Where did electric cars come from?

It seems like electric cars hit the market ‘yesterday’ however these battery-powered machines have been around longer than gas tank cars. The first-ever electric was made in 1832 by Robert Anderson. It was more popular than the regular gas tank, which was faulted for being stinky and also taking a crank to start.

It wasn’t until Ford came out with the Model T, in 1908, that electric cars got pushed off the grid. The petrol cars were half the price and had also become modified to start without a crank. People especially liked them, since gas stations, allowed them to travel between cities. Electric cars were confined to city’s power supply.

It seems like today, there’s been a major shift, and more people are starting to use electrics again. A lot of research is going into making them better. So, why all of the sudden?

1. Oil embargo

Renewed interest in electrics began with the Arab oil embargo. The ban on oil exports to the US prompted the 1976 Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act. Basically, the US wanted to have less dependence on Arab countries for oil. Scientists began making electric cars better, so that more people would choose them over gas cars. However, the oil embargo didn’t last long and oil prices that had skyrocketed, quickly dropped back down. The general population preferred petrol cars, since they were cheaper and performed better. At the time, electrics could only go 40 miles on a single charge. A lot of work still needed to be done before anyone would make the switch…

2. Reducing Carbon Emissions.

Growing concern for the environment set off the rapid expansion of the electric car industry. People became aware that global warming was caused by carbon emissions, 30% of which come from car exhaust. The excess rain and heat was also starting to threaten food supply and clean drinking water. Thus, reducing emissions became of vital concern.

American policy first began supporting electrics with the 1990’s Clean Air Act Amendment and then again, the 1992 Energy Policy Act. The California Air Resources Board, which is a world player for cleaner air, also promoted electric cars. Expansion in government-funded investments, gave the electric car industry, the ‘fuel’ it needed to take off.

Popularization of the electric car.

Apparently, the Japanese Prius made the first big breakthrough, especially among celebs in the early 2000’s. Silicon Valley also announced that it would become home to a luxury line of electrics, called Tesla Motors. So, even more people took notice. Tesla was given $465 million from the Department of Energys Loans Programs Office to establish its very first facility. The new electrics could go up to 200 miles on a single charge, significantly farther than anything ever made before.

The energy department invested more than $115 million to set up nation-wide charging infrastructure across the US, so that electrics could be used for long-distance travel. Private businesses and automakers also invested in charging stations. New battery technology made the charge last longer and the cost of electrics became dramatically less. In fact, anyone who bought a Tesla last year, probably did so at a $7,500 subsidy.

Electrics only make up a fraction of car sales however sentiment is strong. In fact, Tesla’s outperforming major car company, GM, on the stock market and every car company out there’s scrambling to come up with an electric line. Porsche just announced that its car inventory would include 50% electric models by 2023 and JLR said that it would be making the full shift soon. Electric car sales went up by 25% last year in the US alone. Europe has also taken on electric cars by storm. For example, France declared that there would be a total ban on sales of petrol cars by 2040, so it’s electric only.

It’s clear that the world sees a lot of benefit to the transition, since the electric industry’s growing fast. There’s no doubt, the electric cars have the potential to reduce global warming however nothing is perfect in this world…

Cons of electric cars.

One of the biggest drawbacks to electric cars is that they can actually increase global warming…

1. Carbon plants

Electric cars are only as good as their source of electricity. Quite often, electricity is made from non-renewable energy sources, like carbon and anyone driving a coal-powered electric, is actually releasing more CO2 emissions than in a fuel-efficient petrol car. In fact, estimates say that coal is twice as polluting than gasoline. For example, the US state of Michigan uses coal power and some say that electric car drivers there should pay a tax rather than receive a subsidy. However, electrics are cleaner than gas when the power supply is clean. There are some parts of the US that use renewable energy sources, like wind and solar. This includes much of the south-west and so drivers there deserve the subsidy.  

It’s clear that electric cars exist in a grey area, where there’s potential for benefit or otherwise, harm. For example, if we introduced electric cars on a large-scale in China, it could be an environmental disaster. China’s home to the world’s largest population and is almost entirely coal-powered. The sheer number of coal-powered electric cars would pollute far more than regular gas. 

2. The battery

Electric cars require bigger batteries, which pollute via mining. For example, the rare earth metals mine in China, called Jiangxi, dissolves clay using ammonium sulphate, and then passes it through a series of acid baths. Once the metals have been extracted, the chemical-filled soil is dumped back onto the ground. Coal power is also used for the mining process, like for crushing rocks.  

It’s hard to quantify the full extent of environmental of mining’s damage however it’s believed to be significant. Still, experts say that the initial increase in mining pollution for the electric car battery is offset over the lifetime. An electric car that’s powered by renewable energy is always cleaner overall than gas.   

3. Particulate matter

Cars contribute to particulate matter, that’s small particles of sulfates from carbon plants and nitrates from car exhaust. The debris is so small you can’t see it but when inhaled, it’s bad for the lungs. Estimates show that a 1µg/m3 reduction in particulate matter can prevent 34,000 premature deaths. Apparently, electric cars and petrol cars release the same amount of particulates. The heavier weight of the electric, cause the same amount of particles to be released from the wheels and brakes as the gas car’s overall emissions. Electric cars have the potential to pollute less than gas, if the weight of the car’s decreased.

Moving forward.

There are so many things to consider when it comes to the environment. Electric cars are 100% the way of the future however will they help or hurt? Only time will tell. They seem to be a step in the right direction, since they eliminate a major culprit. That is petrol exhaust. However, for electric cars to be truly clean there has to be an increase in renewable energy sources and mining alternatives.

1. Renewable energy

As for cleaner energy, it doesn’t seem like there’ll be any immediate change. Current infrastructure supports coal. Also, renewable energy, like wind and solar, isn’t reliable. Consider that the energy shuts off when the wind stops blowing. Of course, no one would want to sign up for that.

If there was a way to store energy, it could become practical to replace non-renewable with renewable energy sources. That’s why a ton of research is being conducted to uncover cost-effective ways to do just that. The concentrated solar power (CSP) plant, that’s operated by California’s SolarReserve, has come up with a potential solution for solar power energy storage.

The CSP plant is literal rocket-science. It was started by a nuclear engineer named Gould and a NASA team, called Rocketdyne. It has thousands of mirrors, called heliostats, and a black tower-like receiver that can absorb heat. The heat then flows, via molten salt, to a heat exchange that makes steam. This turns a turbine that can apparently run a generator and provide up to 10 hours of power.

CSP projects are growing in number. For example, there’s a partnership between China’s Shenhua Group and SolarReserve, to develop 1, 000 megawatts of CSP molten salt generation for China. Apparently, that’s enough to power up to 164 thousand homes. Still, there are well over 400 million homes in China, so it’d take at least 2, 400, 000 megawatts to power all of them. CSP would need proven reliability before investments could meet the power supply demand.

2. Mining

There are mining alternatives for car batteries. Apparently, it’s possible to extract metals from recycled phones and lap tops. China’s Tianqi Lithium Industries recently announced that they’re opening a major processing plant in Australia for research and development on recycling metals from old gadgets. Then there are companies, like Umicore, that already recycle metals, like cobalt, from old rechargeable batteries.

Conclusion

One thing that’s for sure is that there’s far less denial of pollution and global warming today, then there was yesterday. Plenty of research is going into the technology needed to clean our environment. Who knows, maybe humans will get to drive around in electric cars the day the earth is clean.

Yeah, right!