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Posted at 11:41 AM ET, 01/28/2011

Battery-powered cars and other projects government should avoid

By Jennifer Rubin

Charles Lane's column on battery-powered cars (they don't work so well in the cold) is a timely reminder, not only for Beltway drivers who suffered through a hellish commute Wednesday night, but for the entire country. The government is not very good at picking feasible energy projects. Lane argues:

Now, if the cars were cheaper than gas-powered cars of equal performance, these cold-weather risks might be acceptable. But electrics are substantially more expensive than cars of greater capability -- and will be for years to come. Frankly, I don't know why anyone would consider buying one -- especially if he or she lives north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Apparently, the Obama administration, with all its resources, hasn't figured this out, or frankly doesn't care where money is being tossed. Charles Krauthammer is more succinct in reminding us "that for three decades, since Jimmy Carter's synfuel fantasy, Washington has poured billions of taxpayer dollars down a rat hole in vain pursuit of economically competitive renewable energy." The president, nevertheless, wants to dump billions in subsidies into these and other "green" projects. And let's not forget the gazillions it will cost to hook us all up to high-speed rail.

The fetish for energy subsidies is not an isolated phenomenon. Obama and other advocates of an ever-larger and more intrusive federal government imagine they can do all sorts of things -- micro-manage health care and banks, for example. The effort is flawed at the outset. It is not merely that government bureaucrats are not on the cutting edge of technology and don't understand how the private sector works, although both are true. Rather, the problem stems from the assumption that huge sectors of human activity can be run from a single source with intricately complex rules (which, of course, necessitate even more complex exceptions to the rules).

In very broad strokes, government can, of course, enact major societal change. Civil rights legislation changed hearts and minds and every institution in America. But the mechanism was rather general: an edict not to treat citizens differently based on race, ethnicity, etc. Significant changes in the tax code, slashing marginal rates or raising them for example, do affect the behavior of workers, employers and investors. Welfare reform arrested a culture of dependency, by eliminating government subsidies to able-bodied non-workers.

But we've yet to see proof that the federal government is very good at making millions of decisions on minute matters in substitution of the judgment of hundreds of millions of Americans and the private market. If the federal government is clueless on something as elementary as car batteries, why should we give it more money and more authority to wreck havoc throughout the economy?

By Jennifer Rubin  | January 28, 2011; 11:41 AM ET
 
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Comments

So few comments ?

Because the logic is flawless.

BIG Government intervention on green cars, things like biofuels, and well managing loans and post offices, is just dismal.

Obamacare is doomed to failure as well.

May God or Sarah Palin save us !!

Posted by: pvilso24 | January 28, 2011 11:53 AM | Report abuse

It used to be so simple. You ride into town in your covered wagon and sell mixtures of morphine and castor oil as cures for wayward wives and children. Or you put a hunk of uranium at the bottom of a pail of water and sell droughts of the water as "vital energy!! amazing!!". Now, the FDA, the EPA, the SEC, OSHA, and probably six other government agencies would have a problem with this. I mean, where is the innovation in useless elixirs with the government breathing down our throats enacting a one-size-fits-all approach to morphine and uranium-soaked water. It's unconstitutional I tell ya.

Posted by: willows1 | January 28, 2011 11:59 AM | Report abuse

We never discuss energy in Jennifer's column, so it may come as a surprise that in other places I am considered rabidly anti-green energy.

However Lane seems to have just discovered chemistry for the first time. He might be surprised to learn that from say Massachusetts north all across the country until you get west of the Rockies, IC cars and trucks usually have engine heaters as optional and in some places almost mandatory equipment. They often use chains or even studded tires too in some places.

The simple point being that yes eletric cars are not useful in all places or times. They're a niche product, that will not save the world. That doesn't mean we're foolish to make them, only to overestimate their capabilities.

Also, as Lane finally got around to saying somewhere in the final paragraphs of his column, the Volt is not an electric vehicle per se, and so would actually not even be affected by his reasoning. Currently the Leaf and the Tesla are the only two cars in the US that would have the problem he refers to.

As of the end of 2010, there have been 19 Leafs and perhaps 400 Teslas sold in the US TOTAL. Congratulations to Mr. Lane for wasting his column on a problem that affects exactly no one!

