Coal-fired cars are here!

Posted in Energy, Society at 9:10 by RjZ

They’re finally here! Coal-fired cars. Well, actually, very early cars were coal-fired steam powered cars but today’s newest additions, including the Chevy Volt are powered by almost 50% coal.

Chevy is actually pretty honest about this. Instead of describing this as a CO2 free car, the website says:

…as technology improves in the generation of electricity, we will continue to see reduced carbon outputs. Advancements in electricity production along with reduction in emissions from electric-powered driving could help make our world a cleaner place.

In the United States, almost 50% of our non-transportation power comes from coal. Less than 5% comes from solar and wind and virtually none of that at night or when the wind isn’t blowing, but even if it’s black instead of green electrons that power your plug-in hybrid or all electric car, Chevy’s got a good point. Centralized electricity production has some problems (like distribution losses mounting to over 30%) but it does mean that pollution controls are concentrated in one place and investment in them is more easily manageable.

In fact, all these new cars may provide just the solution that proponents of wind and solar have been looking for: storage. The electricity grid offers no effective way to store electricity for when the sun isn’t shining, but charging your car while it’s parked all afternoon may eventually, once it’s linked to a smart grid that can borrow some of this energy back, be just the storage that’s needed. No one is sure how to connect all this together so that your car stays charged, and yet still provides some power over night, but all those batteries have got to be worth something!

Speaking of batteries, while Chevy Volt goes for over $40,000, what is far from emphasized on their site is how the battery performs over time. In the beginning you’ll enjoy 35 miles of “tail pipe emissions free” driving. (There it is again, tail pipe emissions free doesn’t mean emissions free. Go Chevy for their honesty, even if it is wrapped in obfuscation.) During the eight year warranty period, best in the market by the way, your battery could lose its capacity up to 50% and you’ll be driving only 18 miles on a full charge without gas. A Prius battery costs about $3400, but it’s not clear how much a Volt battery is going to cost. Chevy seems to be taking the Apple route, claiming it will be covered under warranty and implying that in 8 years, you’ll get a new car anyway.

If you get a tax credit on your Chevy Volt you might be able to afford a new battery later on, or even the $2000 home charger that decreases the time it takes to fully charge, but before you do, have a look at your electric bill. Coal-fired power is pretty cheap with wholesale rates as low as $0.02/kW, compared to $0.08 to 0.15 for wind or solar, but that’s not what you pay. Depending on where you live your kW rate could be from about 22 to 35 cents. The Volt uses around 39kW/100 miles, or from $8.58 to 13.65 per 100 miles. My 2000 Subaru still gets about 25 – 27 mpg and, as of this writing the national average for gas was $3.52, which works out to $12.04 for a hundred miles, or, well, round about the same. You’re hardly saving money on gas, and before you say that gas is going up, so is the price of energy. We all want more wind and solar, but alternative energy investments aren’t free and utilities aren’t charities. They will be passing those costs onto you.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s best for the environment to drive your car into the ground. If your old car is coming around the bend for the last time, if its been ridden to the end of its useful life, getting a Chevy Volt would contribute to the United States economy and support energy independence for everyone (even those outside of the U.S.A.). You might even be able to brag about how you’re supporting clean-coal efforts and cleaning up the environment with your plug-in hybrid. My car’s got another 50K miles to go (I hope), I hope the price of these plug-in hybrids drops by then!


  1. Aaron Hull said,

    March 26, 2011 at 20:38

    Did you ever see the documentary “who killed the electric car?”


    I was pretty shocked to find out some of the history of electric cars and how government and some corporations seem to be going out of their way to hinder technology which was here (at least) 20 years ago.

    Electric cars may not be emissions free depending on the local power(Iceland could probably go about 100% green and you could probably travel most places on the island under battery power(the storage capacity of which which only continue to increase as the technology developed), but if a better technology comes along it can probably be more easily implemented in a handful of large power plants than in thousands of self-contained, compact units.

    Good point about the energy loss that occurs from transporting electricity, although doesn’t the internal combustion engine have quite a bit of energy loss as well?

    The 3 things I’m concerned about are the limited range(which could be addressed by a hybrid like the one you’re talking about, improved battery technology or larger changes to the way we travel) and what kind of long term effects the battery’s electromagnetic field has on the human body, and what materials(and refinement processes of those materials) are needed to make the batteries.

  2. RjZ said,

    March 30, 2011 at 17:10

    I haven’t seen “Who Killed the Electric Car,” but we really shouldn’t be surprised if the technology isn’t new. Electricity, after all, was discovered before petroleum powered engines were invented. I’ll have to check it out, because not having heard the argument, I’d be curious, having visited so many power plants however, what exactly utilities would have against all the new customers. They’re furiously building up for it now. The biggest problem is that it will be incredibly easy for auto manufacture and the resulting demand, to outstrip supply. New power plants take years to site, approve, build and come on line (longer with all the ‘not in my backyard–NIMBYs).

    Nearly everyone knows what happens to price when demand outstrips supply, right?

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