Monday, April 27, 2009

Question of the Day

Earlier this year I wrote a piece about some developments in hydrogen production, particularly promising in the context of fueling combustion engines in automobiles.

In part, I raised some questions about the push towards EV's (electric vehicles), in particular that the electricity will necessarily (in the forseeable future) be derived from the same polluting resources (primarily coal) as the rest of the grid is, and would put an enormous new strain on renewable energy resources slowly coming on line, should millions of these vehicles eventually come into use.

The question is a practical one and asked in all seriousness :

Given that EV's will be best suited to urban environments, with short-range driving and the worst vehicle emissions concentrations, what of the millions of households for which vehicles must be parked on the street or "off-site", nowhere near the owner's source (or possibly any readily-accessible source) of electricity, such as from the owners' homes/dwellings/businesses?

An example is my own home, an old Wilmington "town house" that, like most such houses all over Wilmington, is at least 50 feet from the street parking in front to the nearest electrical outlet inside. How could I possibly re-charge an EV, even if I could secure a space directly in front of my home - which usually happens about 5-10% of the time in free-for-all that is city street parking?

I don't see people running extension cords out to the street, even if they could guarantee parking in front of their place. I have not seen any simple, practical solutions to providing electricity wherever drivers end up having to park their EV's.

Not that it isn't technically possible, but it would likely cost trillions, born by unknown parties at this point, to create ubiquitous urban energy infrastructures to practically accommodate EV re-charging at street level in cities the world-over.

Imagine this problem in a city the scale of NY, with a lot of dense vertical housing, and the problem becomes exponentially more complicated.

An interesting article out of Belgium breaks down the technical aspects of EV charging, but seems to raise more questions about the practicality of mass use of EV's than it answers and it appears to have been written almost 10 years ago.

Sometimes the seemingly more mundane practical aspects of mass-deploying alternative technologies like EV's can be highly-limiting, if not killer, issues despite the best intentions of their engineers. I noted just such an issue in my previous linked post, wondering aloud what solution is conceivable to address when some drivers, careless or otherwise, inevitably run out of battery power on the roadside.

These EV drivers can't just dump a gallon into the tank in short order, and be on their way. (I can only imagine how much portable stored power would be necessary if "fast-charging" was even possible in such scenarios).

The possibility of integrating photovoltaics (solar conductors) could hold promise, but is nowhere near realization for conventional EV power needs.

EV's will require much closer attention, monitoring, and forward-planning by their users...something not exactly commonplace in the vast majority of vehicle owners/drivers....but perhaps people will adjust and deal with the additional hassles/issues as best they can.

Any thoughts or information to share?


pandora said...

Tricky situation, and I don't have the answer. Here's a positive spin... yet another industry waiting to spin off electric vehicles.

My first thought was stations - like parking meters, only more attractive - placed on city streets. That's off the top of my head, so I haven't really considered how it would work.

Good question.

Tyler Nixon said...

We may find EV's are best limited to fleet uiage and suburban dwellers, where charging can be done in your driveway.

The stations you mention is an obvious solution, but not easily deployed everywhere, nor cheaply. Just think of Wilmington...who would pay for it, and how would you access it if you are the whim of available parking near these stations?

This a huge problem inherent in tying mobile devices, especially of large energy replenishment demands, to a type of energy that can neither be "pumped in" quickly nor is detachable from its source (such as a fuel tank allows).

In the big scheme, just think of trying to charge your cell phone away from home, out and about, and multiply such an impact far more profoundly...and more expensively, given the amount of electricity demanded to charge EV's.

I do agree with you that it could spin off novel solutions and innovations as the industry develops...

pandora said...

I see you points, Tyler, and agree that EVs may be limited to fleet usage and suburban dwellers... in the beginning.

If demand is there, someone - somewhere - will figure out how to meet it! I just can't see a potentially profitable new industry writing off entire sections of the population - especially a demographic (city dwellers) that's an easy buy in for their product.

How this will happen, I have no idea. Then again, I had no idea that post-it notes would one day consume so much aisle space at Staples!

Anonymous said...

One idea I've read about is to have service stations that sell/install a charged battery for the depleted battery, kind of like a netflix exchange.

Perry Hood

Nancy Willing said...

Perry, one idea I've read about was having 'exchange stations' where you just take a few minutes to dump the battery needing a charge for one that's ready to go.

Tyler - good article. The significant roadblock of city parking/plugging in isn't mentioned any where else I've seen.

Delaware Watch said...

Great points, Tyler. Proof that sometimes the devil is in the details.