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Cars only part of electric puzzle

There is an electric revolution under way in the auto industry. And it goes well beyond the Chevrolet Volt and other plug-in concept cars that have been the primary public face of that revolution to date.

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

There is an electric revolution under way in the auto industry. And it goes well beyond the Chevrolet Volt and other plug-in concept cars that have been the primary public face of that revolution to date.

That message was made clear this week at a Toronto conference organized by Electric Mobility Canada, a national not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of electric mobility. Its membership includes many of the key players who will be involved in bringing electric vehicles to Canadian roads – from government agencies and universities to battery suppliers and local electrical distribution networks.

While several major automakers are part of the group, their role is far from dominant, reflecting the fact that the vehicle itself is only one part of a much bigger picture.

It will be necessary for automakers, big and small, to work with regulators, utilities and a whole new range of outside suppliers to successfully bring plug-in electric vehicles to market, whether they be hybrids, extended-range electric vehicles or pure (battery only) electric vehicles.

That the future of the automobile will be electric, at least in part, now seems a virtual certainty. In an opening address to the conference, telecast live from London, the World Wildlife Fund’s Gary Kendall, author of Plugged In, explained why.

For one thing, he said, electric vehicles are three to four times more energy efficient than those powered by gasoline engines. And because electricity can be generated in multiple ways and from multiple sources, it offers a means for both energy security and energy diversification.

Additionally, it has the potential for production from green, renewable sources, although we are still a long way from taking full advantage of that potential.

Nevertheless, according to Kendall, even a vehicle running on electricity produced from coal has a lesser environmental impact than a similar vehicle with a gas internal combustion engine.

While the electric-vehicle dream is more than 100 years old, battery limitations have been the Achilles heel preventing its realization in any substantive way. Until now.

Recent advances in lithium-ion battery technology promise to overcome most of the challenges that have limited the acceptance of electric vehicles in the past. Much work is under way on the development and adaptation of these batteries (the type used in cellphones and laptop computers) for use in automobiles.

Several Canadian companies and organizations, including Electrovaya of Missisauga, are at the forefront of that work. And both the federal and provincial governments are supporting not only battery development but all aspects of vehicle electrification through a range of programs and activities.

Even the Canadian Space Agency is involved, reasoning that the technical challenges of earth-bound electric vehicles, and those of the lunar rover the agency proposes to develop for a manned moon station, are in many ways parallel.

To help coordinate all the interconnected activities, a task force funded by Natural Resources Canada and Transport Canada is in the process of producing an Electric Vehicles Technology Road Map for Canada, which is scheduled for completion in Spring 2009.

That document will identify the technologies needed to support strategic research and development, marketing and investment decisions with respect to the electrification of the automobile.

Within the federal government, Natural Resouces Canada has taken a lead role in researching and developing battery technologies and coordinating other activities leading to the commercialization of plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles.

The agency is also involved internationally, via the International Energy Agency and other groups, in helping establish common standards to help speed the introduction of electric vehicles and study the potential impacts their introduction will have on such things as the infrastructure.

The Ontario government is providing support for related projects at universities and companies through its Ontario Centres for Excellence, whose purpose is to promote commercial innovation.

There are many factors beyond the batteries and the propulsion system of the vehicle itself that must be considered to ensure a smooth transition to electric power.

High on that list are such things as standardized plugs for recharging. It’s unlikely, for example, that you will be able to simply plug into a standard wall socket with an extension cord.

There is also the matter of managing electrical loads across power distribution systems and supply grids. It is imperative to ensure, for example, that a sudden surge in power demand when commuters come home and plug in their electric vehicles during the dinner hour doesn’t push peak loads beyond available capacity.

The closer we get to the reality of electric vehicles, the more apparent it becomes that there is much more to the challenge than simply designing and building cars that work.

Mgmalloy@aol.com

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