by how many miles it travels per volt, but also how efficient it is at utilizing the electric grid from which it receives its charge.

The idea for a smart charge has been formally proposed on General Electric’s Ecomagination Challenge, which is a $200 million competition to find the best new ideas on how to create, connect, and use a better electric grid.

“Charging electric cars at night is cheaper and cleaner than during the day because energy demand is lower. But what if you drive more in a day than your battery’s range? Software anticipates when you need power based on your driving habits and manages recharging.”

I encourage all of my readers to both check out the ideas and vote for this particular one because it exemplifies the ideals of the Transit Pass (registration and voting will take approximately 1 minute total).

A number of products already allow consumers and property owners to observe their electricity and other utility usage.  However, while these products may help people and institutions lower usage, they do not help advance efficient use.  The proposed idea would allow car users to fuel their cars most efficiently.

The software would help car users to fuel their cars at times when energy demand is lowest (typically at certain times at night) as well as how to make the most of mid-day re-charges.  This would be a boon both to the consumer as well as our overall energy use and overtaxed grid.  By charging when overall electricity demand is lowest, it takes some pressure off the grid during the day and allows electric companies to generate kilowatts on a more consistent basis over time.

This is important not only to the individual electric car owner but also to institutional users such as car-sharing services like Zipcar and fleet owners who could implement electric vehicles such as the postal service and other delivery companies, police departments, taxi services, and other governmental entities.

Companies and drivers would benefit from the device as they could potentially re-charge at a a cheaper price if kilowatt usage is based on time and demand.  Likewise, utility providers benefit from insuring that their grid will not be swamped at the worst times of day.

Again, I encourage you all to vote for a great idea.  It is a small device that could have a big impact on the success of America’s utilization of electric vehicles, the diminishing demand for foreign oil, and a way of insuring that our fragile electric grid not only stays safe, but potentially improves.

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[Greg Moran is a new contributor for The Transit Pass.  He develops energy power projects for International Power.]

Twenty years from today, we may just look back on 2010 as the year that electric cars hit the mainstream and put the world on a path toward widespread vehicle electrification.  While niche electric cars such as Tesla and Think are already in limited production and available for purchase today, no major automobile manufacture has to date released a plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) on the market.  However, that will change later this year with the introduction of the LEAF from Nissan.  The LEAF will be the first automobile produced by a major global automotive manufacturer that will not rely on an internal combustion engine fueled by gasoline.  Instead, the vehicle will be fully reliant on a 24 kWh lithium polymer battery developed jointly by Nissan and NEC (other hybrid and electric manufactures use more standard lithium-ion chemistry).

While critics of electric vehicles have voiced numerous objections to the PEV in general, perhaps the most frequent criticism has been on the topic of price competitiveness with traditional gasoline-fueled vehicles.  To this point, Nissan largely puts this issue to bed by starting the LEAF at $32,780.  After factoring in a federal tax credit of $7,500, the price drops to nearly $25,000.  This makes the LEAF competitive with traditional, non-electric automobiles in its class.  In certain states such as California, the LEAF would be eligible for an additional $5,000 in tax credits, thereby dropping the price to approximately $20,000.  Seeing California is chalk full of early technology adopters, Nissan figures the LEAF will sell well in the San Francisco and Los Angeles market (both markets also happen to be hotbeds for battery and electric car company start-ups).

Range anxiety is another consistent fear expressed by PEV critics.  Despite Americans propensity to drive more than our global counterparts, the vast majority of Americans drive less than 40 miles per day.  Nissan officially claims that the LEAF will get approximately 100 miles on one charge.  However, recent test drives have indicated that even this number is conservative and the range will likely be higher.  This 100 mile range will likely satisfy over 90% of Americans driving needs.

