We are living in a very critical era, where our survival and energy sustainability will depend on our ability to adopt change. Humans sometimes find it hard to change but in the case of the existing energy model we will be forced to. A transition to means of energy other than oil will be done because the oil prices will touch sky high prices and the earth itself will show greater signs of distress. The fact that the globe is steadily warming up combined with the instability of the price of oil has led mainstream society to look into way for adopting alternative energy sources. National power grids get electricity supplies from comparatively expensive renewable energy sources (solar, wind & hydro power) though the maximum dependency of these sources can not reach further from a certain percentage because it affects the grid’s overall stability. Coal and oil are realistically cheap ways of producing electricity though a transition to alternative energy producing technologies is crucial, if we want a mild transition from the existing dependance on oil.
So what are the means we have today of adopting eco-friendly portable energy sources? A medium of storing energy through electricity has always been batteries which vary in their chemistry, oil and all of its products which has already stored energy in its carbon based chemistry.Hydrogen, a chemical element which unfortunately cannot be found in nature because it simply floats into space is also an option which will be seen soon enough. Today in 2008 there are many automotive technologies which rely on one or more of the above energy sources.
First of all we have the natural gas/oil/petrol internal combustion automotives: They have been used from the start of this century as a mean of mass transportation. Today we totally rely on them apart from some Hybrid Vehicles and electric trains. Biofuel production seems to fight low oil production, but as it has shown it leads to soaring food prices. To my view it is not something permanent, just a small placebo pill for a smooth transition from oil to electric cars. The good side: Oil provides a good way of portable energy already trapped into its carbon chemistry. The bad side: CO2 greenhouse emitions, non renewable source and dependency to a large network of oil producers and distributors
Electric Vehicles (EV’s): A not so new concept, though it has started gaining approval in the last decade. The concept is simple. Charge the car’s batteries from the electricity grid and use this stored energy to move a highly efficient and non polluting electric motor. The good side: High efficiency of energy transformation to the electric motor, renewable and non pollutant means of transportation. The bad side: Low millage independence because of the low capacity of the existing battery technology, unsifient charging infastructure exists today.
Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEV’s): They combine a hybrid technology and use an internal combustion engine and an electric motor to give power the the wheels. The gas engine only kicks in when extra juice is needed, and also transforms the lost kinetic energy made into heat from the breaks, into electricity to charge the car’s battery. Today exist some commercial car models with this technology, though the Toyota Prius can be said that is leading this path. The good side: Very high Miles Per Gallon especially (50MPG for Prius) when your driving habits include driving in the city on low speeds. Low MPG equals to low transportation costs and low CO2 greenhouse emissions The bad side: relatively high cost of Hybrid vehicles. Their fuel consumption is not as good as it ought to in high speeds and open roads. The battery may also appear as a downback because in theory you have to replace it every 10yrs.
Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV’s): They basically use the same technology with ordinary HEV’s with the only difference that they have batteries with a greater capacity and chemistry, with a slight difference in their electronic circuitry. Today there is no commercial car available though there are many Toyota Prius converted to support the plug-in feature through 3rd party manufactures. The car pictured on the top of this article is one of them. Toyota announced that it will be releasing the 3rd generation of Prius with a factory built solar panel in order to power the A/C of the car and also charge the battery when stalled. An astonishing 100+ MPG has been reached in certain conditions for these vehicles. They rely mainly on the power grid for providing their mobile energy needs. Some have also converted their roof into a solar surface so the car can be charged when unplugged and stalled. Ofcourse these vehicles rely on oil but nevertheless its the 1st transition phase to overcome our reliance on imported oil. Toyota is planning to release in 2009 the 1st comercial plug-in model available. The good side: It uses the already tested and full proof hybrid technology with the advantage of a greater autonomy from its bigger batteries. The best millage per gallon achieved by any vehicle of this category. Lower independence on oil giving the end user the ability to use alternative energy sources. The bad side: The high cost of gaining this technology and the reliance to power grid electricity which may at first may not be available in parking spaces, homes etc.
