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Electric cars becoming a reality

 Posted by on October 8, 2010
Oct 082010

Chevy's new Volt makes an appearance at the State Fair of Texas. (Photo: Green Right Now)

By Bill Sullivan
Green Right Now

Imagine an array of wind turbines in West Texas, whirring away, generating electricity to be transmitted to more populous areas of the state.

Imagine that clean, green power surging into your home. Then, imagine your new, state-of-the-art electric car plugged into a 240-volt outlet in your garage, charging that clean-running, environmentally friendly vehicle for the next day’s commute or round of errands.

If all that sounds like a nice idea that will never happen, guess again. In Texas it is happening, right now, thanks to a previously unlikely alliance of planners, power infrastructure providers, utility companies and automobile manufacturers, all coming together to help the future get here just a little bit faster.

“We realize we have to evolve both industries together,” says Britta Gross, Director of Global Energy Systems & Infrastructure Commercialization for General Motors, which is about to introduce Chevy’s much-anticipated Volt to the market. “There’s just too much opportunity right now in terms of influencing what the smart grid becomes, and too much opportunity to take a blank sheet of paper and design a vehicle like the Volt.

“We’ve spent a lot of time at GM looking at infrastructures, to improve the whole system. I’m not sure we’ve ever had this kind of cooperation and close relation with an industry to make this vehicle as good as it is.”

That cooperation was evident in a panel assembled in September in Dallas to trumpet the arrival of the electric car – specifically, the Volt — in Texas. The group included representatives from the North Central Texas Council of Governments, the Texas Public Utility Commission, IBM, Oncor, The Beck Group and the Electric Power Research Institute.

A similar panel, heralding Ford’s new electric cars, specifically the Focus, due out in 2012, met the previous week in Dallas. That group also included a Microsoft rep, touting the Hohm software that will allow electric car drivers to monitor their home’s energy consumption and possibly time it to achieve better rates.

The message of both gatherings: The electric car is no longer a concept; it’s a real thing, it’s here, and a broad coalition is prepared to help make it make sense for the average citizen to take the plunge. In the coming months, you’ll see electric cars popping up on streets from California to New York. For the automobile culture, which has relied on combustion engines for a century, this will be a brave, new world.

“You have this unique new set of systems that are coming together that are going to have to collaborate to basically develop a business model and a market that doesn’t fully exist right now,” said Brad Gammons, IBM’s VP for Sales and Solutions, Global Energy and Utilities Industry. “From an IBM perspective, it’s all about information, from the consumer, all the way back to the power industry. It’s all going to have to be connected for this to work.”

While few question the potential positive impact of moving from gasoline-powered engines to electric, change on any kind of large scale –  and GM certainly hopes it is large scale — is not without challenges.

The Volt, for instance, has a range of only about 40 miles before it needs to recharge or revert to a gasoline-powered generator. To fully maximize charging potential, owners will have to install a 240-volt outlet in their home garages or allow up to 10 hours for the car to recharge at 120 volts.

Will owners respond to a plea for off-peak charging, a potentially critical part of the plan? Or will the average commuter plug right in when he gets home from work on a typically sweltering summer afternoon, negating savings and further stressing the grid?

Electric car home charging station. (Photo: Green Right Now)

“Range anxiety” is another issue for those for whom 40 miles may not be enough. (Other electric models, such as Nissan’s LEAF, will go 100 miles before needing a charge.) How many offices will install charging stations, and how common will stations be around the city or town where you live?

GM and its competitors are gambling that these questions can be answered economically and efficiently. Still, the company recognizes that the quality of experience in the initial phase could determine the overall success of Volt and its brethren yet to come.

“There is no guarantee that we’ll actually be able to transition this country away from gasoline, but we are really, really trying hard to make it work this time,” said Gross. “To do this is a really big effort, and the devil is in all these details.

“How smoothly will the home installs go? Will there be a lot of people complaining about the permitting experience? There are a lot of yucky details. With the Internet, one bad experience can negate a thousand good ones. That’s the sort of thing that keeps me up at night.”

GM, of course, has been down this stretch of road before.

From 1996 to ’99, the company experimented with EV1, an electric two-seater with a range of about 100 miles per charge. The cars were available by lease only, and only about 1,100 were produced over a four-year period at a cost of upwards of $1 billion. While the cars were popular with actual owners, GM decided to cut its losses. In a controversial move, the company shut down the program, recalled the vehicles, crushed all but a few and disabled the drive train in those spared.

