Another take at commonly-asked questions and common myths.

Q: Why would I even want to plug a car in?

A: Plugging in to tap renewable electricity such as solar, wind, tidal or other, allows you to drive without contributing to the pollution that sickens and kills hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, providing you with virtually pollution-free driving. Electricity is much cheaper than gas (~a third of the current cost of gas) and allows you to opt out of giving your money to oil companies, the politicians they support and the middle eastern tyrants. It allows you to drive silently so that you don’t contribute to the din of thousands of internal combustion engines moving throughout your community. It allows you to drive without participating in wars over oil.

Q: Isn’t plugging in an inconvenient chore?

A: Not at all. Plugging in literally takes less than 5 seconds of your time. There is no going out of your way to a gas station and jockeying for a pump. You can charge anywhere there is an electric outlet.

Q: Aren’t fully electric cars impractical?

A: Not at all. EVs with a 150-mile range could be built and sold in quantity at a profit today for $25,000. Ranges exceeding 300 miles on a charge exist today, but with the cost of batteries as high as they are, it is impractical for most cars at this point. Most people, when educated as to the benefits of driving with electricity, will be well served by a car with a range of 100-180 miles. Well over 90% of daily driving is well under 100 miles. Any long distance driving can be done with a second car that is a plug-in hybrid (PHEV), or by renting or borrowing a PHEV.

Q: What is a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) and why do you support that technology over vehicles that run on biodiesel or ethanol?

A: A plug-in hybrid (PHEV) is like any normal hybrid, but with two important differences. It has a larger battery capacity and is able to plug in to the electrical grid to charge the batteries. Instead of a battery with a capacity of about 1 kWh of power like an ordinary hybrid, these batteries will have a capacity of 9-10 kWh of power. This will enable the PHEV to drive like a fully electric vehicle for up to 40 miles before the gas engine kicks in.

We support any clean fuel that is not oil. However, it is clear that electricity is the cleanest, cheapest and a ubiquitous source of domestic energy for moving cars and trucks. We understand the need for multiple sources of energy to replace the oil we use, so all alternatives will have their place as we transition away from oil.

Q: If I were to drive a plug-in hybrid (PHEV), how much would my gas mileage improve?

A: Your gas mileage could improve to several hundred miles per gallon, plus electricity. If you had a PHEV with a 40-mile range in EV mode, and you rarely drove over 40 miles without charging, then you would almost never need gas. Most people will find that if they have an EV with 150 miles of range, they would not need another vehicle for any of their daily driving. For longer trips, you could rent or borrow a PHEV. For families with two vehicles, one would be an EV, and the other a PHEV. For those families, they would only need gas when they drove over 40 miles in a day.

Q: You may not spend as much money at the gas pump, but wouldn’t the electricity bill go through the roof?

A: Your energy bill will be less overall by driving with electricity. EVs are so efficient that the cost, per mile driven, is significantly less. For instance, a 2002 Toyota RAV4 will travel 100 miles on 4 gallons of gasoline. At $2.50/gallon, this is $10.00. A 2002 Toyota RAV4 EV will travel 100 miles on 30 kWh of electricity. At 10 cents per kWh, this is $3.00.

Q: Could a solar system produce electricity for a plug-in car?

A: Yes, easily. EVs typically can travel 3-4 miles (or more) per kWh. If you drive 12,000 miles per year, you will need 3,000-4,000 kWh. Depending on where you live, you will need a 1.5kW-3kW PV system to generate that much power using about 150-300 sq. ft. of space on your roof. In fact, many EV drivers recharge their cars from rooftop solar panels today, generating virtually no pollution for their local driving.

Q: Are plug-in vehicles dependable?

A: Battery Electric Vehicles are the most dependable vehicles made. Well made production EVs have the potential to last as long or longer than gasoline automobiles, with less regular maintenance. There are many fewer moving parts in an EV, and therefore less ongoing preventative maintenance. Brake life is significantly extended since the motor is used to slow the car, recapturing the kinetic energy and storing it back in the battery. While replacement batteries may be required during the life of an EV, newer battery chemistries are demonstrating very long lives.