Hydrogen Vehicles: Another interesting way of making energy available in portable transportation is Hydrogen. The engine itself is highly efficient , though the process of producing Hydrogen from electricity is not energy efficient at all as the below picture shows. The energy cost of producing this fuel is so high to start with that we would have to pay several times more to move our vehicle the same distance than we would need with gasoline. Though the product of Hydrogen engines is clean water the environmental cost of transforming electricity to Hydrogen is so high, it makes it wortless in environmental terms. The existing technology also show that in order to store Hydrogen in a compressed tank in your car a lot of space is needed which is unable to provide the same millage as a conventional gasoline tank. The good side: Environmental friendly and renewable fuel. The bad side: The existing technology is not able to make it cost efficient, whereas the 60% of the energy needed is lost in the process. The whole fuel infrastructure must change in order to make it plausible to the masses. A vehicle which relies only in Hydrogen needs a large low pressure tank which is unable to provide a wide distance range. The same suppliers of todays oil will propably supply us with this new fuel, perserving their monopoly
Hybrid Hydrogen Electric Vehicles: Through the research i’ve done so far i have not come into such a vehicle although it would be a possibility when the Hydrogen Fuel Infrastructure has been established when oil can not been attained anymore in the following decades…
The main aspects of these emerging portable energy technologies which will be able to cover our ever increasing need for transportation are the following:
The network of suppliers of fossil fuels: It has been the most lucrative industry of the 20th century. Global politics today are leaded by every societies and nation’s need to consume an ever increasing amount of fossil fuels. Wars and military actions in a global scale are motivated by the strategic advantage of gaining power over the source oil. The price of oil we pump our cars has to do with the rate of its production, foreign exchange rates and a sum of factors we end consumers come close to be aware. This energy supply model must stop if we want a more fair, environmental conscious, free and informed society and must transform itself into something alternative
The electricity grid: Today we also relly on electricity which is also provided through a centralized system. The means of producing electricity is coal, oil, nuclear energy and a bunch of renewable sources like solar, wind and hydro power. Nuclear energy is the cheapest of all though it is not widely accepted by the public and practically may be enviromental friendly if all cautions are taken in mid. Oil and coal are also some cheap but highly polluting ways of producing electricity. Finally renewable sources relly heavily on expensive infrastructure but manage to some extent to achieve energy independence to a national, community and household level. So any plug-in vehicle’s energy source would be a combination of the above. Some may say that they just move the pollution from the cars to the factories but the truth is that not 100% of our electricity is from polluting sources and even if it was it is still more effective producing polluting energy in a mass scale in factories. Realistically today a 2 digit percentage is from renewable sources and in some countries a great amount is from nuclear power. Nevertheless todays technology has proven it able to achieve a household independence in electricity, making a plug-in electric vehicle owner to a big percentage unaffected by the network of Oil/Hydrogen suppliers
The network of Hydrogen fuel suppliers: This today is still science fiction but may soon be reality. The bad thing about thus network is that is will be built on the economics and policies of existing oil networks. Do we want that to happen? Hydrogen has been proven as an inefficient way of gaining portable energy. Do we want to rely on a bunch of companies for proving us overpriced fuel?
Our Sun: The everlasting energy source. We sometimes find it diffucult to understand that all the energy we use comes from our closest star. Todays technology has proven somehow unsuffient to cover 100% of our energy needs from the above source. The technology used in solar power can only convert a small percentage into electricity, whereas wind power an energy sources also triggered by the atmopshere heat differences which achieves to somehow partialy cover our needs. Innovation, research and investments are steadily increasing the technology efficiency so the impact on using this everlasting energy source will become greater. Large scale thermosolar plants in California and Spain, household installed panels, windfarms, hydroplants and a lot of examples in everyday consumer products like the plugin solar Prius.
Battery fuel cells: This is the biggest barrier of electric vehicles which actually limits their range. The charging can only be done over a big time period so, simple EV’s are not likely to become mainstream any time soon. Technology in battery cells is steadily improving and you can clearly see that on a 15 year time range since the 1st mobile phone and laptops were introduced. As for PHEV’s more battery capacity and means higher cost and extra car weight. Practically though converted Priuses can achieve a 50 mile range using only their power batteries, enough to supply the range needed for urban transportation. So realistically existing battery technology manages to cover the biggest part of urban transportation which covers a big percentage of the average car users needs.
My current transportation status: This time speaking i am a lucky car owner of a 1100cc Citroen Saxo. It’s a relatively light, cheap and fuel efficient car. Ofcourse i seek altrenative ways of getting around like using my good old bicycle and public transportation. Hybdrids were always on my mind, as a lover of sophisticated technology and environmental friendly solutions. I made a promise to myself for my next car having hybrid technology. Through the research i’ve done i’ll probably go for a plug-in solution and if it is possible i would love to install solar panels to it. Offcourse money in life is the biggest barrier to achieving your goals. According to Toyota the PHEV will be released in 2009. I forecast to going into a loan after 2010 for that purpose but i firstly need to have my IT degree, finish my millitary obligation and have a job that pays over 900 euros. Owning this car means that i must commit but i guess its a step that i will need to take finally.
Conclusion: My main philosophical impulse when dealing with this subject is the following: Store and distribute free and renewable energy from our beloved star called the sun and pay ONLY for the technology, which when widespread and openstructured will become cheaper, making people able to NOT relly on closed markets and monopolies. Charge your car from the sun, grid or home solar panels downsizing the overall transportation costs and making us independent of our energy supplier. A new era is coming where we have to understand that each one of us has the ability to change the way he/she was forced to do think and act till now, through information, adoption of new technologies and global awareness.