Saturday, September 20, 2014

Commentary: Adirondack Electric Cars Future

VoltIn my final column on Electric Cars in the Adirondacks I’d like to pose two questions. Is driving an electric car in the park actually beneficial to the environment? If so, how can the Adirondack region evolve to better support electric cars?

As seems true with any subject these days, there is plenty of criticism of electric cars, with many making the argument that their supposed environmental benefits are non-existent or negligible at best. With a park that is and ought to be a standard-bearer for environmental health, yet which faces devastating consequences from climate change, this becomes an important question. We need to put our efforts where they’ll do proven good. So are the critics right about electric cars? The simple answer is no.

There are three main arguments against the environmental benefits of electric cars: manufacturing electric cars takes more resources than regular cars; the battery is toxic and thus the car cannot be recycled; and the charge comes from a grid that is still largely powered by the very fossil fuels the car is supposed to avoid, therefore the actual savings are small at best.

The question of toxicity and recycling is important, there is no question about that. The production of a lithium ion battery is emissions-heavy and lithium ion batteries are difficult to recycle. However the added emissions burden in the production of a typical electric car is overstated by many naysayers. Recent studies put the added carbon footprint at 15% of the car’s total lifetime carbon emissions, far less than the 35% to 40% quoted by many critics. At that level, the lifetime emissions reduction far outpaces the production increase. In addition all the major electric car makers power their manufacturing plants primarily if not exclusively with renewable energy, improving the calculus substantially.

The recycling critique is largely a red herring. For example, 85% of the Chevy Volt is recyclable, compared to a typical gas vehicle at 75%.   Meanwhile the claim that lithium ion batteries are not recyclable is false in theory. It’s a practical issue only – that is, the question is not whether battery components (specifically the metals) are recyclable but rather how hard it is to do so. It used to be impractical but this is changing rapidly. First of all, electric car batteries can be reused – they have another ten years of practical life for other purposes after they weaken too much to power a car engine. In other words they can be repurposed. Second, recycling technology is rapidly improving –the first large scale lithium ion recycling facility in America went on line last year. Recycling feasibility will continue to improve.

As to the other issues, the naysayers forget one crucial fact: electric cars give you a choice. It is true that if the all the power you charge from is coal-fired you will not be doing the environment any favors over driving an efficient gas vehicle. But if you power your grid from other than coal – say natural gas – then electric cars win. If you power your grid from renewable energy sources then it’s no contest at all. An electric car emits nothing; if the charging source is also green then the numbers are overwhelmingly in favor of electric cars.

When you pump gas you pump all the extraction costs and petroleum refining costs with it – you have no choice. When you charge a car from a plug you have many choices. Choosing renewable sources make electric cars a big winner no matter how you try to torture the math.

This is where the Adirondacks gain a big advantage. Most of the energy powering the electrical grid in the Adirondacks is nuclear or renewable. Coal is a much smaller percentage than in the nation as a whole. In addition, National Grid, the dominant electric power supplier in the Adirondacks, offers a program allowing customers to elect to have all of their power generated by renewable sources. If you live in the Adirondacks you can make excellent choices for both yourself and your car.

What remains is to make these good choices more accessible to potential electric car drivers by building an infrastructure of Adirondack charging stations that uses renewable sources. At the moment there is only one such station in the entire park, which makes such an infrastructure seem like a faraway goal. Thankfully, that is not the case.

First let us laud our pioneer, right in the heart of the park. The Wild Center has installed a Level 2 charging station for public use. They are in the process of equipping it and making it fully functional for a variety of vehicles. Here’s Kara Page, the Wild Center’s Grants Manager, who has a long involvement with their green initiatives:

We set up the charging station informally this summer to assist visitors with electric vehicles planning to be in the region. We have long wanted to offer an electric car charging station here in the middle of the Adirondack Park, where an estimated 9 million visitors come every year. Those driving electric cars have no access to a station within this vast, 6-million acre territory. We are ‘one charge away’ from major metro areas and for electric car owners to come to the interior of the Park they need our station. The station is available 24/7, however we would expect most folks would want to use it while they visit the Center’s exhibits and participate in programs.

