Ken Adelman's solar-powered RAV4EV
Many electric car owners in California power their vehicles with electricity generated from solar panels mounted on their homes and garages. Ken Adelman's Toyota RAV4EV is one of them.

We Can Drive On Solar Power Now

A skeptic's view of GM's promise to someday offer plug-in electric cars.

By Doug Korthof

Editor Comment: Mr. Korthof is a long-time, passionate and outspoken advocate for electric vehicles who has often staged one-man protests against car companies that include GM and Toyota. The views expressed here are his own; we offer them to help stimulate dialog and debate among our readers.

Electric can replace gas in cars; but not if GM and Chevron have their way

Our USA fleet mileage is about 20 miles per gallon ("mpg"). That includes hummers, SUTs, SUV, Prius, etc. The average miles driven per person per day is 30, using up about a gallon and a half of gasoline.

A gallon of gasoline contains the equivalent of about 35 kilo-Watt-hours ("kWh") of electric energy. A gallon of diesel contains the equivalent of about 40 kWh of electric energy. That's why it is often said that "diesel cars get better mpg than gasoline cars". It's because there's more energy in diesel than gasoline, it's a more energy-dense fuel. Also, diesel engines have a higher compression ratio, mechanics find them easy to work on, and they are generally better maintained than gasoline cars; but that's another story. Tune-ups will increase your mpg.

The conclusion is that the average USA gasoline car goes about 20 miles on the energy equivalent of 35 kWh, which is enough energy to keep a 1000 Watt hair dryer running for 35 hours (1000 x 35 = 35,000 Watt-hours which => 35 kWh).

Electric Drive Inherently Better
An electric car is much more efficient than a gasoline car. The reason is simple: there is basically only one moving part, the motor rotor, on an electric car, and it's going in the right direction -- same as the wheels.

A gas engine has pistons going in an up-and-down motion that has to be valve-regulated, with rings, wrist-pins, rods and lots of other moving parts, and transformed into rotary motion by the crankshaft, with the help of grease, oil, coolant, bearings, etc. There are muffler, EGR, catalytic converter, fuel and other systems that are just not needed on an Electric car.

A gas engine runs most efficiently at a constant power range -- usually about 3,000 Revolutions Per Minute ("RPM"). The gas engine is not suited for stopping and starting; for this reason, locomotives, long ago, were redesigned to use the diesel engine only for generating electric power, ALL traction power comes from the electric motor. The rationale behind this is also simple:

-- Stopping the vehicle requires either turning off the engine, or breaking the power train. Usually, this is done with a friction or hydraulic-fluid clutch, which loses energy and wears out.

-- The power range is poor for starting out; hence, a gas engine car must have gearing, so that it has up to 10 RPM of the engine for each turn of the wheels at low speed, but 1, or less than one, at highway speeds.

An electric traction motor does not have these problems; it has maximum torque at zero RPM, and handles speed ranges, reverse, and hills with electronic switching. Regenerative braking, too, can be used to suck the energy of motion back into the batteries; surprisingly, diesel-electric locomotives don't store this energy, because historically diesel was so cheap. With the rise in energy costs, now, some do.

Hence, an EV goes 3 to 6 miles on each kWh of stored electric power. Going up hills, and accelerating in traffic, does not really use up much more energy than driving on flat ground, because you get it back when going down hills or braking. This "3 to 6 miles per kWh" number is a theoretical limit, derived from the aerodynamics of any car, and from the fact that the most energy lost in an EV is by air resistance, not the much lower coefficient of rolling resistance. This number is borne out in the everyday driving of EV drivers, from the 1997 lead GM EV1, 1997 Nickel Metal Hydride ("NiMH") battery-powered Honda EV-plus, 1998 NiMH Ford Ranger-EV, 1999 NiMH GM EV1, to hundreds of 2001 and 2002 NiMH Toyota RAV4-EV.

The number is demonstrable; the RAV4-EV, for example, a small SUV, can be seen and measured on any day to hold at most 28 kWh. On that power, it goes 80 miles at 80 mph (high wind resistance), 100 miles at 65 mph, 120 miles at 55 mph, and up to 150 miles at 35 mph. Thus, from 3 miles per kWh up to 6 miles per kWh. The EV1, much more aerodynamic, went 4 to 6 miles per kWh.

