Yet Another Volt Post

I apparently must be one of the few bloggers that’s been taking shots at electric vehicles…

My last post on GM’s Volt concept vehicle was linked to by another transportation-related blog a few weeks back noting my criticism of both the Volt and electric vehicles in general, while the writer was in favor of such developments as a useful add-on to public transit in its various forms. I thought about posting a reply on her blog, but wasn’t quite sure how to frame my response, and then life got busy for me and I forgot about it for a few weeks.

I am not, as the writer points out, a fan of the ‘driving culture, even though I’m part of it. Concepts like electric cars seem to me to be a way to greenwash our desires to continue our unsustainable patterns of living. We love the idea of the personal automobile, for it gives us the freedom to live and work where we want, paying less regard to geography than our ancestors. This freedom comes with a cost, of course, both for energy and infrastructure. Events over the last few years (rising oil prices, the 35W bridge collapse & other infrastructure issues) are showing us that these costs are rising and will continue to rise fast enough that we’ll have issues paying for them at some point.

Projects like electric cars are attractive to us because it offers the illusion that we will continue to have that freedom to live, work and consume as we choose. By switching to electricity we can sidestep any issues with higher gas prices or petroleum supply problems. There’s already talk about charging stations for EV’s being constructed, though so far it looks to be more of a PR move. If EV’s (or vehicles running on any other alternative fuel) are to become commonplace, there will need to be the necessary refueling infrastructure in place, and that will not be a cheap process, since I’m assuming there will need to be new high-capacity power lines run to these stations.

There’s also a question of time: We’re used to being able to pull up to a filling station, spend a few minutes pumping gas, and then taking off again to continue our day. As the above-linked story indicates, even using high-amperage lines it’ll still take multiple hours to recharge your car. Plugging your car into a wall socket at home could take a day or more. That would affect how we schedule our daily lives, don’t you think?

I’m not against new technology, nor am I against electric vehicles in principle. The Tesla car is a very cool concept, as is the Volt. What I have a problem with is how such vehicles are being promoted as replacements for petroleum-powered vehicles, when there are several major issues out there. Let’s review:

  • The Volt is basically vaporware until there’s a breakthrough in battery technology, which is a “sketchy prospect” right now. GM recognizes this, yet insists it’s going to put more effort into a designing a whole line of electric vehicles that rely on an as-yet undeveloped technology.
  • The allure of electric vehicles is that it ‘frees us from our dependence on oil.’ Well, sorta… instead of putting gas in our fuel tanks, we’re doing so indirectly, since most of our electrical power generation still relies on coal, natural gas or fuel oil along with nukes, hydropower and a small but growing amount of wind power. And guess what? The cost of electricity is expected to rise in coming years just like oil is. And this is without a huge surge in demand that would be triggered by large-scale implementation of electric vehicles. I didn’t mention solar power, since it currently represents less than two percent of our national electricity generation. Considering how the power grid is getting taxed already, is anyone looking at the needed costs to ramp up power generation capacity for EV’s?
  • Energy doesn’t magically appear; the whole EV concept appears to be replacing one fossil fuel source (gasoline) with another (electricity that’s mostly generated by coal or natgas), and I fail to see how this is a boon to anyone. Might it be useful for a small segment of the population? Sure, but I don’t see how the USA or any other country will be able to base their auto fleet on EV’s… maybe I’m just unimaginative.

There is still an ample supply of relatively cheap gasoline available to much of the planet. Odds are good that that condition will not continue indefinitely, and depending on who you choose to believe, we could start seeing declining supplies and rapidly rising prices at any point in the next decade. We have a limited amount of time to look at alternatives to our current dependence on petroleum, and it is my belief that the best solutions will come from more effective use of mass transit and urban planning rather than simply trying to find the next fuel source for an ever-increasing fleet of personal transport.

Whether it’s hydrogen, natural gas, biodiesel or electricity, any alternative fuel will have issues that will ultimately hamper it’s widespread adoption. Our infrastructure is currently set up for the driving culture, and the cost of changing away from that will be very, very expensive. I also think it’s inevitable. We shall soon know whether peak oil is fact or fantasy, and the answer to that question will be one of the major issues for planet over the rest of this century. The data I see leads me to believe that peak oil is a fact, and that colors my views on many subjects including this one. Reasonable people can disagree, and perhaps I’m in error. Until I can be convinced of that, though, I’ll continue tilting at windmills like the Volt.

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