I asked Kara the extent to which their charging station was powered by green energy. She told me “The Wild Center as you know is a LEED certified museum and includes in its facilities a 190 panel solar array that helps to power a significant percentage of our energy needs; in that sense the station is partially green powered.”

Kudos to The Wild Center and their multi-layered commitment to the environment. They are the first to install a charging station but there are rumblings of a few other institutions that may soon follow suit. Still, while any new station will be welcome, even five or six more will make a small impact in so large a region.

Fortunately there is another option: electric car owners themselves. Electric car charging is evolving organically as a very democratic enterprise, allowing electric drivers to place the future of their driving environment in their own hands to a remarkable degree.

Here’s how it works. Electric owners can choose to purchase a Level 2 charger for home use (they must be connected to a rated, grounded power source and they must be professionally installed). These home units are coming down in price; currently you can get one for less than $1,000 and charge your car four times as fast as with a standard 120 volt outlet. But then if you choose you can register it on-line (Plugshare is the main site) after which you can share it – under your stipulations – with anyone else. Many home charging stations are Internet-ready; connect yours to the Net and potential users can even see if it is available or in use.

When Amy and I move to the region (hopefully within a year) we will install a charging station as soon as we can and register it. Then anyone looking on-line for charging stations in the region will see not one, but two: the Wild Center’s and ours. Perhaps by then there will be others.  Imagine: fifty electric car owners could build a region-wide charging infrastructure on their own, without the need of the utility industry, to the greater benefit of the Adirondacks.

Electric cars are still on the leading edge and they are expensive to purchase. But in the Adirondacks they are feasible and the possibilities – along with the clear benefits – are as bright as we want them to be.

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Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.




30 Responses

  1. Tim says:

    How long does the battery last and how much does it cost to replace it, Pete? I can’t remember if you addressed those questions in previous articles.

    • Tim:

      These are two good questions.

      As to battery life the truthful answer is nobody knows for sure because electric cars are so new. We’re just getting to the kinds of cumulative mileages that will give us good data. Typically electric car batteries have warranties of 100,00 miles. Chevy says the Volt battery is engineered to “last the life of the car.” But there is no question that over time the battery capacity decreases.

      I read the details from a report by an engineering firm not associated with the auto industry. Their conclusion was that useful battery life could be decades IF your battery is liquid cooled (excessive heat is the big enemy), not regularly deep-drained (used to zero charge) and driven moderately. The American Chemical Society released a report that said 5 to 20 years depending upon heat more than anything else. Bottom line – get a liquid cooled car.

      There are lots of drivers passing the 100,000 mile mark this year and so far there have been no big horror stories about battery life except for a few owners of Nissan Leafs in hot climates who lost battery life at a precipitous pace – Leafs are not liquid cooled.

      Replacement costs are all over the map. Chevy says the cost is “variable” depending upon what’s needed. They advocate for refurbishing the existing pack rather than outright replacement. Nissan recently announced a complete replacement battery would sell for $5,500 – plenty, but much less than the extreme prices out in the Net rumor mill. Tesla priced replacement of their more substantial battery packs at $10,000 – $12,000.

      It’s likely that a new battery pack when I need one will be different technology than my existing battery, with much greater performance. It’s a craps shoot at the moment, but Argonne National Labs has had breakthroughs recently with lithium air batteries and VW is rumored to already be looking at a lithium air battery for a production car, though some say it’s still a decade away. Nonetheless, a future replacement battery might be a great new deal in terms of performance, but at what price who knows.

      As always, it’s relative. I really like this quote from Tom Saxton, Chief Science Officer at Plug In America, a non-profit advocacy group for electric cars:

      “Personally, I think there’s much less to worry about with EV battery longevity than there is with the volatile global oil market. We’re always one big storm, one terrorist attack, one surprise announcement from an oil dictator away from $8/gallon gas and rationing. I know the cost of electricity won’t suddenly double overnight,” said Saxton. “For most people, by the time their battery pack has lost significant capacity, they will have saved more than enough in gasoline costs to cover any associated loss in value.”