Thus, an EV goes 105 to 210 miles on the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline (35 kWh). without the gasoline. Thus, without the high cost of oil diplomacy, oil wars, armed forces, foreign aid to oil dictators, oil spills, oil transport, and so on. According the the California Energy Commission, the largest industial user of electricity and natural gas (not to mention potable, subsidized water) is the oil extraction and refining industries. It's difficult to claim that electric used to charge up EVs is "dirty" and "comes from coal", but "clean" when used to pump oil and refine gasoline.

These advantages pertain only to plug-in, real EVs that don't use the gas engine for anything but charging the batteries.

"Phony" Hybrids Are Gas Cars
The only "hybrids" currently offered for sale are all "parallel" hybrids, meaning that the gas engine is primary, and the electric motor just serves as a booster for power to achieve a higher mpg number. These hybrids are all gasoline cars because they cannot plug-in. They get all of their enegy , ultimately, from the gasoline pump. They are not "half and half", they are not electric cars. They are gas-burning cars with an electric booster that runs on batteries too small to plug in. Thus, all "phony" hybrids share the characteristic that they cannot plug in, and are therefore still tied to the gas pump.

The parallel "hybrid" gets its better mpg numbers from three sources, all of which emulate advantages inherent to the Electric car, and absent from other IC cars:

1. STOPPING THE ENGINE while the car is stopped in traffic, and using complicated computer controls to open and close valves, etc., to start off. This saves idling in traffic, which of course, real EVs never do, since real EVs don't idle and don't have emissions.

2. SMALLER ENGINE because it can get away with using the electric motor for an occasional booster.

3. LIMITED REGENERATIVE BRAKING, limited because, unlike a real EV, the "hybrid" battery is laughably small, only 1.3 kWh (.4 kWh is useable). Hence, it can only recover a tiny percentage of the energy of braking. When full, these hybrids must rely on mechnical braking, and are subject to the same problems as gas cars: excessive brake wear, burning brakes on long downhill stretches, loss of power on long uphill runs.

A Prius fitted with a 9 kWh larger battery can achieve 90 mpg (more of the enrergy of braking is recaptured) and if you can plug it in, it gets up to 180 mpg.

There are other advantages to the "phony hybrid", such as use of the Atkinson Cycle engine and the Continuously Variable Tranmission made possible by the electric motor boost at low and critical engine speeds.

An EV Is Very Efficient, That's Only Part of the Story
Now let's look at the energy consumption of an EV, and examine why, even with charging up TWO RAV4-EV, our local utility, SCE, still owes me over $200 in excess electric I've produced this year -- plus getting all my domestic electric for no additional cost, of course.

Even a modest solar rooftop system can produce up to 30 kWh of electric energy in the summer peak period per day. This, via Time of Use ("TOU-D1") pricing, can yield up to 120 kWh of electric credits for off-peak charging. These carry over, they are zeroed out at the end of the year, but meanwhile, we get to use them for off-peak charging and for domestic electric.

Credits of 120 kWh per day, or about 3600 per Summer month, give me the ability to drive for more than 10,800 miles per month in my RAV4-EV (3,600 times 3). Hence, as you can see, not only are we driving "for free", we are using some of the money that would have gone for gas to pay for the payments on our solar system.

Driving more than 30,000 miles per year in two RAV4-EV currently costs us NOTHING; if we had an average gas car, that would be 1,500 gallons of gasoline, or at least $4,000, not counting tune-up, oil change, engine repairs, smog checks, brake jobs, etc. Three years of that, plus our $100/month domestic electric, and we have more than paid for our solar sysytem.

But there's more. Instead of being "nickeled and dimed" to death by SCE, our electric utility, we saved over $20,000 in AFTER-TAX dollars JUST IN THREE YEARS. Depending on your tax bracket, that frees up more than $25,000 in PRE-TAX earnings.

The solar system is ours to keep; instead of the money going away each month to feed the nearby AES power plant, it went into hardware that now sits on our roof, and is worth more now than when we bought it. Meanwhile, it just keeps on producing more "free" electric energy.

