I’ll start this month’s EarthCare with a confession – I used to be a bit of a rev-head. As a young bloke I rallied cars in Car club 12 car rallies. To this day certain cars, even certain exhaust notes, can turn my head. That doesn’t mean I think cities should be covered in ever bigger roads and car-parks, nothing is further from the truth. I fully support a rapid move to transit cities with centres connected by light rail and bike lanes, but I am also, practical enough to understand that cars will play a role in personal transport well into the future.
It is that future I am considering this month. The stimulation for the topic was twofold, firstly I picked up a car magazine in a cafe recently and saw the number of electric vehicles released by major manufacturers at the Chinese Motor Show and later I spotted a Nissan Leaf in Queensgate car-park. The 2 free bays for electric vehicles usually have a selection of converted cars and I see some regulars around town, including a BMW, Mitsubishi Colt and Toyota MR2. But this was different, the Leaf is a factory produced car. I can only imagine how smug the owner must feel, not only scoring ground level free parking, but also their tank filled for free too! Though it will take a fair few free charges to offset the $50,100 price tag, the laws of supply and demand should see that cost drop as more electric vehicles enter the market, current owners can therefore be proud to be part of a motoring revolution.
Back to the car magazine – I was drawn to images of the sleek and sexy Audi R8 e-tron and then notices it was electric, with a hub motor on each wheel. This is no slouch, as with all electric cars the power is well down on their petrol counterparts, but the torque is way up, resulting in the Audi going from 0-100 in a smidgin over 4 seconds! While being tested at the world famous Nuremburg Track the e-tron broke the lap record for any vehicle. For the technically mined it did it in 8 minutes and 9 seconds. Back to the humble beginnings of electric vehicles. As a child I remember electric vehicles in the form of milk delivery ‘floats’. Their introduction in the 1940’s was to allow dairies to deliver milk early in the morning without disturbing sleeping customers with engine noise, now that’s corporate responsibility we rarely see nowadays.
So why has it taken 70 years to move from the very practicable, but basic milk float to state of the art sports car? The film Who killed the electric car blames the oil industry, however its more complicated than blaming one simple culprit, another factor is the need for a better battery. When Louis Palmer visited Fremantle four years ago on his electric taxi world tour he used zebra batteries, which produce a lot of power for their weight, but operate at extremely high temperatures so are encased in a vacuum flask – the result is very expensive batteries. The battery of choice today is lithium-ion, with many benefits over alternatives including a long operational life. Even when the recharge capacity reduces to below 80%, making them too inefficient for car use, they are still usable in static situations such as for UPS (uninterrupted power supply) systems.
Another compelling reason to use electric vehicles is grid smoothing. Power suppliers provide electricity that conforms to stringent voltage and waveform consistency, this is one of the reasons they resist third parties putting power back into the grid. This consistency is achieved through grid smoothing by ancillary services which monitor a section of the grid millisecond by millisecond and add or remove power to maintain the grid consistency. On a smart grid electric cars can be utilised as almost limitless ancillary services and open the door to a greater percentage of small scale renewable energy entering the grid. This also paves the way for electric cars to become self sufficient in regards to power cost and running on 100% renewable energy.
Whilst electric cars don’t have a distinctive exhaust note I am none the less getting excited for their potential to provide personal transport needs into the future.
Published in Fremantle Herald 4 August 2012