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  Why Not Switch to Electric Cars?


Why Not Switch to Electric Cars?

by Doug Korthof

There is more than enough off-peak electricity available to easily allow the transfer of all of our driving miles from gasoline- to electric-powered vehicles.
We hear a lot of empty talk about attaining energy independence and about reducing our need for overseas imported oil. But absolutely nothing is being done by our oily political leaders.

Yet there is something that people have found they can do, and which bears out the axiom "when the people lead, the leaders follow." There is a small but surprisingly unyielding number of people who adopt the "PV-EV" way of living, using solar Photo-Voltaic ("PV") panels to generate more electricity than they can use and driving a plug-in electric vehicle ("EV") to soak up some of that power. The only impediments to expansion of this small number are the loss of our solar panel industry to foreign companies and the failure of our leaders to make plug-in electric cars available for sale on the open market.

There is more than enough off-peak electricity available to easily allow the transfer of all of our driving miles from gasoline- to electric-powered vehicles. That's an exciting prospect, but for now let's just see how we can eliminate overseas oil imports.

Here's the math in California, which has the figures readily available, and which consumes 12% of the country's gasoline: California uses 280 million gallons of gasoline per week. At the fleet average of 20 miles per gallon ("mpg"), that's 5,600 million miles per week. On an average day, Californians drive 800 million miles burning fuel derived from petroleum.

The RAV4-EV-not even the most efficient EV-gets four miles for each kilowatt-hour ("kWh") of energy it holds. Dividing 800 million daily miles by four miles per kWh means we would need 200 million kWh to convert all miles driven in gasoline-fueled cars to miles powered by electric RAV4-EVs or other, even more efficient electric vehicles.

In California, our installed capacity is 60,000 megawatts and off-peak unused capacity is about 30,000 megawatts for 18 hours (integrating under the curve on the state website,, or about 540,000 megawatt-hours. That's 540 million kWh of unused electric capacity per day.

That's more than the 200 million kWh per day it would take to convert ALL oil-fueled miles to electric-powered miles, by a substantial margin, and without building one new power plant.

Replacing 40% of our oil energy with off-peak electric power would eliminate the need for all overseas oil imports.

Even replacing just a fraction, merely 40%, of our oil with off-peak electric power would eliminate the need for all overseas oil imports. Using only Canadian, Mexican, and Alaskan oil, we would be self-sufficient, no longer dependent on the Middle East, Nigeria, Indonesia nor even Columbia and Venezuela. We'd only need 80 million kWh per day to convert 40% of our oil used to electric power, enough to attain energy independence.

It's a lot easier to control environmental impact of one power plant than one million tailpipes.

That can easily be done without building a single new power plant, even in the high-demand peak summertime period. Running at constant capacity is also more efficient, since big generators wear more quickly when ramped up and down every day. Using off-peak electric would actually improve production efficiencies. And as for pollution, our power plants are 97% cleaner than gasoline. It's a lot easier to control environmental impact of one power plant than one million tailpipes.

If we install rooftop solar power, it gets even easier to attain energy independence. Solar power, distributed throughout the city, provides a backup in case of grid failure, and becomes a helpful adjunct to the grid in meeting peak daytime demand.

Solar power decreases daytime peak usage, making the surplus even bigger. Even a small rooftop solar system can produce 25 kWh of electric per day, at the most critical time-peak summer daytime demand period.

Governor Schwarzenegger is planning to spend $20 billion on new out-of-state power plants and transmission lines. If that were spent instead here in California, it would provide incentives for homeowners to install rooftop solar power. At $10,000 per house, that money would enable 2 million houses to install solar panels, which would be an additional 50 million kWh per day. And the value would belong to the California homeowner instead of being spent on a coal plant.

This minimal use of solar alone would almost be enough to replace 40% of our oil usage. This is made possible by the fact that the EV is up to 10 times as efficient as a gasoline car, which enables so little electricity to replace so much gasoline and other oil-based fuels.

The all-electric Toyota RAV4-EV travels about 140 miles on the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline.

At 4 miles per kWh, the all-electric plug-in Toyota RAV4-EV travels about 140 miles on the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline (at 35 kWh per gallon). More aerodynamic EVs, such as the General Motors EV1, get 6 miles out of each kWh, or about 200 miles per gallon gas equivalent ("mpgge").

Compare the efficiency of an EV to a gas car over 100 miles. A Hummer, Suburban or Navigator, at 10 mpg, takes 10 gallons to go 100 miles. Our fleet average car gets 20 mpg, and requires 5 gallons to go 100 miles. Even a Prius, at 50 mpg, takes 2 gallons of gas to go 100 miles. The aerodynamic Honda Insight takes 1.6 gallons of gas to go 100 miles. But an EV goes 100 miles with no gasoline and no oil, on the energy equivalent of less than one gallon of gasoline. No smog checks, no exhaust, no tune-ups, no oil changes.

