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Solving Cost, Recharging, Practicality Problems of Electric Cars

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All-electric cars are in the future, but how far in the future? Until recently, problems of price and practicality have stood in the way of introducing the no-emissions, no-noise vehicles to the mass consumer market. Better Place, a Tel Aviv-based company located off a traffic choked highway in what was once a gas storage facility, thinks it has the answers.

Sidney Goodman is the Automotive Alliance Manager at Better Place, working with what he calls “vision partners”– at last count, 130 companies that may have a stake in electric cars. They range from automobile manufacturers to corporations that lease fleets of cars for their workforces (a common employee benefit in Israel). Speaking to a group of reporters at his Tel Aviv office, Goodman tosses off information about excise tax rates in Denmark, road distances in California, the recylclability of lithium ion batteries, and taxi drivers in Tokyo. He describes Better Place’s goal: to work out the kinks so electric cars can become a global reality.

The stakes are high: According to Better Place, 20 percent of worldwide carbon emissions come from automobiles, and even counting the emissions involved in producing electricity (usually from coal), the carbon footprint of using electric cars is far less than anything on the market, including hybrids. (Goodman estimates that electric cars operate at an equivalent e-mileage of 95 m.p.g.) Not to mention that for an Israeli company, the idea of oil independence is especially appealing. According to Goodman, the goal is for Israel’s two million cars to be off of oil by 2020. The first consumer electric cars (all Renault Fluence ZEs) to be serviced with Better Place plans are hitting the Israeli roadways in 2011.

Changing and Charging Stations: Solving the Practical Problems of Electric Cars

Better Place’s solution to the practical problem of keeping electric cars charged revolves around a two pronged service program.

“Most people use their cars only about two hours a day,” Goodman explains. “The rest of the time, the cars are sitting, and while they are sitting, they can be charging.” The Better Place service plan entitles each car owner to two rechargers, one of which would normally be placed at his home, and one at work. It takes about six hours to fully recharge a battery.

In the case of a suburban homeowner with a private garage or driveway, an assigned spot in a condominium complex, or work-place provided parking, the logistics of placing recharging stations are fairly easy. In cities such as Tel Aviv or New York that have perennial parking shortages, situating enough rechargers in public lots will be a challenge; meeting the needs of people who park on the street may be even more difficult.

The second issue is the longevity of battery life: Electric cars can only run about 100 miles on a fully charged battery. So for longer trips – a weekend in the country, a vacation, a holiday visit to the in-laws who live three hours away – Better Place has envisioned a network of battery switching stations that would, like gas stations, allow motorists to refill on the road. However, instead of recharging (which takes six hours), the batteries would be simply changed. The process is fully automated, and the time involved is about the same as pumping a tank of gas. And, for those drivers who will (inevitably) ignore their cars “low battery” warning systems and try to get the last mile out of the last watt, the plan includes road service.

“We’ve even tested this concept with taxi drivers in Tokyo,” Goodman explains. “Unlike consumers’ cars, taxis are on the road virtually 24-7. There’s almost never a six-hours of down-time for recharging.” But a city-wide test using taxis in Tokyo confirmed that the process was no more arduous or time-consuming than filling up a gas tank. And the drivers appreciated the quiet, emissions free cabs.

Of course, regions like the rural west in the United States and the Australian outback, which have huge distances between population centers, have other problems: Making sure there are enough stations. Better Place is rolling out tests in the corridor between San Francisco and San Jose, California starting in 2012, with two battery switching stations and five taxis, and increasing to six stations and 60 cabs. The test will run through through 2017.

Purchase and Operating Costs of Electric Cars

Goodman explains that several other hurdles have to be overcome before electric cars can be successful in the mass market world of everyday consumer usage.

  • Cost of cars: Cost is the first hurdle. The cars and their operating costs must be comparable with the current internal combustion competition. As with hybrids, some consumers may be willing to pay a premium to be eco-friendly, and some governments may give tax benefits and rebates. But for long term mass market success, the price must be competitive. In some countries such as Denmark, huge incentives are on the boards for consumers who buy electric cars. Goodman expects these incentives to lead to earlier consumer acceptance.
  • Cost of operation: In countries with high tax rates on gas, electric vehicle quickly earn back their initial investment. The United States may be a more difficult market to crack because the U.S. has comparatively low gasoline taxes; with U.S. drivers paying less less than half of what drivers in other countries pay to fill up a tank. Better Place’s Service plan is mileage based – the more you drive, the more you pay, but according to Goodman, the cost of an e-mile is going to be less than that of a fuel mile.