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | January 28, 2011 12:30 PM | Report abuse

My views mostly fall into the conservative camp, but I'm also a big supporter of the Chevy Volt so go figure. Fittingly so, Voltaire once said that "the perfect is the enemy of the good." Hence, the Volt's extended-range gasoline engine, which is employed not just when the battery runs dry but to also to help with such things as cabin heat and battery conditioning (the Volt's "battery" is actually dozens of cells all enclosed within a liquid-cooled, temperature-controlled sealed shell).

Lyle Dennis (who runs the blog GM-Volt.com) recently posted his cold-weather performance stats (http://gm-volt.com/2011/01/26/real-world-chevy-volt-ev-range-experience-in-cold-weather-driving/). Basically, he's getting electric-only range in the mid-to-upper 20 mile range before the range-extender kicks in, and he's mostly driving at high freeway speeds and he doesn't pre-condition the cabin per GM's recommendation (basically, you tell the Volt to heat or cool the cabin while it is plugged in and charging, so when you are unplugged, the battery isn't called upon to do as much work). Even so, he's going 129 miles for each gallon of gasoline burned. Others who own Volts in more moderate climates (like California) have travelled thousands of miles so far without burning any gasoline.

These folks are pioneering the Version 1.0 of this new technology, and like computers, cell phones, DVD players and flat-screen TVs, technology will only improve while the costs come down. I applaud this first group of "transportation techies" for taking that first step in weaning our country off of imported oil.

Posted by: coffeetime | January 28, 2011 12:34 PM | Report abuse

I am tickled that Ms. Rubin is against federal dollars here in the U.S. being spent on developing electric cars.

Meanwhile, in Israel...
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/c0ef35cc-c06a-11df-8a81-00144feab49a.html#axzz1CLtHRVEI
A partial quote:
Please respect FT.com's ts&cs and copyright policy which allow you to: share links; copy content for personal use; & redistribute limited extracts. Email ftsales.support@ft.com to buy additional rights or use this link to reference the article - http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/c0ef35cc-c06a-11df-8a81-00144feab49a.html#ixzz1CLuTqFeq
A partial quote about an electric car project in Israel:
"With the support of Israel’s government, Agassi’s company is proposing a radical solution to the country’s petrol problems."

So I assume Ms. Rubin is also against the Israeli government's spending on electric cars.

Posted by: MsJS | January 28, 2011 12:41 PM | Report abuse

MsJS: Comparisons between countries are always fraught. Comparisons between a 300 million people-almost a continent-50 state country and one with 7 million people and the size of Rhode Island are even more problematic! Besides, when it snows over there it's only light flurries for a few minutes in Jerusalem. Still, until he qualified for aid Mr. Agassi did years of work proving his concept. And last I checked, the Israeli government does not touch base with Ms. Rubin before making decisions (though maybe it should! ;-) ). Ms. Rubin's opinions do not have to be valid for every country under the sun; just ours.

Posted by: adnask | January 28, 2011 2:08 PM | Report abuse

It’s good to read of a growing appreciation for reality on the WaPo’s editorial board. Soon they may discover that solar power collectors and wind turbines don’t work too well in snow storms either. The Brits have learned that in cold weather the wind turbines must not only be shut down, but also fed power from the grid to keep their innards warm.

A hybrid like the Volt or the Prius offers greater security than a pure-electric like the Leaf. Should their tanks run dry, it’s many times faster to refuel a petroleum-fueled vehicle than to re-charge an electric vehicle.

Posted by: SCMike1 | January 28, 2011 2:31 PM | Report abuse

MsJS: Comparisons between countries are always fraught. Comparisons between a 300 million people-almost a continent-50 state country and one with 7 million people and the size of Rhode Island are even more problematic! Besides, when it snows over there it's only light flurries for a few minutes in Jerusalem. Still, until he qualified for aid Mr. Agassi did years of work proving his concept. And last I checked, the Israeli government does not touch base with Ms. Rubin before making decisions (though maybe it should! ;-) ). Ms. Rubin's opinions do not have to be valid for every country under the sun; just ours.

Posted by: adnask | January 28, 2011 3:01 PM | Report abuse

adnask: I agree that it is easier to do a concept test in a small geographically isolated country, which Israel essentially is, than in a large meteorologically diverse one, such as the US.

Nonetheless, there are technologies that take decades to become viable and electric car technology is one of them. And let's not forget that automakers and oil companies fought any significant advances in US electric cars for years.

My question remains. If countries as different as Israel and China are investing in this technology, why is it inappropriate for the US?

Posted by: MsJS | January 28, 2011 3:02 PM | Report abuse

"that for three decades, since Jimmy Carter's synfuel fantasy, Washington has poured billions of taxpayer dollars down a rat hole in vain pursuit of economically competitive renewable energy."

