Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Movie Night: The 411 on electric cars and fuel cells

Who Killed the Electric Car?I recently had a poll regarding what people's opinions were on the "car of the future". I do realize that it's likely that our SOV mode of transportation may be at an end, or very likely, supplanted by an admixture of personal transportation (car, bicycle, foot) and public transportation.

I also recently watched, Who Killed the Electric Car, and learned a bit about the viability of the hydrogen fuel cell and the marketing machine behind it. Hence the poll. I wanted to get an idea of what people's impressions were of the alternative vehicles on the horizon.

So, I was a little saddened to see that a good 31% of respondents (out of 112 at this writing) thought that hydrogen fuel cells (HFC) were the way to go. Not that I can say anything negative of those who voted that way - that's not my intention and, frankly, up until a few weeks ago I didn't know squat about any of this. Which is why I feel like sharing this movie with y'all.

Car manufacturers have basically killed off their electric vehicle programs, citing that the battery technology was insufficient. Unfortunately (or fortunately), this is incorrect. The battery technology exists, it's just not being used by the major manufacturers. Why, you ask? Because Chevron (Cobasys) owns the patents to the battery technology and has been mostly unwilling to sell the batteries.

Another reason cited by the car manufacturers was that they claimed there was no demand for their electric cars in spite of having waiting lists. The actual reasons are probably still debatable, but let me share at least what I picked up as the reasons why car manufacturers and big oil don't like electric cars.

Actually, let me back up and just mention why car manufacturers like Honda and General Motors even developed them in the first place. California. Back in the 90s, California passed the Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) mandate. Several car manufacturers started making electric vehicles to meet this mandate, leasing them to consumers to "test" them out. In the meantime, California was being sued by big oil, car manufacturers and the Bush administration so they couldn't enforce the mandate. As a result, the state's air resources board backed down on forcing manufacturers to produce a ZEV if they wanted to do business in California.

Subsequently, the car manufacturers killed their electric car programs and then went about recalling the vehicles they had leased out as part of the program and destroyed them all (save for a few that went to museums). In spite of the fact that the people leasing the cars were willing to purchase them outright.

Now, why doesn't big oil like the electric car? Well, there are still trillions of dollars of oil profits to be made, so why encourage consumers to stop buying it? With electric cars, energy can come from a myriad of sources, least of which is oil. Makes sense, no?

And, why don't car manufacturers like electric cars? What difference does it make to them as long as they can sell them? In order to sell cars, manufacturers have dealerships. And dealerships make a big chunk of their profits from.... maintenance. That's right. Well, with the electric car there's little maintenance. No oil changes, no complicated machinery. Just pump up and rotate the tires every now and again. I'm sure there are other reasons, like being in bed with big oil, but suffice it to say, they seem not interested in electric cars for a variety of reasons.

Damn, this is getting long.

Anyway, HFCs are being pushed as the next bestest thing by car manufacturers and the oil industry. Why the hydrogen fuel cell? Well, perhaps oil companies can supplant their profits by switching over to this "new" energy source and replacing their gas stations with HFC fueling stations. This makes the consumer still dependent on big oil (or big hydrogen?) for transportation rather than just charging up your car at home.

Of course, this assumes that the technology will ever become available. Ha ha ha. I'm kidding, right? No, we're still looking at a technology that is potentially decades off, if at all. In the meantime, let's all buy some more gasoline until we run out. Or until the profits run dry. It's a case of bait and switch.

There are a lot more details that I'm obviously not covering. If you want more information about all this and aren't impressed by my slip-shod reporting, I urge you to watch the movie or read the book, Plug-in Hybrids (I haven't read it but it's worth checking into).


Anonymous said...

I wish I could remember how I came across your blog but I can't! I'm too impressed by all the info I picked up here! I stumbled across this site and ended up reading ALL of your entries in one sitting. green tea and an awesome blog. Perfect evening! I read a lot of your entries out loud to my Dh as well. We're both totally inspired! We're also rooting for Mr. Chicken and sending him tons of packing-free positive thoughts!

DC said...

Most hydrogen today is made from nonrenewable fossil fuels. Hydrogen can also be produced through electrolysis -- a process in which electricity is sent through water, splitting the water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. In either case, it takes more energy to produce and store the hydrogen than is actually contained in the hydrogen.

Hydrogen fuel cells essentially work like electrolysis in reverse. Hydrogen is added to a catalyst that converts it into electricity and water. So, hydrogen fuel cell cars still need electric engines to run. A great deal of energy is lost in the process of creating hydrogen, storing it, transporting it and converting it into electricity. Electric cars that run directly on power from batteries are much, much more efficient.

Even if all hydrogen were produced using electricity from wind, solar or some other clean generating source, it would still be much better to just use the electricity produced directly rather than converting it to hydrogen first. And you know that making hydrogen from clean energy sources is not on the agenda of the powers that be. It's much more profitable to make it from fossil fuels and nuclear power.

If we could just build a car that would run on corporate greed, all of our problems would be solved.

ruchi said...

Hah! I just watched "Who Killed The Electric Car" yesterday and I was gearing up to write a long post on it, and then I came here.

