Electric cars - wave of the future or specialty item?

Electric cars - wave of

peres electric car 248 88 gpo (photo credit: GPO)
peres electric car 248 88 gpo
(photo credit: GPO)
The public perceives the electric car as the green alternative to internal combustion engine vehicles, but in order to truly calculate its environmental impact, the external costs must be taken into account. So said several experts during a workshop on Monday at the Israeli Institute of Energy and Environment in Tel Aviv. While there have been declarations of a massive influx of electric cars into the market, many of the speakers also said it was unlikely to be quite as large as predicted. And even if the predictions of two million electric cars on the road by 2015 were realized, there are 700 million cars on the road around the world, they pointed out. So while electric cars might see some use, they're not going to replace the internal combustion vehicle any time soon. The true environmental cost of an electric vehicle is not from "pump to wheel" but from "well to pump," Assif Strategies analyst Ofer Ben Dov said. If the electricity that powers the cars comes from fossil fuels, then the car isn't so green. Moreover, if by dint of putting lots of electric cars on the road it drives up electricity demand and the country has to build more coal-fired power plants, then that must be taken into account as well, he said. So with external costs taken into account, how feasible are electric cars? Well, according to the experts, while electric cars are inexorably progressing, it will still be a long time before the internal combustion vehicle is phased out. Moreover, it is unclear whether the battery-run electric vehicle (BEV) is an interim product or the stanchion of the future. Following closely on its heels is the hydrogen fuel cell-powered car. A hydrogen fuel cell also has zero harmful emissions and would be self-powered, without need for a charge. Avner Flur, head of the Car Branch of the Transportation Ministry, said electric cars were expected to enter the market in the next five years and hydrogen fuel cell cars about a decade later, between 2020 and 2025. Major car manufacturers like Mercedes, Fiat, Honda and others were putting a lot of money into fuel cell research and development, he said. David Nameri, an independent analyst, pointed to the climate control system in electric vehicles as a major issue. "While electric vehicles will arrive, I predict they will only be used for urban travel over very short distances. All of the assessments of how far the car can go do not include using the air conditioner or heater at the same time. Using it would drain the battery significantly and therefore reduce its range," he told the audience. Shaul Zohar, CEO of Meidata, highlighted some of the additional threats to the electric car market. If the price of gas stays low, then people will be less likely to buy electric cars. In addition, if the car is significantly more expensive than a regular car, then people will be less interested, he said. "People care about the environment, but if an electric car is twice to two-and-a-half times as expensive as a regular car, people just won't buy it," he argued. He also highlighted the threat from hydrogen fuel cell cars, which, he said, could steal the "green" image electric cars currently possess if they turn out to be a cleaner car from "well to wheel." As a result of all of these factors, if the electric car were to enter the market significantly, it would require serious government subsidies, both for development and directly to consumers, according to Zohar. He pointed to $2.4 billion provided by the US government to American car manufacturers, and €500 million provided by Germany to its domestic manufacturers. In the UK, the government pledged £250m. as consumer incentives. So, what should be done in the meantime? How is pollution from internal combustion engines, which accounts for about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in the US and in Israel, and for serious lung diseases, to be mitigated? Flur said his ministry was focusing on encouraging more efficient internal combustion engines. More efficient engines mean less pollution and reduced gas use. The ministry is also tracking global efforts to make cars out of lighter composite materials, with smaller engines that would also reduce pollution, he said. In the meantime, speakers offered consumers a few more options. One was to convert cars to run on liquefied natural gas. Liquefied natural gas is cheaper and cleaner than gasoline, Dorgas CEO Eli Misgav said. Converting a car entails inserting a tank into the trunk - sometimes in place of the spare tire, which is then put on the roof or below the car - and running a line to the engine. The process is relatively inexpensive, and the gas is totally safe, Gaspro CEO Udi Tamir assured the audience. Gaspro is the country's leader in converting cars to run on natural gas. The other option presented was to purchase a hybrid. Toyota Israel CEO Micha Carmon said that the third-generation Prius polluted even less than its predecessors. He also pointed to a new model coming out in mid-2010, Auris, a new hybrid that would be cheaper than the Prius and have an even lower pollution emission level. Toyota has sold 2 million hybrids since their introduction in 1997. In Israel, the company has sold 5,188 since 2005. Sales have averaged between 1,000 and 2,000 hybrids a year over the past three years, Carmon said. Honda offers two types of hybrids in Israel - the Civic and Insight - with sales of several hundred a year, according to Carmon's figures. ETV motors founder and chief technology officer Arieh Meitav was also present on the closing panel. His company is working on micro-turbines and lithium ion batteries to increase the range of what they call extended-range electric vehicles (EREV).