I was at this year’s Solarfest this past weekend, and helped present two workshops about electric vehicles. The first one was a panel discussion hosted by Drive Electric Vermont, and the second was a presentation I did, entitled “Electric Vehicles: Beyond the Basics”. I think that my thesis, so to speak, is worth thinking about, so I thought I’d recap the presentation here as a blog post.
The quite-short-version, starting with some basics—
1) Whereas a few years ago there were essentially four mainstream production EV’s, (the Volt, Leaf, Tesla Model S, and the plug-in Prius) there are now about twenty, with many more on the way. The biggest recent news is perhaps BMW’s i3, a $40,000 car that is the most efficient in its class, partly due to its lightweight carbon-fiber cabin. The car has gotten extremely high customer-satisfaction ratings, and has been successful enough that Tesla just announced last week that is would be putting together a “Model 3” that will be quite similar. And, EV’s now encompass far more than just cars. There are electric motorcycles, electric pickup trucks, buses, bikes, scooters, school buses, tractor-trailer trucks, and more.
EV owners’ customer satisfaction has been quite high; the Volt and the Tesla Model S have led Consumer Reports’ rating for the last three years.
2) Adoption rates have been brisk, though not quite as brisk as some predicted in years past. The number of EV’s on the road has roughly doubled each year since 2010, and that trend is expected to continue into the foreseeable future. There are currently about 250,000 EVs on the road today in the U.S., and about 500,000 worldwide. To keep those numbers in perspective, though, EV’s currently make up less than 1% of the cars being sold.
3) Charging infrastructure has grown at an extremely rapid pace, from less than 2,000 public charging stations in the U.S. in 2011, to well over 20,000 today, with many more coming into service daily. This has included a huge rise in the number of DC fast chargers, which can charge a vehicle like a Leaf to about 80% in about 30 minutes. A year ago Vermont had zero of these fast chargers, but today we have six, with more on the way. Further advances in charging technology are also on the way, one being inductive charging, which can charge an EV without a direct connection to the vehicle. As demonstrated by a bus system in operation in Seoul, South Korea, inductive charging systems can also be embedded in roadways and function while the vehicles driving above it are in motion.
4) Most EV’s are powered by lithium-ion batteries, and the price for these batteries has fallen dramatically in the past five years, from well over $1,000 per kwh, to about $500 per kwh today. Prices are expected to continue to drop, partly due to Tesla’s new “Gigafactory”, currently under construction. Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk, has predicted Li-ion battery prices in the $250/kwh range by 2015. (Nissan just announced $270/kwh prices for replacement Leaf battery packs.) Combined with economies of scale as EV production increases, I suspect that EV’s will approach outright cost-parity with gas-mobiles in the decade to come. Research is currently proceeding apace on all manner of battery technology, and these advancements have the potential to disrupt power companies, as well as automobile markets.
5) No battery lasts forever, but indications so far seem to show that EV batteries are exceeding expectations. Battery longevity is strongly influenced by many factors, such as average battery temperature, charging and discharge rates, depth-of-discharge, and the average state-of-charge during storage, and some of these are factors that owners can control. When the capacity of EV battery packs does drop below what is considered usable (typically considered to be 70% of its original capacity), power companies have working prototypes of grid-storage options that utilize used EV battery packs. Then, when EV batteries finally do reach the end of their useful life, virtually 100% of the materials in them can be recycled. Today the market value of lithium is such that it is not currently recovered, though the nickel and cadmium and other metals are. I suspect that this will change in years to come, though world reserves of lithium are quite ample, with the bulk of them in the “ABC Triangle”, an area in Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. (See article “The Lithium Battery Recycling Challenge”).
6) It is becoming easier and easier to build net-zero homes (post- “Net-Zero is Possible”), but what’s really exciting is that it’s now quite possible to build a home that produces enough power for both the house AND for electric-powered transportation. In fact, I currently know of at least three houses that fall into this category. With building and transportation together making up nearly 90% of U.S. energy use, this is truly an exciting development. And since PV panels operate with DC electricity, as do EV batteries, companies like Honda are working on equipment that allows EVs to charge with DC from PV panels, which avoids the conversion losses incurred by inverters.
7) EV’s have a huge potential role with regard to how sustainable power grids will function in the future. This is sometimes called “Vehicle-to-grid”, or “V2G”. A starting point for this is charging equipment that allows power from an EV to go in two directions, either into the vehicle to charge the battery, or out of the vehicle to power the house or grid. Several companies, including Nissan, already have such products on the market. With such a connection, an EV can serve as backup power during a power outage. Then, when this technology is coupled with smart meters, EV’s can serve a key role in reducing generation costs for power companies. In times of peak demand, a power company could remotely stop EV’s from charging, in order to lower peak demand, or, conversely, turn on chargers to soak up excess generation during off-peak hours. Power companies will likely pay customers for the right to control their chargers and EVs in this way, and several pilot projects are already underway. V2G capability also opens up the possibility that EV owners can charge their cars with cheap off-peak power, and sell this power back to the grid during hours of peak-demand.
8) Now, a bit of an aside, but I’ll come back to EV’s in just a bit—as we get higher and higher penetration rates of renewable power into the grid in the years to come, the nature of electricity pricing will steadily change. In the 1970’s it was thought that nuclear power would make electricity “too cheap to meter”. That did not happen, but it has indeed happened recently due to solar. Germany, with its huge amount of solar and wind production, has already seen wholesale electricity prices on sunny days dip into the negative. As these power production curves shift, it will present challenges to power companies. A visual of these upcoming changes was recently released by California ISO (ISO’s, or “Independent System Operators”, are groups that manage grid-power in particular regions), in the now-infamous “duck graph”—
Proponents of renewable power delight in this graph, seeing steadily decreasing peak energy prices and less fossil-fuel use, whereas Continue reading