  2. Lee Keet says:

    We have four buildings on our property, all solar powered. One is heated geothermally using the solar field to power the pumps. I have an electric car on order that will use added excess electricity from the field that we have created by moving our lighting and appliances to more efficient models. So, I hope soon to be driving on sunlight. If the car ever gives up the ghost I will make sure that it is recycled.

  3. Dave Mason says:

    The story about our power sources is better than you write. Here is a link to a detailed report about our region’s carbon footprint: http://tinyurl.com/mzn66tz
    See pages 51-54. Actually the whole report is fascinating.

    The relevant points are “…as of 2010, over 94% of the electricity generated in the region comes from renewables.” 4% is natural gas fueled. None is from coal. None is nuclear.

    Specifically, it is mostly hydro (79%). The Robert Moses Dam on the St Lawrence accounts for 76% of our hydro and some 70 smaller dams across the region generate 24%. There are large wind (13%) farms in the St Lawrence Valley. It has gotten better since 2010 with more wind, and the conversion of a coal fired facility in Watertown to wood.

    69% of this power is exported to other parts of NYS. We consume the rest.

    There is more but this strengthens your argument. We are the State’s leading region for renewable power. And we’re cold. So, if we solve the ‘where to plug in’ problem’ we have the makings of a great story for electric cars.

    • Right you are, the story about in-the-park power generation is terrific and getting better. Not all Adirondack users pull from in-park sources all the time, so I was being conservative.

      The “where to plug in” problem is utterly solvable. I did some preliminary mapping and a napkin-type calculation indicates that a mere 20 charging stations dispersed throughout the park would make the entire park accessible to cars with battery ranges of 30 miles or more. Don’t quote me on that yet, but it’s in the ball park. Commercial charging stations go for several thousand dollars, meaning that such an infrastructure would cost relatively little compared to any similar scale utility project, perhaps a few hundred thousand dollars.

      • Paul says:

        Pete, isn’t there a way to plug into a 240V outlet? Those are simple to install.

        You almost have to wonder if increasing fuel efficiency in gasoline powered vehicles will “damage” the demand for electric vehicles.

        Where does Lithium come from? Is there a domestic source? I know that some rare earth metal mines have been closed in California since it is just cheaper to get those metals (essential for alternative energy) from mines in China. Ones that are apparently run as environmental disaster areas. As we switch we should try and avoid becoming a slave to another part of the world like we are with oil currently.

  4. Chris says:

    While I appreciate the effort, it strikes me that this is mostly an opinion-piece geared towards a specific outcome because there isn’t much science here. Counting future advances and writing down numbers without reference to counter “naysayers” (while using that derogatory) is pretty thin gruel.

    • You’re right. This is not a piece of scientific analysis. It is a short article promoting the use of electric cars (which is clearly indicated in the title, note the word “commentary”). I think they make sense. That said, the evidence is compelling.

      I invite readers to look at the numbers themselves. I like using reputable information sources as much as possible. Here’s a good place to start if you really want to dig in. Argonne National Laboratory is a leader in this area and is pretty reputable:

      Argonne Electric Car Search

      Everything I cover in the article is covered in links found on that list. I also used information from the University of Virginia, the American Chemical Society and others.

      To pull one especially relevant link out, this presentation discusses recycling in detail and also contains the numbers for battery life cycle additions to the emissions cycle, as stated in the article:

      Battery Recycling Futures

      Finally, looking to the future, when the trends are backed by a lot of evidence, is not “thin gruel.” It is logical that one of the real advantages of electric cars is that in harnessing energy from the grid they benefit from every improvement to that grid. Likewise, in storing energy in batteries they benefit from every improvement to batteries. It is inarguable that both the grid and batteries are improving.

