Recharged: How electric cars could help change our energy system

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In the closing moments of Chris Paine’s 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car viewers get a glimpse of a possible electric car future; a vision of hope with tantalizing peeks at cars that one day you too could be driving, flipping the bird to gas stations as you go.

Just three years later Paine is driving a jaw dropping all electric sports car and working on a film entitled Revenge of the Electric Car. Electric cars may go quietly down the road, but apparently not into that good night.

They were never killed, only maimed it seems, and this time they look like they could be contenders.  But does that mean that we should break out the green champagne and revel in guilt free driving?  Sadly no; but it could mean that we can turn the corner on our almost complete dependence on 19th century internal combustion engines (ICE’s) and the oil they suck and the filth they spew.

Or we could blow it by simply replacing ICE cars with electric cars, when what we need to do is change the way we produce, store and distribute energy itself.  And if we do that, electric vehicles can play a very important role in a greener future.

Introducing the high end electric car

It's this future of a gas-free world that helped inspire a number of silicon valley billionaires and brainiacs with attitude and ideas to launch Tesla Motors in search of a damn good electric car.  The Tesla company argued that many major innovative products entered the market on the high end, such as cell phones, computers and colour TVs, and they would be no different.

They would introduce a high-end car, the Roadster.  The Roadster, they said, will not be your parent’s electric car.  This thing, they promised, will be badass: super fast, super cool and super expensive.  After a number of delays they delivered on all fronts.  In 2008 the first 100 per cent electric Tesla Roadsters rolled off the line for over $100,000 US.  It smokes most sports cars for jack-rabbit starts, it gets over 200 miles per charge, it has a battery (pack) warranty of 100,000 miles and has garnered very strong reviews from car aficionados.

There is a backlog in ordering these cars but there will likely always be relatively few people driving them. Right now there are GM dealerships with more cars in their parking lots than there are Tesla Roadsters driving around, though Canadians are placing orders and a store could be coming near you one day. Unlike most electric cars, which are prototypes, people are actually driving these around, zipping about in a car that itself has zero emissions and costs pennies per mile to operate.

The revenge of the electric car?

Tesla’s plan from the beginning was to enter the market with a high-end car, then, drawing on the R & D for that development (and the cash from high end sales), introduce a mid-priced ($50,000) sedan and finally a car more for the masses ($30,000).

The prototype for the sedan, “model s,” was recently released with a vision of it hitting the streets in 2012.  This car has more storage than some SUVs, seats five adults, and, depending on the battery pack option, can go 300 miles per charge.  You can get a quick charge in 45 minutes, or if the infrastructure exists, swap the battery pack out in just a few minutes. That sounds a lot like revenge of the electric car.

A lot now rests on what kind of government support Tesla and others can get to develop and build these cars, but there is at least one car company talking about hiring workers and there are plenty more breathing down their electric necks. Nissan will be releasing an electric car, Chrysler is doing research, BMW is getting in the mix and then there is the intriguing ZENN cars from Toronto.  ZENN stands for “Zero Emissions No Noise."  And in that name lies the rub.

Does electric really mean no emissions?

As vehicles electric cars have no emissions (except really a bit of noise).  Internal combustion engines obviously have lots of emissions.  First there are the emissions to extract and refine oil into gas, then more are used to deliver it to stations and then it is pumped into an energy station with wheels.  These energy stations are called cars. They burn the fuel and spew out more emissions in the process.

But electric cars have to get their electricity from somewhere and that “somewhere” can have plenty of emissions as well, especially if you get your energy from coal or if you consider nuclear waste that has a 24,000 year radioactive half life an “emission” (which it is).   The good news is that electric cars can be part of the solution.

Tesla claims that if you look at how much pollution a car produces per mile, including extraction of fuel and use of electricity, that their Roadster with its lithium ion batteries has the least emissions by far compared to any other car.  For example they claim that a Honda FCX Hydrogen Fuel Cell car that uses natural gas to generate the hydrogen emits over three times more emissions than the Tesla Roadster that uses natural gas for electricity.

This may be true, and reflects important progress if it is, but our energy generation, distribution and storage system is broken and we can’t fix it by simply plugging in.  Using coal more efficiently is still using coal, and with the wrong policies and a broken infrastructure a surge of electric cars could mean an increase in demand for coal or nuclear.

This might explain why the nuclear industry likes electric cars. More electric cars, they figure, means more demand and less available electricity. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way.  Through the aggressive use of renewables, “smart” machines and appliances and a distributed energy systems, electric cars could be part of the energy solution, not another drag on the system.

Currently in much of the world, and certainly in Canada and the U.S., energy production is highly concentrated with large energy plants using coal, nuclear, hydro and even large wind farms. This makes the grid susceptible to break down and even sabotage.

In contrast, many energy experts and environmentalists are calling for “distributed generation.” Distributed generation is a model where many sources from the micro on up all contribute to the grid, such as having solar panels on roofs all across the country, each feeding into the system.

This creates a strong grid with energy flowing in from many sources and can allow for more local distribution of energy, reducing energy loss through long-distance transmission.  Governments such as Spain and Germany have created price incentives to encourage people to begin micro and small-scale clean power generation and have had good success with it.  Ontario is joining in too with a new green power act that has potential.

Smart grids on the way

Couple these incentives with the development of a “smart grid” and the electric cars can change from being a demand on the system to being part of a system, by selling back some of the energy stored in the batteries in the grid, even at a profit.  A smart grid uses computers and two-way communication between producers and storers of energy (the grid) and consumers.

Toronto is busy installing “smart meters” that will allow for different electrical pricing depending on demand.  A “smart” product, for example a dishwasher, could be programmed to turn on when the rates are lowest (at night).  This reduces demand and gives the consumer some financial interest in how they run their appliances.

Electrical cars, though, can go the extra step.  Jeff Dahn, Industrial Research Chair, Canada Research Chair in Materials for Batteries and Fuel Cells, reported on Quirks and Quarks that with a smart grid you could, for example, park your electric car at an airport while on a trip and the car could download energy to the battery at night (when it is cheapest) and then during the day automatically sell that energy back to the grid at a higher rate.

Electrical cars then become not just a drain on the system, as they are often portrayed by large energy companies who claim the cars will force more energy production, but mobile storage centres for energy, ideally produced by a large mix of sustainable sources.

All of this can happen now.  None of this requires any new technology.  The Tesla is zipping down the road, smart meters are being installed as we speak, governments have successfully enticed their citizens to build green energy, and we have a basic electrical grid that can be upgraded.  Plus there is more to come.

The California company Better Place is working to develop a battery swap infrastructure, which can work like a gas station, extending the range people can drive with electric cars and provinces are looking at incentives for electric cars, such as Ontario.  And there are always the claims of a major battery breakthrough.  Even Google has gotten into the act with a report on how to reduce fossil fuels (smart grids need computers).

It can be done, and with the strong political pressure and some political will it might actually get done. But if we just plug and play without addressing energy generation and distribution, the whole thing could crash. 


Matthew Adams is a co-founder of the Catalyst Centre (a social justice popular education worker co-op),, and works with a number of organizations including as a community researcher for Access Alliance Multicultural Health and Community Services and, the publicist for the Mayworks Festival of Working People and the Arts in Toronto (where he is a proud member of CUPE local 1281) and of course rabble where he is the Special Projects Coordinator.

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