December 06, 2010
Steven Chu: 5 Years To Competitive Electric Cars

US Energy Secretary and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu says electric cars are going to become competitive with internal combustion engines real soon now.

"It's not like it's 10 years off," Chu said at a press conference on U.S. clean energy efforts on the sidelines of the climate talks. "It's about five years and it could be sooner. Meanwhile the batteries we do have today are soon going to get better by a factor of two."

That's a pretty optimistic statement. Is it realistic? Note that electric cars will not become competitive for all drivers at the same time. There's a sweet spot in terms of daily miles driven, access to a garage for parking and charging, and other considerations that influence when electric cars become competitive for different buyers. A person who drives a 60 mile daily round trip commute with a home garage with a fairly new high amperage electric power installation is going to find pure EVs competitive much sooner. A person who lives in a city apartment building and parks on the street to take a 5 mile trip to work but few hundred mile weekend trips will find EVs competitive several years after the ideal EV users do.

The South Korean government wants South Korean auto makers to have electric cars make up 20% of the vehicles they produce by 2015. Nissan-Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn predicts 10% of cars will be electric by 2020. Note that he has pushed the development of the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle. But the Leaf is suffering from production delays and its release this year will be in such small quantities (only 5 cars in all the US) that does not suggest EVs are about to take off. Other industry participants put the 2020 EV production figure at between 2% and 5% of all cars produced.

Even if Ghosn is right about EV production in 2020 since cars last for many years the electric cars built in 2020 will be a much smaller percentage of all vehicles on the road in 2020. Therefore if Peak Oil is as near as I think we aren't going to be prepared for it.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 December 06 11:18 PM  Energy Electric Cars

matthew fuller said at December 6, 2010 11:56 PM:

oh stop your pessimism. solutions not apathy tinged hope -- please.

Wolf-Dog said at December 7, 2010 6:52 AM:

Energy Secretary Chu emphasized that we need a new government sponsored science program of the scale of Sputnik era. Right now we don't even have a small fraction of that kind of intervention.

But one solution for the difficulty of charging cars at home is to business model of Better Place, which is to swap batteries within a minute at gas stations. This does seem to work well, and it saves the electric car from the obsolescence of batteries, as the battery will just be rented to the driver instead of being bolted into the car as part of the engine.

Chris T said at December 7, 2010 12:07 PM:

You don't need to completely change over the fleet in the event of peak oil. You just have to match the annual demand curve to the supply curve.

Bruce said at December 7, 2010 12:37 PM:

Cool. 46% of US electricity comes from coal.

Coal burning cars!

f1b0nacc1 said at December 7, 2010 2:14 PM:

No Bruce, they will all be powered by Wind/Solar/Unicorn Farts/etc..... And the electrical grid will magically expand to accomodate all of this without any significant cost to the rest of us....

What absolute nonsense...

not anon or anonymous said at December 7, 2010 3:29 PM:

If one approves of government intervention, have them near-eliminate paper use at most costs (no bulk mail discounts [excepting bills/remittances], eliminate faxes and forms and manuals for mandatory government paperwork, free sub-$250 netbooks for schools) and shift most logging to wood gas production. Transfer corn-ethanol subsidies to logging, or eliminate them.

Fat Man said at December 7, 2010 6:55 PM:

If Secretary Chu wants to put his money where his mouth is, I am asking Randall to forward any communication from him to me. Otherwise, I think he is just blowing smoke. In 5 years he will be back in cushy tenured job at Berkley, and no one will be tracking him down on this prediction.

Engineer-Poet said at December 7, 2010 7:44 PM:

Oh, look, it's the "coal-powered cars" claim again.  Isn't that kind of silly coming from an AGW denialist?

Compare EV energy demand to generation from carbon-free sources.  The generation from wind jumped 21 TWh from 2007-08, and 15.4 TWh from 2008-09.  If the typical EV drives the average 13,000 miles per year and uses 250 Wh/mi at the wall plug plus 7% transmission losses, that's enough to have supplied about 4.4 million vehicles built in MY 2007, and a whopping 6.0 million vehicles built in MY 2008.

How long do you think it will take EV energy consumption to catch up to the annual increase from wind?  And let's not forget the near-term power uprates in nuclear powerplants, and the new plants coming on line in about 2016.

If shale gas keeps coming in, we could go with NGVs or EVs.  An NGV getting 40 MPGe would burn about 2900 BTU of gas per mile.  An EV consuming 250 Wh/mi at the plug, charged by a CCGT operating at 60% efficiency and 7% grid losses would use about 1530 BTU per mile.  Looks like the EV wins... again.

Want to compare coal consumption via electric on the one hand, and coal-to-liquids on the other?

Randall Parker said at December 7, 2010 9:26 PM:

matthew fuller,

Sometimes bad stuff happens. Happy talk does not make it better.


Coal as a source of electric power in the US is down a few percentage points from what it was a few years ago (it was around 49% and then declined to about 43%). That's for a few reasons:

- When total demand falls (e.g. during our current downturn) sources with low variable costs (nuclear, wind, solar) keep operating at full capacity. So sources with big variable costs get out-competed.

