What’s not to love about electric vehicles? They’re quiet. They generate no waste heat, and therefore don’t require cooling systems. They don’t emit air pollutants. They have great advantages over internal combustion engines.
Car companies trying to market electric vehicles are running into some big problems, though. for starters:
- Drivers can’t do much more than commute or run errands. Once they leave home, there are no places to recharge them on the road.
- No one will build charging stations until there are enough electric vehicles on the road to make them profitable.
- The vehicles themselves don’t pollute, but as long as they have to rely on what the electric companies produce, they still require burning of fossil fuels, storage of nuclear waste, and other environmental down sides of electricity production.
- Worn out batteries that are no longer usable for powering electric vehicles still contain lots of electric potential. What is the environmental impact of those batteries?
Commercially viable electric cars seem a long way off, although I certainly hope some answer to the chicken-and-egg dilemma will turn up sooner rather than later. I can report that a couple of companies are working on the more general issues facing electric vehicles.
Electric delivery vehicles
Delivery trucks don’t go on road trips. They leave their garage in the morning, make their deliveries, and return to the garage at night. Kansas City-based Smith Electric makes electric delivery trucks.
Founded in 2009, Smith is a licensee of the British Smith Electric, which has long made electric milk trucks so that dairies could make quiet pre-dawn deliveries. Its customers include Staples, Frito Lay, and Fed-Ex. It is currently struggling to meet production goals and turn a profit.
I hope Smith can find a financially viable business model. If it can’t, I hope some other company will. Vehicles for local delivery seem the perfect niche for electric powered transportation to get a foothold.
Electric delivery trucks will probably remain much more expensive than gasoline or diesel trucks until production can reach sustainable economies of scale. On the other hand, fleets of electric trucks will never require mufflers or other standard maintenance expenses.
New uses for spent batteries
Electric vehicles run on lithium ion batteries. Once those batteries can no longer be recharged to 80 percent of their original capacity, they are of no use in powering the vehicles. Meanwhile, lithium is a fairly rare and expensive mineral. It would be extremely wasteful simply to discard these batteries.
Pablo Valencia, a GM senior manager, explains that GM develops its batteries with an eye toward their entire life cycle, including secondary use. In partnership with Duke Energy and ABB (a power technology company) GM is exploring how to use them for a community energy storage system.
With five used Chevrolet Volt batteries, the partnership built a modular, air-cooled unit capable of providing two hours of electricity to 3-5 homes. Potentially, then larger-scale installations can be used for a number of very useful purposes:
- Provide backup power during power outages
- Store electricity generated at inexpensive times to be used at more expensive times
- Supply power during lulls in generation of solar or wind power