You know, when you wrote the poll a few weeks ago, I'm almost positive I picked hydrogen fuel cells. Of course since watching the movie, my vote has changed, and now I'd vote for either the hybrid plug in or the electric car. (If we're up to 300 hours of battery life for those cars, I don't think it will take too long before batteries can last even longer. And maybe people could start carrying around a spare battery they way we carry around spare cell phone batteries for trips that last over 300 hours.)

To me, the electric car offers hope that we DON'T have to give up the personal vehicle. I mean, I hate to drive, and would rather not, but I understand that most of my fellow Californians would disagree vehemently with me. But, hey, if we could get all Californians to drive electric cars, and the electricity was powered by that beautiful California shunshine? Sounds pretty darn sustainable to me!

ruchi said...

My review of the movie is now up on my blog. It covers a lot of the same territory, but I hope that more people watch the movie and take action.

Riana Lagarde said...

ditto what dc said. and lol @ corp greed!

we really want to get an electric car and use wind turbines to charge it. we live in the windiest area of france, you know those mistral winds? those are little puffs compared to what we get around here!

my dad was one of those that tested out the electric rav4 in cali, it drove like a dream and was the coolest thing ever to turn on.

Crunchy Chicken said...

Well, apparently not all the electric vehicles were destroyed. Just by happenstance I stumbled across someone selling a 2002 Rav4EV in San Diego.

So, if you have a spare $40,000, go for it!

Heather said...

I haven't seen the movie, so maybe it makes this point, but hydrogen *isn't* a fuel. It's more like a battery.

To me, a fuel is something that we can get energy from - so oil is a fuel as we find it in the ground with energy in it. Wind and sunshine are kinds of fuels, too.

Hydrogen isn't like that. You don't find hydrogen and then harness the energy in it. You find other things (water, oil) and use energy to convert them to hydrogen and then take that energy back out again when you burn the hydrogen. So it's an energy storage device, just like a battery - not an energy source like oil.

So hydrogen, even if we could get the technology working, isn't a replacement for oil. It'd just be a (much less efficient) replacement for a conventional battery.

Crunchy Chicken said...

When my husband and I were living in California (getting our Computer Science degrees), we went and checked out the Honda EV at a dealership in San Jose.

We both we very interested in it, but they only had a very expensive leasing program and we were dirt poor college students.

But I still fondly remember it...

Jenette said...

Hydrogen still has a long way to go but Honda is leasing there first vehicle to Southern
Californians starting summer of 2008.

but my vote is for the electric car ... some day a Tesla!

Crunchy Chicken said...

The Tesla is a beautiful car. Just a tad expensive. And hard to come by.

I'm impressed that Honda is leasing a HFC vehicle this summer. I guess there are some benefits to living in Irvine.

It will be interesting to see how the leasing plays out. But this doesn't exactly address the problems with the energy cost of producing hydrogen.

The lease is for $600 a month, but they don't say how much it costs to refuel it. At least I didn't see what the current prices for hydrogen are at the refueling stations.

Anonymous said...

We watched this documentary a few months ago and loved it. Both Netflix and Blockbuster have it. It's definitely worth watching!

Sarah said...

We watched this video tonight (borrowed from the local library). Everyone should see this movie. I vote electric!!!


CG said...

Don't believe everything you read/see.

But do see this post: Going Digital

Laura said...

Your post got long because this is a complicated subject! :) Thanks for posting. I agree, "Who Killed..." is a very informative movie. I showed it at the sustainability meetup, Climate Soup, that I coordinate in Seattle. It got a great turnout and we had a lively conversation afterward.

Dang, it really ruffles my feathers when companies do the greenwashing bit. Such a waste of everyone's time and energy, literally.

CG~ I agree, no there is not a "gizmo that would solve the world’s energy crisis, reduce pollution, ease global warming, and give the world’s economy a shot in the arm such that it has never seen" stored away in a vault somewhere. I am the first one to tout the basic solutions over the tech fix but I do think technology has a place in our search for the mix of solutions that will help us live happier, more healthy lives. :) So, unless I am reading you and the blog that you sited incorrectly, don't let huge corporations driven only by profit and their tacts dissuade you from supporting what viable technology innovation there is. :)

Len said...

This is such an old post but I can't help but comment.

Back in the 90's I had a friend doing fuel cell development for more than one major research company. I asked him how I could get a fuel cell to play with and how soon we'd see them out on the road (the media was saying "with a few years"). He said it was a long way off and all the media hype was about generating interest to raise stock values to fund more research, to raise stock values.

It happens that I own a car that was once hydrogen powered (by combustion, not fuel cell). It could get around the block on a tank of hydrogen. If you liquified the hydrogen, it could go a couple miles. This is why hydrogen will NEVER be a viable power source for cars! Liter for liter, it has less than 1/20th of the stored energy of natural gas. For that reason, even the very best fuel cells won't get us anywhere. For fuel cells to be viable would require a different fuel (like natural gas) that has a high energy content and in that case, the pre-processing technology just to make it work is a nightmare! Not to mention we'd still be using a finite fossil fuel.

Barring a revolutionary new technology, electric is the way to go because there is enormous room for further development of battery and solar technology. EVs are near-feasible even today as replacements for gas powered vehicles but with expected breakthroughs in battery and solar technology, EVs will be the hands-down winners.