the Air Vent

Because the world needs another opinion

Autumn for the Leaf? Part Two

Posted by Jeff Id on June 14, 2011

by Robert Allaband

According to the Bureau of Transportaion their was 255,917,664 total registered vehicles in the United States as of 2008. Of that total 137,079,843 were passenger cars and 101,234,849 were classified as other 2-axle 4-tire vehicle (SUV’s, Pickups and such).

Now the goal is not to replace a small fraction of those numbers with Electric Vehicles (EV’s), it is to replace all or the vast majority of them if you want to cut the strings of dependency to the internal combustion engine. Now you might want to reach that goal for the reason of GHG’s emission cuts or for energy independence from Middle East tyrants. No matter the reason for the switch lets look at what happens if or once it does occur.

First lets look at what happens if the EV’s that replace the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE ) vehicles use a plug in system such as what is used for the Nissan Leaf. When you do this you have to ask yourself a couple of simple questions:

Where is the electricity going to come from?

Right now the US is suffering a supply problem, and some places experience brown outs and rolling balck outs during the summer months. We have what is called “peak” hours where the demand for electricity is just about to, is at or has surpassed the supply in some areas. We get told to turn things off and to turn up the thermostat on the AC until the “peak” passes. Depending on your electric utility and where you live you can be “in peak” for as long as 12 hours as seen by one provider charging “peak rates” between 9am and 9pm. So this begs the question what happens when you replace just 137,000,000 passenger cars that ran on gas with EV’s and they all come home after rush hour and plug in?

Lets use the Leaf as an example.

According to Nissan ( ) you can program your car to charge during off peak hours so lets say that most people do this trying to save money (this is a best case scenerio). Also according to Nissan it takes approxiamtely 7 hours to charge a dead battery back to full using the 240v charging dock. There is a 480v option that works in 30 minutes, but very few people already have 480v service and very few of those that don’t are going to pay to have 480v service set up, and it takes 20 hours for a 110/120v line. This is why Nissan recommends the 240v charging dock. So you end up over a four hour period every week day with a large percentage of those 137,000,000+ vehicles being plugged in and starting to charge. This in turn means that you must keep more generating capacity up and running for longer periods of time if there is no increase in overall capacity to meet this new demand. This in turn leads to increased costs for the utilities as they must shoe horn more maintainence in during early morning hours where pay scales increase for not working 9 to 5. Also this means line maintainence is going to become more problematic as there will be more demand during what is now “off peak” hours. This in turn means rising costs to the consumer. However lets say the generating capacity is overcome which at leads us to other questions.

How do you charge your car when you are out of power for a day or more?

Lets face it folks, for some places in the US that is not a rare occurance. Places such as known hurricane landing areas, Tornado Alley or where servere ice storms occur people lose power and most do not own emergency back up generators. Even if you did most residential back up generators are not going to allow you to power the necessities of your home and charge an EV. You come home from work one evening with a very low battery, you plug it in, set to charge off peak. You sit down for the evening and catch the news that the hurricane you been following for the last few days is going to come ashore within 50 miles of your home that night. You go to bed, the hurricane comes ashore and the power goes out at 2 am and stays out for the next two days. Yes there is local damage but not that extensive, yes your car got a partial charge and yes you still have to go to work. A day later the power is still out and your car’s battery is dead and so is everyone else’s and you still have to get to work. With an ICE powered vehicle you could have stored gas in a gas can for just such an emergency or more then likely if you live outside of an urban area the gas for you lawn mower. That ability to store the energy in a portable form to be used later is the one area a plug in type EV is hard pressed to meet.

Where exactly are we going to put charging stations besides in our homes?

Does anyone really think that major companies that have 1,000+ workers in one facility are going to install enough charging systems to charge up their employees cars. Or how much they are going to charge their employees for the priviledge if they do? Or how about retail stores and restraunts are they going to try to put in charging stations for all their customers? The cost to install and use all these charging systems have to come from somewhere and guess who that is going to be: You the taxpayer, worker and consumer.

