Home - Background: Fuel Types - Electricity
Electricity can be made by many means, from the burning of high-sulfur coal to pollution-free photovoltaic cells (or solar cells). Electric vehicles are generally divided into battery and hybrid classes, depending on whether the electricity is generated off-board and stored in a battery or generated by a small on-board powerplant. Hybrid electric vehicles can be designed to run on any fuel, including gasoline or diesel as well as alternative fuels, and can best be thought of as highly-efficient gasoline, diesel, or alternative-fueled vehicles. This page discusses battery-electric vehicles, whose power comes from an off-board generator somewhere.
Electricity is the most readily available form of energy in the United States; the network of power plants and transmission lines reaches even where natural-gas pipelines don't.
Since electricity is available virtually everywhere, "retail" electricity for refueling (recharging) is ubiquitous--if you have the right kind of socket into which to plug your vehicle. Conventional cars converted to run on electricity usually are built to plug into ordinary 110-volt wall sockets and/or 220-volt appliance outlets, but modern production electric vehicles are mostly being built with specialized connectors that can speed up the "refueling" process and increase safety. You can install a recharging station with the right kind of connector for your vehicle in your garage, and in some cities recharging stations that offer the most popular connectors are being installed in public places (and in all the cases I know of, recharging at a public station is free!).
Electric vehicles have the potential to be by far the cleanest means of transportation, and even in the near term it takes a very advanced natural-gas-powered vehicle like the Honda Civic GX to give them a run for their money in terms of low pollution. The reason is twofold. First, electric generators and motors are very efficient; even accounting for losses in producing electricity from some fuel, transmitting it over power lines, recharging a battery with it, and feeding it out of the battery to the motor, you still can go a lot farther by burning a given amount of fuel to generate electricity for an electric car than by using it directly in an internal combustion engine. Moreover, the same electric motor that expends energy to speed a vehicle up can be run as a generator to absorb energy and slow the vehicle down; this is called regenerative braking, and it allows energy to be recovered and put back into the battery that, in a conventional vehicle, simply gets wasted as heat in the brakes. Thus, to go a given distance, you will burn a lot less fuel and generate a lot less pollution if you use it to generate electricity for an electric vehicle than if you use it in a conventional internal-combustion powertrain.
Second, electric generation is generally done in the cleanest possible manner for a given fuel, and power utilities keep their generators in top condition as a matter of course (I can't afford to get my van's engine tuned up every week, can you?). It is true that charging an electric vehicle from the power mix in some parts of the country results in replacing gasoline in the car with coal in a powerplant, which generally burns dirtier, as the power source; however, modern coal-burning powerplants are a lot cleaner than they used to be, and accounting for the efficiency with which the energy is used, you still come out ahead in almost all pollutants. Moreover, electric generation is getting cleaner all the time: as time goes on, older, dirtier generating plants are being taken out of service and replaced with newer, cleaner ones, or even with pollution-free solar or wind generators. Thus an electric car will get cleaner over time as the powerplants from which it gets its energy are upgraded, and it can switch to fully renewable energy sources without a hiccup as they come online; by contrast, a conventional car, or even one that runs on natural gas, methanol, or another alternative fuel, will get dirtier over time as its catalytic converter and other emission-control features age.
To put some numbers to the above discussion, I will note that the California Air Resources Board has calculated (see Table 9-3 on page 137 of a 2000 staff report) that a battery electric vehicle recharging from the California utility power mix will produce about 98% less pollution than an average 2002 model car over their respective lifetimes, and 95% less pollution than even the cleanest 2002 car--hybrid, PZEV, you name it. For this reason, they have long maintained that vehicles running on electricity, or other fuels like hydrogen that emit zero tailpipe pollution, are the "gold standard" for meeting air-quality goals.
Electric vehicles are by nature low-maintenance, and their simplicity (an electric motor has one moving part, the rotor, in contrast to how many in an internal combustion engine?) means that, when produced in large numbers, their price should be low compared to other vehicles (look how inexpensive and how common electrical appliances and tools are). As long ago as the May 30, 1994 issue of Business Week, I read that Chrysler thought they could produce an electric vehicle for the same price as a gasoline vehicle in volumes of 300,000--that's a small number for a major automaker. This price comparison didn't include the batteries, but electricity is so cheap compared to any other fuel that, as prices of battery packs come down, the savings in fuel and maintenance would more than pay for them.
The biggest real disadvantage of electric vehicles, at present, is their higher price; even today, though, if you need a vehicle to do a lot of stop-and-go driving and idling, which wastes a lot of fuel and is very hard on an internal combustion engine, you can save enough in fuel and repairs to make an electric vehicle pay for itself even without the substantial tax credits and other subsidies that are available. This kind of driving is typical of city delivery vans, and, come to think of it, of a lot of urban commuting... Anyway, modern electric vehicles have been built only in extremely small numbers--hundreds, not hundreds of thousands, per year--so economies of scale have not even begun to come into play to bring their prices down.
The biggest perceived disadvantage of electric vehicles is their range. Modern freeway-capable electric vehicles have ranges between recharges of perhaps 60 to 120 miles, which won't get you very far down the interstate (unless you are willing to take time to stop and recharge frequently, like Kris Trexler on his Charge Across America). But many people, including myself, would say this is not a real disadvantage because, realistically, how often do most people drive over 60 miles in a day? Even the lower end of modern electric vehicles' range is enough for most people's daily commuting trips, even where I live in Southern California, and since an electric vehicle can be recharged overnight (usually at cheaper electric rates than during the day, too!) while parked in your garage, all you really need to be able to carry in the "fuel tank" is enough electrical charge for one day's use.
An analogy with a microwave oven is often made by electric vehicle advocates: when they first came out, microwave ovens were derided because they couldn't, for example, cook a Thanksgiving turkey. But how often does one need to cook a Thanksgiving turkey? Which do you use more often, your microwave or your conventional oven? If, in a typical two-car family, one of the two cars was replaced by an electric vehicle, it wouldn't become the "second car": it would be cheaper to use it as the primary car, for the vast majority of commuting, errands, and other driving duties. The conventional car would only be put into service like the conventional oven: on special occasions. (Okay, so maybe my use of this analogy was colored by the fact that, when I wrote it, I was a bachelor and lived on frozen dinners, using my conventional oven and dishwasher mostly for storage...)
But, for those still concerned about range between recharges, advanced batteries like the nickel metal-hydride ones in my digital camera have already been put in modern electric vehicles like the Honda EV Plus and the GM EV1, and even more advanced ones like the lithium-ion pack in my portable computer are being developed; both of these will extend driving ranges compared to the inexpensive but low-capacity lead-acid battery. Also, high-powered quick chargers that can "refuel" an electric vehicle's battery pack in minutes rather than hours have been tested.
new 11 July 1998, revised 2 October 2004