Thursday, July 06, 2006

batteries not included

Electric car ride: Hello I'm an electric car, I cannot drive very fast or go very far, and if you drive me people will think you're gay...
Robotic gay men: One of us! One of us!
-"Special Edna", S14E07
Conspiracy theories are another great American pasttime. Every American has one that they know is true. The one conspiracy I have always believed and cannot be dissuaded from is that auto and gas companies killed the electric car. Why it's even in the Stonecutters episode of the Simpsons. Why do all the cars we have run only on fossil fuels?

In 1990 California lawmakers passed a law forcing automakers to make a zero-emissions electric car. Under the program, two percent of all new cars sold had to be electric by 1998 and 10 percent by 2003. GM, Ford, Honda, Chrysler, Nissan, and Toyota all developed electric vehicle programs in response to California’s zero emission mandate. In 1996, GM developed a battery-powered car, the EV1. The car required no fuel and could be plugged in for recharging at home and at a number of so-called 'battery parks'. Despite an almost cultish love for the car from its owners, A little over 1,000 EV1s were produced by G.M. before the company pulled the plug.

This is all the subject of a new documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" Director Chris Paine has painted a damning portrait of greed winning over innovation. The answer is infuriating but not surprising as anyone aware of the conspiracy theories: the auto and oil companies. EV1 was, in the end, too good to be true: All of the myths about slow and unreliable electric car technology were disproved by the sleek fast sturdy EV1. A modified EV1 prototype set a land speed record for production electric vehicles going 183 mph (295 km/h) in 1994. But all Ev1s were subject to a closed-end lease for 3 years with no renewal or residual purchase options and thus, were all returned to the dealer and destroyed. GM claimed a lack of demand, even though some GM insiders later provided documentation of long waiting lists that went unfulfilled. The electric vehicle shopper would often have to make an appointment just for a test drive. Only certain Saturn dealerships in California carried the EV1. Only the EV1 specialist could assist in leasing an EV1. Before talking about leasing options, the consumer was taken through a 'pre-qualification' process where the consumer was reminded of how the EV1 was different from other vehicles. Cars were never available for 'drive-away' leases. The consumer went on a waiting list with no scheduled delivery date. After a wait of two to six months, the lessee would be allotted a vehicle, but delivery still took longer. Meanwhile, the customer had to arrange for charger installation at his home; this took one to two weeks. Obtaining an EV1 was not like obtaining any other vehicle.

They sold the cars in the worst possible way, with commercials featuring a scratchy voice-over, ominous background chorus and stark shadows. It looked like a civil defense PSA not a new car ad, 'an act of cannabalism'.

There's a big margin in the big messy internal combustion engine through repair and fuel and maintenance and inspection, but almost no maintenance needed for the electric car. The electric car costs the auto industry in other ways: lacking an internal combustion engine, it saves the driver the cost of replacement parts, motor oil, filters, and spark plugs. The ingenious regenerative braking system was so successful at reducing wear that the billion-dollar brake parts/repair industry may have felt threatened. ExxonMobil took out full-page national newspaper ads critiquing the merits of electric cars and oil industry lobbyists fought hard to stop the funding of public charging stations. Every week, Americans buy almost 3 billion gallons of gasoline. The GM blew this golden opportunity to leapfrog the Japanese and other carmakers by fighting the California program in court along with DailmerChrysler. And of course, in October 2002 the Bush administration joined automakers and car dealers in their lawsuit against the California Air Resources Board’s Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate, arguing that it amounted to an attempt to regulate fuel economy, which only the federal government has the authority to do. Beset by industry and political pressure, the California Air Resouce Board ultimately let the auto and oil industries off the hook by eliminating electrical vehicle production from the mandate.

The hydrogen fuel cell is also discussed with skeptical optimism: right now, it is much more efficient and non-polluting to use electricity directly in a battery than to turn it into a hydrogen fuel. The hydrogen fuel cell is attractive to the oil and auto industries because most hydrogen is made from fossil fuels. Even if hydrogen were made from renewable electricity, it would still be delivered as a fuel—instead of via an electric utility. The former chairman of CARB, Alan C. Lloyd, also became the chairman of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, a consortium of automakers and public agencies that promotes the development of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and infrastructure, four months before the fateful CARB meeting that effectively killed the EV1.

Not only the oil and car companies but also the consumer (that's you, me and everyone we know btw, off that high horse) Just look at how SUVs were pushed in comparison to the electric car, with small business owners getting a fat tax deduction for purchasing one while electric car buyers got very little back. It was also argued that the EV was elitist by “grassroots” organizations like Californians Against Hidden Taxes, which was funded primarily by the Western Petroleum States Association oil lobby.

One objection that the internal combustion romantic may jump up with at this point is: but using only batteries all you have done is moved the tailpipe to a factory smokestack, as in the battery's power has to come from somewhere and if electric cars catch on then we will need more big sooty powerplants. This is also known as the Long Tailpipe theory. It also crops up with the hysteria of 'but all those crs plugged in wil overload the grid!' Both of these are concerns, but misguided ones. Even if we have to build more smokestacks, their pollution is emitted higher in the atmosphere, unlike car emissions which have a tendency to concentrate into smog. Overall, a few hundred big pollution sources are better than millions of little ones. But the grid is becoming (not fast enough) cleaner with more renewable energy sources and most of the charging for the plug-in hybrid electric vehicles could be done during off-peak hours, at night. It’s estimated that 5,000 plug-in hybrids charging at night would represent less than 0.1 % of peak electrical demand in the state of California. In June 2001, the Argonne National Laboratory released a US Department of Energy-sponsored study that found that battery-powered electric vehicles result in a 35% reduction in greenhouse gases. This reduction was based upon electricity generation from the national grid, roughly half of which is derived from coal and roughly 30% of which is derived from clean, renewable sources like nuclear, solar, wind, biomass and hydroelectric power. In 2004, an analysis of data from a California Air Resources Board staff report on greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles found that electric vehicles resulted in a 67% reduction in overall greenhouse gases in California, compared to a car powered exclusively by gasoline, and were nearly twice as effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions than a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle.

I like how he ended on an optimistic note, not some eschatological post-peak oil holocaust, but pointing to innovations like plug-in hybrids. As for the conspiracy, it continues: Several weeks before the debut of this movie, the Smithsonian Institution announced that its EV1 display was being permanently removed and the EV1 car put into storage. Although GM is a major financial contributor to the museum, both parties denied that this fact contributed to the removal of the display.

Note: Why the last three posts you might ask? After a bit of thought about the future and the meanign of indepence this week I have come to realize the one unspoken truth of our time: developing sustainable and domestically-produced energy is the only way to sustain America and yes, the world, both from destruction.

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