Will Lithium Beat OIL?

Editorial By Noel T. Braymer

By late 2010 several auto makers plan to roll out either plug-in electric hybrid or all electric cars. The keystone of these new cars will be the use of Lithium Ion Batteries. It has been long known that electric propulsion is clean, efficient and economical. The weak link has always been the batteries which have been heavy, slow to recharge and had limited range. All this can change with lithium batteries. Lithium batteries are what have made possible lightweight cell phones, IPods. Laptop computers, cordless power tools and many other modern electronic devices. Recent advancements with lithium batteries make possible electric cars with the speed and range comparable with gasoline engine cars. Also these new batteries can be recharged quickly in minutes and it doesn’t hurt these batteries if they only get a partial charge.

As production of lithium batteries increases we should see costs go down and their expanded use for other forms of transportation. Electric buses with lithium batteries are being used to carry athletics this month at the Beijing Olympics. Electric buses will greatly reduce noise and pollution in urban areas while saving money for transit agencies on fuel. It will be possible to recharge the batteries at layover points so the batteries are always “topped off”. Hybrid locomotives which are now under development will be more economical by being able to change batteries with electricity from their regenerative brakes. It would be possible to extend electrification of rail service without costly catenary on all lines. Trains could recharge their batteries while under catenary, switching to battery power on segments without catenary. Both hybrid locomotive and battery powered electric traction could save money and reduce pollution for transit, commuter, intercity and freight rail service.

Critics will claim that lithium batteries are not a solution to pollution or saving energy. They will claim that it will only result in moving the problems on to the electrical grid. That all these battery powered vehicles will result in creating more burdens for an already overloaded electrical system. The result will be the need for more power plants burning more fuel causing more pollution and carbon dioxide. It is true that the electrical grid is often near the breaking point, usually on hot summer days. But much of the time electric utilities have more electricity than they need, particularly at night.

The problem with electricity is you can’t make it and then store it for use latter. Most electricity is made from coal, nuclear energy or Natural Gas with steam power plants. You can’t turn off steam and turn it back on like a gasoline engine. It takes hours to start up and shut down steam plants. So even at periods of low electrical demand utilities are running most of their steam powered plants and the grid has surplus capacity, especially at night. The best time to charge these new electric vehicles will be at night when the utilities will be happy to sell their surplus capacity at no additional cost to them. 

California is already committed to expanding its electrical supplies with low polluting sources to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. California has plentiful sources of solar, wind, wave and geothermal power to provide more than enough “green energy “needed for the state. The country of Denmark is already ahead of California, now producing 20% of its electricity from wind power and planning to increase that to 50% before long. People in Denmark realize that the wind doesn’t always blow when you need it. But Denmark is also going to encourage people to buy electric cars. Will this cause a problem when there isn’t enough wind? Actually the electric cars are part of the solution. Denmark will start its electric car program in 2011. The electric utility will provide electric plugs for these cars to plug in where they park. Most cars spend over 20 hours a day parked somewhere. The electrical plugs for these electric cars won’t only charge the cars, but can also pull electricity from the car’s batteries when the grid needs more power. The car owner will be credited for any power borrowed while plugged in.  But the cars will be used as a back up system with plenty of stored electricity usually charged at night and available during the day during peak periods.

Why will battery power be accepted before fuel cells or alternate fuels? The reason is a combination of institutional and infrastructure issues. Alternate fuels such as hydrogen, biofuels, or synthetic fuels are still fairly expensive. They will also need a whole new infrastructure to produce on a large scale and to ship and distribute to customers. The oil industry is a well established institution with a developed infrastructure. The oil industry is showing no interest in replacing this investment for a new and expensive product as long as they can make good money selling oil. The oil industry is unlikely to idly stand by and let a competitor seriously make inroads into their market. On the other hand the electric utilities are also well established and have a developed infrastructure. They have capacity to sell which is surplus energy at night and are interested in using the storage capabilities of electric vehicles to save them money and make the gird more reliable. Battery powered vehicles will be available soon: vehicles makers are scrambling now for new products that will encourage customers to buy.

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