Thu, Sep 24, 2009 - Page 9 News List

The shift to sustainability might revolutionize the family car

Electrically powered cars will change the way we consume energy, with ramifications for driving patterns and the overall quality of life in urban areas

By Jeffrey Sachs

The key to controlling climate change lies in improved technology. We need to find new ways to produce and use energy, meet our food needs, transport ourselves and heat and cool our homes that will allow us to cut back on oil, gas, coal, nitrogen-based fertilizer and other sources of climate-changing greenhouse gases.

There are enough good options available to suggest that the world can accomplish the goal of controlling climate change at a reasonable cost — perhaps 1 percent of global income per year — while enabling the world economy to continue to grow and raise living standards. One of the most exciting developments on the horizon is the new generation of electric automobiles.

In the earliest days of the automobile in the late 19th century, many kinds of cars competed with each other — steam, battery and internal combustion engine (ICE). The gasoline and diesel-powered internal combustion engines won the competition with the success of the Model T, which first rolled off of the assembly line in 1908. One hundred years later, competition is stirring again.

The age of electric vehicles is upon us. The Toyota Prius, a hybrid-electric vehicle first introduced in Japan in 1997, marked an initial breakthrough. By connecting a small generator and rechargeable battery to the braking system of a standard car, the hybrid augments the normal engine with a battery-powered motor. Gasoline mileage is sufficiently enhanced to make the hybrid commercially viable, and gasoline-saving vehicles will become even more commercially viable when consumers are taxed for the carbon dioxide they emit from their vehicles.

Much more innovation is on the way, led by General Motors’ plug-in hybrid vehicle, the Chevy Volt, at the end of next year. While the Prius is a normal ICE automobile with a small motor, the Volt will be an electric vehicle with an engine alongside.

The Volt’s battery will be a cutting-edge, high-performance lithium-ion battery, which promises a range of 40 miles (65km) per charge and a six-hour recharge time drawing from a normal wall socket. Based on typical driving patterns, the Volt will get so much distance on the battery that it will achieve around 230 miles per gallon (98km per liter) of gasoline!

Larry Burns, the visionary head of GM’s research and development until his recent retirement, sees the electric vehicle as much more than an opportunity to save gasoline, important as that is. According to Burns, the electric-vehicle age will reshape the energy grid, redefine driving patterns and generally improve the quality of life in urban areas, where most of the world’s population will live and drive.

First, there will be many types of electric vehicles, including the plug-in hybrid, the all-battery vehicle and vehicles powered by the hydrogen fuel cell, essentially a battery fed by an external source of hydrogen. These different vehicles will be able to tap into countless energy sources.

Solar, wind or nuclear power — all free of carbon dioxide emissions — can feed the power grid that will recharge the batteries. Similarly, these renewable energy sources can be used to split water into hydrogen and hydroxyl ion, and then use the hydrogen to power the hydrogen fuel cell.

Second, the storage capacity of the vehicle fleet will play an important role in stabilizing the power grid. Not only will battery-powered vehicles draw power from the electricity grid during recharging, but when parked, they can also feed additional power back into the grid during periods of peak demand. The automobile fleet will become part of the overall power grid and will be managed efficiently — and remotely — to optimize the timing of recharging from, and returning power to, the grid.

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