A Better Place envisions making its system of battery charging and switching stations open-source technology, to avoid drivers having to cope with switching stations they can’t use owing to incompatible technologies. They envision that other service providers will spring up to compete with them, and that, unlike competing cell phone companies who don’t allow others to use their towers, the service providers will pay each other for services one provides for the other’s customers.

Visitors to Israel have a unique chance to test drive an electric car and see a demonstration of the recharging technology at work. Tourists to Israel generally get a good look at the past history of the region. But visitors to trendy Tel Ava can can visit Better Place’s headquarters on the north side of the city to get a glimpse of the future.

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Electric Cars Drive for Less Than $.03/Mile: New Green Vehicles Can Save Money and the Environment

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New technology is sometimes costly. Cellular phones are a great example. While the newest hot products can cost hundreds of dollars, the older phased out hardware of yesterday is practically given away.

For car lovers, this does not have to be the case. Nissan’s Leaf and GM’s Chevrolet Volt run on the road for approximately half the cost per mile when compared to the Volt’s efficiency when running on gasoline. On top of this, car buyers will receive a $7,500 tax credit for either purchase.

The Chevy Volt

The hybrid Chevy Volt is anticipated to be released at a retail price nearing $40,000. When the tax credit is included, the price lowers to $32,500. But the real savings comes over time.

According to ABC News, the average commute for Americans is 16 miles each way. Add a trip to the grocery store, bringing kids to practices or games, and going out to dinner on occasion, and drivers could easily cover 80 miles each day. For those who have very efficient vehicles that get 40 miles per gallon, the cost per mile is $.07 (according to the US average gas cost on March 24, 2010 of $2.80).

This same driver in a Chevy Volt will be able to commute the first 40 miles gasoline-free because the battery will propel the vehicle that far before switching over to its internal combustion engine. The cost per mile while driving on electricity is just under $.03, making this particular daily commute $.05 a mile.

While two cents doesn’t sound like much, here’s the math’s two cents’ worth on the matter. 80 miles equals a savings of $1.60, which may or may not buy a cup of coffee. When the car is driven 350 days out of the year, the savings comes to $560. For those who maintain their vehicles for the long run, the savings could potentially be in excess of $10,000, bringing this vehicle’s cost down to less than $25,000.

For those who know they’ll not exceed 100 miles per day (ever) the Nissan Leaf can bring even higher savings.

The Nissan Leaf

If the Chevy Volt is a bargain after the tax credit, then the Nissan Leaf is an absolute steal. The Leaf is expected to retail at $32,500. After the tax credit, the cost will be $25,000.

While the Volt runs for 40 miles on electricity, the Nissan Leaf is all electric. The drawback for some, though, is that being a road warrior does not go hand-in-hand with driving this vehicle as its maximum range is 100 miles per charge.

For those that will not exceed this distance on any day, there are great savings to be had. At $.03 per mile, the savings versus those driving a Chevy Volt doubles. The same driver who would drive his or her vehicle until the wheels fall off will practically have the Nissan Leaf for free!

Electric cars are long overdue for many who love to have alternative sources of energy, especially in their daily driving. With the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, green driving may spread like wildfire, saving thousands of drivers millions of dollars.

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Electric and Plug-in Hybrid Cars

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Electric cars, such as the Tesla Roadster, and plug-in hybrid cars, such as General Motors’ proposed Saturn VUE SUV, have several characteristics in common. Both offer better fuel economy than traditional gasoline-powered cars, both emit fewer pollutants than conventional cars in operation, and both employ both gasoline-powered and electric components.

Electric Cars

A purely electric car uses electricity to power the wheels of the car. This electricity is stored in the car’s batteries, which are recharged both during operation and overnight.

Recharging during operation is done by one of two means. One is regenerative braking, which involves using the motor to slow the wheels of the car, with the energy generated by the braking process used to recharge the battery. The second is by means of a gasoline-powered generator, which kicks in to produce electricity to help power the car and recharge the batteries once the batteries have been drained of their initial charge.

