In his wish for cars that will “go coast to coast without using s drop of oil” President Obama may as well ask for cold fusion and perpetual energy. He is asking for the laws of physics to be suspended.
Okay, it’s not that this isn’t a laudable idea in a basic sense, but it is posed in a reality that just doesn’t exist.
When the automobile first appeared it was not long before about half the cars were powered by batteries and the rest by gasoline or steam. Electric cars were popular because they were quiet, and not dirty, nor temperamental. But their flaw was the battery. It severely limited range and took a long time to recharge. Thomas Edison was optimistic that “in another year” he would be able to perfect the kind of battery that would make electric cars far more practical than gasoline powered cars. Try as he might that year never came.
Even today, with the help of some very advanced battery technology, the range of electric cars is pitiful. In a BBC test drive of the Nissan Leaf, with only a 73 mile range, took so long between charges that its average speed was 6 miles per hour.
A lot of oil is required to manufacture a car, electric or not. The lithium ion batteries demand environmentally destructive processes to mine and process the material into usable batteries. Batteries also loose their capacity over time, as anyone who has lived with a laptop has discovered. Over about five years the leaf’s range is reduced to about 55 miles. The more they are used the more they lose.
And just how is the electricity generated that is charged into these cars? Coal, oil, gas, wind, nuclear? You have a 97% chance that it is one of the first three. If the electricity happens to come from a coal powered electric plant there will be 15 ounces of carbon-dioxide produced to charge it up (per mile) compared to 3 ounces for a gasoline powered car.
A life-cycle analysis in the Journal of Industrial Ecology calculated that about half the lifetime carbon-dioxide emissions from and electric car comes from the energy needed to produce it. In a gasoline powered car this figure is 17%.
I like new ideas. I like it when people stretch to think “out of the box”. I am frustrated by political types that advance technology without doing the math. Then they find a way to tax us whether it is a sound idea or not. The reality is that it is going to be very hard to find a replacement energy source that can compare with the capacity of gasoline. Wishing doesn’t make it so.