Where is the Closest Battery Station?
Someone may stop to ask those directions in the not-too-distant future. A company called Better Place has already negotiated contracts in Israel, Denmark, Australia and Hawaii to begin building electric car infrastructure. The idea is that people would plug theirs cars in at home, at work and in public places. With well designed power grids, utilities could adjust the flow to or from an electric car battery to feed back into the system when there is an energy deficit, or reduce the load to the grid from electric cars in times of high use (an electric cars is similar to a water heater or plasma TV in term of energy use).
With current technology electric cars could drive for 100 miles before they need to recharge. But instead of waiting three hours for the battery to fill, you would stop at a battery station and swap for a charged one. The key then for a successful new technology infrastructure would be to have a standard, both for charging the vehicle and the box that the battery could slipped in and out of. Just like how a gas nozzle at the pump fits nicely into every car no matter what car your buy or gas station you frequent. With a universal standard battery box this would also allow for innovations in batteries without negatively affecting the car owner.
It’s all about the battery. The business model of Better Place and other similar companies is much like a cell phone contract, except instead of minutes, you pay for the miles driven while using the battery (revenue thus ensuring that the next battery you swap for is well maintained).
Senator Scott Dibble and Representative Frank Hornstein would like to make Minnesota a technological leader in electric car infrastructure. They both have ideas to discuss in the upcoming legislative sessions. It is also possible that, with federal government’s investment in public infrastructure under president-elect Obama that the state could get funding for this type of project – maybe. Senator Dibble and Representative Hosrnstein would also like to encourage incentive to own electric cars and address a general carbon fuel standard.
Whether or not electric car use will help reduce emissions is however tied to the way in which the energy is produced. If energy does not come from renewable sources it could have a negative impact. Researchers at CSTPP have been working on analyzing carbon usage in the transportation sector. As Melisa Pollak, a Research Fellow for CSTPP explains: "I loved the sense of momentum toward electric transportation displayed in this meeting (held December 10th). It highlights the importance of the research Dr. Elizabeth Wilson and I are doing on deployment of low-carbon electrical power technologies. It's clear that the climate change benefits of electric transportation depend on de-carbonizing our electrical system."
Even with electric technologies, in my opinion, we still need to invest in public transportation infrastructure like light-rail and design cities in ways that encourage biking and walking. We also need to ensure that we give equal policy credit to a variety of emerging technologies, whether they be hydrogen cells, biodiesel (not to be confused with ethanol), hydraulic hybrids (especially for large vehicles) and other technologies that are still being thought out in the minds of many creative people around the country.
Top photo from the CelticSolar blog. Bottom photo from my camera