Where are we going to make all these multiple charging stations at?

Remember we are not talking about a couple hundred or thousand charging stations but millions. Then there is the cost of maintaince and replacement. More then likely those charging stations will be made in China or India and shipped to the US, so on the manufacturing side we do not see a jobs increase. At the same time you have to train a large enough group of Electrcians or Electronics Techs to maintain/repair those systems.

These are just a few of the infrastructure and economic problems to switching to vehicles based on the current plug in battery technology. There is a Scientific American article on the problems of EV infrastructure that lays out proposed solutions to them:

In my humble opinion some of the solutions are pie in the sky fantasy like the robotic battery replacement on the go solution. Really? You think every car maker is going to use the same battery and place them in the same position or make their own unique version and place them where they can? History goes for the latter not the former. Others, such as building the charging station version of gas stations, will take too long to get in place before technology changes in some way, such as Semi Solid Flow Cell (SSFC) technology, renders that solution obsolete. Also as pointed out in the SciAm article you have be careful with this technology because support might go “poof” fast.

So lets look at what the infrastructure for a system that uses a SSFC type of technology.

Since the hardware part of the battery system is part of the car and not a subcomponent of the battery we just need to worry about the liquid medium that stores the charge. We need to replace spent liquid for fresh and the paper points out two methods. The first is a whole tank replacement method, basically think of your gas grill but with your car. On paper it sounds nice, but what about in practice? You have to take things into account such as how easy it would be to reach the unit, how big the unit was and how much it would weight. If the unit was about the size of todays gas tanks then a tank replacement method would not work, it would be just too big and heavy for easy replacement.

The second system is IMHO the best way to go and that is a pump system. Basically it would work just like it does with gas. You have a local station with tanks holding the charged fluid and a collection tank that the spent medium goes into for recycling/recharging. The tank and pump system is already in place and the technology is proven, you just convert existing gas stations to handle this new energy medium. People are already familiar with how the system works and they are everywhere. The only new aspect would be connecting on outlet to a vacuum system to remove the spent medium first. This woud be a much faster and lower cost way of getting the needed infrastructure in place before demand rises ahead of supply.

As to conversion from gas to SSFC liquid it is basically nothing more then a new twist on something gas stations already do. Gas stations replace tanks and pumps as needed and it doesn’t require a massive new assembly plant somewhere to make them or massive training or retraining to find people to make or maintain them. Existing storage tanks could be refurbed/recycled for the new medium and the same with pumps. The only thing added is the vacuum system to collect the spent medium from the EV’s fuel tank (again something that is already used in ICE vehicles that can be tweaked to work with the new fuel).

Now this new battery system does have one thing in common with the system now in use: Where is the extra electricity going to come from? Lets assume that just like before that question gets answered. So that leads to how do we charge or recharge the SSFC storage medium?

In the system that EV’s use now it is a diffuse system of individual charging systems straining the exisiting and aging grid. With the new system you can do it by mass production by setting up charging/recharging facilities near power generation plants. This does two things that in the long run reduces cost. The first being it reduces the amount and distance of power lines needed to charge the medium, the second is the economy of scale. If you have a few big recharging facilities they are able to run higher power lines to them and this reduces how much they are charged. Also it would be cheaper to recharge thousands of gallons of medium at one time in one large vat, then it would be at the indiviual fueling stations. That in turn means you need a distrubtion system for the fuel and there is already one in place: tanker trucks and rail cars. The tankers that now bring gas to your local station would now bring the fuel needed for the new SSFC batteries.

This in turn leads to another factor, people do not want to buy a second car that can only be used near their homes. That is a big drawback to EV’s for most people, they can’t drive them to the beach unless the live close enough, they can’t drive them on vacation unless they are not going far. Even when you extend the range of todays Lithium Ion batteries and put in more charging stations, there is still the time to charge if you try to use it on an extended trip. With this type of system that problem goes away, since operationally to the owner there would be no difference between an SSFC powered EV and a gas powered ICE vehicle. The owner/operator just pulls into a refueling station and replaces his spent fuel.

