By Seth Richardson
It’s time to face facts about electric cars. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and for every benefit an all-electric car might have, there are environmental and economic problems to match.
“Zero emission” electric vehicles are anything but zero emission, and in a number of ways they are more harmful to the environment than the gasoline-fueled vehicles they seek to replace. Take for example the battery pack required by an electric car. They are massive, heavy, and are filled with toxic materials that have to be disposed of when the battery pack eventually fails, as every battery ever designed by mankind does, and they have to be replaced. The manufacturing of batteries of all types consumes energy and has its own “carbon loading” and pollution coefficient which is rarely factored in when analyzing just how “green” the vehicles actually are. While most automotive batteries can be recycled, there is still an environmental cost to be considered in both the manufacturing and recycling of any battery that’s usually left out of the environmental analysis.
And then there’s the electrical generating capacity improvements that are required to replace the fossil fuels that are supposedly avoided by using all-electric vehicles. Unlike a standard gasoline powered automobile which can be refueled at any of a thousand gas stations in the area at need in a matter of minutes, an electric car must be recharged at a charging station that may require special circuitry and connectors, which limits the locations where they can be recharged, and it can take many hours to recharge them. And the infrastructure for charging stations is not cheap by any stretch of the imagination. The price of copper wire, for example, is at an all-time high at the moment. But that’s hardly the only issue with all-electric vehicles. And then there’s the additional air pollution resulting from increases in generating capacity, even with natural-gas fired plants, much less coal-fired ones.
In addition to extremely limited range for electric vehicles, which is usually less than 100 miles, and is often around 40 or so, using an electric vehicle requires a good deal of planning and careful attention to charging if the operator is not to be left stranded somewhere with a dead battery.
In 2000, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, purchased a fleet of 20 electrically-powered Ford Ranger delivery trucks intended to provide clean, efficient movement of materials around the sprawling lab located on the slopes of an ancient volcano high above Santa Fe. Twenty sophisticated charging stations were installed all across the lab’s facilities to recharge the trucks. The intent was laudable, but within a year or so, the entire program had been abandoned, the vehicles disposed of, and the charging stations removed.
According to Steve Sandoval of the Communications Office at LANL, “a determination was made that the maintenance costs were prohibitive. For example, to conduct regular maintenance on the vehicles required that the truck (s) be driven to Albuquerque, 90 miles from Los Alamos each way.”
But according to confidential sources one of the primary reasons for the failure of this well-intentioned program was the confluence of the inherent design flaws of the electric trucks and the human factor.
It seems that employees would just jump in a truck, as they were accustomed to doing with gasoline-powered vehicles, and would take off to make their deliveries without carefully checking the state of charge on the batteries. This lead to frequent occurrences of the trucks stalling out in inconvenient places, which required the truck to be towed to a charging station, where the employee would have to cool his heels for hours, or find another way to transport the materials, while the truck charged up.
Eventually, managers at the facility decided that the cost of towing the vehicles and the delays associated with having to recharge them, combined with the servicing costs, exceeded their value as fuel-saving vehicles, so the program was abandoned.
This points out the inherent flaw in short-range electric vehicles. They only work well when both the route and timing of their use is both consistent and predictable, and there is sufficient time at either end to recharge the vehicle. In other words, an all-electric vehicle might work very well for a daily commuter who lives less than 20 miles or so from his place of work and who drives it to the office in the morning, puts it on a charger while at work, and then drives it home in the evening. But electric cars are not well suited to moving public employees about the city, much less the entirely of El Paso County, on their less-predictable daily travels.
I predict that what happened at the Los Alamos National Laboratory will happen to the County Commissioners if they decide to buy all-electric vehicles, and they will end up abandoning the program for the same reasons; inefficiency and excessive costs caused by the failure of employees to properly manage battery charge necessitating expensive tows and lost productivity.
Perhaps one day, when all-electric cars can swap a discharged battery pack for a charged one as quickly and easily as one can fill up a gas tank, such vehicles will be suitable for more than the limited purpose of commuting to and from work every day. But that day has not yet arrived, and the County Commissioners should steward the public’s money better and resist the urge to slop at the federal trough by participating in a grant program that has to extract the money for the grants from taxpayers to begin with.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch, particularly where the federal government is concerned, and like the Los Alamos National Laboratory experience, the Commissioners may spend taxpayer money for a feel-good sop to mindless environmental correctness and end up with an expensive white elephant of a program it’s obligated to support even when the costs involved far exceed what it would cost just to go buy a fuel-efficient subcompact car.
Hybrid vehicles are substantially better when it comes to energy management because they can operate on gasoline alone if their battery runs out, but there is evidence that they are not nearly as cost-effective as some would have you believe. Toyota is touting a few of its Prius hybrids that are said to have more than 200,000 miles on their battery packs, and they claim that some may have close to 400,000 miles on them, but the common consumer experience appears to be far different.
While Toyota warranties their battery packs for between 100,000 and 150,000 miles these days, depending on model and year, it appears that no few battery packs need to be replaced right about the end of the warranty period, and the costs of replacing a battery pack can easily wipe out the savings in fuel costs realized over time. One Prius owner in Santa Fe owns a 2004 Prius and recently had to replace his battery pack at only 120,000 miles, and it cost him nearly $6,000 to do so, which wiped out any cost savings on fuel he had accrued. His story is far from unique.
Greg Thome, manager of Toyota Division Communications, says, “We have not had a complete hybrid vehicle battery replacement due to failure. We have mentioned that in past interviews and perhaps speeches. The hybrid battery is made up of 28 individual modules, and on rare occasions we’ve replaced and individual module for an owner if needed (under our 10-year hybrid powertrain warranty). Only the equivalent of about one percent of the total batteries in operation have been sold as replacements overall, including those damaged in accidents.”
But this statement fails to explain the many complaints about poor battery performance and the high cost of replacing a hybrid battery pack that can be easily found on line, and which literally wipe out any accrued fuel savings with a single battery pack replacement.
Nor has Toyota responded to questions about their dealership qualifications or willingness to diagnose and repair a faulty battery module in a pack. According to the best information available at press time, neither Toyota nor its dealers will offer to repair a faulty module in a pack if the pack is not under warranty, so the owner is compelled to buy an entire new battery, even though only one module may be defective.
Commissioners should strongly resist the urge to pander to eco-correctness or slop at the federal trough, and should buy only vehicles of proven value and durability that will most efficiently serve the public at the lowest possible cost for the longest possible time, and which do not become useless and require expensive battery replacement when an ordinary gasoline powered vehicle can be expected to rack up at least twice as many miles without substantial need for major repairs.
Hybrid vehicles may be a valid option for El Paso County, but the Commissioners should pay for it on their own and resist participating in feel-good federal grant programs which always come with strings attached.
© 2011 Altnews