Electric Company

Gen. Wesley Clark and Roger Kemp argue that a new superbattery isn't enough to make the electric car viable.


In the military, we had a saying: It’s OK to take a risk, but not a gamble. In other words, never undertake an effort if its failure would doom your mission. In his article, Steve LeVine does an excellent job highlighting the wild gamble that the United States is taking on electric cars (“The Great Battery Race,” November 2010).

The United States currently spends $300 billion per year importing oil. Acting as though electric batteries can spur a new industry, save our economy, and single-handedly create the millions of new jobs we need is worse than a gamble — it’s simple foolishness. It’s the type of utopian dreaming that has delivered 40 years of ever increasing dependence on imported oil alongside periodic promises to achieve “energy independence.”

Every study I’ve seen — and LeVine agrees — has shown that even if you’re hugely optimistic about the prospect for technological improvement, the United States will still need to import between $300 billion and $900 billion of oil between now and 2030. And if we keep sending that kind of money abroad, we’re unlikely ever to create the economic growth needed to re-employ America.

Our future rests with energy innovation, but to make up for 40 years of failed policy, we need everything in our tool kit: not just electric cars, but more oil exploration, compressed natural gas, gas-to-liquid and coal-to-liquid conversions, and, increasingly, biofuels. The nearest-term fix is ethanol, and we should invest more in the infrastructure needed to make it work.

Achieving fuel self-sufficiency is vital to our future, and it can be done — but only by using all our technologies.

Gen. Wesley Clark (ret.)
Little Rock, Ark.

Steve LeVine’s article provides an inspired discussion of the political challenge and environmental importance of finding a substitute for gasoline. But LeVine neglects to mention that low-cost, high-energy-density batteries aren’t the only thing preventing electric automobiles from becoming, in his words, the world’s “great green hope.”

Even if we had a superbattery, we wouldn’t know how to effectively charge it. The standard North American electrical outlet supplies 1.8 kilowatts: Recharging the equivalent of 15 gallons of gas at that rate would take four days.

Advocates of electric cars suggest specially designed fast charging stations would be the solution. But that overlooks the sheer power requirements. The parking lots at New York’s Yankee Stadium hold 8,000 cars. For half of those to recharge fully while the owners watch a game, the parking lots would need 400 megawatts of power — the full output of 150 maximally sized wind turbines.

Finally, LeVine focuses on the challenges of increasing batteries’ energy density, but it’s more important to find a way to reduce their cost if they are ever to succeed at entering the mainstream. Relying on a future superbattery is high-risk. A surer option is to go for a smaller battery, perhaps 10 to 20 kilowatt-hours, in a plug-in hybrid that uses grid electricity for day-to-day commuting, recharged at night from cheap off-peak electricity, and biodiesel or ethanol for longer trips.

Roger Kemp
Fellow, Engineering Department, Lancaster University
Lancaster, Britain

Steve LeVine replies:

The countries involved in the great battery race — most of the world’s industrialized countries in addition to several currently categorized as developing — know they are engaged in a monumental endeavor. There are the laws of physics, which limit their ability to squeeze more power from the lithium-ion battery, as well as reduce its price. There is also the problem raised by Roger Kemp: How will all these batteries get recharged?

Yet, those theoretical challenges aside, scientists agree that the first order of business is the basic battery work. They are trying to make batteries lighter and ultimately remove the expensive metals that drive up the cost. Kemp argues for an engineering approach — grouping together small batteries (the Tesla Motors approach, too), not getting overly clever about the recharging question (relying on ordinary home sockets), and meanwhile going hybrid with biodiesel or ethanol. All in all, these are sensible suggestions. But it’s easy as well to grasp why Argonne National Laboratory and IBM are pushing for lithium air, which could compete side by side with gasoline in terms of cost and efficiency, even if it takes some 15 or 20 years before there is a version ready for commercial markets.

It’s a given that none of these proposals is a sure thing. The United States, China, Japan, South Korea, and a dozen others have piled in, but there is no safety in numbers — ultimately, everyone might fail. But does that mean no one should have entered the race to begin with? Gen. Wesley Clark lists the right options: The wisest strategy is probably to continue working on biofuels, oil drilling, natural gas, and so on, while also trying to crack the battery conundrum.

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