Right now the MIT team believes they will have a working prototype in about 3 years, ready to mass produce:

The target of the team’s ongoing work, under a three-year ARPA-E grant awarded in September 2010, is to have, by the end of the grant period, “a fully-functioning, reduced-scale prototype system,” Chiang says, ready to be engineered for production as a replacement for existing electric-car batteries.

Even if that turns out to be an overly optomistic timeline and it takes 6 years, SSFC technology could be making EV’s that are able to compete both operationally and economically with ICE vehicles well before the plug in EV’s are projected to reach a 2% to 5% market share. So it might be autumn for the Nissan Leaf and its brethern before they ever got out of spring.

23 Responses to “Autumn for the Leaf? Part Two”

  1. Paul Linsay said

    I don’t see why it wouldn’t take just as much extra generating capacity to charge up the fluid as charging a battery. The time scale also seems unrealistic for a reliable fully engineered production system. It’s going to take a couple of decades with the usual ups and downs to make something like this work at any reasonable scale.

  2. Brian H said

    Littered with misspells, klutzy grammar, dumb assumptions, and hectoring in place of thinking. Very shoddy.

    One example: EV charging occurs at night, 90% of the time. Easily arranged with timers, etc.

  3. Bruce said

    Brian H, my favorite is the extension cord running from the car at the curb, over the sidewalk to the wall of the house where it will be plugged in. How long will the extension cord last?

    My 2nd favorite is the 400′ extension cord running from the underground parkade, up the side of the apartment building into the open window of the apartment of the car owner.

    Aside from that … the US now uses about 30% of the coal China uses. Time to ramp up coal usage to supply all that electricity.

  4. boballab said

    Brian H:

    Question how many EV’s are being charged overnight in the US in the year 2011?

    Well lets see the sales of the Nissan Leaf is expected to be 10,000 to 12,000 units by the end of the year:

    The Volt is selling at a comparable rate:

    Leaf holds a slight sales edge from January to the end of May — 2,184 vs. 2,167 for Volt. The figures so far are tiny, but both companies are promising they will pick up.

    So by the end of the year there will be roughly 12,000 full on EV’s in the US and another roughly 12,000 that comes with a small built in gas powered generator. So lets be generous and round the total up to 25,000. That is .000018% of all total passenger cars using the 2008 figure (last year the US has published). So you use the example of what .000018% of US passenger car’s hooking up to the grid as a counter to what 90% to 100% of that figure would do. Now couple that with time zones and how the inter connected US grid shifts power from one area of the country to others as demand wanes. Normally when power demand on the east coast goes down a portion of that generating capacity is used via the inter connected grid further west were demand is still high, however if 90% to 100% of the US car market is now plug in EV’s that demand will not decrease as they need to be charged. From Nissan’s own numbers it takes 7hrs to charge an almost dead battery. So lets run some numbers. You program your car to charge “off peak” (to save money on your electric bill) starting no earlier then 9pm est and no later then 11 pm est (Assuming leaving your home for a 6 am commute). Now that extra demand on the east coast means less available power for all areas west. As each hour goes by a new time zone goes “off peak” and thus the cars programmed in those timezones start charging. By the time 12 midnight est rolls around the entire country is now in what is now called “off” peak and you would have roughly 137,000,000 vehicles all charging at that time. The earliest that the east coast cars will get done charging is 4am est (That is presumed with a start time of 9pm est). So lets see from 12 midnight to 4 am is how many hours again? Oh 4. Now where did I see that number again:

    So you end up over a four hour period every week day with a large percentage of those 137,000,000+ vehicles being plugged in and starting to charge.

