Charged Cars

Posted Aug. 10, 2010, at 8:35 p.m.

In the late 19th century, electric cars were the dominant technology in the burgeoning horseless carriage business. For a variety of reasons, gasoline-fueled vehicles won out, and the electric car has been relegated to oddity status.

Earlier this decade, hybrid vehicles hit the consumer market. Hybrids have gasoline-powered engines and electric batteries which charge during braking; the batteries run the vehicle at times, or assist when the vehicle is climbing a hill.

Beginning later this year, the Nissan Leaf, a vehicle powered only by a battery, will be available to consumers. The car will sell for $33,000, and with a full charge, can travel about 100 miles. Also later this year, the Chevrolet Volt — a battery-powered car that comes with a gasoline backup — will be introduced, at a price of $44,000. A federal $7,500 tax credit is available to those who purchase the vehicles.

The vehicles, and those that are sure to be introduced by other car manufacturers, will not end the nation’s oil dependence. But they represent a huge step away from petroleum.

As with other technologies, the cost of electric cars will drop as demand grows (remember when DVD players were $800?). Electric car power systems are much simpler than the gasoline-powered engine, which must include fuel delivery and combustion systems, cooling and emission systems, and hardware that can sustain high temperatures and thousands of explosions each minute. Maintenance costs should be lower on electric cars as well, also because of the simplicity of their design.

Still, electric car innovation and development has a ways to go. Bangor Daily News energy and home improvement columnist Tom Gocze, who experiments with electric cars, said among their shortcomings is a lack of power — the kind needed to merge onto a highway — and their “somewhat anemic” interior heat, something that would especially concern Mainers. Both problems can be addressed with design improvements.

Mr. Gocze says that even with Maine’s high electric rates, electric cars are less expensive to operate than gasoline-fueled cars. He believes electric cars should get a minimum of 100 miles per charge to be commercially viable. “I think there is a psychological barrier if the range is lower. More is better. Battery technology will make this happen. The demand for better batteries and the marketing of EVs will drive this advancement,” according to Mr. Gocze.

Mainers should keep an eye on this developing technology because of a tie-in with the state’s growing wind power infrastructure. Electric cars are designed to be charged by a home unit, which uses a 220-volt source connected to a circuit breaker box. Since most consumers drive during the day, and since the wind blows more at night, wind power is an ideal source for a fleet of electric cars.

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