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Will electricity power cars of the future?

High-performance electric sports car Tesla Roadster

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: Had you been wondering what's going to power cars in a post-oil world you can go ahead and cross hydrogen right off that list. Earlier this week the Department of Energy pulled the plug on hydrogen fuel-cell research. Ethanol is another contender for top alternative auto fuel. But a study in yesterday's Science magazine says despite the billions in government subsidies that ethanol fuel gets, it's really not all that efficient. Which leaves us with No. 3 on the list: Electricity. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Jennifer Collins reports.


Jennifer Collins: Before we can pick a car of the future, we have to figure how we're going to distribute its fuel. Tesla motors is hoping it's picked a winner with electric cars. Diarmuid O'Connell is a vice president with the company. He says the electric grid is far closer to being able to power cars now. Any other type of fuel would need a new distribution system.

Diarmuid O'Connell: Something like a 50 percent conversion tomorrow into electric fuel electric or plug in hybrids would not unduly burden the current electric grid.

But experts say it also matters how you produce that electricity. An electric car's not all that green if it's getting its power from coal fired plants. There are other issues too: Electric cars are expensive and often have a limited driving range. But O'Connell says they'll soon have a less expensive sedan on the market.

O'Connell: The Model S, after the federal tax credit, will price at $49,900.

David Friedman at the Union of Concern Scientists says don't go out and buy a Tesla just yet. He's cautious about picking a winning fuel now.

David Friedman: Anyone who tells you that the answer is plug-ins or battery electric vehicles or fuel cell vehicles or biofuels, probably is trying to sell you one of them.

Friedman says he hopes the government will fund research for several new kinds of cars and distribution systems. Then, he says, we should let consumers choose the cheapest, cleanest and most fuel-efficient way of getting around town.

I'm Jennifer Collins for Marketplace.

About the author

Jennifer Collins is a reporter for the Marketplace portfolio of programs. She is based in Los Angeles, where she covers media, retail, the entertainment industry and the West Coast.
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I read a great book from my local library titled "Powering the Future". The book is about the development of fuel cell technology development, which believe it or not was derived from the NASA Apollo Space Program. Giving up on fuel cells as a means to produce electricity for vehicles I think would be a mistake. The book is a great read and the author spins a great narrative about the development of this technology. What's amazing is how long ago this development started and how little foresight companies and the US Government had in pursuing it.

Anyone proposing hydrogen must explain how liquid hydrogen will be created. At this point the hydrogen proposer gets very quite or mumbles something about "more research." No matter what technique you use, you put more energy in than you get out. It is an utter waste of time to fund research that is a dead end and violates physical laws. No amount of funding will change this. Hydrogen - the weakest of the alternatives received the most funding. Why is that? Because Exxon and Chevron say so. Hydrogen is nothing but a cynical attempt by companies opposed to alternative fuels to derail solar and battery technology uptake. Period, end of story. The first rule of energy policy, do not fund reseach into things that violate basic physical laws. This is not the only area of American research which is retarded. The Pentagon funded research into using gravitational waves as a weapon. Iceland can run on hydrogen because they have the steam and geothermal to made it, the rest of the world can not.

Anyone proposing hydrogen must explain how liquid hydrogen will be created. At this point the hydrogen proposer gets very quite or mumbles something about "more research." No matter what technique you use, you put more energy in than you get out. It is an utter waste of time to fund research that is a dead end and violates physical laws. No amount of funding will change this. Hydrogen - the weakest of the alternatives received the most funding. Why is that? Because Exxon and Chevron say so. Hydrogen is nothing but a cynical attempt by companies opposed to alternative fuels to derail solar and battery technology uptake. Period, end of story. The first rule of energy policy, do not fund reseach into things that violate basic physical laws. This is not the only area of American research which is retarded. The Pentagon funded research into using gravitational waves as a weapon. Iceland can run on hydrogen because they have the steam and geothermal to made it, the rest of the world can not.

Solar photovoltaic are not that expensive. Thin Film photovoltaic panels are quite cheap / watt produced (currently about $4/watt) and Nanosolar claims that they can produce it as cheap as one dollar / watt which makes it cheaper than coal.

Problem with Solar is that it is not available everywhere and transporting electricity long distances causes losses which makes it unusable for some regions of the Earth.

OTOH it doesn't need to be power plant to use one of those so if you live in a region with plenty of solar radiation you can set up one in your home.

Geothermal would be useful pretty much everywhere, but that tech is not yet ready and is costly.