The batteries are also recharged when the car is not in operation and is plugged into the electric grid.

Plug-in Hybrid Cars

In the case of a plug-in hybrid car, the gasoline-powered engine is used to power the car when it is operating at cruising (i.e., highway) speeds, with the electric motor assisting when the car is accelerating or climbing hills and extra power is needed. The car uses its electric motor to power the car when it is traveling slowly, such as in city driving conditions. Once again, the electricity used to power the electric motor is stored in the car’s batteries, which are recharged both during operation and overnight.

Recharging the batteries of a plug-in hybrid during operation is similar to recharging the batteries of an electric car, except that it is only the excess power from the gasoline-powered engine that is used to recharge the batteries. As with electric cars, the batteries are also recharged when the car is not in operation and is plugged into the electric grid (hence the name, plug-in hybrid.)

The Potential Downside to Electric and Plug-in Hybrid Cars

While both types of cars generate lower emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas implicated in global warming, and other pollutants during operation, they are not necessarily better for the environment than conventional gasoline-powered cars, because they are no greener than the source of electricity in the area of the country in which they are operated.

Where Electric and Plug-in Hybrid Cars are Best

Both of these types of cars offer substantial advantages in areas of the country in which electricity is generated from “clean” technologies. These areas are the Pacific Northwest, where most of the electricity is generated by hydroelectric plants, and the Eastern Seaboard, where most of the electricity is generated by burning natural gas.

Where Electric and Plug-in Hybrid Cars May Not be Better

In those parts of the country in which electricity is generated in coal-fired power plants, electric and plug-in hybrid cars lose their “green” edge. This is due to the fact that the emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide and mercury, of coal-fired plants are very high – high enough to overcome the advantage that electric and plug-in hybrid cars offer in operation.

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How and Why to Buy a Green Car

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Using EPA’s Online Tool To Choose the Most Efficient Car and Save

Last week the EPA rejected California’s bid to limit greenhouse gases from cars. It will surely be tied up in court for some time, but that doesn’t mean consumers have to wait to buy greener vehicles. Choosing an efficient vehicle today can help save the planet and money. A U.S. Government online tool makes this easier than ever.

These days just about everyone’s aware of global warming and paying attention to their energy use. Maybe they buy compact fluorescent bulbs, maybe they purchase carbon offsets. Nobody would do something silly like leave their refrigerator door open overnight, let alone for months and months.

But wait—maybe in effect, many of us are doing just that. Choosing to drive an SUV instead of a passenger car, in just one year, is the energy equivalent of leaving your refrigerator door open for 6 years. Hard to believe, but it’s true.

The Bush Administration’s EPA rejected the bid by California and 16 other states to improve the efficiency and greenhouse gas performance of passenger cars and trucks. Hopefully, the states will prevail in court. But if President Bush gets his way, fuel mileage won’t be increased until 2020. That’s a long time in a world fast careening towards climate calamity.

But really, there is no need to wait for government action. Every vehicle owner has the power to make cars and trucks cleaner right now. How many trips per year actually require an SUV, van or truck? What if even half of the drivers of these larger vehicles bought a passenger car instead? The U.S. would be much further down the road to climate sustainability. And would also rely less on foreign oil.

Even without owning a large vehicle, it’s still possible to haul bigger things when needed. Most people can rent a van or truck for a couple of times per year when the hauling space is needed. Furthermore, the lower sticker price plus fuel savings of a passenger car would more than make up for the cost of rentals.

It’s time to make a commitment to keep the planet in mind while buying a car. This means choosing the most efficient car that suits one’s needs. There’s even a handy website to help make the choice. At the U.S. EPA and Department of Energy Fuel Economy website, it’s easy to compare the mpg for any make or model of a passenger vehicle.

Of course, the Civic hybrid or Prius are some of the top choices from a planetary perspective. But for anyone who can’t afford a hybrid today, there are plenty of other very efficient models.

And the fuel economy tool works for used cars too, since it has information for vehicles all the way back to 1985. They even recently updated the older data, to make it compatible with new car data (which is under updated testing rules). This means one can compare all vehicles on an “apples-to-apples” basis.

The government can, and eventually will force automakers to offer more efficient vehicles in every class. But for now, it’s up to consumers to choose efficiency. The health of the planet hangs in the balance.

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