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Electric Cars and Sustainable Development

NEW YORK – The key to climate change control lies in improved technology. We need to find new ways to produce and use energy, meet our food needs, transport ourselves, and heat and cool our homes that will allow us to cut back on oil, gas, coal, nitrogen-based fertilizer, and other sources of the climate-changing greenhouse gases. 

There are enough good options available to suggest that the world can accomplish the goal of controlling climate change at a reasonable cost (perhaps 1% of global income per year) while enabling the world economy to continue to grow and raise living standards. One of the most exciting developments on the horizon is the new generation of electric automobiles.

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In the earliest days of the automobile in the late nineteenth century, many kinds of cars competed with each other – steam, battery, and internal combustion engine (ICE). The gasoline and diesel-powered internal combustion engines won the competition with the success of the Model T, which first rolled off of the assembly line in 1908. One hundred years later, competition is again stirring.

The age of electric vehicles is upon us. The Toyota Prius, a hybrid-electric vehicle first introduced in Japan in 1997, marked an initial breakthrough. By connecting a small generator and rechargeable battery to the braking system of a standard car, the hybrid augments the normal engine with a battery-powered motor. Gasoline mileage is sufficiently enhanced to make the hybrid commercially viable, and gasoline-saving vehicles will become even more commercially viable when consumers are taxed for the carbon dioxide they emit from their vehicles.

Much more innovation is on the way, led by General Motors’ plug-in hybrid vehicle, the Chevy Volt, at the end of 2010. While the Prius is a normal ICE automobile with a small motor, the Volt will be an electric vehicle with an engine alongside.

The Volt’s battery will be a cutting-edge, high-performance lithium-ion battery, which promises a range of 40 miles per charge and a six-hour recharge time drawing from a normal wall socket. Based on typical driving patterns, the Volt will get so many miles on the battery that it will achieve around 230 miles per gallon of gasoline!

Larry Burns, the visionary head of GM’s research and development until his recent retirement, sees the electric vehicle as much more than an opportunity to save gasoline, important as that is. According to Burns, the electric-vehicle age will reshape the energy grid, redefine driving patterns, and generally improve the quality of life in urban areas, where most of the world’s population will live and drive.

First, there will be many types of electric vehicles, including the plug-in hybrid, the all-battery vehicle, and vehicles powered by the hydrogen fuel cell, essentially a battery fed by an external source of hydrogen. These different vehicles will be able to tap into countless energy sources.

Solar, wind, or nuclear power – all free of CO2 emissions – can feed the power grid that will recharge the batteries. Similarly, these renewable energy sources can be used to split water into hydrogen and hydroxyl ion, and then use the hydrogen to power the hydrogen fuel cell.

Second, the storage capacity of the vehicle fleet will play an important role in stabilizing the power grid. Not only will battery-powered vehicles draw power from the electricity grid during recharging, but, when parked, they can also feed additional power back into the grid during periods of peak demand. The automobile fleet will become part of the overall power grid, and will be managed efficiently (and remotely) to optimize the timing of recharging from, and returning power to, the grid.

Third, electric-powered vehicles will open up a new world of “smart” vehicles, in which sensor systems and vehicle-to-vehicle communications will enable collision protection, traffic routing, and remote management of the vehicle. The integration of information technology and the vehicle’s propulsion system will thereby introduce new standards of safety, convenience, and maintenance.

These are visionary ideas, yet they are within technological reach. But implementing these concepts will require new forms of public-private partnership.

Automakers, utility companies, broadband providers, and government road builders will each have to contribute to an integrated system. All of these sectors will require new ways of competing and cooperating with the others. The public sector will have to put forward funding to enable the new generation of vehicles to reach commercialization – through R&D outlays, consumer subsidies, and support for complementary infrastructure (for example, outlets for recharging in public places).

The new age of the electric vehicle exemplifies the powerful opportunities that we can grasp as we make our way from the unsustainable fossil-fuel age to a new age of sustainable technologies. Our climate negotiators today bicker with each other because they view the climate challenge only in negative terms: who will pay to reduce fossil-fuel use?

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Yet Burns’ vision for the automobile reminds us that the transition to sustainability can bring real breakthroughs in the quality of life. This is true not only in automobiles, but also in the choice of energy systems, building designs, urban planning, and food systems (remembering that food production and transport account for around one-sixth of total greenhouse gas emissions).

We need to rethink the climate challenge as an opportunity for global brainstorming and cooperation on a series of technological breakthroughs to achieve sustainable development. By harnessing cutting-edge engineering and new kinds of public-private partnerships, we can hasten the worldwide transition to sustainable technologies, with benefits for rich and poor countries alike – and thereby find the basis for global agreements on climate change that have so far proven elusive.