Updated with new solar employment stats & 'Revenge of the Electric Car' trailer...
By Ernest A. Canning on 10/16/2011, 7:09pm PT  

Guest blogged by Ernest A. Canning

As is reflected at right in a 1912 photo taken in Cincinnati, OH, Electric Vehicle (EV) technology has been with us for a very long time.

Underscored in the 2006 documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car? (see video trailer below), the principle obstacles to the development of practical and affordable Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs, as opposed to PHEVs, or Plug-in Electric Vehicles) have been political and economic, as opposed to technological.

As today is National Plug-in Hybrid Day, a look at the current state of our nation's struggle to realize the massive benefits of truly green automotive technology seems in order --- particularly as the job-creating industry continues to face uphill battles from both fossil fuel-funded obstructionist Republicans in Congress and aggressive attempts by China and other nations to "win" the fight for renewable energy technology at any cost...

Long-existing technology; still limited BEV range and expensive options

Who Killed the Electric Car? revealed that, even back in 2006, researchers claimed they had successfully developed 300-mile range batteries. More recently, the Obama Administration Department of Energy has provided a $4.8 million grant to Nonosys, Inc.; $5 million to Sion Power, in conjunction with BASF, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and Pacific Northwest National Lab, to develop lithium sulfur batteries with a 300+ mile range; $4 million to Planar Energy "to develop solid state batteries using the same technologies perfected for the semiconductor industry"; and $1.4 million to develop "a thin film material that could speed lithium-ion battery production by a factor of 10."

Yesterday, Los Angeles Times reported that Winston Chung, a Hong Kong battery scientist, announced plans to open a Southern California factory that will "mass-produce batteries that can power a bus for 1,000 miles on one charge." Chung envisions a future market for "pure electric vehicles and yachts." He believes that "the region can become a hub of production of electric and battery technology."

At at time when federal loan guarantees for the U.S. clean energy technology industry are under increased scrutiny, advocates point to billions in taxpayer incentives and subsidies for the fossil fuel and nuclear energy industries: in May 2010 the Government Accountability Office estimated that "the deep-water [oil drilling] waiver program could cost the Treasury $55 billion or more in lost revenue over the life of the leases, depending on the price of oil and gas and the performances of the wells." Last May, a Democratic measure to strip major oil companies of about $20 billion in tax subsidies over the next 10 years failed to garner the 60 votes needed to break a Senate filibuster. Sima J. Gandhi of the Center for American Progress estimated that the elimination of the oil industry's "special tax deductions, preferences, and credits would save the government about $45 billion over the next 10 years."

The American consumer is also paying ever-higher prices at the pump: in the coming year, analysts project U.S. motorists will spend a record $491 billion for gas.

A 300-hundred mile range battery is presently available commercially, but the price is exorbitant. Tesla Motors, the other relatively small but up-and-coming California BEV manufacturer, whose impractical two-seat roadster rings up at a whopping $108,000, plans to introduce the Tesla Model S, a luxury sedan boasting a swappable battery pack with a range of 230-300 miles per charge by mid-2012. But, where Tesla predicted back in 2009 that it would offer the Model S at $50,000, it now says that the first 1,000 vehicles will be its premium Signature Series, priced at $77,400. The later versions, which start at $57,400 have only a 160-mile range when fully charged.

The Coda...

With the recent opening of its first storefront in the Westfield Century City mall in Los Angeles, Coda Automotive, one of two small, privately-held California manufacturers of all-electric vehicles (aka battery electric vehicle (BEV), as opposed to a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV)) has taken what may be a tiny step towards a future in which BEVs supplant the internal combustion engine as a primary means of transportation.

As reported by Los Angeles Times:

Priced at $44,900 --- $34,900 after applying federal and state incentives --- the Coda is most notable for its range and quick charging. It can travel as far as 150 miles per charge and can recharge in about six hours with a 220-volt charger; that's twice as fast as the Nissan Leaf.

While the price tag is significantly higher than the Leaf ($32,765 to $33,674 --- $25,280 after federal and state incentives), the 100-mile maximum range of the Leaf's battery between charges makes the Leaf an impractical solution for extended road trips. The majority of Americans drive 40 miles or less daily, but The Coda sedan's greater mileage capacity might help allay "range anxiety" for buyers.

Coda's entry into the marketplace is a welcome development, coming at a time when NASA climate scientist James Hansen has warned that feeding the U.S. oil addiction via the proposed Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline could spell "game over" for climate change --- although, by itself, it is a far cry from what will be needed to effectuate the sharp reductions in CO2 emissions Hansen and the majority of climate scientists say are needed to ensure a stable climate.