    Note I was being very generous in just using the number of passenger cars and not counting all the SUV, pickups and other 2 axle – 4 tire vehicles since that would almost double the total amount of vehicles that might need to be hooked up and charge.

    Lets face it Brian you made a statement that I didn’t know about the Stanford and MIT teams advances with Lithium Ion batteries that you claimed were easily transferable to working technology today without any facts to back you up. I politely pointed in response that I was aware of them and the links to the relevant facts that a) the Stanford advances were still not even in a working prototype and the claims had went down from 5 to 10 times better then existing to 4 and b) That the MIT advance can not be used at all in EV’s until a Plug in version of the gas station for EV’s comes into widespread use. You never tried to rebut those facts, and now your total argument against the facts that Plug in EV’s have major drawbacks is bad grammar?

  5. Anonymous said

    #1 Paul Linsay:

    I don’t see why it wouldn’t take just as much extra generating capacity to charge up the fluid as charging a battery.

    Paul, I don’t either that is why I stated in the post that this system still has that problem to overcome just like the traditional plug in variety.

    Now this new battery system does have one thing in common with the system now in use: Where is the extra electricity going to come from? Lets assume that just like before that question gets answered. So that leads to how do we charge or recharge the SSFC storage medium?

    With either system you have to address the supply problem, however what a possible SSFC system (or something similar) would do would be to reduce the cost of the infrastructure needed and the labor and materials needed to put it into place.

  6. Paul Linsay said

    “With either system you have to address the supply problem, however what a possible SSFC system (or something similar) would do would be to reduce the cost of the infrastructure needed and the labor and materials needed to put it into place.”

    I don’t buy it. You’ll probably need an all new storage system for the fluid so that it doesn’t loose it’s charge plus lots of safety features so that the stray charge doesn’t doesn’t shock people or worse. Without a doubt there are many other similar problems that a knowledgeable person could envision, along with the unknown unknowns that that will surely appear.

  7. Frank K. said

    boballab said
    June 15, 2011 at 12:14 am

    Here’s a “Brian H” scenario for you. Brian H. forgets to plug in his EV on time (he was at a party and got home at 11), so his EV starts charging at 12 midnight. A personal emergency occurs at 2 AM where he needs to get to a relative’s house 30 miles away…oops, not enough juice in the EV!

    Another scenario – the wind knocks out a power line, and again the Brian H’s EV has no juice. Need to get to the store for food, but the store is 5 miles away. Brian H grabs a bike and starts out for the store…at which time the rain begins to come down hard.

    (Of course, he may have a back up generator to address scenario two, but the generator runs on…fossil fuel! Oh no! May as well have an gas-powered vehicle.)

    To be fair…I’m in favor of EVs where they make sense. But they’re NOT a panacea…

  8. Joel Upchurch said

    I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about electric vehicles and I like the concept of electric vehicles, but I don’t think the technology is there yet for the mass production of electric vehicles. In the United States the best technology is using Compressed Natural Gas for vehicle fuel. The United States has large reserves of natural gas and it would reduce out carbon foot print and dependence on foreign energy sources.

    We would need a national plan to create the necessary infrastructure, but no new technology. Fleet vehicles and home that have natural gas could convert over immediately. They already have devices you can put in your garage to compress the gas for adding to your car tank. We would have to create the infrastructure of CNG filling stations for wider deployment.

  9. TomH said

    I have a Tesla sedan on order with a 300 mile range battery (options include lower cost 200 and 160 mile range batteries). I already have the sport Roadster in my garage with 23,000 miles. I charge at 2:00am and weekends. I’ve had discussions with the local utility to use the “smart meter” they’ve installed to provide load regulation while I’m charging to let the coal and natural gas thermal plants run with fewer swings to follow the infernal intermittent wind generators that are offsetting all the rate reductions I should be enjoying from decreasing natural gas prices.

  10. Mark Baker said

    So it’s not practical for a one car household. How about a two car household? Could the US get to five or ten percent of the cars in this county being electric? That would make a dent in oil consumption.

