The Myth of Battery Cars

As the world beats a path to Copenhagen for the December 2009 UN meeting to craft a new deal on climate change solutions, one of the biggest challenges remains our addiction to oil.  About 40% of global greenhouse gases come from oil, when you include exploration, development, refining, transportation, and combusting it. A few years ago, the US government hailed corn-based ethanol as the alternative/savior, but when food prices skyrocketed because of a misguided policy to subsidize farmers (and when science showed the greenhouse gas benefits were small or non-existent), the rush was on to find another magic bullet.

Now the US government, led by Energy Secretary Steve Chu, has put on their Don Quixote armor again and is pouring lots of taxpayer dollars into batteries for cars. While I am the first to say there will be no silver bullet, only silver buckshot - - we need ALL alternatives to oil - - it's time to dump the battery-powered car in the same policy landfill as corn-based ethanol.

First, Chu admitted to Congress that it would take billions of R&D funding and many years to develop batteries that are practical for cars in everyday use. He was being optimistic, given the laws of physics - - there's only so much you can reduce the weight and charging times for batteries, not to mention the scarce and toxic materials needed to produce them. And car engineers spend lifetimes taking a few pounds out of a car to make it more fuel efficient, regardless of how it is powered. Why would we want a fleet of inefficient cars that carry around half a ton of excess luggage?

Second, this notion that battery cars require no new infrastructure is nonsense. A recent article in Science magazine highlighted the need for more powerplants, transmission lines, and home/office chargers to serve even a small % of the transportation fleet, if it was dependent on battery recharging. As an example, the Tesla battery sports car takes 37 hours to recharge with normal household current and 8 hours if you install a special high-voltage charger that costs thousands of dollars. Moreover, on a hot July day in California, if even a few hundred thousand of the state's 30 million vehicles were attached to the grid, the overloaded system would routinely blackout unless it was upgraded at the cost of billions. Battery car enthusiast Shai Agassi announced he intends to bring his battery cars to San Francisco and would build 250,000 charging stations around the Bay Area alone - - does that sound like new infrastructure to you?

Third, range matters. Yes the average commuter may only need 30 or 40 miles a day, something they can get from batteries today, but many people live in multi-family apartments and have no access to a charger on a daily basis. Many more can only afford one car and want one that can go longer distances when needed. I recently drove 150 miles to Palm Springs from Los Angeles in my hydrogen powered electric car (the hydrogen is converted to electricity by the fuel cell, which powers the same electric motor as a Tesla or any other electric car). I refueled in 7 minutes and was ready to return that afternoon. The Tesla or any other battery car available today would still be at the recharging station 30 miles short of Palm Springs, not to mention the problem of getting back in the same day.

Battery enthusiasts say we will have swapping stations, so in a few minutes you can drop off discharged batteries and pick up full charged ones. Maybe, but then every car will essentially have to have multiple sets of batteries made for it, so there are enough to go around at swapping stations awaiting the need. What does that take in terms of resources and greenhouse gas pollution in the manufacture (and ultimate disposal) of all of those batteries?

Fourth, size matters. There's a reason that battery cars so far are all small. Tesla chose the sports car because it was cool and would brand their company, but also because it is small and light which helps with range (even so, the range is far less than 200 miles). Other car companies toying with battery cars are focused on very small sedans for the same reason. Anyone who needs a larger car or truck will have a very long wait to get one powered by batteries.

Finally, how the electricity is produced will determine how clean battery power is, which is also true of hydrogen production. The need to build all of the new infrastructure, batteries (maybe multiple sets), and charging stations has to be added into that lifecycle analysis, otherwise we're making the same mistakes we made with ethanol - - a mirage of sustainability by looking only at the end use.

The bottom line is that battery cars are no more viable at this time for solving our oil addiction on a large-scale basis than corn-based ethanol. Battery enthusiasts like to bash hydrogen power for vehicles, but are unwilling to address these fundamental problems with their preferred technology any more than Congress people from corn states are willing to be honest about the lifecycle costs of ethanol.

Once we are honest about these challenges, perhaps we can move ahead with real solutions. Otherwise, Copenhagen will be a very cold place this coming December.