Batteries or Fuel Cells?

As Leaf owners in Phoenix and other hot climates sue Nissan for overpromising the range, the mainstream media is still coming to grips with the battery electric vehicle (BEV) in general. First the LA Times decides in favor of ICE cars, then abruptly switches to BEVs based on the $7,500 federal tax credit:

Does $5 gas = buy a hybrid or electric car? A cost/benefit analysis

Unless he’s been reading the news, my [Leaf-driving] neighbor probably has no idea that California is enduring a sudden, surprising and, for other people, very painful spike in gasoline prices, which in some parts of the Southland have crossed the $5-a-gallon mark. This is creating a serious economic hardship for many. After all, not everybody can afford a $35,000 electric car to replace their gas-guzzler, and $90 or more to fill the tank of an SUV is real money. That got me wondering: When you consider all the costs of owning and operating a new car in this environment of soaring gas prices, is my neighbor a genius or a chump? …

This whole analysis obviously has a lot of missing variables. For one thing, it doesn’t consider emissions. Those monitoring their own carbon footprints might be willing to pay a little more to emit less, or nothing. My assumed $4.75 price for gas will, of course, change — but, I suspect, it will change in ways that benefit hybrid and electric owners. While it’s true that the current price spike probably won’t last long, the overall trend suggests that gas prices will keep rising sharply for the foreseeable future (yes, even if Mitt Romney is elected president; his “Drill, baby, drill” philosophy can’t possibly make up for rising demand for oil in India and China).

In an article with a provocative title, the Guardian notes that researchers continue to issue studies:

Are electric cars bad for the environment?

A study by engineers based at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology has questioned some common assumptions about the environmental credentials of electric cars.

Published this week in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, the “comparative environmental life cycle assessment of conventional and electric vehicles” begins by stating that “it is important to address concerns of problem-shifting”. By this, the authors mean that by solving one problem, do electric cars create another? And, if so, does this environmental harm then outweigh any advantages? …

The authors of this new paper are evidently not saying that electric cars are “bad” for the environment in all circumstances, but they are confirming what many already knew: that as electric cars become more popular – which is being encouraged by policymakers across many countries – we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the carbon intensity of the electricity used to power them is key. Another crucially important factor to monitor (and, hopefully, ameliorate) is just how energy- and resource-intensive the production of these vehicles can be.

The problem for electric cars is that they will only increase their environmental credentials (compared to “conventional” cars) once more and more of them are made and used, which, in itself, will drive faster and deeper innovation in battery technology, production efficiencies and end-of-life recyclability. It’s somewhat unfair to compare them to conventional cars at present because they are an immature, fledgling technology, but the opportunity for increased efficiency throughout their lifecycle seems significant as/if they become more popular.

But a bigger problem, perhaps, is that their environmental “success” hangs largely on factors beyond their manufacturers’ control. As has been shown in China, electric cars powered by electricity generated through the burning of coal and oil make very little environmental sense. They need to run off a low-carbon, “smart” grid where renewables and nuclear do much of the heavy lifting. So policy-makers have a twin challenge if they want to see more people driving electric cars: they need to ensure a low-carbon, smart grid is delivered and they need to assist manufacturers in bringing down the cost of these vehicles. Doing that in a synchronised and timely manner is going to be hard, but a prize worth reaching for.

Technology Review notes that disappointment in EV range has led automakers to keep plugging away at hydrogen fuel cell (fool cell) vehicles:

Hydrogen Cars: A Dream That Won’t Die

Automakers are showing new interest because key problems with fuel cells — their limited capacity to convert hydrogen to electricity and their susceptibility to freezing — have largely been overcome in recent years. At the same time, the first mass-produced electric vehicles based on batteries — the fuel cell’s technological rival for the zero-emissions mantle — have seen sales slow because their range remains disappointing and their prices high.

… fuel-cell vehicles have another crucial hurdle to overcome: the dearth of hydrogen fueling stations … [but] There is one big reason to be optimistic that this could change … — an abundant supply of natural gas flowing from hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) wells, which provides a ready source of hydrogen. “There is already more and more interest in fuel-cell technology because of the new natural-gas resources,” …

So why don’t we ask this first: Are fuel cell cars bad for the environment? – Yes

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