Which is a drop in the bucket when compared with the subsidies to oil companies, to say nothing of billions upon billions of dollars wasted on military intervention to make sure the oil keeps flowing.

Posted by: thetruth2011 | January 28, 2011 4:24 PM | Report abuse

@thetruth2011: "...Which is a drop in the bucket when...blah, blah, blah.

The truth is, and I hate to say it to you, that your entire life has been wasted in soaking up falsehoods and promoting conspiracy theories that are, on their face, ridiculous.

Please specify for us the "subsidies" (i.e. favorable tax provisions) that oil companies receive that are not available to other, non-oil, companies.

Also, provide one shred of evidence that the United States has waged war - anywhere, at any time - to "make sure the oil keeps flowing". I suspect, in the case of WWII, you could find Japan having done that. Germany in that same war might have had some such designs. But please, you apparently know of many such instances involving the United States. Please elucidate.

Again I apologize for upbraiding you, but you deserve it.

Posted by: jafco | January 28, 2011 8:32 PM | Report abuse

Are you being deliberately obtuse, jafco? Do you think there is a scintilla of doubt that the US would have NOT invaded Iraq had it been located, oh, say in east Asia instead of in the mid-East.

Lessee here. One country has an active nuclear (sorry, nukular) weapons program. The other refuses to allow inspectors but happens to be in the middle of the oil producing region. Which shall we invade?

BB

Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | January 28, 2011 10:43 PM | Report abuse

Well those electric car batteries will sure work what with all that global warming coming anyhow, so it's a two-fer, says Barry. Carter gave us a "comprehensive energy policy", putting in a "windfall profits tax" for Big Oil, wore a sweater, and ordered all gov't thermostats set at 62 degrees F during winter (and was it also 70 during summer?). MEOW. (That was James Schlesinger's hack for Carter's ridiculous 90-day deadline.) TNR ('We Support Anderson') advocated a 50 cents/gallon tax (what would that be now in real terms?), plus the windfall profits tax. Bad ole RR's first act in office was to decontrol domestic oil prices, eventually ('81-'86)leading to a world glut in oil prices and halving our gas prices at the pump.

Posted by: aardunza | January 29, 2011 2:30 AM | Report abuse

Dang, make that "worldwide oil glut", but you know what I mean.

Posted by: aardunza | January 29, 2011 2:35 AM | Report abuse

Some more ancient history was Carter predicting we'd run out of natural gas in 1989. Are we there yet? Drill, baby, drill!

Posted by: aardunza | January 29, 2011 2:44 AM | Report abuse

jabco wrote:

"Also, provide one shred of evidence that the United States has waged war - anywhere, at any time - to "make sure the oil keeps flowing"."

Alan Greenspan, at that time head of the Federal Reserve, said exactly that in his most recent book.

Generally speaking the people who post here bring an elevated game no matter which side of the political spectrun they are. You need to do more research.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | January 29, 2011 9:44 AM | Report abuse

What does a gallon of gas cost when you factor in the tax cuts for the oil industry, wars to "keep the oil flowing" (GWI and II) air pollution, and oil spill cleanup? The government could give away electric cars and still spend less than what oil actually costs when everything is counted, and that isn't counting the people who die to "keep the oil flowing."

Posted by: fingersfly | January 29, 2011 10:10 AM | Report abuse

fingers:

Except that you can't just give everybody electric cars.

You would have to also build charging stations everywhere in the country. You would also have to invest hundreds of billions perhaps a trillion to revamp the power generating structure that couldn't handle anything close to a significant increase in the load you're talking about. You would also have to either build more nuclear power, or mine much more coal and increase natural gas, because renewables could never handle such an increase in power either.

It's never really that simple. The subsidies we have in place are there BECAUSE they underpin the whole economy.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | January 29, 2011 10:42 AM | Report abuse

I understand most of what you are saying, Johnmarshall; however, the cost of subsidies (and wars) can't be ignored when talking about the economics of energy and fossil v renewables. Those subsidies tip the economic scale to benefit fossil fuels over renewables. You talk of a trillion dollars to revamp the power generating structure as if we haven't already spent that and more on the current wars, not to mention the permanent price of global security to "keep the oil flowing."

Before you make the tired claim that the war in Iraq wasn't about oil but to remove a murderous dictator from power, i.e. to save the Iraqi people - what did we do in the Sudan holocaust where millions of people were killed and dislocated for the crime of being black Muslims (as opposed to Arab Muslims) on their ancestral lands that had oil under them?

