Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Electric Car Myth.

It's been known for a very, very long time that energy can neither be
created nor destroyed. It can only be converted from one form to
another. The same goes for matter - we can neither create matter not
make it vanish, no matter what it consists of, pun intended, with what
we know .

In humanity's unending search for convenient solutions, we're being
pushed this idea that electric cars are better than those driven by
fossil fuels. If you want to only look at how much smoke is coming
out of YOUR car, then yes, an electric car would indeed be a good
choice. But if you have any concern for how much less your electric
car might pollute the earth as compared to your petrol or diesel beast
- not much.

The question to ask is - where does the electricity to charge your
electric car come from? If it comes from a hydroelectric or nuclear
power plant, you won't pollute the earth any more by charging your
car. The percentage of the world's electricity generated by nuclear
power and hydroelectric power is small compared to thermal. Thermal
energy accounts for nearly 70% of the world's electric power. That
means - coal or gas is burning to provide the thermal energy.

Nuclear power generation and hydroelectric power generation have
something in common - you can't step up the power output at will. In
fact, hydroelectric power is woefully dependent on rainfall and
natural water flow, and is fast becoming unpopular because of its
unpredictability. Nuclear power on the other hand, is incredibly
clean, very reliable, but has a very long set up time and several
other factors to consider and hurdles to overcome.

Solar and wind power are still too small in contributions to really
make a difference yet. So, we're left with thermal power and its
production is on the increase worldwide. If any new demand is to be
quickly met, chances are, we will be burning more coal or gas. There
goes any chance of buying an electric car to help the planet! In
fact, if you and I buy an electric car today, we have a great chance
of putting that entire demand for extra power on a thermal plant. It
will have to be cranked up and we will be forcing more pollution upon

The good thing about your petrol or diesel beast is that it drinks
fuel only when it has to do some work. The horrible thing about your
electric car is that if you charge it fully and don't drive it, it
will get discharged! That's right. The batteries will simply waste
away all the energy in a useless internal reaction. So, you're more
likely to be charging it even when it is not going to be used - tring,
tring, tring - more electricity consumed and more thermal energy in
some distant plant wasted.

It would be great if you could run your electric car by charging it
with your own windmill, but we're not quite there yet. Or solar
power. Every house could have its own solar panel to charge our
electric cars. We're not there yet. The least we could do is to put
solar panels on our cars to at the very least, keep up with the
natural non-use discharge of the electric car's batteries, and
charging them to some extent when the car's parked in the sun. But we
won't do that anytime soon, because electric cars are already
expensive and solar panels will push their prices up some more.

Moreover, petrol and diesel car engines and body structures are made
of metal - one hundred percent recyclable. Electric cars contain
batteries - NOT one hundred percent recyclable, yet. It costs
electricity to make batteries, and digging up chemicals, like lithium,
is also environmental damage. We don't know to what extent we need to
rape this planet to get some efficiency.

Ah, that's the catchword - efficiency. Our cars weigh anywhere
between 700 kilos and 2000 kilos. That's an awful lot of weight to
move a measly 200 to 400 kilos of human weight. Clearly, we need our
cars to become lighter. Motorcycles are brilliant at this. They
carry a significantly higher weight as a ratio of their own weight.
No wonder some of them turn out astronomical fuel efficiency figures,
even in regular usage.

In terms of fuel mileage, hybrid cars are showing up as the best bets
without having to sacrifice range or performance. Essentially, except
for "plug-in" hybrids, these are driven by entirely by fossil fuel
engines, and really cannot claim to be less impactful on the
environment, especially when they carry such enormous batteries as
well. Hybrid cars also have two technologies built into them - the
internal combustion engine and the electric drive mechanisms, so they
are inherently heavier than their single technology counterparts.

The Reva, India's fully electric midget of a car looks so ugly you'd
have to be masochistic to buy it. The team behind that monstrosity
should be out of their minds. to imagine we would put up with that
level of ugliness. That thing better be cheaper than a bicycle to run
if it looks that bad. It isn't. No respite anywhere!

Now, reality. Every manufacturer in India seems intent on putting out
more and more cars, many of them making bigger and faster,
comfortable, luxurious, even ostentatious. Nobody seems to really
worry about what impact this will eventually have on our environment.
I am always amused when news of a new "launch" comes out. What the
hell is there to launch? And whatever happens to the cars that are
launched into orbit? Plenty of amusement is in store in the year to

The Toyota Prius hybrid is priced at Rs. 27 lakhs. Most certainly,
Indian money of that size should not be locked up in one car, no
matter how great. Luckily, not many of us will want to spend so much
on just one car. One of the most successful car models in the world,
the Prius, is about to realize its first marketplace mistake. While
it is priced at close to or just higher than the average car prices in
other countries, it is priced way above most cars in our market. If
you have 27 lakhs, buy a lovely car for 7 lakhs, drop 20 lakhs in a
fixed deposit, get ten percent a year or two lakh rupees a year in
interest, and you will have about 8,000 rupees a month that you can
burn 200 litres of petrol with! At the end of a few years, you will
have almost your entire investment left! How could the Japanese have
missed this simple equation?

If we get more nuclear, wind and solar power, we will actually clean
up the air, but we must also do away with batteries. We simply
haven't figured out how to do that, and in fact, we will be digging up
the earth for all its lithium soon enough. No matter what we do, we
will impact the planet. Breathing included. However, we can turn
vegetarian and help enormously, since one acre of land can support 20
vegetarians but only 1.5 non vegetarians. No wonder livestock farming
is much more damaging to the planet than all the planes, cars, and
ships put together. This would demand a change in lifestyle for a lot
of people, and the food industry is definitely not going to discourage
meat consumption anytime soon. There are no products to be sold by
industries to a renewed interest in being vegetarian. It is also
cheaper to be vegetarian.

So, what can you and I do practically, to show our concern for the
environment? Simple - just do whatever gives us the most value for
money spent. Per person, buses are cheaper than cars only because so
many of us travel in a single bus. It is also the most
environmentally sensible thing to do - take public transport whenever
possible. Anytime we're willing to drag along a thousand kilos of
metal and rubber to transport ourselves, we're killing the
environment. It is really that simple. It is the same with
vegetarianism - it is the more efficient AND economically sensible

But our lifestyles demand much more from us than to be ecologically
sensitive. We'd really not benefit from slowing our lives down to
protect the environment. But there's a natural order to even this
mayhem. It is commerce that is driving new technologies, not some
fear of disaster. So, even when electric cars eventually get to make
sense to us, they will first have to make economic sense. For now,
let's not get conned into any consciousness or activism that our
wallets don't agree with.


1 comment:


hi Senthil for once, u r toally, absolutely right. cheers, keep us the spirit.RPV