And there's even more. Each kWh we produce helps meet daytime peak demand, which heads off brownouts and reduces any argument for building more steam plants. The daytime peak is the only time we come close to peak capacity, and each solar system that goes in lowers the chance of shortages. When a new plant goes in, it sits idle 20 hours per day, because it's only needed for peaking; on the other hand, if you just build a "peaker" unit, it's very dirty, and very expensive.

The night-time charging of the EVs actually helps the grid "balance loads", because otherwise, there's too much electric, and generators must be ramped down to "warm start", and expensive and dirty process. At California's Lake Castaic, and a dozen other sites, 6 powerful pumps use off-peak electric transmitted down the Western States Power Grid, the largest DC power grid in the world, to pump water up to Lake Castaic at night. The next day, the pumps turn into generators, and the "stored" off-peak electric is used to meet on-peak critical usage. Even with the 20% loss, this cheap off-peak power is about 12 times cheaper than daytime peak power from other sources. Hence, our off-peak charging of the EVs actually is beneficial to the grid, and that's why we, like other non-solar TOU-D1 users, get the differential rates. It's a numbers thing.

Now there's even more, solar PV helps insulate, preserves the roof, because it transforms some of the sun's energy into electric, and the air gap actually cools the home and helps protect the roof. But nothing can match the carefree feeling of watching your electric meter go backward, knowing that you are a visible part of the solution to the problem of global warming.

We are also, moreover, protected from upward spikes in electric rates at least for the next 25 years (the panels are guaranteed for 80% performance, but may last for decades longer), because we have effectively paid up-front for our electric power for the forseeabld future. If prices rise, we sell at that same price, and our system becomes even more valuable.

With the freedom of the plug-in electric car, assuming you can get one, you save much more money; but more importantly, you don't need to get a smog check at all. Electric cars are exempt from that annoyance. Once, a government emissions employee was trying to verify that we were exempt, and kept looking for a tailpipe, muffler, some sort of engine. It was gratifying.

No oil changes. No more annoying "Jiffy Lube" commercials. No engine repairs, no greasy, ill-tempered mechanic laying some strange problem on you, "...I wouldn't let you drive that home tonight, with a third-member like that, not to mention the receiving cylinders...it can be finished in a week, not much more than a thousand dollars...". Mechanics love the Electric car, because there's no grease, and not much to do other than check fluids, rotate tires, maybe do a data readout or replace a fuse.

No catalytic converter replacement. That's an expensive one.

You get to drive single in California's HOV lane, just like a Natural Gas car or a Prius; but Electric cas are always able to do so, there's no quota on the number of Electric cars in the HOV lanes, as there are quotas for "hybrids".

Less brake wear, because of regenerative braking. The Honda EV-plus mechanic, after 60,000 miles, asked, "...don't you use those brakes at all?". Less tire wear, more stability in an accident (the batteries are carried under the Electric car, in a tray, providing stability; it won't turn over!).

You can drive it into your home, if you wish, or leave it on in your garage. No embarrassing oil leaks, no exhaust, no danger.

To drive, it's easy. Nothing to start, no roaring, no coordination of clutch and engine, no stalling out. New drivers an just concentrate on the fun stuff, driving. Hill climbing is fun, and starting on a hill is a breeze, unlike the terrifying startup in a gas car on huge hills such as San Francisco. It takes off smooth, like an airplane, an efficient, direct transmission of power to the wheels. No slipping on mud, snow or ice; not much need for tire chains when we drove to the ski resort.

It's clean. You never realize how dirty a gas car is, even for the occupant, until you drive an Electric car.

One recent USC study validates other studies, and common sense, that show much higher levels of lung damage for freeway drivers, while they are on the freeway; and that kids in close proximity to freeway pollution suffer permanent lung damage. That doesn't mean that kids farther away are safe; it just means that their lungs are stunted slightly less badly than those suffering the worst damage. This affects urban design, it is said: but so long as freeways contain IC cars spewing emissions into the air, there will never be a safe place to live in L.A.

The biggest thrill of driving an Electric car, you are making a visible statement that you are not part of the war for oil. It's the most powerful political statement you can make, even more than voting, some say.

