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Electric vehicles: The real deal, or green hype?

The future of alternative energy transportation

Chevy Volt, Toyota Prius, Honda Fit, and the Nissan Leaf – it seems that most of the major car manufacturers have new models coming out every year, but are electric vehicles (EVs) really the future of cars, or just an expensive trend that is bound to disappear?

To start off on a positive note – there are many benefits, both environmental and financial, of electric and hybrid vehicles. Fact: driving a Toyota Prius is more environmentally friendly than a Ford F1 pickup. Fact: an EV can convert up to 70 per cent of a battery’s energy, while a gas guzzler only reaches about 25 per cent efficiency. Fact: an EV also means less money spent at the pump.

Putting things into perspective, the global motor vehicle industry adds about 50 million new cars to those already on the road per year. Of these, only a few thousand are electric. Of the estimated 1 billion cars in use today, just under 4.5 per cent are considered alternate vehicles (hybrids, electric, or hydrogen based). But that’s because people are just warming up to the idea, right?

Let’s face it, even disregarding the relative smaller sizes of EVs or the lack of the apparent “manliness” aura we are meant to associate with turning the keys of a V8 engine, tacking on an additional $10,000 to $16,000 to the base price of a car doesn’t necessarily translate into a good sales pitch. According to J.D. Power and Associates, a self-described “marketing information services company,” charging an EV adds roughly $18 per month to a user’s electricity bill, while saving them $147 per month at the pump. This translates into a payback period of 6.5 years for an EV and 11 years for a plug-in hybrid, based on today’s prices. However, due to the uncertainty of the price of oil, these numbers could become more attractive in the future.

While BMW and Cadillac will soon be launching their first EVs, Toyota’s vice chairman, Takeshi Uchiyamada, recently announced that Toyota would be scaling back their EV development, citing high production costs, long charging delays, and poor electric mileage. It might also be important to note that this is the same man who, in 1994, spearheaded the Prius electric vehicle program for Toyota. One wonders why he has recently had a change of heart.

One of the big questions is, “Are EVs actually green?” To answer this question, we need to look at where our electricity actually comes from. The goal of modernizing the global vehicle fleet is to ultimately reduce greenhouse  gas emissions. However, if there’s a dirty coal power plant on the other side of the power cord, is it any better than running on gas?

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 45 per cent of the electricity generated in the U.S. still comes from coal, emitting literally tons of pollutants into the air, while only 3.6 per cent comes from renewable sources. On the other hand, the U.S. government gives up to $7,500 in tax credits for purchasing an EV as an added bonus for environmentally-conscious buyers.

Aside from the bad rap Canada gets for digging into tar sands, its energy profile is actually much cleaner with hydroelectricity accounting for almost 58 per cent of the total generation. There are also provincial incentive programs in place for buying EVs. As of January 1, 2013, the Quebec government will give you up to a $8,500 rebate if you decide to buy an EV.

It is clear that the energy profile of the country is important in assessing how ‘green’ EVs really are. Because of the relative means by which electricity is generated, it seems that Canadian EVs are more environmentally friendly than their American counterparts. Regardless of personal opinion, however, alternative energy sources and alternative vehicles are a major area of research, especially at McGill.

At McGill’s Alternate Fuels Lab, Professor Jeff Bergthorson and his group of mechanical engineering students look into hot topics such as combustion and the emission properties of burning diverse bio-fuels. Furthermore, they tackle the big questions surrounding the development of a safe and effective metal-based battery with potentially zero carbon emissions. According to Bergthorson, “today’s industry is…far too conservative and…too wedded to fossil fuels to consider any big shifts.” In an effort to change the status quo, work is being conducted to test the concept of using reactive metals as alternative energy carriers for future transportation vehicles, eliminating harmful pollutants associated with fossil fuels.

In the Power Engineering Research Lab, professors and their grad students are inspecting the bigger picture, working on new techniques to incorporate EVs into daily life. Some interesting ideas floating around include the use of the EV’s battery to power some household appliances, or better yet, sell excess electricity back to the power grid. On a cloudy day or when the wind stops blowing, stored electricity in EVs may also hold the key to a future of renewable energy. Diego Mascarella, a second year master’s student working in the lab, told The Daily that he has “no doubt that electric vehicles will dominate future markets, but until then, drivers will still need to weigh the higher price tags against the self-satisfaction of reducing carbon emissions.”

Outside the glamorous showrooms and media frenzy over whose electric vehicle can drive the furthest, many of the big car manufacturers are making tough decisions. Some have opted to continue down the path of EVs while a few others have decided to scale back. Many of these decision factors are based on the origins of electricity, efficiency of vehicles, and productions costs – all of which require both improvement and research.