Friday, December 24, 2010

The Electric Vehicle Truly is the Future

Electric vehicles are the future.  Anyone can generate electricity and on a small scale, using renewables is just as easy as using the traditional methods, easier in some cases.  Electric vehicles provide the range the vast vast majority of us need on a daily basis and in the winter time, they heat up faster too.  But like everything, they have their downsides.

The first downside and the most important one in my book is the human resistance to change.  We've had fossil fueled vehicles almost exclusively for a hundred years.  We have some electric buses and trains in and near big cities, but many of us don't live in big cities.  There's the concept called "range anxiety" where people are supposed to be concerned about how far their EV can go.  There's the time it takes to recharge, and the availability of charging locations away from home.  And for some reason (obvious source when you think about it) fear is drummed up about the cost of replacing the battery.

First let me address the battery.  There's a fundamental difference between electric and FF cars.  A gas engine can be expected to last around 300,000 miles or so with a few repairs along the way.  After that, it will need a rebuild, or depending on the car, it might have already had one.  But in any case, it will be worn out.  There will be metal inside the engine which will no longer be there.  That's why oil turns black, it's carrying the little pieces of metal that have worn off from the inside of the engine.  A diesel can be expected to last significantly longer because it's built far more competently.  Some diesels can last longer than a million miles.

But an electric vehicle is different.  There is essentially only one movable part in the "engine."  There's a rotor that spins around on the inside of the motor casing inside the coils.  Virtually all production electric vehicles utilize AC motors which have no wearable "brushes" to transfer electricity from the non moving to the moving parts.  What does this leave us?  The only wearable parts are the bearings which are replaceable, and the transmission which unlike a car transmission will not likely have any gears, clutches, or sensors.  An EV has no emissions equipment to go bad, no exhaust system to rust out, no fluids to change, no fan belts to squeak, and because of regenerative braking, the brake pads may last the life of the car.  Typical repair costs will be minimal at most.

But the battery, what do we do about the battery?  Latest estimates have the battery costing between $3000 to $10,000 in an electric vehicle and supposed to last 150,000 miles in California and estimated to last 10 years elsewhere.  But there's an aspect that you don't get if you don't go in depth.  At the end of a battery's projected life, it doesn't just die one day.  The end of a battery's life is 70% capacity.  That means instead of going 100 miles, it goes 70.  Instead of going 300 miles it goes 210.  It's obviously not the end of the world.  There's another aspect that bears investigation as well.  If in ten years you do decide you need a new battery, the batteries available will be far better than the one you have now.  And since your electric car is far from actually wearing out anyway, it will be worth the investment, like doing that engine rebuild.  In fact, it may be worth it to replace the seats, some or most of the interior, maybe even upgrade the motor.  A car can be more like a house as far as capital investment goes because it's not quite so much of a consumable product any more.

Let's talk about range.  This is where my big solution comes in.  Right now, the major electric car available is the Nissan LEAF.  The current LEAF comes with about 100 mile range, more if you like to hypermile.  Aside from the fact that this range easily covers the daily commute of over 90% of the population, think about charging at work.  I would consider it a perk of a job to be able to plug my car in (slow charge of course) at work.  Even if you do charge from dead to full (not likely to happen) with the whole 25 kWh, that's still between $2 to $5 anywhere in the US.  It's just not that big of a deal.  Even if your boss is a tight-@$$, maybe he'll let you drop a fiver for the privilege or do a monthly fee.  Better yet, park nearby at some nice local business who will let you charge.  There are options.  It's doable even if it does put you out of your comfort zone.  Better yet, in two years or so, the second generation Toyota Rav4 EV is supposed to have a range of 300 miles.

But what about long trips?  First, I doubt there will be many households with only all EV's.  I plan on commuting on a motorcycle the majority of the year, an electric motorcycle.  So for long trips, you could keep a vehicle around, it should last a long time since you won't be using it much.  Or you could rent one for trips. 

But I have an idea.  You likely have heard about the Chevy Volt which has a range extender built in, a generator to maintain charge after the battery has run low.  However, this adds considerable weight to the car which you'll have to drag around when you don't need it.  What if you could put the generator on the trailer?  better yet, what if you could rent the generator on the trailer?  What if you could go to UHaul and rent a generator trailer for your electric car?  Or, you could build one out of spare parts.  It can be done.

And it has been done.  Check out this picture of the generator trailer developed for the first Rav4 EV and the tZero.  It uses a two cylinder Kawasaki motorcycle engine and has special steering so that when you back up, you don't have to worry about knowing how to back a trailer.

Here's a Polar Power DC generator that I have been looking at lately.  It uses a Perkins 4 cylinder diesel engine with a permanent magnet alternator.  Since most EV's today use battery packs with voltages below 400, it's no problem to match voltages with the generator.  Check them out at they have several smaller models as well.

Coincidently, the LEAF already has a DC quick charging plug.  It's the one on the left.  Not sure, but I think this could be useful.

You may have read about (or saw on YouTube) my recent generator project where I used a car alternator and a rototiller engine and an inverter to make a cheap fixable generator.  Next on the docket is the Parker Engineering Mark II DC Generator.  I have purchased a used 6 hp Lombardini diesel engine and I'm building a full frame and enclosure for it to make another generator.  If I can find another higher amperage alternator, it I should be able to make a significantly better overall machine, with higher sustained power output, better fuel economy and longer run time, not to mention quieter.  Electric start will be a bonus as well.  Look for it soon.

My point with all of this is that there are a lot of great options with a bit of good ol' American engineering.  An individual with just a little know how and an internet connection can figure out a whole bunch of solutions to use a variety of machines and technologies to produce power.  Modern electric cars will make that even more possible.  They will also bring about cheaper battery technology which will make it easier to build custom electric cars and for homes to be off grid.  Off grid means lower energy usage all around.

With energy, less is better.