So the most intriguing possibility is using electricity to drive cars. Some gas-electric hybrid vehicles, like
That’s where plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEV) come in. PHEVs flip the current hybrid formula- instead of gas-powered cars assisted by electric motors and batteries, PHEVs will be electric-powered cars assisted by gasoline motors. Ideally, PHEVs would mostly run on electricity from batteries, using their gasoline motors as range-extenders to charge the batteries once they’ve run out of juice. In a world of PHEVs, gasoline stations would go the way of livery stables, since cars would get most of their energy by being plugged in at home at night or at parking garages and meters during work hours.
If most Americans switched to driving PHEVs, imports of foreign oil would fall, as would the emissions of the greenhouse gases thought to be warming the planet. By how much? A study done by the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest Laboratory in 2007 sketched out a scenario in which 84 percent of cars, light trucks and SUVs (about 200 million vehicles) were PHEVs, traveling an average of 33 miles per day on electric power. In that scenario, the country would reduce its consumption of oil by 6.5 million barrels per day, which is equivalent to 52 percent of current
The problem: the batteries.
NiMH batteries are all right for the quick charge and discharge of today’s gas-electric hybrids, but can’t hold enough charge to take a car very far on its own.
While faltering GM’s Volt has garnered much of the media’s attention, every other major automaker in the world has also announced in the past year that it plans to produce a hybrid-electric or fully electric product. Last fall, Chrysler claimed that it would be debuting hybridelectric versions of its Jeep Wrangler and its Town & Country minivan with an all-electric range of 40 miles, just like the Chevy Volt. In addition, Chrysler will produce an all-electric sports car which would have a range of 150–200 miles on a fully charged battery.
Ford Motor promises to release an electric commercial van in 2010 and an electric commuter car in 2011. Big automakers around the world are also promising that consumers will be able to drive plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles off dealers’ lots in the next two to three years. Among them are Nissan-Renault, Daimler- Benz, BMW, Mitsubishi,
Politicians are clearly anxious to jump-start an electric car revolution. President Barack Obama has promised to put 1 million PHEVs on the road by 2015. The new $787 billion stimulus bill adopts President Obama’s proposal to offer consumers a $7,500 tax credit for PHEVs as a way to encourage consumers to buy them. Since the PHEVs are likely to cost $10,000 more than comparable gasoline powered vehicles, consumers will need all the encouragement they can get. Unmentioned is the fact that only about half of Americans pay enough tax to take advantage of a tax credit that big.
But without a plentiful supply of reliable long-range batteries, all of these promises of a glorious, electrically driven future are just so much hot air. So where are the millions of batteries going to come from?
Surveying the world, it is clear that foreign manufacturers are currently in the lead when it comes to making lithium-ion batteries. In January, GM announced that it would use lithium-ion batteries produced by the North American subsidiary of the Korean chemical giant, LG Chem, in its Chevy Volt. LG Chem beat out A123 Systems, a lithiumion battery maker headquartered in
In December, Nissan and NEC announced a $1.1 billion joint venture to build a battery factory that sometime after 2011 will produce enough lithium-ion batteries for 200,000 hybrid and electric cars. Last year, Matsushita, which owns the Panasonic brand, teamed up with
At the Detroit Auto Show in December,
So why are foreign manufacturers dominant in cutting-edge battery technologies? After all, many of the critical lithium-ion technology breakthroughs were developed in the
Dependent on Batteries Instead of Oil?
“A small, fragmented battery industry will not long survive in the face of determined Asian competition,” argues consultant Ralph Brodd. “Other countries are investing heavily in the manufacture of lithium-ion cells. Those countries understand that whoever makes the batteries will one day make the cars.” So how do American manufacturers overcome the Asian lead? Not only do politicians want to subsidize hybrid-electric cars, they also want to subsidize battery manufacturers. In September, the
In December, a coalition of 14 American high-tech companies, including 3M, Altairnano, Dontech Global and
And battery makers are rushing to take advantage of these government incentives. For example, A123 Systems, which lost out to LG Chem in supplying the Chevy Volt batteries, produces batteries based on nanotechnology research done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In January, A123 Systems applied for $1.84 billion in direct loans from the ATVM program for constructing a new cutting- edge lithium-ion battery factory it wants to locate in
In December, both houses of the
Another big player among
However, EnerDel suffered a setback when the Norwegian electric car company Think Global ran out of cash in December. The company has a contract with Think Global to manufacture batteries for 10,000 vehicles. EnerDel has now applied for a $480 million loan from the Energy Department to double its production capacity for hybrid vehicle battery packs at its
With billions in cheap government money available, it is no surprise that there is a rush to line up at the withdrawal window. The Department of Energy has already received 75 applications asking for $38 billion in loans; the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing program is authorized to issue only $25 billion.