An EV is anywhere from twice to ten times more energy efficient than a gasoline car. But energy efficiency is only part of the advantage of EVs: the EV uses no gas at all, and can be sourced from a rooftop distributed solar photo-voltaic array.

This combination of "PV-EV"--a solar array providing seemingly unlimited power credits and an electric vehicle to use them--allows living essentially "oil- free." PV-EV practitioners sail past gas stations, and never worry about the cost of gasoline. When you drive free of cost and free of gasoline, buying gas seems like the rip-off that it really is, and paying the oil company seems like throwing money into the sewer.

We are proving this possible right now, and have been doing so for the past seven years. Our solar PV system produces more than enough kWh credits (we get a time-of-use benefit for charging off-peak), and we drive a lot--up to 40,000 miles per year on two cars, 20,000 miles for each RAV4-EV. Those miles are driven in kWh, meaning no oil was used for them (although some was used making the car), so instead of using 2,000 gallons of gasoline (producing 25 lbs. of carbon dioxide per gallon of gasoline) we used up 10,000 kWh to drive that distance, which was paid for by our peak production (and sometimes directly charged off the solar system). But even without the solar system, it only costs one cent a mile to charge up off-peak.

The real point here is that we need to move in this direction. We can't continue to rely on oil supplies from overseas dictators. The ancillary expenses are much too high--not to mention the human suffering and misery.

When will our leaders figure out that we don't need their oil and thus have no real reason to dominate the oil producing regions, no reason to subsidize protection of overseas oil supply lines, no reason to bomb Iraq. All it takes is the will to produce plug-in cars capable of driving 100 all-electric miles per day. Most of our driving is local: 80% of our miles are driven on round-trips less than 80 miles from home.

A serial plug-in hybrid that runs just like an EV at up to 80 miles per hour for up to 120 miles could be manufactured as easily and as reliably as the RAV4-EV. The serial hybrid has a small (40 hp) generator/engine that runs at constant speed to charge the battery on occasional long trips or if you forget to plug it in. We can do this: all it takes is the decision to allow people to join the "PV-EV" crowd, who vow to live essentially "oil-free."

Allowing more folks to drive all-electric cars lowers demand for gasoline, and should lower the price of gas for everyone else. So who, except the profit-bloated oil companies and their captive politicians, would oppose PV-EV?

We've got to do something; is there a better idea? Perhaps converting ALL cars to hybrids, increasing our fleet mileage to 40 mpg (let's say), would do the trick. But there are no hybrid mini-vans, and many hybrids from Ford and General Motors only get 25 mpg.

The attractive thing about driving all-electric vehicles is that we can eliminate the use of gasoline in our normal, car-oriented lifestyle without giving anything up. No one is going to abolish gas entirely; there will still be common tasks such as bringing supplies to the market which require gasoline-powered vehicles. PV-EV users are not judgmental about it; those who need to continue driving gas cars can do so.

Only a few were allowed to buy plug-in electric cars; but those lucky drivers who experienced the PV-EV lifestyle loved it, and fought hard to retain the EVs that made it possible. Yet powerful oil and auto companies, their trade associations, PR firms and captive politicians largely won and destroyed almost all plug-in electric cars. General Motors alone confiscated and crushed over 1200 gas-free cars. Oil and auto companies paid for campaigns to stop electric cars, and finally sued California to force an end to electric cars and destroy almost all of them.

Only Toyota allowed us to keep our EVs, honorably selling a plug-in electric vehicle. If there were more plug-in EVs on the market, more folks would be able to contemplate a move to the PV-EV way of living.

Only political leadership can force the oil and auto companies to allow plug-in electric cars, such as a serial plug-in hybrid, on the open market. We know the technology is viable because volunteer PV-EV engineers modified a Prius to enable it to plug in (struggling against the on-board computer, which seems designed to sabotage a bigger battery pack). But like all electric cars, the plug-in Prius runs better than a gasoline-powered car, and it gets up to 180 mpg. The true serial hybrid would get up to 500 mpg, and could allow drivers to generally avoid gasoline during the daily grind.

Doug Korthof, of Seal Beach, California (email or call 562-430-2495), says he "first learned of oil industry hatred of electric cars at a meeting of the California Air Resources Board in 1994." He has since attended many public meetings on clean air. He and his family leased the Honda EV plus, then two GM EV1s, a Ford Ranger EV, then finally were allowed by Toyota to purchase the RAV4-EV. Retired, he holds degrees in math and philosophy and is an advocate for local habitat values and clean oceans.

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This story was published on August 30, 2005.

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