We invite others to tour our solar PV home, view our two RAV4-EV, take a test drive, view our SCE electric bill that shows we contributed excess electric each year the last two years ($98 and $89) and are ahead over $200 so far this year. This is reality; we never visit gas stations except for occasional drives in our last gas car or a rental car or truck. Our family has driven over 470,000 miles in oil-free Electric cars over the last 9 years, 3 RAV4-EV alone are 70,000, 75,000 and 95,000 miles each, and still running strong.

Who needs gasoline? Not us. Don't bomb Iraq, Iran or hold hands with Saudi oil dictators on our account.

And we're not the only ones. There are over 300 individual, and hundreds more fleet, RAV4-EV drivers still driving 2001 and 2002 Toyota RAV4-EV, most of which have rooftop solar systems. It's not for everyone, but those who taste the freedom, when that invisible chain from the gas pump to the lock around your neck falls off, just love that taste. Why not let others have the choice of driving essentially "oil-free"?

Ralph Vartabedian's recent story in the L.A. Times about how many families have more than one car also renders false one major argument against Electric cars. Detractors claim that Electric cars, to be practical, must be capable of 600 miles range and fast-charging in 10 minutes to be able to compete with gasoline or diesel Internal Combustion ("IC") cars on long trips.

But most people don't rely on only one car for all uses, and, if they do, it's for driving to work, not long distance.

Most driving trips are short-, not long-distance. For long trips, it's no longer cool to tour the USA in an IC car. Taking the plane, or, where available, train or bus, is a more likely alternative to escaping your troubles, pulling stakes, and fleeing "to Chicago or bust".

The Toyota RAV4-EV, still in service on its original 2001 Nickel Metal Hydride ("NiMH") battery pack, gives up to 120 miles on a charge at up to 80 mph. Even if it's not mated to a small gas engine to charge the batteries on long trips, like the proposed GM "Volt", it's a great car for the daily grind and for local errands, which is what most of our gas gets burned at anyway.

Yet GM, ironically, still postures that the 140 mile EPA range of the 1999 NiMH EV1 was the reason they crushed them all. Why not let those people who are buying golf carts for their sixth or seventh car keep the EV1? GM had no reason for its action other than vindictive hatred of EVs. Even worse, GM charged ex-lessees for "scratches" on the very cars it crushed, and, instead of proving its claim in open court, violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act by backstabbing our credit reports and damaging our credit.

GM's underhanded treatment of former fans of its doomed EV1 hints it's only using the promise of its plug-in Volt for a Public Relations exercise, and has no intention of actually producing it.

If GM were serious, it could roll out the Volt today with the same NiMH batteries used in the Toyota RAV4-EV, which are powerful enough to run an EV without help from any gas engine, cheaper than Lithium, safe, non-toxic, have no memory effect, deep-cycle, and last longer than the life of the car -- even a Toyota car.

The Toyota RAV4-EV carries 28 kWh in its 770 lb. NiMH battery pack. A battery pack half that size, 385 lbs., would give the Volt a range of at least 50 miles, more than the specifications called for in GM's proposed Volt concept car. This weight would actually be less than the weight of the power train, gearing and clutch it replaces. The Volt would actually weigh less than the Toyota RAV4-EV, which goes over 100 miles per charge.

NiMH use, also, in the Volt would be helped by the 1000 cc small engine-generator (used only to charge the batteries on occasional long trips).

NiMH is the standard for all production EVs that last longer than 50,000 miles, including the Ranger-EV and Honda EV-plus. NiMH is the most proven and researched EV battery, with millions of miles of testing in the lab and on the road, by test drivers and by lessees, fleet drivers and 328 RAV4-EV owners.

Scott Lindholm of Cobasys, which is doing the Lithium "research" for GM, admitted in AutoWeek (Jan. 19) that NiMH is here, now, and had no explanation for why GM is not willing to use this cheaper, better and more reliable battery. One also tends to wonder if Cobasys, a unit of Chevron, will be the best choice for researching a product which would cost its parent company billions of lost sales and profits.

So don't expect GM to make the Volt real; it's just a Public Relations ploy, designed to deflect the guilt GM deserves for crushing the EV1, piled on GM by the recent documentarty, Who Killed the Electric Car.

Times Article Viewed: 23330
Published: 19-Feb-2007


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