I’ve followed Tesla's progress for a few years now, since first seeing the Roadster at the Concours d'Elegance in Pebble Beach. I'd love to see Tesla become a US-based battery leader.

Andy Grove, co-founder and former CEO of Intel, suggested in the 4/27/09 issue of Fortune some answers to the battery challenge. As Grove notes–and in contrast to the sharp focus of Wang Chuan-Fu, CEO of China’s BYD electric car company (see “Buffett Takes Charge,” also in 4/27 Fortune)–the US is presently not even playing in the battery technology game.

Grove thinks a temporary government-owned foundry organization would help get US battery production off the ground, similar to government help in the early days of the microprocessor. He also wants wants US Energy Secretary Steven Chu to set up an industry council “and run it as if we were under wartime pressure. If Chu listens to Bill McKibben and others, indeed we are.

Of course, having a truly green source of electricity for EVs (not coal or nuclear)is another issue. Here in California, private companies will build two new photovoltaic plants that will make more than a dozen times as much electricity as the largest existing plant of this sort. When the sun is shining, these two plants will turn out 800 megawatts — roughly equal to a large coal-fired plant. That power will be sold to Pacific Gas & Electric; PG&E is mandated by our state to buy 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2010. PG&E expects these photovoltaic plants to be competitive with other renewable sources like solar thermal and wind turbines.

While solar power remains costlier than coal or nuclear, PG&E aims to change this by purchasing greater amounts. I'm thankful that we're finally moving on this out here--and none too soon!

The future should include a variety of transportation methods. The electric car is notable because it is more environmental and better for your pockets. It is simple and less complicated. But some people, near absolute, do not have the option to charge. Therefore other clean transportation sources are available. Those sources are hydrogen and bio fuels. I like the idea of nuclear energy since it does not emit unwanted and unhealthy gasses to the air. Storing the nuclear waste deep underground, to me, is really quite safe. What can ever happen as long as we make sure all hazards are professionally contained? And that we make sure that nuclear power plants are 99.9% safe to the public and to the environment. It should dominate the source of power that we use until natural energy methods are enough to power the entire world.

So besides, the Chevrolet Volt and the Honda FCX Clarity should still be an attractive buy for customers. The idea of hydroelectric and bio electricity is great!!

For several years, Mazda has been leasing a dual-fuel RX-8, which burns either hydrogen or gasoline in its rotary engine, at the flip of a dashboard switch. THAT technology is extremely close to market, as, I understand, is a BMW car that uses the same dual-fuel approach. The problem is making sure there area enough hydrogen filling stations around to make the hydrogen mode of those cars practical.

I'm just relating the above facts to be fair to hydrogen fans. In my opinion, Tesla has shown the EV to be a much more attractive vehicle than any comparable combustion-engine model, except in a few, very limited niches. I am crossing my fingers, in hopes that my current gasoline-burning vehicle lasts long enough that my next vehicle can be a powerful EV -- if not the expensive Tesla Roadster, then the roomier and more modestly priced forthcoming Model S or whatever Tesla releases after that.

FCV "almost commercial"? At $2,000,000 a copy? H2 costs 4-6 times as much as gasoline for the same distance travelled and since it is created by wasting electricity or burning natural gas, it won't get cheaper.

Lithium batteries are: A. not toxic (you must be thinking NiCd) B. 100% recyclable C. a source of a highly sought after and valuable metal - lithium. A 450 kg battery pack is easily recycled, it's the 6-8 cell laptop battery that is a problem.

Fuel Cell cars pollute a lot. Battery electric vehicles don't. Fuel cell cars pollute because at best fuel cell is 50% efficient and you need to create that hydrogen they use, which uses more energy at more losses. It just doesn't work when you need to increase your electricity generation by factor of one in order to create "green" vehicle. Transporting and storing hydrogen is a problem. Also hydrogen storage in cars have low energy density, so I just don't see any point using them. ONLY benefit hydrogen fuel cell cars have over battery electric vehicle is that you can refuel them fast, but who cares when you can recharge your BEV in your home at night while you sleep and have full battery every morning, and in very near future if you get to drive longer trip you can charge your car for 18 hour drive in one hour (initial charge of 600 miles worth in 60mph + one hour "fast" charge for 400 miles more while you are having your lunch).

"I simply don't understand ending the funding for something that's close to being ready for market!"

This is exactly what happen to the electric car a few years back. Just when California was starting to drive the electric cars, SOMEONE pulled the plug, crushed the cars and profited/ushered in the New Hydrogen Partnership.

Here we are again.

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