Posted by: fingersfly | January 29, 2011 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Note: As of a year ago, congress had appropriated 1.5 TRILLION dollars for the wars. 747.3 billion for Iraq, 299 billion for Afghanistan.

http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/01/14/afghanistan-iraq-usa-costs-idUSN1415708320100114

Would we be better or worse off if that 1.5 trillion had been spent to revamp our energy structure?

Wind (offshore and in windy regions), solar and hydro energy could completely replace fossil fuels (preserving them for use in industrial settings for which alternative energy isn't feasible). Biofuel programs should be stopped because they are a waste of money and drive up the price of food, but they won't be because of the power of agribusiness lobby. Revamping the grid will also create a lot of jobs just when we need them the most.

Posted by: fingersfly | January 29, 2011 11:42 AM | Report abuse

fingers:

Intersting discussion, but two poiints:

1) You don't know me. I would never say that Iraq was about saving the Iraqi people

2)Everything I read says that we are already completely maxed out on hydro energy. Wind and solar are only useful in limited applications like for an individual factory or small community. They can never be used for large scale power generation.

Thanks for the reply.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | January 29, 2011 11:49 AM | Report abuse

You must be reading the wrong material, John. Wind farms in 3 states could replace all of the electricity we are currently using. Of course, without the need to "keep the oil flowing" the military industrial complex would have to take huge cuts and Dr. Krauthammer's real country wouldn't be of much interest to us.

This is an old article about wind energy, but still relevant.

http://www.earth-policy.org/plan_b_updates/2001/alert14

Posted by: fingersfly | January 29, 2011 1:14 PM | Report abuse

fingers:

I'm sorry you're information is totally incorrect. We currently only get about 5% of our power generation from wind and solar total. The idea that we could replace that amount from 3 states is beyond fantasy.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | January 29, 2011 4:38 PM | Report abuse

Many experts disagree with you, Johnmarshall. It seems absurd to make a blanket denial when its obvious that the amount of electricity generated depends on how many wind generators there are. Is it cheaper to build a wind generator than a tank or an attack helicopter?

Posted by: fingersfly | January 29, 2011 10:36 PM | Report abuse

Fingers:

Not trying to be nasty, but all the real "experts" are on my side. Only the advocates are on yours.

Trying to change the economy from 5% to 95% wind on the fly would be like trying to disassemble and reconstruct your car, while it was going about 90 on the autobahn.

Her's just a few of the problems that you would face:

- you would really need to replace not 95% of the existing system but more like 110% or 115% because your system, unlike the current one, would require tremendous distance transmission resulting in a serious loss of power

- the need for construction of huge towers and lines would make significant areas of those three states alone essentially uninhabitable under and around them.

- Every wind turbine needs rare earth elements for it's construction. There are currently zero mines operating in the US to produce this, with one possibly reopening later this year. China controls 95% of the world market for rare earth. It is also fast closing on dominance in the turbine market itself.

- Wind power can never replace fossil fuel pwoer on a large scale. There are days throughout the year when wind generates essentially no power whatsoever. When used on a small scale, this is not an issue because fossil fuel generation takes over the diminished output on those days. However if you were to rely SOLELY on wind (or solar for that matter) you would have to either tell your customers "no power today", OR maintain fossil fuel generating capacity equal to the output of your renewable energy demand at peak.

That's just the basics of why your idea is not feasible. We won't even go into the capital requirements!

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | January 30, 2011 11:57 AM | Report abuse

Charles Lane, I know it is hard for you to understand since your experience with electric cars is limited. However, your opinion piece published this Friday, in the Washington Post titled, “Cold truths about electric cars’ cold-weather shortcomings,” couldn’t have been more off the mark. I, unlike most of the people writing about electric cars, owned and drove an electric car for 5 years. I ended up with an electric vehicle because I put in a bid on Ebay on one and managed to be the highest bidder, to my surprise. I was bidding for electric vehicles because I had always been curious about them since the oil crisis of the 1970s. My interest was peaked by GM’s first attempt at a mass-market electric vehicle, the EV1. Being curious is abstract, but after winning the bid on Ebay my real life experiment with an electric car suddenly had become real.

