Are electric cars a “dead end” as opined by James Howard Kunstler, author of “The Long Emergency,” or will automobiles continue the long arc of personal transportation in the United States? Kunstler sees suburbia and its reliance on cars diminishing as energy descent and resource shortages ensue. Aside from the 383 million gallons of increasingly expensive gasoline used every day to power the U.S. fleet of more than 200 million gasoline vehicles, it takes about 3800 gallons of oil to manufacture a car.
Nearly every auto manufacturer is planning to build electric (EV) and plug-in hybrid-electric (PHEV) cars. There is a two-year waiting list for the electric Nissan Leaf, a five passenger car getting the EPA rating of 99 miles from a lithium-ion battery charged at home. The Leaf will be manufactured in Smyrna, TN, by early 2013. The price of the Nissan Leaf after the federal tax credit is $27,770.
The 2012 plug-in hybrid-electric Chevrolet Volt with an electric range of 33 miles will be available nationwide in November at a price of $32,495 after the federal tax credit. The four-passenger Volt gets 33 miles on a charged battery but over 300 miles including the gasoline engine. Both the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt received top marks for protecting passengers in a crash from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Will the auto industry be able to ramp up fast enough to counter energy descent? By 2020 global all-electric and plug-in hybrid-electric car penetration is expected to be 2-5% of global auto sales primarily in Europe and Asia where driving distances are less than in the United States.
Will the electric grid in the United States be able to handle millions of electric plug-in vehicles? While it is true that auto charging can be accomplished at night when electricity demand is low, about half the power now comes from coal-fired power plants which would produce additional climate-destabilizing carbon dioxide. However, as renewable energy sources such wind and solar come on line replacing dirty coal, CO2 emissions would be reduced. By 2020 California expects to produce 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, Europe 20%. Portland, Ore., has dedicated an entire city block, “Electric Avenue,” for charging electric autos. This is one point on the proposed “plug-in corridor” from Vancouver, B.C., to Bend, Ore.
Dmitry Orlov, author of “Reinventing Collapse”, sees the electric car as too expensive for most. However, prices should fall with volume sales and efficiency improvements provided that cheap energy and resources are available. As an alternative to the car culture as we know it, electrified rail, electric bikes and low-speed, neighborhood electric vehicles would save us from much of automotive pollution, accidents, obesity, and ecosystem deterioration. Charging cars from solar panels installed on homes and in communities will reduce demand on centralized power sources.
Will the car culture fade away with energy descent and resource depletion or can we balance personal mobility, human numbers, and industry to live in harmony with nature? As for me, when the time comes I’ll sell the Prius at a premium and get an all-electric car charging it with grid power equal to that produced by the solar panels on the roof of my garage. In the meanwhile I’ll campaign for bike lanes and paths so that my neighbors and I can get to local stores and services using human power and a little electricity.