There’s an interesting article in The Economist this week, “Running out of juice”
that raises the issue (for the U.S. specifically, and by implication the world in general) of not having enough energy infrastructure to recharge all the vehicle batteries expected in the ‘green revolution’. If we’re really going electric in the near future (that’s maybe 5 – 10 years), the we need to worry about the ability of the power grid to provide the kind of energy needed for millions of high-charge, big capacity vehicle batteries. Here’s a sample from the article…
One thing the new plug-ins and pure electrics have in common is a beefy lithium-ion battery pack that needs a lot of heavy charging. At the very least, that involves installing 220-volt wiring in the home. Trying to recharge a modern electric car with a standard American 110-volt supply takes too long to be practical (up to 18 hours in the case of the Leaf).
Of course, if not fully charged at night it may have to be recharged during the day—when electricity rates can be up to five times more expensive. Average peak rates in America are 33 cents a kilowatt-hour compared with seven cents off-peak. Charging at the peak rate is equivalent to buying petrol at $3.63 a gallon (80 cents a litre), instead of 77 cents a gallon off-peak, reckons Southern California Edison, a utility based in the Los Angeles area. In America, peak-rate charging totally destroys any economic advantage an electric car may have.
[Source: The Economist]
The problem has many details, for instance, before the grid can deliver the necessary volume of energy, which unfortunately will typically happen at the same time of day – when people get home from work – new generators, new power lines, new transformers, and new control equipment will have to be installed – countrywide. In short, it will require an expensive build-up for the supporting infrastructure. As is generally known, thanks to some spectacular failures, the power grid in the United States is aging and in need of upgrading. The situation in most other countries is no better and often much worse. One way or another, as long as electricity is the key to clean cars, there will be an infrastructure problem. Will it be serious?
Often, perhaps all too often, it is just assumed that the appropriate infrastructure can be built and that it will arrive in a timely manner with the demand. It doesn’t always happen that way, especially if the transition happens quickly, say in less than ten years. In general, it’s not technical problems that cause the problems; it’s cost. The whole nuclear energy industry is a study in the effect of very high costs – some of which were ignored or poorly understood when the industry began. Even today, the big hold-back for nukes isn’t safety (oh?); it’s cost, which now must factor-in the enormous expense of de-commissioning the power plants after a relative short working life. Is underestimating the cost of renovating the country’s power grid a similar kind of mistake? Yes. It’s almost a sure bet that the cost is not being factored-into the transition to new all electric vehicles. It could mean that in reality, electric cars remain uncompetitive with other forms of energy, for example, what’s left of the petro-fuels (especially natural gas), and hydrogen.
Failing to accurately assess the difficulty and cost of building an appropriate infrastructure is a common problem for technology. It leads to people saying things like, “We’ll mount an expedition to Mars, all in one go.” As if this was as simple as the sentence it took to say it. Launching such a major undertaking without appropriate infrastructure is, in all likelihood, an exercise in suicide (financially or literally). We need to be less flip about pronouncing “all electric cars of the future” as a done deal.