Thursday, May 5, 2011

Electric cars - An important solution in a world of peak oil.

Last week ABC Catalyst looked at peak oil and how high petrol prices are here to stay. An obvious response to these issues is to make the economy (and the people within it) less dependent on oil by using less of it. This week Catalyst went to America to preview one of the core solutions to this problem - electric cars.

Electric cars have come along way in the past decade or so and two currently on sale in the USA are the Chevy (Holden) - Volt and the Nissan -Leaf. There has been a lot of buzz about these cars, and both have won several "Car of the year awards".

There are a lot of advantages to electric cars, beyond just reducing oil use. Electric motors are much more efficient than petrol engines, so this and the high price of oil make electric cars much cheaper to drive per km. With no tail pipe emissions electric cars help to clean up polluted city air and of course emit no greenhouse gasses. In fact if your electricity comes from renewable sources then they truely are zero emissions vehicles.

So how do they work?

Well the Volt is a plug in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). It has a battery which powers an electric motor. In electric only driving it can travel ~55 km on a single charge. Then as the battery gets depleted a small petrol engine starts up which powers an electric generator to keep the car going and give it a total range of ~600km. In this way the Volt eliminates "range anxiety", the fear you'll run out of battery charge and be stuck somewhere. But here's the clever bit, most people drive less than 55km in their daily commute, which means you can charge the battery between commuting and continually run in all-electric mode. Then if you want to drive long distance on the weekend, you still can. The volt plans to be, and is, a replacement for the main family car. Another benefit is the battery can be charged from a normal residential power point, making this process nice and easy.

The LEAF (unlike the Volt) is a pure electric vehicle (PEV), it has no petrol engine at all, instead it has a lot of batteries and an electric engine. Since it is all electric it's battery range is longer than the Volt at ~110 km. Only having one engine (and not being a hybrid) also makes the Leaf cheaper than the Volt. The leaf is ideal for shorter trips or commuting but although the batteries can be high voltage fast charged in ~30minutes it isn't ideal for long trips.

Photo: Tennen-Gas. Permission: cc-by-sa-3.0

Both these cars should be hitting our shores in 2012.

For even more info about these cars, see the wikipedia pages on the Volt and the Leaf

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