Nissan is currently working on fine-tuning its vehicle charging strategy.  At present, the LEAF will be able to reach a full charge in approximately 8 hours by simply plugging the vehicle into a standard garage power outlet.  However, Nissan is currently in discussions with numerous electric utilities and third party charging station technology providers.  In foreign markets, Nissan has signed an agreement with Israeli start-up Better Place to manage the vehicle’s battery by swapping the battery out at swapping stations when it becomes depleted.  Nissan is expected to test this model in the United States by 2012.  The holy grail of vehicle charging is clearly the uber-fast 3 minute charge, which would be akin to a trip to the old gas station.  This is currently technologically unfeasible, however certain fast-charging stations are becoming available that can charge a vehicle in 30 minutes.  Stay tuned for more progress on this front in the coming months as this issue has been grabbing the attention of prominent VCs.

Much of Nissan’s progress on the electric vehicle front can be traced to its Brazilian born CEO, Carlos Ghosn, one of the most dynamic visionaries in the auto industry today.  I would liken him to Apple’s Steve Jobs (although I think Mr. Ghosn has a general disdain for black turtlenecks) with respect to his charisma and ground breaking ideas.  Mr. Ghosn predicts that over 10% of the global vehicle fleet will be electric by 2020.  No small feat since today that figure stands at less than 1/1000th of 1%.  It remains to be seen whether Ghosn will be as successful of a marketer as Jobs.  This ability to communicate with the public will surely be absolutely essential to the nascent industry’s development going forward.

Currently, Ghosn is already seeking out solutions to some of the most pressing current issues pertaining to electric vehicles such as extended range and secondary usage of the battery after it is no longer capable of working in an automobile.  These are two fundamental issues that will require dynamic innovation going forward and will both be addressed in subsequent posts.

Coal Miner

I do not want to challenge 19 really smart professors, but I am skeptical of all the conclusions in the new report from the National Research Council, Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use.  The report, as titled, examined costs of energy, especially coal, that go unaccounted for in market prices.

The report estimates dollar values for several major components of these costs.  The damages the committee was able to quantify were an estimated $120 billion in the U.S. in 2005, a number that reflects primarily health damages from air pollution associated with electricity generation and motor vehicle transportation.  The figure does not include damages from climate change, harm to ecosystems, effects of some air pollutants such as mercury, and risks to national security, which the report examines but does not monetize.

The report made significant conclusions about transportation, especially cars, according to GreenTech Media:

Overall, the transportation industry incurred $56 billion of mostly health-related damage in the United States in 2005. Driving cars typically contributed to less than a third of the hidden costs and translated into 1.2 cents to 1.7 cents per mile traveled, the report said.

Gasoline has earned a foul reputation because the country’s reliance on foreign oil. But the heavy focus on domestically produced ethanol doesn’t necessary provide less damaging options, the report found.

Impact from corn ethanol production was similar or “slightly worse” than gasoline because turning corn into fuel takes more energy, the report said. Making ethanol from corn stover and other types of plants, on the other hand, inflicted less damage.

Electric and plug-in hybrid cars also aren’t as “green” as they appear. While these cars produce less or no emissions, they are run on power from fossil fuels, the report said. Manufacturing batteries and electric motors also takes up quite a lot of energy.

The report concluded that the non-climate damage caused by manufacturing and operating electric/hybrid cars was “somewhat higher” than other types of cars in 2005, and the same trend would continue in 2030.

Maybe it’s difficult, but how do you release a study like that without taking into account the effect on the environment or admitting the political difficulties of oil.  I’m not going to disagree that electric cars that essentially run on oil are problematic too.  However, electric cars, which are picking up steam from major manufacturers, have potential because they could run on renewable energy.  Yet, that doesn’t mean all oil-based cars are inherently wrong.

Electric cars are only part of a larger transit solution, but if we drive electric cars as we drive our current cars we will still have problems.  Our goals instead should always be as follows (in no particular order):

– Driving less, of any car.

– Taking public transportation, walking and cycling more.

– Owning cars for a longer time.  Fuel efficiency is only relevant if the energy to build a car is not used every 2-4 years.

– Driving fuel-efficient cars.

– Building environments and neighborhoods that emphasize these values.

I’m glad someone is taking account of energy use and not just mindlessly swooning over electric cars.  However, electric cars provide part of an answer in a transit and energy revolution and should not be dismissed just because they may run on coal energy now.  Real economists cannot look at just one sector and claim to have made a whole study, the politics and environmental effects of oil and coal and potential for new energy solutions must be taken into account as well.