Friday, July 5, 2013

Electric Vehicles -- Growing Pains

I have been intrigued by electrically powered vehicles. I know they're more efficient than Carnot-cycle internal combustion engines, and I know that electric motors have a much more user-friendly power curve than IC engines do. Electromotive propulsion is so desirable that diesel-electric railroad locomotives carry their own power generation plants on their backs wherever they go.

I just don't want to ignore practical problems that may also exist. I believe humans (and their media) are overstating the problems of fossil energy. It's because we're familiar with them: They have been in use for a long time, and the nearly universal application by millions of consumers brings the drawbacks up above the noise level. They rise to the level of measurable significance. Meanwhile, the problems associated with electrically powered vehicles are still too small to be obvious because the adoption rate is still negligible, so the media, the environmentalists, the government regulators, the road tax structure, have not picked up on it.

Now, if the illiberal control freaks in government would leave the free market to work these things out (save for the road tax angle), we humans - voting with our hard-earned dollars - would naturally gravitate towards the most practical (or at least cost-effective) solutions without a bunch of top-down central planners making all the wrong decisions for us, based on politics, junk science and poor engineering. If individuals make the wrong decisions, it doesn't require an act of congress to correct them. We just sell or scrap our bad decisions, and buy better ones. It's an evolutionary process.

We still need to solve the problem of how to pay for roads, when electric vehicles are all mains-powered. I don't like the idea of government tracking our position by GPS. Commercial charging stations and battery-swap stations would be a reliable and convenient choke-point for road taxes. I assume that domestic charging will not be the dominant go-forward mechanism for reforming the batteries. I actually think battery-swap stations would be more practical, unless we can dramatically increase the charging rates, or switch to ultracapacitors or some other technology.

The nice thing about charging stations or swap stations, is that they are responsible for their own power supply - generation or connection to the power grid, where it can be taxed at the point of sale. Battery swap stations can have battery banks in stock, so the charging demand could be moved to off-peak times. They might be able to make some use of solar or wind power (although I'm skeptical of that - I think it would be partial at best). Maybe they could even use Crower-cycle diesel generators. The Crower-cycle design would be extremely beneficial in this application. Of course, an intrinsically safe, 20-year pebble bed nuclear reactor buried onsite would be awesome!

Finally, I am very concerned that batteries, especially Li-ion, are not environmentally friendly to make. Even with recycling, which isn't 100% efficient at reclaiming the components, the demand would increase dramatically, and Lithium mines and the manufacture of other components will bring down the wrath of NIMBYs and environmental extremists, dramatically driving up costs, and curtailing the availability (which also drives up prices).

So, lots of things to think about. Left to individual ingenuity, I think we humans would work them out naturally. What we end up with might not look anything like the electric car as we envision them today. But if we allow bureaucrats to regulate the snot out of it, we'll be driving gasoline powered cars up until the point where cost of obtaining gasoline becomes prohibitive.

In case you haven't guessed, the thing that bothers me the most are the agenda-driven regulators, bureaucrats, NIMBYs and environmental extremists. Illiberal control freaks, all of them.

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