Is America Ready to Drive Electric?

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A shift to plug-in cars could also help the development of renewable power, all the more important since a proliferation of electric cars would alter the national pattern of carbon emissions — the utility sector would take on the emissions that once belonged oil-based transport. While a power grid fueled by solar or wind would be clean, one of its key drawbacks is that it would also be intermittent — if the sun were shaded or the wind failed to blow, we wouldn't have power. Likewise, if solar or wind produced more power than the grid could use, that excess power might simply be lost. But if millions of electric cars were plugged into the grid, they could act as mini-batteries, storing renewable electricity as it's generated — and eventually even channeling electricity back into grid during cloudy or windless days, a system called vehicle-to-grid. "If you have control over renewable power resources and plug-ins, you can start to synchronize the two," says John Clark, CEO of V2Green, a Seattle start-up that is looking to integrate the grid and plug-in vehicles, and which has already begun field trials with utilities in Austin, Texas. "To utilities, electric cars can become batteries on wheels."

But plug-ins won't catch on if the home is the only place drivers can recharge. By making charge stations as ubiquitous as gas stations are today, utilities can speed the end of the gasoline-powered car. Which raises yet more questions: How will utilities charge customers for recharging on the road? Who will install and run public charging stations? All of these factors have to be integrated fluidly — most car owners won't switch to electric if plug-ins are any less convenient to operate and refuel than the average gas guzzler. "We want to make sure the environment for the vehicle is as seamless as possible for the customer," says Mary Beth Stanek, director of environment and energy for General Motors.

Such infrastructure changes are still far off — official plug-ins have yet to hit the street — but a few companies are already gearing up. A start-up called Coulumb Technologies in Campbell, Calif., is developing public charging points that would enable drivers to plug in and pay for the power they use. Another model altogether is Shai Agassi's Better Place, a company that wants to develop a vast infrastructure of public charging and "battery swap" stations. Agassi imagines a subscription model similar to how mobile phones work. Drivers would lease the batteries that power their electric cars, and be charged based on how much they drove. If they needed to drive farther than the range of the battery, drivers would pull over into a Better Place station and swap the depleted battery for a fresh one in a few minutes. Agassi already has commitments from Israel and Denmark to begin developing the model, and Nissan is aboard to make the cars. "We started swimming and a tsunami has come," says Agassi, referring to the growth of his project thanks to rising oil prices.

But even with infrastructure improvements, the shift to electric cars is likely to take years, even decades. According to Alan Madian, a director at the research firm LECG, even assuming solid growth, we can't expect more than 68 million plug-in hybrids by 2036, which would account for less than 17% of the total estimated fleet at that time. Given that the U.S. car fleet is likely to have grown to over 400 million vehicles by then, we may still end up using more oil in the future than we do today in a business as usual scenario. That's all the more reason for the government to get ahead of the curve and begin piecing together the electric infrastructure — smart meters, public charging points, more renewable power — that will speed the adoption of plug-ins. "A car affects the world more than anything else a buyer will purchase in his or her lifetime," says Felix Kramer, founder of the California Cars Initiative, a plug-in advocacy group in Palo Alto, Calif. Plug-ins can turn the car from a force for environmental destruction to something that frees us from oil — but only if we make it happen.

(See photos of the dozen most important cars of all time here.)
(Check out the 50 worst cars of all time here.)

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