Renewable-energy-powered electric-car network is ideal

US expert says solar-powered electric-car network could wean a country off of its oil dependency and reduce emissions at the same time.

electric car 88 248 (photo credit: )
electric car 88 248
(photo credit: )
A solar-powered electric-car network could wean a country off of its oil dependency and reduce emissions at the same time, Ken Zweibel, director of the Institute for Analysis of Solar Energy (IASE) at George Washington University, suggested to The Jerusalem Post recently. Zweibel spoke to the Post after the Eilat-Eilot International Renewable Energy Conference at the beginning of February, in which he discussed solar-powered hybrid and electric transportation. At the conference, Zweibel presented the advantages of running an electric-car network off of renewable energy, specifically solar. "Electric transport is more efficient than using gasoline. Internal combustion is about 20 percent efficient [oil to miles driven], while electric motors are above 90% efficient and electric transport is about 75% efficient all-in - i.e., transmission, battery, and motor losses," he said in his presentation. "This ratio of almost four-per-unit energy is the most important thing to know about electric transport," Zweibel said. Not only is it more efficient, it's potentially ultimately cheaper if the issues surrounding batteries can be worked out, he said. The electric-car battery technology has yet to be perfected. Combining this with solar power would drastically reduce a country's dependence on oil and reduce its CO2 emissions, Zweibel said. If countries were intent on cutting emissions over the next 15 years, this could be a major factor, he said. Vehicles constitute a large proportion of a country's emissions. In the US, for example, an electric-car network would require a 25% increase in electricity production, which could be met by renewable energy, Zweibel said. Running an electric-car network at least partially powered by solar energy, which could become a reality in Israel in the next several years, would have "people beating a path to your door," he said. "It could be transformative," Zweibel told the Post. "The only issue is the batteries. Better Place is talking about taking batteries in and out of cars. Each region will have its own policy regarding batteries." Turning to the creation of a local solar industry, Zweibel suggested that rather than choose the lowest bidder when establishing such an industry, Israel might want to provide incentives to bring the best. "The best method for creating a local solar industry is probably the German feed-in tariff method," he said. "The US method of tax credits didn't work; it is difficult to use tax credits when you don't have any money." Zweibel cautioned that the country would have to be careful about the tariff it set, because a too high tariff could cause a boom-and-bust cycle rather than steady growth. "In Spain, the tariff was set too high and so the tariff was shut down after a year, which caused a boom and then a bust," he said. "In Germany, however, rather than a cap, they lowered the price over the course of the year. "In Israel, the tariff might not have to be so high because the global PV market is collapsing. Spain has shut down and the US didn't take off." With the right government support, a transition to a solar industry would not only be possible, it would be less of a disruption than radically fluctuating oil prices, Zweibel said. "Israel might want to choose the best companies and give them really good deals," he said. "You already have among the best in solar thermal. But it requires a government policy." Several other entrepreneurs at the conference stressed to the Post how important a supportive government policy was to help jump-start the local solar industry. With the right tariffs and long-term contracts for buying electricity, Israel could attract a lot of foreign investment, they said. Without the government guarantee and tariffs, the whole enterprise would probably be too expensive to get off the ground, since photovoltaic fields run in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Discussing US President Barack Obama's interest in clean-tech and green-tech, Zweibel said his policy could be "potentially transformative." "Oil prices and the financial crisis are unfortunately distracting, but if we can overcome the crisis, I believe Obama's energy policy could even be the mark of his legacy," he said. "We've let CO2 emissions go on too long without reducing them." Zweibel is an internationally recognized expert on solar energy and is the author of two books on PV. He coauthored an article in Scientific American a year ago, laying out a plan to switch the US to solar power to free itself from fossil fuels and reduce its emissions.