As discussed last week, two books (James Billmaier’s Jolt! The Impending Dominance of the Electric Car and Seth Fletcher’s Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy) show the great potential of the electric vehicle (EV) to take over the automobile market and greatly alleviate an array of woes caused by our dependence on oil. Yet they have some holes, and questions remain about the EV’s viability.
One area of oversight in Billmaier—and indeed in both works—is a strange neglect of global climate change, with a focus instead on security and peak oil concerns. This mirrors America’s national conversation, where, despite mountains of evidence, climate change is somehow not allowed to be a central part of the conversation. Billmaier exemplifies this situation when he prefaces his brief discussion of climate change with the note, “If you don’t find yourself with Al Gore . . . or you’re just sick of hearing about climate change in general, feel free to skip this chapter.” I suppose this is one tactic for dealing with the ascendancy of climate skepticism, but it only works when all of the other factors also converge on the desired outcome. When the question becomes whether to increase our use of coal or shale oil, for instance, the tactic of simply pretending climate change doesn’t exist and relying on other arguments will come back to hurt us.
Both works (as well as the movie Revenge of the Electric Car) also exaggerate the viability of electric cars when it comes to rapidly replacing our existing fleet and satisfying drivers accustomed to instant refills. Bottled Lightning is the most honest—although only briefly and near the end—about the fact that, even with lithium-ion batteries, the EV still takes several hours to recharge. This can be reduced below twenty minutes with the highest level of quick charge station, but these are not practical as they need to be powerful enough to deliver many megawatts quickly—to charge the Tesla in fifteen minutes, for instance, takes a 200-kilowatt substation. A network of such stations across the country is simply not viable. Fletcher delivers this information in a quote that he doesn’t fully discuss; indeed, his reliance on quotes to make the main points about EVs’ limitations implies that he doesn’t wish to acknowledge these data but feels impelled to do so. Yet serious questions remain. With a longer range, consumers might be more willing to rely on electric cars since they would need to go through the recharge process less often. Yet with, for instance, a 100-mile range limit, would consumers put up with a several-hour recharging process? Fletcher quotes an IBM researcher: “A practical electric car will need a lot more mileage than is possible with lithium-ion batteries.” Fletcher then suggests that more research might deliver a technological breakthrough, and also points out that cars such as the Chevy Volt, with both a gasoline and electrical engine, don’t face this problem.
Even without a major new breakthrough in battery technology, however, I think concerns over range and charge limitations are surmountable. Consumers (at least American consumers) may gripe, but I believe we are more flexible and practical than some stereotypes portray. True, as drivers, we’ll need to plan ahead a bit more to make sure our EVs are fully charged, but we’re more than capable. After all, we already do that with cell phones and smart phones. Further, once recycling becomes a habit most people gladly, or at least dutifully, do it; the same will likely happen with the extra planning an electric engine requires. And once they drive one, consumers just love the electric car (which matches my experience with the electric lawn mower, which far outperforms the gas kind except for that annoying cord). Furthermore, gasoline is bound to get significantly more expensive, particularly with demand growing in China and India.
One other question is about pollution associated with batteries, both at the start of their life cycle through the mining of lithium and at the end through their disposal. However, this is a relatively minor problem when compared to the huge environmental drawbacks of the gasoline engine. Lithium is one of the most abundant elements, and thus should not pose the mining challenges of more exotic, difficult-to-reach substances. The current mining process does take large amounts of water, and lithium can be hazardous, but is less so than many other minerals (cnet, 2008; Time, 2009). Indeed, Lithium mining seems to compare quite favorably to the increasingly dirty and dangerous process of extracting oil. Regarding disposal, lithium batteries no longer potent enough for EVs can still be used to store electricity from our growing use of intermittent sources, notably wind and solar. Furthermore, according to Billmaier, lithium-ion batters are more than 95% recyclable.
Does this mean that the EV is poised to solve our transit worries? Billmaier thinks so, explaining that “electric vehicles will enable us to continue our uniquely American love affair with the automobile, which along with the nation’s highway system, is the backbone of our culture and economy.” This romanticizing of a certain kind of consumerism suggests the possibility of a rebound effect, in which people are lulled into thinking that EVs have zero impact and use them unceasingly. With a hugely expanding number of automobiles globally, this means a continuing climate change impact, at least until the day that all our electricity becomes renewable. And all the other impacts of cars—even clean ones—must be accounted for. Energy and resources are used in manufacturing them. Even worse is the need for an ever-expanding network of roads, meaning additional environmental burdens in habitat destruction and fragmentation and in impervious surface. Furthermore, as Smart Growth advocates know, new roads induce greater use of cars and more traffic. Witness Beijing’s recent nine-day traffic jam (Los Angeles Times, 2010).
So the EV holds great promise, but is no panacea. We will still need to greatly improve transit and reduce our sprawling growth patterns. Technology alone will not save us. The EV, then, is likely to replace gasoline engines with clean, efficient transportation, but is only one of a panoply of tools, social and technological, in building a sustainable society.