“There were some reasons the EV1 didn’t sell in the marketplace,” Gross said. “It was a two-seater, very special aerodynamic materials, very expensive to do. The range was limited to 100 miles on a good day. We didn’t have industry standards for charge points.

“We sat down with Volt and started chipping away at these excuses.”

Volt is powered by a smaller, more-efficient lithium battery. It’s a four-seater. Newly established industry standards dictate that the coming generation of electric vehicles will all plug in the same way, leveling the playing field and simplifying charging station design.

GM research indicates that three-quarters of all Americans commute less than 40 miles a day. For those who need more, a gas-powered generator can add an additional 300 miles of range.

“We thought this was the smartest thing we can do,” Gross said. “We can also limit the size of the battery.

“There really can’t be any good excuses not to buy this vehicle,” she added with a laugh.

Unlike EV1, Volt and its competitors – including the Nissan LEAF, also due in December — figure to have a greater network of support. In Texas, that starts with infrastructure, which Oncor is working to provide.

“We’re in the process of spending approximately $5 billion to build 2,300 miles of high-capacity transmission out to where the wind blows so we can grab 18 ½ gigawatts of wind,” says Jim Greer, the company’s Senior Vice President for Asset Management and Engineering. “That’s a lot of wind. That’s more than any other state and all but a handful of countries.

“Ideally, we get to the point where, at night, you can charge up for a very small cost. In return for that, in the middle of the afternoon, the prices can be more expensive. That’s the kind of grid you’re talking about.”

Utility companies have been taking some initiative, too. Last month, TXU Energy announced plans to build at least a dozen charging stations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Previously, Reliant Energy announced a partnership with Nissan to build charging stations in the Houston area.

Greer cited two critical areas any large-scale move to electric transportation will need to address.

“One: We need to really encourage off-peak charging. We need to encourage people not to come home at five o’clock on an August afternoon and plug in. We’re just creating additional problems.

“The second is some kind of early notice that a consumer is even looking at an electric vehicle. We need to bring folks like Oncor in to the loop so we can do an analysis of our distribution network.

“Bottom line is that there is a lot of pre-thinking going on to make these pieces go together. In general, I think we’re well positioned.”

While no one knows how successful this first iteration of electric cars will be, just about everyone agrees on what must happen to fully convert a public long tethered to the gas pump.

“Historically, the battery has been looked at as the weak link,” said Tom Reddoch, Director of Energy Efficiency for the Electric Power Research Institute.

Current versions, while improved from the EV1 days, remain big, heavy, and not particularly efficient. More worrisome, to some, is that the U.S. isn’t necessarily out front in pursuing better technology.

“It is about the battery, and China gets that,” IBM’s Gammons says. “Our own government is investing pretty heavily, so that’s encouraging.

“We’ve got a program collaborating globally with Toshiba and other companies called “The 500 Mile Battery.” There are other programs going on around the world to find the new material science and chemistry that will be needed for this new generation of batteries.

“That’ll be the complete game changer. If you have a battery that acts and responds, that’s lighter weight and does that, that’s going to change things very rapidly.”

In the meantime, GM and other manufacturers hope the car-consuming public will embrace the first wave of mass-produced electric vehicles as both environmentally-friendly and cost effective.

While Volt is expected to list at about $41,000 and LEAF at $32,780, federal tax incentives could take as much as $7,500 off those tabs. For a typical driver, operating costs can take some of the edge off, too.

According to EPRI’s Reddoch, a typical mid-size vehicle consumes about 500 gallons of gasoline a year. At $2.50 a gallon, that’s about $1,250 per year, or a little over $100 per month.

Volt requires 10 kilowatts for a full charge. At 11 cents per kilowatt hour, that’s about $1.10 per day or about $33 per month, a savings of nearly $70.

Will those arguments sway a public that may be wary of making a major investment in unproven technology in a still-struggling economy? GM and its partners hope the answer is “Yes.”

“A little more than a decade ago, we made a run at electric transportation. And we failed miserably, for a lot of reasons,” Reddoch said. “The great news is that, today, we are positioned to have a success story.”

Imagine that.

Copyright © 2010 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network