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The Electric Car and … Electricity

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I went to the public night of Plugin 2011 in Raleigh, the annual electric car extravaganza, looking for what was happening on the edge of electric car science. What I found instead, of course, was more of an early adopter love fest.

Which isn’t a bad thing. This was applied science here: materials and demonstrations were so cheerfully based on reality that Plugin 2011 made the Raleigh convention center feel a lot like hanging around a Radio Shack in 1983 with people talking about how to get the best performance out of their Model 4 TRS-80s. Plugin is sponsored by the Electric Power Research Institute, a utility industry group, so thinking beyond utilities wasn’t its goal. That is, attendees don’t spend a lot of time questioning whether, say, continuing reliance on road building and car culture is a good thing, or discussing the state of the roads (like Car & Driver just masterfully did). It addressed “range anxiety” as a problem to be solved rather than as a possible good.

But it did show off a lot of cool, nuts-and-bolts stuff that will make electric cars not just work but work in people’s lives. Plug technology was much on display —  it was comforting to learn the new plug, for an example, is already an industry standard (Society of Automotive Engineers J1772, if you’re wondering, and that’s for both 120-volt slow level 1 connections the 240-volt level 2 fast ones).  But the plugs are old news — at Plugin you found things like specially designed automatically disengaging plugs to save you from those inevitable “pull incidents,” as the literature describes them. Which is to say, it’s not just your cell phone you grab up and forget to unplug. This will try to save you from yourself.

As for where to charge the things, countless vendors are already supplying level-1 and level-2 home charging stations. Raleigh itself is one of three pioneer cities that are part of Project Get Ready, a nonprofit project of the Rocky Mountain Institute, figuring out how things like

public charging stations will work and be paid for. Raleigh’s are currently free; don’t look for that to last, but at the moment you can get a nice fast charge all for the price of a couple hours of street parking. There were overhead charging stations for your garage that zip up the wire when you finish; charging stations with those nice curly wires that make zipping up unnecessary, and companies that specialized in helping you decide which charging station you need and then helping you install it. (Suggestion: buy the one with the prettiest LCDs. Just because it’s new technology there’s no reason it can’t be fashion forward.) There was information from the Argonne National Laboratory (responsible for energy research), talking about standards for things like electric garbage trucks. And companies like Ecotality, through its Blink, and Coulomb, through its ChargePoint, are already managing networks of charging stations; Google Maps is doing the same. And it turns out the RV parks are a great charging option, as will be, suddenly, Walgreens.

My favorite company was Conductix, which makes inductive chargers currently in use in Europe — buses sit for a few minutes over a buried inductive loop at either end of their route and are thus wirelessly charged just enough to power another course along the route. The video the company sent me to, regrattably, is kind of crappy.

It wasn’t a bad video day all around, though. The audience — a thousand plus, easily — got to watch a screening of “The Revenge of the Electric Car,” which the highly optimistic updating of the much less optimistic “Who Killed the Electric Car?” It was a great finish to an evening full of people making reassuring comments about utilities’ capacity to provide juice for all those charges and the capacity of the infrastructure to handle it. The electric car, everyone agrees, gets cleaner every year as the grid gets cleaner.

True, to be sure. But still: that means half  – okay, 45 percent -- of those electric cars will be powered by coal. There’s lots not to like about coal — which made it interesting to have News21 release its interactive film, “Coal: A Love Story,” only a couple days after Plugin. With short videos and graphics about everything from the effects of explosions in coal mines to the effects on West Virginia of falling coal prices, the piece throws a little bit of context onto our complex relationship with coal.

Nothing’s easy. The electric car doesn’t solve our problems any easier than going cold turkey off coal would. But when waxing lyrical about electric cars, it’s worth, say, using the calculator on the “Coal: A Love Story” site that lets you determine how much coal you use every day, or go here to figure out which mountaintop-removal coal mining company supplies your own local utility.

No answers here. Just tradeoffs. As usual.

 

 

Scott Huler About the Author: A writer who commonly explores science, culture, and the relationship between the two. Follow on Twitter @huler.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Brian.cooke 4:56 am 02/19/2012

    Hi Scott

    I’m wondering, when you see a public charging station in a parking lot who is paying for the install and electricity. As I was sitting at the Davenport Bakery in Davenport CA today with my vehicle plugged into a 110v receptacle
    I thought it would be great to have 220v charger in Davenport. If it is a State sponsored that would make requesting a charge station there a little easier.

    A new VW Beetle Enthusiast.

    Link to this

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