Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=231548
Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 11:16:08 AM CST
The rise of the electric vehicle has gotten off to a slow start in Chicago.
Of the 2.7 million electric vehicles expected in the nation by 2024, Chicago currently has a fleet of about 400 registered with the city.
That makes Chicago the 12th most electric vehicle-friendly city in the nation on a per capita basis, but the city’s recent “Drive Electric Chicago” initiative may mark a symbolic turning point. The program is designed to educate current and potential electric vehicle drivers on charging options and the economic and environmental impacts of electric driving.
“The biggest hurdle is education and understanding of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids,” said Samantha Bingham, environmental policy analyst for Chicago’s Department of Transportation. “ The vast majority of consumers have the presumption that vehicles are not going to meet their lifestyle needs in terms of range and that charging a vehicles requires expensive equipment.”
Yet electric charging stations are more common and accessible than any other energy source. A standard 110-volt outlet can be used to charge an electric vehicle, whereas alternative fuels require costly infrastructure and human labor. Given that vehicles are sitting idly between 96 to 98 percent of the time, people can simply plug in their electric vehicles at home or work and walk away.
Bingham further asserts that the country is experiencing a short-lived time frame of relatively low oil prices. In fact, she says Chicago’s are among the highest in the country, and that long-term trends of transportation fuels reveal electricity is always the cheapest.
But fuel costs aren’t the main obstacle to widespread purchase. Though an electric vehicle offers better cost per mile, the car is more expensive up front. Some experts say electric vehicle makers will not be competitive with conventional vehicles if they cannot sell cars for less than $35,000.
“Some people will buy an electric vehicle as a novelty or status item, but for any substantial penetration, they will have to get the value proposition to be comparable to buying more high sales volume sedans,” said James Sallee, U.S. tax policy expert at the University of Chicago. “Right now, they are not close.”
A primary reason for that is the expensive cost of batteries within electric vehicles, which require extensive research and development before prices can turn downward.
Material science and engineering professor Yip-Wah Chung at Northwestern University avers that another challenge will be increasing battery life. The capacity of a battery decreases with each charge-discharge cycle. Though most battery warrantees for cars are around eight years, the average car in the U.S. today is kept for about 11 years, which means the first owner is likely to pay for a battery replacement.
“This is a disincentive to purchase. More importantly, it kills the used car market. Reducing the cost of batteries helps, but increasing the life to at least the average life of a car is just as important for the electric vehicle market at large,” he said.
Said Al-Hallaj, co-founder and CEO of battery production company All Cell Technologies LLC, feels the pressure.
“That’s something we understand, but it’s going to take time and we can’t improve our efficiency and manufacturing techniques overnight,” he said.
In his eyes, the biggest challenge to the electric vehicle market began when the government poured billions of dollars into funding big battery companies. But most of their they were bought out by foreign players or went out of business. These failures brought the market down and left people with the expectation that batteries would be much cheaper than they can be.
“If the market went down and a house a couples blocks down was sold way below market value, that affects my house, too. The market, at that point, has been dictated. It’s the same thing with the battery market and we’re struggling a lot because of those companies that went out of business,” Al-Hallaj said.
The “grid” encompasses all networks that connect electricity from the generation plants to consumers. Electric vehicles aren’t causing traffic jams yet, but Chicago is figuring out how to manage the demands of future plug-in vehicles in order to keep them from overwhelming the electric grid. Daniel Gabel at the Commonwealth Edison Company says smart grid technologies are being developed to do just that.
Utility companies no longer need to rely on individuals to gather data needed to provide electricity; a smart grid means that the electric utility grid can be computerized, offering the benefit of improvements in energy efficiency to both utilities and consumers.