Electric Cars and Batteries

Electric Cars are not the end all, be all, solution concerning pollution. In fact, electric cars are not without pollution. The pollution comes from producing the electric that is used to charge their batteries. Further, in the manufacture and eventual disposition of the car batteries, pollution is a major factor. The current battery technology utilizes some very toxic materials that cannot be casually disposed.
In the U.S. 55% of all electric generation comes from coal fired facilities.   On the other hand the utility industry speaks of a much cleaner future. One study comes from an electric utility company stating that electric cars and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) will be less polluting in their lifetime, BECAUSE it assumes the national electric grid will be less polluting in the future decade. As an engineer and financial model you need to sell a product or idea on the base case, not the high case, i.e. model out a base case scenario with facts, not assumptions. The study also notes that people with home based renewable energy systems will charge their vehicles without using power from the grid. Also, for those people who don’t have a renewable energy system, they’ll charge the cars at night (instead of the day during peak load) which is less stressful to the system. When you model, you should also take into account people’s normal behavior, not the way you want people to behave.
This may be a farce. If we created a business plan with pie-in-the-sky assumptions like that, investors would laugh us out of the room. As a sidenote, there’s even an article out there explaining how a dog has twice the environmental footprint than an SUV, but we love dogs, so let’s talk about electric cars instead. Now an electric car in Norway makes perfect sense, since more than 98% of their power is from hydroelectric dams.
Now let’s think about this. There’s a slight push now to recycle batteries, which is pretty pathetic for a country as advanced as ours. If you are interested in recycling rechargeable batteries, please visit http://www.call2recycle.org.
Let’s consider a cell phone battery. It weighs about one ounce and there are people out there who get upset if you don’t recycle. Let’s compare this to an electric car. The GM EV1 had a battery pack of 1,310 pounds and the new electric car coming out in the near future will hopefully be much lighter. So let’s say it’ll weigh around 900 pounds. That’s about 15,000 times more batteries by weight than a cell phone. Oh, and you’ll have to buy new batteries every 3-5 years at a cost of thousands of dollars. I can’t even imagine how much pollution that is in batteries, especially if our nation is starting to be concerned about tiny cell phone batteries. Wait until electric cars become commonplace.
We actually herald the new electric car coming out, but we need to solve the battery problem and the electric source for charging it. We spoke earlier about how to make solar PV panels and wind turbines directly feed DC energy to an electric car at very high efficiency. (Renewable Energy … AC vs DC Blog).  As for the battery problem, there is a great deal of money being invested and whoever solves the problem, or at least comes up with a much better solution, will make a billion dollar company overnight.
For those out there who think electric cars are non-polluting, be aware that they are also stealing from the commons. There is a $7,500 federal tax credit (which is much more valuable than a tax deduction). And the people who can afford electric cars will be at least in the 25% tax bracket, which makes their credit worth at least $10,000 pre-tax (i.e. same as getting a $10,000 pay raise).
Let me tell you an environmental military story from ten years ago in 29 Palms, CA. The “Palms” has a cradle-to-grave program. Turns out, over a decade ago the EPA sued the Marine Corps for too much pollution on the military training site, i.e. Marines would drop batteries on the ground when they changed batteries in their equipment. There must have been a lot of batteries on the 596,000 acre training site for the EPA to sue. I don’t know how much money was exchanged, if any, but what’s important is that a “cradle-to-grave” program was initiated; meaning every hazardous material (hazmat) will be inventoried from its “birth” to its “death.” They do this by controlling all hazmat coming onto the base.
You have to submit a purchase order before you even show up; spend a half a day picking up your supplies, and then another half a day distributing the supplies to your unit. Such a pain…I was a Supply Officer, so I’m allowed to complain about this “centralized” process. That’s not the crazy part…what is ridiculous is that every battery package was serialized. Somebody actually tagged the alkaline batteries, you never throw out your batteries in the field, and when the training evolution is over, you return the used batteries, and somebody catalogs them again. Whatever is missing is assumed to have been improperly disposed of in the desert.  Some people would call this job security for the battery counters.
Now think about that. Alkaline batteries! Batteries that any American can throw in the trash is actually serialized and tracked. And even non-toxic, safe to eat, cyalume safety lightsticks (a.k.a. chemlights or glowsticks) are even tracked as hazmat.  And of course, the list of “HAZMAT” grew as years passed by.
I’m complaining because this was, in my opinion, overboard and seemed to exist just to create jobs. It is a logistical nightmare, and the worst part is that it affected training. Military units rely on a special battery for radios called a BA-5590 that cost about $80 back then. Getting your hands on these batteries was very tough and you could generally get them for your unit only after months of backlog, but when everyone showed up at 29 Palms trying to buy them at the one and only base store, good luck. You may have wanted a 1,000 of them and you would only receive 100 or 200. So the units were very frugal with them, which meant they didn’t train as much or at least not as realistically as they would in combat. If you had extras, the base wanted you to return them.   Instead, you hid them, and then told the base you used them all, and took them back with you to your unit. And now the base had lost track of the batteries, assumed they’d been dumped in the desert when they really hadn’t, and the EPA would eventually figure out the discrepancy, which probably meant another huge fine.
Luckily someone invented rechargeable versions of BA-5590s (cost much more ~$220, if I recall correctly). So the point of the story is to buy rechargeables. They’re pretty cheap nowadays, about $1/each for a 2600 mAH AA battery that can take about a 1,000 recharges.
I love rechargeables. They save a great deal of money. 2600 mAH is a lot of power and they are so much less polluting for our environment. And if in doubt, try to find a battery recycling center and dispose of them properly. There’s no need to serialize every battery. We don’t even serialize bullets.