Climate Week NYC - Electric TransportationI attended an event yesterday at Climate Week NYC entitled “New Ideas for Electric Transportation: Recent Developments in New York State and Quebec.” Though it had been advertised as specifically focusing on battery technology and electric vehicles, what emerged was a rich exploration of the systems linking to and surrounding these technologies. Many matters were covered, but a few prominent themes surfaced again and again.

A central, organizing principle was the notion that our transition away from fossil fuel powered transportation will not be solved by one, but an ecosystem of multiple, complimentary technologies. The imperative to develop battery powered electric vehicles (EV) is not that they are an end in and of themselves. A traditional internal combustion engine will always require energy in the form of liquid that can be ignited, which at best means ethanol fuel that still releases carbon into the atmosphere.  By contrast, having an electric drive train provides a platform for which any number of alternative sources can provide power. Early EVs may feature generators powered by gasoline or ethanol as range extenders, but ultimately other technologies like fuel cells, or even sources we have not yet considered, can become secondary or primary sources of vehicle power.

Batteries have a crucial role to play in EV development, but also present limitations. The best existing commercial batteries are still very heavy, which means that increasing the number of cells to provide more storage capacity simultaneously reduces range, as more power is needed to move the weight. Groups like the New York Battery and Energy Storage Technology Consortium are working to bring the best minds and resources together in making performance improvements. Earlier types of lithium based batteries were highly flammable if compromised and exposed to outside air. Remember the exploding laptop batteries?  IREQ, Hydro-Québec’s research institute, is developing new battery variants that do not pose a safety risk when damaged. Even lithium batteries with improved performance and safety characteristics still do not represent an end game technology. The types of metals and other material used in their manufacture will always be comparatively scarce, and extraction still results in significant use of energy and environmental damage. Ultimately, batteries made from common, non-toxic elements represent the fullest extent of sustainability.

Vehicle and infrastructure manufacturers will need to recognize that usage patterns determine how best to approach designing EVs, their support systems, and integrate all of it into the existing power grid. Personal cars spend the vast majority of the time parked at home, so this will represent the largest market for charging stations. Power utilities will need to understand and anticipate the new loads that charging will bring to the grid. Manufacturers and information technology firms will need to develop and standardize the communication standards for connecting all of these pieces together. Even as the technology hurdles are overcome, as of yet, and despite the efforts of many, there is no clear, winning business model for EV charging infrastructure.

The majority of the discussion revolved around the various ways to supply energy to move a vehicle. I posed a question at the end, regarding the consideration of making vehicles lighter by smart design and use of new materials, in an effort to reduce the amount of power needed in the first place. Gary Stottler from General Motors answered, explaining that yes, that was considered, and that there are two parts to that factor. Because reduced weight means greater efficiency, a solid energy use reduction and therefore dollar value can be attached to every kilogram of weight removed. This makes weight a very helpful engineering consideration. The trouble is, Stottler indicated, many of the safety requirements mandated by law, as well as the features we demand to be present in our cars, mean that there is a limit to how much reduction can actually be achieved.

I think that the use of super strong yet lightweight materials that already exists, such as carbon fiber, coupled with good engineering, can overcome the first limitation. As for features, Stottler must not have been referring to people like me. My first car was a Volkswagen Fox with manual transmission and no powered steering or features of any kind, and it was great. Maybe we should stop loading up vehicles with every distraction conceivable and just concentrate on driving.