  11. Richard111 said

    A while back I read about ‘induction plates’ being embedded in the road surface to charge electric buses at bus stops. No plugs, sockets or cords required. Surely this could be adapted for private vehicles?

    I assume the principle is the same as the induction hob on an electric cooker, power only flows when the pot is on the hob. Pick the pot up, power flow stops.

  12. Don B said

    Here is the solution for those Leaf owners worried about having enough juice to get where they are going, and back; they can call Nissan to send a 5-ton truck with diesel powered generator to give them a boost! (Only available in Japan.)

  13. Frank K. said

    TomH said
    June 15, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    Tom – give us a road test report for your Tesla. I curious how they handle on the road under real-world conditions. I’m definitely getting a hybrid when the next car purchase comes around, but it would be interesting to know how the current crop of EVs drive. Thanks.

  14. TomH said

    “Tom – give us a road test report for your Tesla – Frank K

    The Tesla Roadster is my main driver. Head snapping torque and acceleration from any speed (0-60 under 4 seconds). I drive mostly highway and have regularly logged 200 mile round trips. I’ve estimated a 245 mile range per charge for slower city driving (less wind drag), although I have less actual city driving history. Averaging 240 watt-hr/mile (metered at ac and includes dc conversion losses). Happily have a sedan on order.

  15. Adam Gallon said

    Whatever way it’s spun, other than for short journeys, probably within cities, the electric-only car just isn’t practical.
    We’ve a fair number of hybrids running around the UK, the electric motor whiring away at lower speeds, reducing polution in a city (Or possibly not, as what’s coming out of the exhaust of a modern car, with catalytic converter, is probably “cleaner” (ie fewer particles [except for a diesel?), noxious gases & hydrocarbons) than the air going into the combustion chambers.
    These vary in size from the Toyota Prius, upto the big Lexus (Badge-engineered Toyota!) 450 “off-roader” (Probably copes with getting off a wet grass verge outside a school)
    So, as things stand, putting aside all reasons for having non-hydrocarbon powered cars, a hybrid is really the only way to go.
    The points about non-compatability of different plugs/sockets is highly pertinant, just look at the mobile phone market, even different models from the same manufacturer have different sized charger plugs, FFS!
    You can bet your bottom dollar,that should a Government get involved & mandate what system is to be used. it’ll turn out to be the wrong one, then again, the public may choose the wrong one too (Think VHS v Betamax?)
    As for other options, I saw a little test, many years ago, shooting an API round into a petrol (OK, gas for you Yanks!), an LPG & a hydrogen tank (May have been in the form of a metal hydride, I can’t remember now), as designed to go in a car. Petrol tank, nice big fire, LPG bloody huge explosion & Hydrogen – a hissing noise with an invisible flame.
    I believe that there is one liquid hydrogen filling station in the entire UK, in a London suburb. LPG is fairly common, with quite a few large 4X4s running on it (V8 slurps petrol, as you may know & at £1.35 a Gallon in the UK!)

  16. Geoff Sherrington said

    Let’s look at Australia. Total population about 23 million. Area about the same as USA 48. Number of passenger cars, about 11 million. Total mileage per annum, about 240,000 million km.

    Main population centres are Sydney and Melbourne, each in the 3-4 million population range. Road distance, Sydney-Melbourne, about 880 km. To far for an EV.

    So who will buy an EV? The chardonnay set who do the daily Mum run to and from private school, mainly. What is the chosen car now? Why, the big-engined SUV, it’s a status symbol.

    Nobody contemplating inter-city travel would consider an EV. Many of the nearest of the mid-sized population centres are more than 100 km apart, so a round trip would be dicey.

    Indoctrinated Aussies would solve this by having 2 cars, one for proper use and one to display their green credentials.