Q: What happens when the batteries run out of power?

A: You charge them back up. When EVs and PHEVs are commonplace, charging stations will be everywhere. Restaurants, grocery stores and other retail establishments will offer free or low cost charging as enticements to get customers. Parking meters will be charging stations where you will plug in, swipe a card, and when you unplug, your account will be debited with the energy used and the time at the meter. Of course, anyone with access to a plug at home will charge there over night when cheap surplus power is readily available. Studies indicate 80% of Americans have ready access to plugs where they park at night.

PHEVs, of course, will not need to be charged since their internal combustion engine will allow virtually unlimited range for long trips. However, to minimize pollution, cost and other ills associated with the use of oil, one would do well to plug in whenever possible to maximize the use of the electric grid, hopefully sourced with renewable electricity.

Q: How long does it take to fully charge a plug-in hybrid or electric car?

A: It would depend on the amperage of the charging system. From an ordinary 120V socket, you would need overnight to charge a battery EV fully. With a fast charger, you could fully charge in 5-10 minutes. A plug-in hybrid could fully charge in 6-9 hours from an ordinary outlet.

Q: How often do you have to replace the batteries?

A: Nickel Metal Hydride batteries (NiMH) are proving to be very long lived. Several cars with over 130,000 miles have been reported with virtually no range degradation. Estimates of 150,000 – 200,000 miles are predicted. Lithium Ion (LiIon) is thought by most experts to be the chemistry that will supplant NiMH. The testing of battery life is continuing, but it’s too early to tell how long LiIon will last.

Q: What if electric cars get their energy from dirty sources like coal – how clean are they then?

A: The Argonne National Labs have looked into this issue and report that the mix of power in the electrical grid, not all of which is coal, results in a 32% decrease in greenhouse gases with EVs. The other pollutants similarly meet the stringest standards for the cleanest gas cars today, even charging completely from an ordinary coal plant. Many states such as California are much cleaner, with a grid mix at 29% coal. EVs also allow you to use 100% clean renewable electricity from sources such as the sun or wind. In addition, EVs get cleaner as the electrical grid gets cleaner. Gas cars only get dirtier as they age. We support replacing all “fossil-fuel” electricity generation with clean and renewable generating methods.

Q: Aren’t all those batteries full of toxic chemicals and precious metals that will just end up in a landfill?

A: Not at all. Every car in the world has a lead-acid battery, the most toxic metal used for batteries. Even with its low value as scrap, the recycling rate for lead-acid batteries is about 98% in the U.S. EVs will use newer chemistries such as NiMH and LiIon. Both of these metals are inherently more valuable than lead, and since the batteries are quite large, the value of the spent battery packs will be such that the recycling rate will approach 100%. It is illegal to dispose of these batteries in a landfill and their value will ensure that is not their fate. Nickel, while mildly toxic, will be reclaimed during the recycling process. Lithium is even less toxic and more valuable than nickel.

Q: How viable are hydrogen cars? Many seem to think they are the "cars of the future.”

A: There are two types of hydrogen cars. Fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) are EVs, but instead of getting their electricity from batteries charged from the grid, they get their power from fuels cells using hydrogen as the energy carrier. FCVs use four times as much electricity on a per mile basis as a battery EV if the hydrogen is obtained through the process called electrolysis. So you would need four times the number of solar panels to go the same distance as you would in a battery EV. Hydrogen obtained through reformation of hydrocarbon fuels releases massive quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, and even that dirty process uses more energy than merely charging a battery. FCVs have many seriously difficult and expensive engineering challenges to solve before they will ever be widely available, and even then, the energy required per mile will probably still be substantially higher than with battery EVs.

Internal combustion engines (ICE) can be made to burn hydrogen instead of gasoline. Even these fairly simple conversions are expensive, and the energy required is again, much higher per mile than with EVs. In addition, ICE burning hydrogen (H2) cars still have some emissions albeit low but they cannot be considered ZEVs, not even taking into consideration how one gets the hydrogen.

The bottom line is that there is no advantage to using FCVs or H2 ICE technologies over battery EVs.

Paul Scott

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