  5. Hawthorn says:

    A few points. Battery “life” is highly variable depending on the how the batteries are used, as Pete pointed out, but even with the best of care it is finite. When people say that a battery can last say ten years what is often forgotten is by that 10-year mark there will be a significant loss of total capacity and performance. I don’t know what the current projection is for the lithiums in use, but you can bet the car manufacturers know that by 100,000 miles they will be near shot or else they would extend the warranty further. Many of us have experienced the failure of major components on our cars just after the warranty expires–the manufacturers have measured this stuff and know how long things will last on average. Notice this too when you purchase a regular lead-acid battery–they are variously rated at 36 months, 48 months, etc. Sure, they can and often do last longer than that, but their capacity is greatly diminished towards the end of their life span. But, all that aside, I think the charging station issue is a big one. So what if Pete has a great charging station he lets anyone use. What happens if three of us show up at once to use it? I guess Pete puts us up over night so we can all move on in the morning!

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      Hawthorn:

      I agree with your points. I will point out that 100,000 is a standard high-end warranty on any engine/drive train combo, gas or electric. Personally and from experience – I’d rather face an old battery than an old transmission.

      I’ll make that invitation to put you up right now! Your point is valid to an extent, however almost all public charging stations are networked. That means you can see if they are in use real-time. There are smart-phone apps and in the case of some of these cars (Volt included) you can monitor available charging stations as you drive. These apps will even direct you to the nearest open one. That helps.

      I might be encouraged to install a dual charge station, depending upon where we end up. That’ll help too.

  6. Paul says:

    “Many of us have experienced the failure of major components on our cars just after the warranty expires–the manufacturers have measured this stuff and know how long things will last on average.”

    True, and the same goes for these batteries as well. I really don’t see it as anything different than any other component of the vehicle. It sounds like there isn’t a big monetary difference in having to say replace a worn out transmission versus these batteries? Didn’t someone say a new set was $3000?

    • Hawthorn says:

      The other thing I forgot to mention is severe cold weather performance is bad with lithium batteries–so much so that the computer won’t let you start the car if the batteries are below a certain temperature. That needs to be improved too.

      • Paul says:

        In that case the gas engine will fire up. Probably why Pete might choose this type of vehicle as opposed to a all EV?

        • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

          I chose a gas-extended-range EV because of how far I have to drive, not because of concerns with cold climates. If you can plug your car in regularly then the cold is not a problem for most of these cars. As mentioned in one of my columns, when plugged in these cars circulate fluid to constantly either warm or cool the battery, depending upon the need (cooling being more important for the battery’s health).

          If I could not keep my car plugged in at my home in the Adirondacks I’d have troubles.

          • Paul says:

            I understand the plug in thing. This is nice even with a conventional car.

            But if you were to say go on a cold weather stint to your property in the High Peaks (and leave the car in Garden parking lot for a few days at 20 below) you wouldn’t be stranded right?

            What about when you leave the car for work where you might not be able to plug it in? Would it be a a problem to leave it for say 8 or 9 hours in extreme cold?

            • Paul says:

              Now that I look at your response again. It sounds like you would be stranded. If the same goes for when someone is at work on an extremely cold day without a plug this car is probably not practical. Same goes for all other EVs? I have never had a problem with my Hybrid? So I don’t get it?

              • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

                No, you can always start the car. But the battery is not protected from extremes when it’s not plugged in. In the Adks that’d be a lot of extremes and not good for battery life. That’s all I meant.

                • Paul says:

                  I get it. Thanks.

                  • Hawthorn says:

                    Maybe I have seen incorrect information, but I read that if the batteries were cold soaked for long enough the car’s computer would not let you start the car at all until it has been plugged in and warmed up, or else the batteries would be permanently damaged. Check your owner’s manual and let us know what it says.

                    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

                      I haven’t researched this yet for other cars. I’ll need to for my winter column. In the case of the Volt it will start its gas engine to warm the battery if it needs to, so you’ll never be stranded but you might have to wait a bit before the battery comes on line.

                    • Paul says:

                      The weird thing here is that a lead acid battery is fine on a good charge at twenty below. Is it different for lithium? I think if the charge is good you would be fine? Sure they will drain faster like either type but damage? I don’t buy it.

