carbon footprint GM

The Chevy Volt, just the latest expensive toy

Baker_Electric_DV_06-AI_01The 2011 Chevy Volt from Government Motors is touted as the answer to carbon emissions and green jobs. The Volt, a hybrid vehicle, is said to be able to go 40 miles on one battery charge. The 1911 Baker Electric from the Baker Motor Vehicle Company of Cleveland, Ohio, could go 50 miles on one battery charge. The 1902 Baker Torpedo set a land speed record.

Electric cars have been around since the 1830s. First developed in Holland, then France and Britain, electric cars were first produced in America during the 1890s.

The turn of the 20th Century was a time of experimentation in transportation. For instance, in 1900, a total of 2,370 automobiles could be found in New York, Chicago and Boston. 800 of those cars were fully electric, 400 cars were powered by gasoline, and 1,170 were steam-powered automobiles.

The early electric vehicles, such as the 1902 Wood’s Phaeton, were little more than electrified horseless carriages and surreys. The Phaeton had a range of 18 miles, a top speed of 14 mph and cost $2,000. Later in 1916, Woods invented a hybrid car that had both an internal combustion engine and an electric motor.

Electric vehicles have always been the playthings of the well-to-do. Even the earliest models were expensive for their time. The 2008 Tesla Motors Darkstar Roadster has a net base price of US$101,500 and can go 200 miles on a battery charge. The Chevy Volt with its $41,000 price tag and 40-mile electric range, is also a plaything of the relatively wealthy. And if the government offers a $7,500 rebate, that just means the rest of us are subsidizing toys for the rich.

Advances in battery technology still have not found the solution to long range and quick recharge time. Purely electric vehicles may satisfy a niche market, but they are still impractical for general transportation. Hybrid vehicles, first developed in 1916, just make automobiles unnecessarily complex. It’s just physics. Gasoline has 80 times the energy density of the best lithium ion batteries.

Phaeton1The whole impetus behind electric or hybrid vehicles is they will lower our carbon footprint. But will they really do that?

According to the US Department of Energy, most electricity generation in the United States is from fossil sources, and half of that is from coal. Coal is more carbon-intensive than oil. Overall average efficiency from US power plants (33% efficient) to point of use (transmission loss 9.5%) is 30%. Accepting a 70% to 80% efficiency for the electric vehicle gives a figure of only around 20% overall efficiency when recharged from fossil fuels. That is comparable to the efficiency of an internal combustion engine running at variable load. The efficiency of a gasoline engine is about 16%, and 20% for a diesel engine.

Because of the relatively high price of electric/hybrid vehicles, German automakers say, Without government subsidies, electric cars are virtually unmarketable. If all that is true, we are spending much money on a fantasy. But, the electric car “has long been recognized as the ideal solution” because it “is cleaner and quieter” and “much more economical.” That statement was published by The New York Times on November 12, 1911. We have yet to see that rosy prediction come true, as noted by the Energy Tribune.