Wither the electric car? After a serious upsurge of interest among the major automakers during the 1990s, those same companies have recently acted—some would say conspired—to drive a stake through the heart of the all-electric vehicles.
General Motors developed the prototype EV-1 in 1990, and as a result, the California Air Resources Board issued its groundbreaking Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate. But fairly quickly, the auto manufacturers and the oil companies mobilized to attack and undermine the mandate, and lo and behold, by 2003, trucks, vans, and SUVs made up more than half of all passenger vehicles sold in the United States, and average fuel efficiency of the nations cars had declined by nearly 50 percent. Several hundred happy consumers who had bucked the trend and leased EV-1s from General Motors were shocked when the company called in the leases, demanded the return of every last vehicle, and literally crushed them, thus ending its electric vehicle development program. Meanwhile, GM filed a lawsuit against the state of California to destroy the Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate.
In spite of these depressing developments, improvements in battery technology, the continuing growth of electric power generated with renewable resources, and increasing public concern about climate change and instability in the fossil fuel markets add up to real hope that electric vehicles will become commercially available in the foreseeable future.
An electric vehicle runs on an electric motor and contains a battery pack to store electrical energy The great advantages of EVs are emissions and operating cost. EVs have no point-of-use emissions, and research has shown that even taking into account the power plants that generate the electricity an EV releases 90 percent less emissions than a comparable gasoline-powered car. An EV can also be powered by solar energy, which of course would be the ideal scenario. EVs also are cheaper to operate than internal combustion vehicles. They donít need tune-ups, fuel and oil filters, oil changes, or mufflers, and because they have fewer moving parts, they require less maintenance.
The liabilities of electric vehicles are what present the problem. The high cost of conversion ($5,000 or more for a typical passenger vehicle) and the limitations in range imposed by current battery technology (still only 50-60 miles before a recharge is needed) continue to conspire against EVs.
The current phase of EV development is called the Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle, or PHEV. Itís just what it sounds like, a hybrid car that you can plug in and recharge. PHEVs offer zero-emission performance for everyday short-distance driving as well as the convenience of traveling 400 miles on one tank of fuel for trips over the batteryís capacity!
Adapted from Solar Living Source Book: Your Complete Guide to Renewable Energy Technologies and Sustainable Living by John Schaeffer (New Society Publishers, 2008).