                    • Hawthorn says:

                      Maybe things have changed, but information from a 2011 GM tech bulletin indicates the electrolyte freezes at very cold temps and the car must be plugged in before you will be allowed to start. http://www.sandyblogs.com/techlink/April%202011%20Techlink%20F.pdf

                      “When the vehicle is subjected to cold temperatures for an extended length of time, the electrolyte in the high voltage battery cells starts to freeze. Once this occurs, current cannot pass through the battery for any reason, such as starting the gasoline engine or powering the battery internal heater. It is a physical limitation much the same as diesel fuel gelling at very cold temperatures and making the vehicle impossible to start.”

                    • mle.detroit says:

                      Aha.

                      “It is a physical limitation much the same as diesel fuel gelling at very cold temperatures and making the vehicle impossible to start.”

                      Great quote in which the solution presents itself, as we’ve all seen in action at turnpike service areas.

  7. JohnL says:

    Short (relative to gas cars) range. Reduced power in cold weather. Reduced power (and range) with advancing battery age. Sounds like electric cars need a LOT of work before they’re ready for ‘prime time’.

    • Paul says:

      Folks said that the Toyota Prius was not ready for prime time. And they criticized them for losing so much money in selling the car originally. Now Toyota is laughing all the way to the bank!

      Sure nothing is perfect and these type of cars are not for everyone. Personally I wouldn’t buy one of these ones but they are ready for the market.

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      Not at all. Everything’s relative.

      Gas engines lose more efficiency in cold weather than do electric engines (laws of thermodynamics again). As stated in my first article, I would not yet try a pure EV car in the Adks because in cold weather especially, the battery range would be too short. But my Volt is going to be able to drive hundreds of miles in any weather.

      No matter what kind they are, when cars get old they wear out. So we need a fair comparison. I didn’t really cover it in my columns but electric cars need a lot less maintenance than gas cars. So taking degraded battery life as an issue, suppose I go 100,000 miles under warranty, then in my next 100k I need a new battery pack at a cost of, say, $5000. That investment for 200,000 miles of life is less than any gas car I’ve owned. My last five cars either topped 200,000 or 300,000 miles, so it will be an interesting comparison. But my total maintenance and repairs on each of those cars were in excess of $5,000. Engines and transmissions wear out.

      We’ll see how my actual experience goes, but so far so good. I’m assured by the fact that electric cars are at the top of most quality and reliability ratings. Being proof-of-concept cars they are very well built. And the drive train is much simpler, of course.

      • Paul says:

        “I didn’t really cover it in my columns but electric cars need a lot less maintenance than gas cars” This must not apply to a Volt?

        • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

          It applies to the Volt. I am expected to change the oil every 30,000 miles, for example. The drive train is all electric, no super-complex transmission, etc. The engine sees light duty and under computer control, only to generate power. You can’t over-rev it, or work it too hard.

          • Paul says:

            30K, that is pretty good. Even the Car Guys would say change it more often when a conventional car is just sitting. Except one of the brothers is doing some kind of experiment to see if that is necessary!? I just assumed with both engines you had more to deal with. I think it would depend how much you drive on the gas engine.

            If you are running mostly electric less oil changes if you are on gas more?

  8. Greg says:

    I looked into a volt, but it did not make economic sense for me–current car is not even three years old yet and gets ~40MPG. One thing that I never see discussed is the battery temperature “maintenance”.

    How much energy goes into this? I have an unheated garage, so how much energy would be wasted all winter on keeping the pack “warm”? Assuming it would be 100 watts or so (light bulb), it works out to be about $50/year. I used 24 hrs a day for five months, which to me makes since because you would need to keep it warm at night, and during the day (including while driving). Now, is 100 watts even close? I know block heaters are typically constant-draw @ 1000 watts, which is 10 times the current.

    I don’t think cooling in the summer would be a constant drain, or even drain at all except while driving.

    Heat in a gas car is essentially a free bi-product — not so in an electric. I do like the idea Tesla has to preheat to car cabin though using grid power. Not only would preheating make sense, it would make driving in the winter better with no feeling of remorse for literally wasting gas and dealing with emissions in the garage. I wish gas cars had the preheat option for the cabin!

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