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Friday, November 9, 2007

Making Electric Cars Practical, by Jim Hasper, Guest Blogger

I feel that the only way to significantly reduce CO 2 emissions is to completely stop burning fossil fuels. The way to do this is to move to a total electric and hydrogen fuel economy. As a registered professional engineer who has worked extensively with industrial furnaces, I can tell you that there are very, very, few industrial processes that absolutely require the burning of fossil fuel. Most could be served by electric heating. Those that absolutely require combustion could use hydrogen as a fuel. The hydrogen, in turn, could be produced through the electrolysis of water. Facilities for doing this could be located in proximity to major users, so long distance transportation of the hydrogen would not be necessary. That leaves only the industries that use fossil fuels as a feed stock for producing materials such as plastics and lubricants. Even here, the actual processing could be done with electricity or hydrogen, so that the fossil fuels would not have to be burned.

Of course, generating this much electricity would be a problem. Even now, coal fired plants produce most of the electricity and also produce a large portion, if not most, of the CO 2. Converting to wind, water, or solar power are the ultimate answers, but these will require a long time to develop sufficient capacity to entirely replace coal. As an interim measure, I support using nuclear power. These plants could be built relatively rapidly and would greatly reduce the CO 2 emissions. Air pollution from these is far, far, less than from coal fired plants. As far as the hazardous waste, the physical amounts are relatively small and I'm sure that means could be developed, given the will, to safely handle them.

Automobiles are another major source of CO 2 emissions. Even hybrid vehicles still emit sizeable amounts of CO 2. Again the answer is the use of all-electric vehicles. Motor and battery designs have improved to the point that an all-electric vehicle is or soon will be feasible. One of the drawbacks, however, is the time needed to recharge the battery.

I have an idea that would eliminate this problem. My idea is very simple - design the vehicle with an easy-to-remove battery pack and encourage all manufacturers to use a common design for this component. Different sizes would be needed for the various types of vehicles, but all vehicles of the same type should use a common design. When the battery needs to be recharged, the user will drive into (or land at) a filling station, where his discharged battery will be removed and replaced with a freshly charged one. The design would permit this to be done in less than a minute - open the access door, release the clamping mechanism, and slide the discharged battery out. Repeat the procedure to install the freshly charged battery. The handling mechanism for the batteries would permit this to be done with a minimum of manual labor.

The user would pay only for the electricity stored in the freshly charged battery, not for the battery itself. He would also receive credit for any electricity remaining in a partially-discharged battery. The program would work similar to that used for the sale of propane for grills. - you initially buy just one tank, then just drop it off at the suppliers store when empty and pick up a filled one, paying only for the propane in the tank.
The vending company would stock a supply of the various sizes (probably only a few needed) of batteries. Batteries would eventually become un-rechargeable, but the replacement cost would be born by the vendor and would be recouped over time as a small portion of the cost for a freshly-charged battery, again similar to the cost of eventually replacing a propane tank. Batteries that were obviously damaged, as in a collision, would not be accepted for trade.

How would the needed network of such stations be developed? Either by some ambitious entrepreneur or in the same way that the network of gasoline stations was developed after the invention of the automobile. General stores first carried small quantities of gasoline for the few cars in existence. As the cars become more common, specialized filling stations developed. As entrepreneurs discovered that filling stations were profitable, more and more stations were developed. Eventually, the oil companies discovered that there was additional money to be made in retailing the fuel that they formerly only wholesaled, and began building their own stations and buying up the privately owned ones. The rest is history, as they say.

I began writing about this in April of this year. Just a week ago, I heard that Shai Agassi, the former head of the product and technology group at SAP, the business software developer, is planning to do exactly this. Not that I'm claiming any credit for his idea, but I am very pleased to see that someone is getting serious about this.

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  1. All good ideas, but I'd also suggest that much emphasis be given to replacing local use of cars, where more pollution occurs, with a return to public transport. Using a car to commute over the same route, back and forth every day, is insane. However, it seems that most people, even eminent figures like Anthony Downs (who says that the only solution is to "adjust", to learn to "enjoy being in traffic jams" -- the source of billions of lost hours in the USA, as well as huge pollution) think this is impossible, but Jamie Lerner proved exactly the opposite in the large Brazilian city of Curitiba. His solutions -- MUCH cheaper than new subways, etc. -- have been adopted by Bogota, Mexico City and, even more recently, other cities Mexican cities. Many articles, some quite good, have been written about Curitiba. Sadly, while there are some US success stories in terms of public transport usage, there are few examples of really economical new public transport in the USA, save San Diego (which is constantly expanding).

  2. A company called Better Place is trying your idea of battery stations. They are doing a test of its feasibility in Hawaii, and I read that Israel is also interested.

  3. There has been a lot of progress in solar energy since this article was written. Perhaps it's time for a follow-on piece?


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