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February 10, 2013

YOUR GREEN VALLEY: Gasoline verses battery-powered: The road to efficiency

TERRE HAUTE — Last year I thought my 15-year-old car was going to take a dirt nap, so I went car shopping. I fell in love with a light blue car I saw on the side of the road. It turned out to be a hybrid. I had never owned a hybrid, nevertheless driven one. The idea of one day owning a vehicle that I had no familiarity with sent me searching for answers.

It is no secret gasoline powered vehicles, also known as internal combustion engines, get better gas mileage at a higher, steady rate of speed. Since the vast majority use their vehicle at lower rates of speed commuting to and from work, our ICE vehicles are not as efficient as we would like for them to be.

To help increase efficiency at a low rate of speed, hybrid vehicles came on the market. To be clear, hybrid vehicles are not electric vehicles. Most hybrids before 2012 are not EVs, even though they have a battery. They receive all of their power from gasoline. The gasoline engine is used to power the car and to charge the battery. The point of the battery is to power the traction engine at low speeds, when ICEs are least efficient. Fast forward past hybrid technology and there are now plug-in hybrids, extended range electric vehicles and pure electric vehicles.

The Chevy Volt, an extended range EV, has an all-battery range of about 40 miles. Due to an onboard ICE the Volt can extend that range indefinitely as long as gasoline is available. Since, most Americans only drive about 40 miles per days, an EV with even a modest range could be sufficient for most usage.

Electric vehicles and fuel efficiency

Since EVs are not powered by gasoline, they must have an energy source. The vast majority of EVs on the market today are run by battery, with a few operating by a fuel cell, which is powered by hydrogen. EVs are more efficient in terms of energy consumption. If you have a gasoline powered car and it comes to a stop, the engine is still running and using up fuel.

“When you come to a stop by pushing on the brake, the energy that has been used to propel the car has to be dissipated by the brake,” said Steven J. Hausman, president of Hausman Technology Consulting. “What is dissipated is heat, whereas when you have an electric vehicle that has come to a stop, there is nothing working. The traction motor is not consuming any fuel at the time.”

Hausman is a national expert, who is a jack-of-all-trades, after a 31 year career as a researcher, administrator and senior executive at the National Institutes of Health.

Switching pollution?

Sally: “Oh look at me, I am so green because I have an electric car!”

Betty: “One that plugs into an outlet which receives power from a coal power plant?”

Who is better? Are drivers going from polluting with oil to coal? This answer depends on where you live and how you view the creation of each power source. Different areas of the country receive power from different sources.

“To a certain extent, switching pollution is correct. However, there have been a number of analyses done which indicate that the ‘well to wheels’ pollution of gasoline versus electricity is tilted in favor of electric vehicles,” Hausman said. “There are also issues of how the electricity being used in the vehicle is produced. If the ultimate source of the fuel is coal, then the pollution levels are higher than if the electricity produced is from natural gas, wind or solar. Increasingly, owners of electric vehicles have also installed their own solar panels and thus can produce their own electricity without the need to utilize grid power sources. In this latter case, one also has to include the pollution involved in producing the solar cells in the first place. It has been estimated that an EV charged from grid power emits about half the carbon dioxide of an ICE-powered car per kilometer driven.”

What does it take to create a battery? This is potentially a concern since lithium ion batteries and electric motors use significant amount of rare earth elements. This usage will continue to grow in the future. Unfortunately, the source of many of these elements tends to be countries and areas that are not especially friendly toward the U.S.

“Lithium itself should not be a limiting factor in batteries as new motor technologies have been developed that eliminate the use of rare earth elements entirely,” Hausman said.

Without destroying the reputation of a battery, when we first started to refine oil, the process was much more energy intensive than it is today.

“People think that refining gasoline doesn’t use a whole lot of energy, but when in fact refineries tend to be some of the highest users of electricity in the U.S. You have to take everything into consideration, including the transportation of the oil,” Hausman said.

Overall, if cost is not a factor up front, then it is less expensive to operate an EV on an annual basis from a fuel standpoint. EVs also have fewer moving parts, so the argument has been made that less needs to be fixed. In addition, newer EVs are supposed to have a range of about 80-100 miles before recharging. An exception is the Tesla roadster, which has a range of about 250 miles.

In the meantime, I am not ready to let go of my 15-year-old vehicle, but I am excited about the difference the new technologies will bring to improve the environment we live in.

Jane Santucci is an environmental freelance writer for the Tribune-Star. Santucci is a proud volunteer with TREES Inc. and Our Green Valley. She also sits on the Wabash Valley Goodwill Industries Board of Directors. Share your environmental stories and tips with her at JaneSantucci@yourgreenvalley.com.

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