- Wind and solar subsidies and mandates are increasing their production.

- Natural gas is really cheap.

- Tougher emissions regulations.

I'm very curious to know whether coal demand in the United States will rebound.

Bruce said at December 8, 2010 10:39 AM:

Randall, if no one is building nuclear plants and no one is replacing coal power plants with NG power plants (because of green obstructionism), coal consumption can't drop much unless you want brownouts.

It is interesting that in 2010 13 coal power stations are being built with a generating capacity of 8,102MW, and 110 NG plants are being built with 9,488MW capacity.

It makes me sad to think of all those 100s of billions squandered on solar and wind that could have been spent on NG or Coal plants to keep US industry competitive.

Bruce said at December 8, 2010 7:58 PM:

EP. Electric cars are running on coal. Face facts. Most of those wind turbines will fail or wear out before there are a significant # of electric cars on the road. Coal plants last for 50 years. Turbines last less than 10.

Even 25 years from now, Coal = 44% of US electricity (even when all the GHG regulations trying to make coal more expensive than it needs to be).

"With slow growth in electricity demand, little new coal-fired capacity is added, and the coal share falls from 48 percent in 2008 to 44 percent in 2035."

Randall Parker said at December 8, 2010 8:19 PM:


Interesting table. Note that the nameplate capacity for wind really ought to be handicapped into an expected average capacity probably a quarter that nameplate capacity. Plus, it requires fossil fuel burning plants to provide back-up. Check out this essay on the practicality of scaling up wind production: Review of the Western Wind and Solar Integration Study (WWSIS) by NREL and GE Energy. From the conclusions:

The NREL/GE Energy WWSIS study appears to be built on several questionable assumptions, each allowing the modeled system (of up to 30% wind/5% solar in the West Connect within the great Western Interconnect) to withstand the inherent difficulties of large scale renewable integration. The primary issue, consistent with my dissertation research[vi], is that the authors assume that we can afford to massively overbuild the capacity of the system, adding the large percentages of renewable generation on top of newly built and existing plants. This allows one to be able to ignore the hourly or sub-hourly periods with extremely low output from renewables, as well as the days or weeks at a time during the summer when wind production is well below yearly average output levels. An ample reserve is at the ready to step in when renewables perform poorly. Secondly and equally important, the authors assume that coal plants, which have traditionally run in a base load capacity, will be able to be operated very flexibly – on par with combined cycle gas plants. This allows the authors, on one hand, to state that electricity prices will be kept low, because we will still be able to burn less expensive coal as our primary non-renewable source of electricity (instead of having to switch to more expensive natural gas), but also to claim increased upside flexibility in the system to deal with periods where wind and solar output decrease rapidly and reserves need to be brought on line. Next, like previous studies, the authors assume that there is an “away” to export excess generation to during times of overproduction. By assuming that the greater Western Interconnect is available to absorb excess production (by economic dispatch and regional grid management), the authors assume minimal to no curtailment in wind production needed in periods of overproduction. If on the other hand balancing is limited to smaller areas, the authors admit that the system might not be stable.

I am skeptical about wind's ability to scale.

Randall Parker said at December 8, 2010 8:40 PM:


Electric cars will make unreliable sources of electric power easier to manage. EV battery recharging rates can be varied with the wind and sun. But even with massive use of EVs I do not see that as a solution to wind's variability. Why? The wind can stop blowing for far too long. The wind can stop blowing over a wide area for days.

We'd need really really cheap batteries installed in houses that can run the houses for a few days before we could go to massive scaling up of wind. Either that or we'd need high capacity superconductors strung across the US and Canada to bring electric power from wherever the wind is blowing to where it is needed. If wind power could be captured from Alaska, northern Canada, the US east coast and Canadian offshore, the plains, and the Rockies maybe there'd be enough wind blowing somewhere to make wind workable.

But wind on that scale would be incredibly expensive. Plus, to have enough redundant wind we'd go thru periods of enormous over-generation of electricity when the wind is blowing in many areas at the same time.

Nuclear power makes more sense than wind.

Engineer-Poet said at December 9, 2010 9:03 AM:

Nuclear does, but PWRs are too expensive and slow to build to fill the gap; we need a technology shift before nuclear can really take off.  Nuclear is also going to be cheapest to run as base load for a long time afterward (very small fuel cost), so we're going to need some kind of energy buffer for nuclear the same as we do for wind.

I think CAES is going to be that buffer.  It's cheap to store several day's worth of compressed air in caverns or deep aquifers, and that's plenty of time to bring other plants out of cold shutdown.  Using EVs to buffer imbalances from cycles to minutes, and CAES buffering from minutes to days, yields an electrical grid that's far more robust than anything we've ever had.

Superconductors would be nice, but we don't need them.  HVDC can move power over transcontinental distances with quite acceptable losses, and the towers are much smaller and less obtrusive than existing AC lines.

Bruce said at December 9, 2010 10:13 AM:

I think NG and coal are the cheapest form of energy storage. Burn them when you need the power, throttle down the plants when you don't.

We habe NG for 100 years without counting Methane Hydrates. We probably have 1000 years of coal.

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