    As for recharging, we are being ordered by Government to have a price on carbon and an emphasis on renewables. Suppose we put in windmills. What does this do to the equation? Because Australia has no nuclear generation, because of political dogma, we have to back up wind and solar with gas or coal. One experienced assessment of the silliness of that scenario is here:

    I’m all for progress, but not at a price that is out of the question.

  17. Geoff Sherrington said

    A better link to Peter Lang’s paper is

  18. Frank K. said

    TomH said
    June 15, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    “The Tesla Roadster is my main driver. Head snapping torque and acceleration from any speed (0-60 under 4 seconds).”

    Whoa! That’s some acceleration! I bet the sedan will be a more comfy ride. Good luck, and keep us auto-geeks posted on your experience. Thanks.

    BTW – 250 – 280 miles is about what I achieve in my current vehicle before I start looking to gas up (for highway miles – 300 miles). So 245 miles per charge sounds pretty good.


  19. AMac said

    This chart suggests that the average US commuter’s one-way trip is something like 15 miles. So say 30 miles round trip. If the range of an EV is 200 to 250 miles, most commuters will not have to charge a nearly-dead battery, most nights. Instead, they would do a top-up, say from 80% to 100%.

    That would greatly reduce the problem addressed in the post, it seems.

  20. W. W. Wygart said

    Looks to me like the widespread use of electric-only vehicles will make cheap[er] ‘off peak’ electric rates a thing of the past unless our electrical generating capacity keeps pace with the massive increase in use, and that means off peak rates for ALL uses, by the way, not just for electric vehicles. Nighttime will simply be the only time when enough electricity will be available to charge the nation’s electric fleet; so you can count out any estimates of cheap rate energy to fuel your vehicles, you’ll be paying full rate 24/7. The law of supply and demand will be ruthlessly enforced here I am sure.

    Personally, WHAT I AM LOOKING FORWARD TO is being relieved of the enormous hassles associated with private vehicle ownership: taxes and registration, years of your life wasted at the DMV, maintenance and upkeep, the lot [maybe you can think of some more] – and MOST of the time the thing’s just sitting there doing nothing but costing you. I would much rather have an autonomously piloted vehicle, of exactly the type and size I need for excursion at hand, arrives at my doorstep and take me where ever I need to go [and back] and when I no longer require it, it drives itself off to take the next fellow where ever HE needs to go [or she]. I only pay for the amount of transportation I actually use, so long as it is billed in a rational enough way [unlike say your telephone] that I can actually tell what I’m paying per mile and what I’m paying for fuel and I would be pretty happy.

    I wonder how many vehicles that sit idle most of the time could be eliminated from the nations fleet with such an auto-on-demand scheme. Some people would want to own a vehicle, because it makes sense FOR THEM to do so, but think about how many second, or third, or fourth cars could be eliminated with such a scheme. What’s this ten? fifteen years away? Can’t wait.


  21. boballab said

    #19 Amac

    The problem with using a straight distance chart is it doesn’t tell you how long the actual commute is. Example when I was stationed in San Diego it took me a half hour to drive the 5 miles from my duty station to where I lived. This wasn’t a sit for 5 minutes and then move situation, it was a constant slow crawl, so an EV wouldn’t be able to shut down and conserve charge (especially in some place like SoCal where if you don’t have AC you bake)

  22. AMac said

    Re: boballab (Jun 17 02:22),

    Yes, that will be true for some commutes. Not for others. I’d guess that the majority of, say, 30 mile round trips are accomplished at a moderate average speed, say 30 mph or better (but I haven’t checked). It still seems to me that the “top off” scenario for nightly recharging is likely to be more common than the “start from discharge” case that you study in this post.

  23. Something totally ignored in talk of “stopping” oil use is that half of our oil consumption now goes into non-fuel: asphalt, lubricants, plastics, waxes, solvents, medicines. Even with free solar power we would need nearly as much oil as we currently use to make these things because they can only be made from oil, and they depend on certain (e.g., heavier) fractions of the oil. The natural gas boom is going to replace coal, not oil (which is a great thing for air quality and costs).

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