At first I was very apprehensive. I remember, right after I realized I was the winning bidder, saying to my self. What the heck have I done? I am not mechanically inclined and I am not a gear head, so what was I going to do with a vehicle that no one could fix. A million doubts ran through my head and a million questions, not the least of which was, how am I going to tell my wife? That I am writing you is proof that she didn’t kill me. I fetched the vehicle from a lovely lady who had owned it for 11 years.

What did I purchase? I purchased a Pontiac Fiero professionally converted by a group of engineers in Santa Rosa, California. Their hope was to make their car a mass-market product. Vehicles like mine showed up in the Naked Gun movies of the early1990s. These engineers had made a custom front end and back deck with solar panels worked into them. The car looks sporty and after I gave it a new yellow paint job, the car looked awesome.

Hot weather or cold this was my daily driver. I used it as much as I possibly could. The owner’s manual said that the maximum range of the vehicle was 50 miles and after driving that distance once, I realized three things. First, 50 miles when you live in a close-in suburb makes most of the city and the surrounding area available to you. Second, range anxiety only comes into play when the full trip was approaching 50 miles and there was no plug at the destination. Typically, if I had done the trip before I wouldn’t even think about range, even when the weather was cold. Cold weather was just never a hindering factor for me. My third realization was that you don’t drive as much as you think you drive.

A person who lived in Iowa converted my second car. He put the batteries in a heavily insulated battery box and put waterbed heaters under the batteries to keep them warm while the car was plugged-in in winter. Basically, my batteries were inside nice warm places shielded from the harsh cold outside so the range dropping affect that you talk about in your column just didn’t happen.

I know that the Chevy Volt is using the same technique with their batteries.

Posted by: joelado | January 30, 2011 9:12 PM | Report abuse

The Volt batteries are in a battery spa compared to what my batteries were kept in. Climate in the spa is kept close to perfect for them so I don’t think you are going to have a big problem with the weather. The Nissan Leaf uses the cabin climate to provide that comfortable temperature that batteries like.

All in all, I figured that I saved my self lots of money in avoiding the gas pump, and who knows how much I saved by not having to do all those other greasy, oily, messy, tune-upy things. I saved my ears from listening to all that noise. It was much easier to charge up at my home than having to find a gasoline station somewhere. It takes only seconds to plug and unplug a car. You don’t wait for the charge to finish like you do with a gas pump. From my experience owning an electric car was great. I didn’t know that it was going to be great at first, but in the end it has been one of the best purchases that I have ever made.

I can’t imagine what it is going to be like to own a vehicle that was intended to be an EV from its inception. Made with advanced batteries and engineered power electronics. I can’t imagine being able to take my vehicle to a dealer that has people actually trained on how to fix my vehicle. If 50 miles was enough for me, what will life be like with 100 miles range? Charging stations all over the place? I believe in the end your readers, who decide to go against your recommendation of not buying an electric vehicle and purchase one, will be as surprised and pleased as I was. Owning an EV is similar in many ways to owning a regular car but different enough to give your readers a new experience that, from my experience, they will not regret.

Posted by: joelado | January 30, 2011 9:15 PM | Report abuse

johnmarshall5446, "A comprehensive new MIT-led study of the potential for geothermal energy within the United States has found that mining the huge amounts of heat that reside as stored thermal energy in the Earth's hard rock crust could supply a substantial portion of the electricity the United States will need in the future, probably at competitive prices and with minimal environmental impact." MIT

Approximately 900 square feet of solar panels will provide all the energy needs of an average family.

"...100 square yards covered with solar panels would provide an average family with energy independence. Most detached family homes have more than 100 square yards (900 square feet) of roof, or that much space around their homes where solar panels could be installed." Energy Independence

"On February 11, 2010, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory released the first comprehensive update of the wind energy potential by state since 1993, showing that the contiguous United States had potential to install 10,458,945 MW of onshore wind power.[17][18] The capacity could generate 37,000,000 gigawatt-hours (GWh) annually, an amount nine times larger than current total U.S. electricity consumption.[19] This amount is also larger than the total U.S. primary energy consumption of 29 PWh in 2005." Wind Power in the US

These stats clearly show that we can exceed our entire energy use many times over with each one of these renewable energy resources. If we bring all three in we will be able to meet all of our energy needs more than a thousand times over. The energy resource of renewables is substantial and well documented.

Posted by: joelado | January 30, 2011 10:36 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, Joelado. It's too bad these people don't have access to the internet* so they could do a little research and be better informed rather than just listening to one side from fossil industry pimps. (* sarcasm)

Posted by: fingersfly | January 31, 2011 7:28 AM | Report abuse

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