Plug it in

By Robert Vierhout | June 03, 2009
The electric car has become the new buzz in Europe. Last year's fierce and emotional discussion on higher food prices and the alleged role of biofuels, combined with high oil prices, made electric cars fashionable again.

There is a clear correlation between high oil prices and people's interest in electric vehicles. At least this is what the statistics say if we look at the number of Google searches for electric cars paired to the oil price.

At first glance, it seems to make sense to shift away from the combustion engine if oil prices go through the roof. To drive a car that is completely silent, odorless and emission free and above all no longer dependent on volatile oil prices is kind of attractive. But a closer look makes it all far less romantic.

The electric car is only affordable for the few. A Norwegian company, Think, introduced a nano-type of car called the Think City - priced at $54,000. And with a top speed of 100 km/h, a range of around 200 km and a recharging time of 13 hours it is a kind of a non-starter.

Another not very persuasive element is that batteries need to be replaced once every 2-3 years of which the costs vary between $3,000 and $5,400, according to the Electric Auto Association Europe. Add to this the costs for disposing or recycling the batteries. Considering that, one can come to the conclusion that regular maintenance of an electric car costs more than that for a liquid fuel-powered car.

A benefit of electric cars is that they produce no emissions. But how clean and renewable is the electric energy used to power the vehicle? I haven't seen any life cycle analysis on a coal-powered electric car but my guess is that the emission savings will be disappointing. Some seem to believe that the win-win option is nuclear power. The United Kingdom, for example, has plans to expand its nuclear capacity heavily and is now subsidizing electric cars. High oil prices have had a positive impact on public support for more nuclear energy, but this form of energy is expensive, requires long-term planning and is uncertain over time due to its waste problem.

Lacking infrastructure to fill-up' your car is a big obstacle in the promotion of electric car. It is similar to the challenge faced by many European countries as they consider the introduction of E85. Auto manufacturers argue against making more flexible fuel vehicles because they claim there are not enough filling stations, whereas fuel distributors argue the other way around. Infrastructure for electric vehicles is a major issue because the grid is simply not yet able to cope with such demand.

Another issue confronting the electric car is the response from Big Oil. Why would the oil industry ever support this technology? It undermines the industry's special relationship with the car industry and would deprive it of oil's most attractive market. I wouldn't be surprised if electric cars are very likely higher on Big Oil's not-to-do-list than biofuels.

It also seems that the automotive industry itself is not so hot (yet) about the electric mode. Some manufacturers say they would consider producing electric models, but most of them have remained dead silent. This is most likely because the car is expensive to produce, there is no charging infrastructure in place and production of electric cars could damage the automakers' relationship with the oil industry. Hybrids are then a far more attractive alternative, and we see the result in the market.

So, those who believe that we will see a major shift toward plug-in cars now or in the near future are mistaken. Certainly, there will be demand for electric vehicles but its use will be limited for quite some time. As proof, the European Commission believes no more than 1 percent of its 10 percent renewable energy target will be fulfilled by electric cars.

Will the hype on electric cars threaten the biofuel industry's development? Given all the problems mentioned, probably not any time soon. There could, however, be an opportunity here: electric cars running on electricity generated by biofuels. In that case - let's plug it in.

Robert Vierhout is the secretary-general of eBIO, the European Bioethanol Fuel Association. Reach him at vierhout@ebio.org.