Neither Coda nor Tesla mention the addition of vehicle solar panels, such as was offered on the 2010 Toyota Prius. But, it should be noted that solar power alone adds only five to eight miles per day for the Prius.

Solar is, of course, not the only source of alternative energy. There are giant wind turbines which produce electricity by converting kinetic energy into mechanical energy. One of the basics of automobiles is wind generated by the motion of the vehicle itself, especially at higher speeds. But I'll leave it to mechanical engineers to advise us whether small scale wind turbines, perhaps located inside the front grill, could prove functional on a moving automobile.

Cost reduction entails more than avoiding the escalating price at the pump. While the cost of batteries is relatively high, BEVs avoid some of the significantly greater maintenance costs encountered with internal combustion vehicles.

Charging stations and electricity source

BEV costs do not begin or end with vehicle purchase. According to Los Angeles Times, one must also purchase a home charging station, which runs between $1,000 to $2,500 prior to government incentives and can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks to be installed.

With the length of time required for recharging, both personal savings and beneficial environmental impact are dependent upon the source of electricity. Estimates vary depending upon a host of variables, but very generally speaking, recharging a BEV when the energy source is a coal-fired power plant confers a slightly improved emissions profile over the average gasoline-powered car, and has the advantage over gasoline in energy cost-per-mile to the consumer.

For those who've already converted their homes to solar, several companies are offering a 220-volt personal charging station. GE has stepped forward with a solar-powered carport charging station.

If 'Supply and Demand' still applies...

If basic principles of supply and demand apply, then one of the principle factors in the current high initial cost of BEVs is lack of commercial availability. According to Pike Research, a Colorado-based clean technology analyst firm, at present, demand for BEVs far outstrips supply. That may change, as Pike estimates there will be one million BEVs by 2016.

At present, one of the factors weighing against the practicality of the BEV, especially for cars with a lower maximum mileage range between charges, is the lack of available public charging stations. But Pike Research estimates that by 2017 there will be more than 1.5 million stations available in the U.S. and some 7.7 million worldwide.

Bolstering that estimate is the $10 billion GE CEO Jeff Immelt said his company will invest in electric vehicle infrastructure, including the 32 amp, 220 volt Watt Station EV Charger. In marked contrast to regressive right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers, who are committed to climate science denial and the promotion of dirty energy, GE's investment in eSolar will add to the company's energy portfolio by offering "hybrid power plants that run on solar during the day and natural gas at night."

Green technology and the economy

Republicans were quick to seize on the recent high-profile bankruptcy of Solyndra, Inc., a Northern California solar panel manufacturer which had received $535 million in federal loan guarantees, as proof that President Obama's "green jobs" initiative and the entire clean energy sector is doomed to failure. Solyndra's solar technology was based on a unique system that did not rely upon previously expensive polysilicon. The competitive advantage the company once had was lost when "the price of polysilicon nosedived due to a combination of increased demand for and production of crystalline silicon solar modules."

In truth, all that the Solyndra episode established is that a single company experienced losses in a market place corrupted by, among other things, a Chinese flood of government subsidies making it next to impossible for Solyndra to compete.

In the meantime, a recent study revealed that "the number of green jobs in the United States grew 9.1 percent between 1998 and 2007, about two and a half times faster than job growth in the economy as a whole." This occurred at a time when public investment in green sector jobs was negligible.

While there has been a modest public investment in renewable energy technology as part of the original Obama stimulus, the size of that investment does not begin to approach the trillions squandered on wars of imperial conquest in the oil-rich Middle East in the aftermath of 9/11.

Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize winning economist, argues that the U.S. requires a massive public investment in our nation's aging infrastructure on par with those of the New Deal and post-World War II spending on the Interstate Highway system. A well-managed public investment in a green infrastructure, that entailed installing solar power throughout the Sun Belt states, BEVs, and other forms of green technologies could help to produce full employment. It could be paid for by an end to oil subsidies, by raising taxes on the billionaire class and an end not only two wars but our global military presence.

UPDATE 10/17/11: A newly released study reveals that, for the 12 month period ending in August, U.S. "employment in all parts of the solar industry, including manufacturing, installation, residential, commercial and large-scale power generation, grew 6.8%...Overall U.S. job growth was less than 1% for the same period." It is anticipated that there will be a 24% increase in the solar industry over the next year, producing 24,000 new jobs.

The study also revealed that one in every four U.S. solar jobs is located in CA, which ranks "first in the nation for generating electricity from both photovoltaic solar panels and concentrated solar power systems that use mirrors to create steam to run turbines."

Also added below is the trailer of Revenge of the Electric Car, essentially a sequel to Who Killed the Electric Car?.

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Trailer for the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? follows...

Trailer for the documentary Revenge of the Electric Car follows...