Who Needs Batteries Anyway?
Game-changing innovations may depend upon battery supply. Industry circles were set abuzz when legendary venture capitalist John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins mentioned during Congressional testimony in January an unnamed lithium-ion startup that has developed batteries that can power electric vehicles “twice as far, and eventually three times as far, to over 100 miles before recharging.” The company is supposedly building a factory in the
But are batteries the real key to our electric car future? The
Better Place contemplates an open source model in which any battery manufacturer could make a battery that meets
Then there is the secretive EEStor, headquartered in
The core of EEStor’s ultracapacitor involves a nanotech formulation of an aluminum-coated barium titanate powder, immersed in a polyethylene terephthalate plastic matrix. Unlike batteries, it never degrades. The company has contracts with the small Canadian electric car company, Zenn Motors, and defense contractor Lockheed Martin. Despite being issued a patent in December, considerable skepticism is warranted since nobody outside the company is known to have seen a working version of the device.
But why not combine ultracapacitors and batteries? That is the strategy of the
Not only might the
The Swiss startup Revolt Technology claims to offer a technically sweet solution to any impending lithium shortage-zinc. Revolt asserts that its rechargeable zinc-air batteries have the potential to deliver four times the energy density of lithium-ion batteries at about the same cost. Zinc is less scarce than lithium and consequently cheaper.
Who Killed the Electric Car?
Despite the hype in the press releases from carmakers and battery manufacturers and the billions in subsidies being showered on them by politicians, it is unlikely that our highways will soon be clotted with PHEVs and all-electric cars. All of the projected battery manufacturing worldwide adds up to at most enough to produce 1 to 2 million PHEVs per year. Recall that President Obama promised only that there would 1 million PHEVs on the road by 2015. Contrast this with the fact that in 2007 carmakers globally produced 70 million vehicles powered by standard internal combustion engines. The global fleet numbers 810 million vehicles, of which 240 million travel on American roads. Clearly, cars powered mostly by electricity will constitute a tiny proportion of the world’s vehicle fleets for some time to come.
What about further down the road? If Europe imposes stringent carbon controls on automobile emissions to address global warming, Wolfgang Bernhardt, a partner at Roland Berger Strategy Consultants in Stuttgart, Germany, told Automotive News in November, “I can see up to 3 percent of all cars being pure electrics by 2020, with a further 19 percent being plug-in hybrids.” Alan L. Madian, director of consulting firm LECG, told the Washington Post that, even with “heroic” assumptions, new electric cars would make up 50 percent of new vehicles being sold by 2030 and only 8 percent of cars on the road.
The Department of Energy PHEV study found that when compared to 27.5 miles-per-gallon internal combustion vehicles, the break-even premium for a PHEV at $2.50 per gallon is $3,500 when electricity costs $0.12 per kilowatt hour. At $3.50 per gallon, the premium rises to more than $6,500. Since batteries are expected to boost the average cost of each vehicle by as much $10,000, gasoline will have to cost more than $5.00 per gallon before PHEVs make economic sense to most drivers. Of course, generous federal subsidies can help overcome this financial disincentive and/or the government could double or triple gasoline prices by imposing a substantial tax on it.
A 2006 activist “documentary” about GM’s ill-fated foray a decade ago into battery-powered cars, the EV1, asked, “Who killed the electric car?” The filmmaker offered an elaborate conspiracy theory involving oil companies, but the truth is that clunky, inefficient batteries did the electric car in. And unless there is a spectacular breakthrough in electricity storage technology, clunky, expensive batteries will kill it this time, too.
Ronald Bailey is Reason magazine’s science correspondent.