Mention cars and we typically think of fossil fuel powered vehicles: gasoline, diesel, propane or natural gas.
Electric cars might seem like a recent invention, but more than a century ago, none other than Ferdinand Porsche developed a vehicle that used a gasoline engine to power a generator, which in turn ran an electric motor on each wheel. The battery alone could propel the car for 60 kilometres, but then its top speed was 50 km-h.
It took until the 1990s before work on electric cars became a serious business.
Electrical powered cars are becoming more popular, even in rural settings.
There are several types of electrically powered vehicles. The pure electric vehicle, known as the EV, is totally electric with only batteries for power and a cord to fuel it.
The hybrid, the HEV, uses a gasoline engine and/or electric motors to propel the vehicle. It does not require external charging of the batteries because the fuel powered engine takes care of that process.
The plug-in hybrid, a PHEV, has a gasoline engine and electric motor combination, but the batteries can also be charged by plugging in the car.
The EV uses only electricity for motive power. Its only source of energy is the batteries, which are charged at home, at work or other charging locations. It has a limited range of travel, restricted by the size and capacity of the battery bank.
The HEV uses a combination of electrical motor and engine to provide power: sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both at the same time.
It has a longer range of travel and isn’t dependent on charging stations because it is not dependent on battery power alone.
The PHEVs go one step further. The battery can be charged by plugging it into an electrical source, but the fact that there is an engine backup for recharging means the vehicle has a longer travel range than an EV.
The surge in electric cars is driven by a desire to reduce fuel consumption. Electric vehicles can do that, especially in urban driving and combined urban and highway transportation.
This in turn leads to fewer carbon dioxide emissions and cleaner air. Electric cars can significantly reduce smog and the asthmatic and allergic responses to smog in humans.
They can also reduce noise. In fact, they are so quiet there is even concern about the safety of pedestrians who don’t hear them approaching.
The EV uses no fuel directly, but electricity is not free. It is often generated through the burning of coal, typically away from urban centres, though in some cases the electricity can be greener when generated from hydro, wind or solar sources.
Charging batteries at night benefits power companies because it makes use of excess power. Many of them are offering cheaper rates for nighttime users.
You might wonder how hybrids can save energy or fuel. After all, there is still an engine and the weight of extra batteries.
Regenerative braking was one of the first major new features of modern electric cars and was developed in the late 1970s.
This system doesn’t waste the energy of friction that is created by pressing brake pads to steel drums or discs to stop the vehicle. Instead, braking is done electromagnetically, which captures the machine’s forward momentum and turns it into energy that charges the batteries.
This is especially important in urban driving, where there is much acceleration and braking.
The use of this technology significantly helps with fuel economy in urban situations, which is why you will see a lot of Toyota Prius taxis.
A hybrid such as the Prius has an engine, but it is smaller than what is found in a conventional car.
The engine is used to back up the electric motor and/or re-charge the batteries as necessary. It also provides the extra power needed for acceleration, working with the electric motor.
The HEV stops both the engine and motor when not required, which produces the odd sound of nothing running while at a stop sign or traffic light. The engine or electric motor will engage again only when motion is needed.
Fuel is used more sparingly be-cause braking energy and the batteries provide the additional fuel that is required. Trip length is not an issue because fuel can be topped up as needed.
So how do electric cars fit in cold-climate Canada?
The EVs have a limited travel range, maybe 100 to 150 km in optimal conditions. It takes hours to recharge, so you are not likely to head out on a major road trip in the dead of winter with nothing but an extension cord and a positive attitude.
As well, travel distance in cold conditions is dramatically reduced because battery capacity drops dramatically in colder temperatures and cabin heating must come from the same battery bank that powers the vehicles.
As a result, pure EVs are not well suited to cold climates and long drives, and are limited to more temperate locations and short hauls, typically for commuting or deliveries. Not a farm’s first choice.
On the other hand, the hybrids have the range of a more conventional vehicle. The Chevy Volt, a PHEV, runs on battery power until the battery is depleted after 60 km and continues with the engine charging the batteries. It has a maximum trip of 600 km between fuel fills.
The Ford Fusion Energi claims as much as a 1,000 km range without refueling.
You are not likely to find a pick-up truck EV unless it’s 2013 or older. GM dropped its hybrid trucks for next year. As well, you are not going to find a high performance vehicle unless you buy a Tesla, which will set you back close to six figures.
You can still buy SUVs such as the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, but most of the hybrid clan is in the sedan category. Electric and hybrid sales represent a small portion of overall vehicles sold, and they are more expensive than conventional counterparts.
However, sales of electric cars are growing in spite of the challenges of performance and pricing. As well, the cost benefit balance improves for these machines with every model year.
Most rural residents of the frozen north might not make one their only choice, but some day in the not-too-distant future, you might experience the strange phenomenon of an electric car in operation, pulling away from the farm in virtual silence, with just the sound of the gravel in the fenders to keep you company.
Will Oddie is a renewable energy, sustainable building consultant with a lifetime interest in energy conservation. To contact Oddie, send e-mail to [email protected]