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The first battery pack for the General Motors Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle comes off the assembly line. (Bill Pugliano/2010 Getty Images)
The first battery pack for the General Motors Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle comes off the assembly line. (Bill Pugliano/2010 Getty Images)

Jeff Rubin's Smaller World

The electric car: Turn out the lights Add to ...

Will technology leapfrog depletion and save drivers from the cost of triple-digit oil? Every auto producer in the world has an electric car in the works; General Motors, of course, will start producing its Volt later this year. But in actuality, the car of the future is really a throwback to the past.

In 1899, an electric car was clocked going over 60 miles an hour. And a little over a decade later, a Detroit Electric managed to travel 211 miles on a single charge (by comparison, General Motors' Volt will go just 40 miles on a single charge before its back-up gasoline engine kicks in.)

In an ironic twist of fate, it was the invention of the electric starter that all but killed the electric car, since you no longer needed the physique of a weightlifter to crank-start your internal combustion engine.



Back then, of course, you didn't have today's lithium-ion battery technology. But like most other oil-saving technologies, this one ain't cheap. The lithium-ion car battery costs about $7,500, and even a sub-compact like the Volt is going to set you back $40,000.

Sure, the cost of operating one of these cars will be cheaper than running the gas-powered one you're replacing, but will the lithium-ion battery stand up to years of driving?

The one in my laptop couldn't even handle my daily email before frying my hard drive.

Whether car batteries prove to be an economically viable way of storing energy remains to be seen (gasoline carries about 20 times more energy per pound) but storing power and generating it are two very different things. Batteries, lithium-ion or otherwise, need to be charged by an external power source.

And just where is the energy charging all those batteries going to come from?

The American vehicle fleet-some 250 million cars-burns 13 million barrels of oil per day on the road. That's what it takes to power two million American homes for an entire year. (I discuss this in depth in chapter four of my book, Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller.)

Just which part of the continent's power grid has that type of spare capacity?

Certainly not the part where I live. Only a few summers ago, one too many air conditioners running during a summer heat wave sent me walking down the 18 flights of stairs in my former office building, as the grid collapsed between Ohio, upstate New York and Ontario.

Try charging 250 million lithium-ion car batteries and see what happens.

Of course, we could always try to meet that energy challenge by emulating our climate-change partners, China and India, and build hundreds of new coal-fired generating plants.

I wonder why no one proposed that at the recent Copenhagen global environmental summit.

So by all means, leapfrog the constraints of our rapidly depleting world oil supply and trade your gas-guzzler in for an electric model. Just remember to turn out the lights.

 

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