Chris Moerdyk

Electric car fallacies and fables

2013-06-03 12:07

Chris Moerdyk

I am interested to see that Eskom and Nissan are getting together to look at infrastructures needed for electric cars in South Africa. Because electric cars make sense.

Since driving my first electric vehicle in 1993 - one of 100 BMW E30 (three series) conversions used by the Post Office in Munich, Germany - I have been fascinated by the petrol vs electricity argument, especially in countries such as South Africa where the bulk of the electricity supply is generated by coal-fired power stations, so-called "dirty electricity".

There are a number of arguments, the first being that every time an electric vehicle is charged the power-stations belch out even more pollution into the atmosphere. The second being that with electricity being such a precious resource, surely we shouldn't be wasting it on cars.

Interestingly enough, being a devout disciple of the internal combustion engine, I agreed with these arguments at first, not from a factual position but just because they suited me. Then I test-drove an electric prototype car produced by the CSIR in the early 1990's. It was a Honda Prelude that had been fitted with a 150KW motor and had a battery the size of a coffin.

It could get from 0-100km/h faster than a BMW M3. It was stunning.  And I became a convert.

But, to get back to the "dirty electricity" argument, one has to start but looking at what an electric car would be replacing.  And that is a petrol or diesel powered car used exclusively for urban travel. To and from work, shopping, going out to restaurants and that sort of thing. Cars that range from small Japanese and German hatchbacks to big saloons and 4x4s.

Huge amount of electricity used

The first point that needs to be made emphatically, is that it is far easier from a technological point of view to curb emission from a coal fired power station than from thousands of petrol or diesel powered motor cars.

Secondly, and to me this is the cruncher, one has to remember than in turning crude oil into petrol and diesel, refineries use a huge amount of electricity. Not only that, but a considerable amount of electricity is needed to power the pumps in pipelines to get fuel from the cost all the way to places like Johannesburg.

Frankly, it does not take rocket science to realise that producing enough petrol for even the most economical little car to travel 300km probably chews up more electricity and certainly causes a lot more pollution from power stations than producing sufficient electricity to charge the battery of an electric car.

And now, with electric cars able to travel 300km on one charge, this means that they can be charged in the middle of the night when electricity demand is at its lowest. Which in turn means that if there were a million electric cars in South Africa all recharging their batteries between midnight and early morning, Eskom would probably not have to produce any more electricity than it normally does. And that to me is the beauty of electric vehicles. They are mostly using electricity that would simply be wasted anyway.

Potential for development

What I find really exciting about electric vehicles is that there is enormous potential for technological development. Those massive batteries I saw in the Munich Post Office's fleet of BMW's have now been reduced from a coffin sized gizmo that took up the whole trunk and rear passenger space of most prototype EVs and weighed a ton, to something the size of a modest carry on airline suitcase. Modern batteries can achieve more than three times the distance between charges than those old dinosaurs.

And the beauty is that battery development is moving at such a pace that with every year that goes by batteries are becoming more efficient, smaller and a lot more reliable, not to mention cheaper and cheaper.

I have no doubt that in 10 years time batteries will no longer be an issue in terms of cost and efficiency.

Even more exciting was the programme I watched on Discovery Channel a while back in which Top Gear presenter, James May investigated all the research work that was being done to produce electricity through "clean" technology. No coal and no nuclear.

I was left in no doubt whatsoever that it won't be long before new technological developments are able to harness clean and free resources such as wind, waves, hydrogen and so forth and turn these into reasonably priced electricity.

Pros and cons

While at the same time the internal combustion engine has almost reached the peak of its development and, as we know, oil reserves are not exactly limitless.

And best of all, I reckon, just as the automobile industry has managed to get diesel engines to "sound" no different to petrol engines, I have no doubt that in time motorists won't be able to tell the difference, in sound terms, whether they are driving an electric vehicle or a petrol or diesel car. In fact, all the electric cars I have driven sound exactly like internal combustion cars from about 30km/h onwards because the only sound you hear from them and from combustion engined cars these days is wind and tyre noise.

The more I go into the pros and cons of electricity versus the internal combustion engine purely from the point of view urban transport and of relative carbon footprints, toxic emissions and so forth, the more it becomes clearer to me that in spite of electricity being "dirty" the whole process of getting a vehicle to get from point A to point  B, leaves the electric vehicle a winner by a large margin.

- Follow Chris on Twitter.

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