Opinion

Is an electric car in your future?

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Have you read about the new Chevrolet Volt? If not, it may be time to re-think that plan to buy another Japanese or Korean economy car. It seems that Detroit has actually come up with a workable concept.
I drive a Toyota Prius, a hybrid that combines gas and electric power. The up-side of that combination is that it charges its own batteries. No need to plug it in. The down-side is that most of the power still comes from a gas engine.
The Volt will let drivers cruise for 40 miles on pure electric power before its batteries are drained. If you cant make it back to home base, a little gas motor kicks in to generate more electricity. This differs from other hybrids in that the onboard motor isnt connected to the wheels. It powers a generator that charges the batteries that drive the wheels.
Then there is the ZENN that will take you 35 miles on a charge but at a max speed of 25 mph. Pacific Power Batteries of Everett and Marysville can deliver one for $17,000 Think of it as a grown-up street legal golf cart, but without room for clubs. The ZENNs target market is environmentally conscious mini-commuters.
For most of the driving my wife and I do, the Volt might be a better choice than our Prius. Our normal excursions take us to Marysvilles YMCA, Thriftway, the library, church or out for coffee with friends. These little jaunts dont let the Prius warm up so we get about 30 mpg for the first five minutes and 40 mpg for the second five minutes. After that, the car lives up to its promise of 50-plus miles per gallon. But we dont reach that level driving to the store for a quart of milk.
With a Volt, we might even get to Alderwood Mall and back before running out of juice. Since its advantages pencil out so well, why arent we seeing Volts on the road? It seems that there is still one bothersome little engineering problem to be solved: No battery pack has yet been designed that will carry the load so until GM figures that one out, dont expect to see Volts in showrooms. What a pity.
So Ill remain content with my Priuss advantages. It is comfortable and when I stomp on its accelerator, both the batteries and gas motor kick in together to make it scoot when asked to do so. We could go back and forth citing strong and weak points of different hybrid designs but the essential understanding for today is that cars with some form of electric drive are here to stay. Honda, Toyota, Saturn, Chevrolet, Mercedes and soon a fuel cell-electric from Ford are all in the game. A time may be nearing when conventional gas vehicles will be the exception, not the rule.
Electric energy to move cars has to come from somewhere. The Prius makes its own through an ingenious system of generators that capture energy from coasting and braking. Others must be plugged in, which takes power from the grid. This raises a potential problem: Asking our electric grid to yield enough power to fuel the nations vehicles would break the system.
A rule restricting the charging of car batteries to low-demand nighttime hours would have to be enforced. Or you could go solar by erecting a 480 square foot array of photovoltaic cells, which is about the size of a double garage. Some day it may come to that, but for now the price of such a system is prohibitive.
A possible solution might come from tidal and wind power. Neither can promise steady output but if electric cars were to recharge only when tides or wind are feeding the power grid, that might be a partial solution.
From an efficiency standpoint, electric engines have it all over gas engines. They last longer, adapt better to automatic or remote controls, give off no emissions and cost less. Back to efficiency: Electric motors convert 60-95% of energy used into work done. Gas motors are only about 20% efficient, less than one-third as efficient as electric motors.
Next, lets see how much charging an electric cars batteries would add to a PUD bill. Some facts:
n One kilowatt hour of PUD electricity costs $0.08007
n It takes 34.02 kilowatt hours of electricity to equal the energy of a gallon of gas.
n 34.02 x $0.08007 = $2.72 for one gallon-equivalent of electric energy
Does that mean we must pay the PUD $2.72 to get the go-power of one gallon of gasoline? It would if electric and gas motors were equally efficient. But since electric motors are at least three times as efficient as gas motors, you can divide that $2.72 figure by three to get the cost of the electric equivalent of one gallon of gasoline, or $0.91. Ninety-once cents for a gallon-equivalent of go-power sounds a lot better.
It is foreseeable that, one day, gasoline engines will be used only where electricity isnt an option. Like Alaskas North Slope during the Arctic winter. Or an outboard hanging off the stern of a small boat. For certain applications, gasoline or diesel will always be the best choice because you cant haul electricity around in a 5-gallon can. Nor can you store electricity for a year or two in 55 gallon barrels.
For now, were stuck paying over three dollars for a gallon of gas. That amounts to fifteen dollars for one round-trip commute from Marysville to Seattle in a full-size SUV, and thats without traffic jams. Its time for a change.

Comments may be addressed to: rgraef@verizon.net.

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