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The peak oil crisis: revisiting the electric car

Last week the US Secretary of Energy loaned Nissan motors $1.4 billion to convert an existing Nissan plant in Tennessee to build electric cars. According to the Electric Drive Transportation Association, no less than 25 models of electric cars are being readied for sale in the next few years - most by major manufacturers.

Although the current crop of hybrids certainly runs some of the time on electric motors, the future of electric vehicles are those that plug into the grid and get all, or at least much, of their energy from this source. There is no question that electric vehicles are intrinsically superior to the current combustion engines that have dominated personal transport for the last century. They don't use any, or not as much, petroleum-based fuels. They use energy much more efficiently. They have no emissions. Their performance is as good or better than the internal combustion car, and they are much simpler to maintain. Most places in the developed world already have robust or at least an adequate electrical distribution system for the beginning of the electric age. The last 100 feet to the car, however, will be an expensive-to-overcome problem for many.

The overwhelming advantage of the electric car is that when the time arrives that gasoline and other fossil fuels become too expensive or scarce for widespread use, the electricity probably will be there. Currently the cost of electricity per vehicle mile is very cheap in comparison with gasoline and diesel. Should the costs of electricity rise dramatically or shortages develop, many people will have the option of conserving substantial amounts of electricity at home in order to use it in an electric vehicle.

There are, of course, numerous downsides to the widespread adoption of the electric car and in recent weeks the press and web have been full of stories casting doubt as to their future. The most profound criticism is that the whole idea of continuing with personal vehicles in an age of declining resources - oil, coal, minerals, and personal wealth - is simply nuts. It will never happen. We are better off concentrating on public transport. Given that the world is currently running on the order of 1 billion cars and light trucks, the chances of scraping up the resources (such as lithium and car loans) to replace even a tiny fraction of such a growing fleet is unlikely.

Much of the electricity that would be used to power electric cars comes from coal and natural gas that will not be around forever. Every now and then some environmentally minded soul takes a shot at proving electric cars would make more pollution than gasoline powered ones as dirtier coals are used to generate the electricity.

Then there are a range of criticisms based on the current technical conditions pertaining to electric cars, -- relatively small batteries means that real-world ranges will be shorter than we are used to; most people have no convenient place to plug them in; the batteries are expensive and there will not be enough lithium to build the hundred's of millions we will need. In fact outside of North America, electric power shortages are already a problem which is likely to become worse.

Many of the smaller technical issues however, such as range, where to recharge, and battery material have work-arounds or are likely to be overcome by the many technical advances in battery technology that are underway.

A lot of the answer as to whether we need electric vehicles lies in one's perception of what will happen to the global economy in the remaining decades of the 21st Century. If one thinks the current economic difficulties will soon disappear and a new age of wealth and abundance is about to begin - then you probably won't want to buy an electric car. However, if you believe the age of petro-abundance is just about over and that oil and many other natural resources are going to be in very short supply within the next few decades, then you should start thinking about what would be useful in the transition from the 20th century to whatever life will be like in the 22nd.

In the last 100 years the U.S. and many other parts of the world have built "motorized" societies in which life would be nearly impossible without cars and trucks. People and the entire economy moves on the internal combustion engine. While returning to horses, mules, and oxen to move people and material is always possible - think of the sanitation problem and all the barns we would have to build.

If one thinks of the vast amount of infrastructure the developed world has to maintain - buildings, roads, water, sewage, trash disposal, public safety, power and communications lines - one soon gets the idea that even a relatively short range electric vehicle is going to be an awful lot better than an oxcart in preserving and rebuilding the facilities we currently rely on for food and shelter during the next 100 years or so.

There are of course ways to stretch out existing supplies of oil, perhaps for as long as a century or more, by rationing their use to only the most essential tasks needed by our civilization - farming, food transport, public safety, and utilities maintenance. This probably leaves the rest of us in the bus queue unless we find some other fuel for personal vehicles. For the immediate future, natural gas may be a substitute, but over the longer run only electricity, or possibly ammonia, made from renewable, non-polluting sources will be sustainable into future centuries.

So there is the argument. The quicker we build the necessary recharging infrastructure and start getting ourselves into electric vehicles, the better the prospects for our future.

Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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