Patrick Bedard's Original at Car And DriverFilling up with clean, free wind, and other EV fantasies.

By Patrick Bedard
Car & Driver Magazine

Great in theory, but how does it work in the real world?"

We're now eight years into California's idea of forcing automakers to sell electric cars, far enough along to see that EVs, in the real world, don't pass the laugh test. GM's EV1 is a technical moonshot, yet only 495 customers have signed up in the nearly two years it has been available.

Price shouldn't be the problem -- at least for the customer. GM subsidizes the lease (there are tax incentives, too), cutting monthly payments to just $399, about what you'd pay for a new car in the $25,000-to-$30,000 list-price range.

Which should be a helluva sore spot for GM stockholders. The company invested "at least $1.5 billion" in the project, according to the Wall Street Journal. Just the interest on that sum at a cut-rate six percent runs $90 million a year.  Yet a year's worth of lease payments for all the EV1s out there is well under $3 million.  Okay, okay, electric cars are doomed in the real world, all because selfish customers insist that their new cars must have more capability than their old ones, not less.

Which raises the next question: Are EVs any more desirable in theory?

To those ordinary worriers who are merely preoccupied with our dependence on foreigners and their oil, electric cars offer a theoretical way to power cars with coal, of which the U.S. has plenty.

To those mega-worriers alarmed about our use of fossil fuels in any form, electric cars promise a way to run cars on the sun, and the wind, on the energy of raging rivers, and on the same subterranean heat that makes Old Faithful gush. "Renewable" is the umbrella term for these energy sources, and they do, indeed, make an appealing promise.

For years, hydroelectric was as close as you could get to power by immaculate conception. It was clean, it was free, and it was perpetual motion, flowing nonstop from marvelously engineered dams on our wild rivers. In fact, when California inked its EV mandate, it bragged about the clean-air benefit of these cars by saying that a significant share of the state's electricity came from out-of-state hydro plants.

About the same time, though, we started hearing how hydro dams in the Pacific Northwest are depleting salmon runs. Very quickly, lots of other environmental concerns piled on. Now the Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River is scheduled for destruction, the first removal of a hydro dam in memory.

More amazing still, the notion of removing the massive Glen Canyon Dam in northern Arizona seems to be getting a respectful hearing in Washington. This is the seventh-largest hydroelectric producer in the U.S. It backs up the 200-mile-long Lake Powell, with its 1960 miles of shoreline. In a desert state like Arizona, imagine the recreational attraction to boaters and vacationers; the locals love this place.

The logic for removal, as best I can distill it, is that Glen Canyon, with its colors and grottos and Indian ruins, was a magical place before the dam was built in the early Sixties. Yeah, it'll be heavily silted after nearly 40 years, and the vegetation is gone, but, hey, that damn dam shouldn't be there!

Historically, a progress-minded America would have hooted down that notion in a heartbeat. The fact that it's still alive suggests there won't be much new hydropower coming on stream to propel electric cars.  Wind promises to be as clean as hydro, although the wind has a shirker's habit of taking unannounced time off work, which makes it an unreliable source. This is why California's wind generators have a "dependable capacity" discounted down to just 18 percent of design capacity, according to the state's energy commission.  When all of the subsidies are accounted for, wind power costs about double the price of the latest gas-fired plants, concludes the Cato Institute in a 1997 study of renewable energy.

But that problem pales next to the Sierra Club's denunciation of windmills as "the Cuisinarts of the air" for the way they kill birds, including some federally protected species such as bald and golden eagles. Windmills turn out to be especially deadly to a class of birds most admired by humans, the raptors. These determined hunters swoop down for rodents and in the process occasionally come into fatal contact with the spinning blades. Then the reduced raptor population in the immediate area permits the rodents to flourish, which in turn baits more raptors into the blades.

"How many dead birds equal a dead fish equals an oil spill?" asked one San Francisco author in a newspaper article critical of the nearby Altamont Pass wind farm. In this day of aching environmental sensitivities, you can see where this discussion is going. We shouldn't count on much new wind power for cars, either.

Solar? Again, we have the unreliability problem. Even if there were never a cloud in the sky, the sun quits work every night at sundown. Small solar cells are just the ticket for space stations and other needs too remote for an extension cord. However, centrally generated solar power amounted to less than 0.03 of one percent of total U.S. needs as recently as 1995.

Two sources are being tested commercially: photovoltaic, also known as solar cells, and thermal, which uses collectors to heat a liquid which then powers an engine.

Solar electricity costs three times the price of the latest gas-fired technology, according to Cato, and draws objections from environmentalists for the land area it requires -- 5 to 17 acres per megawatt, compared with 0.04 acre per megawatt for new gas generators. Still, anyone who has crossed the nearly 200-mile expanse of the Mojave would conclude the U.S. has plenty of sunny space available for solar stations. The Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society disagree. They both testified before Congress in 1993 in favor of banning development in much of the Mojave, calling it "some of the most wild and beautiful landscapes in America." Since then, substantial areas have been put off limits.

That leaves geothermal, or heat wells drilled into the earth. While there are a few successful projects, the best potential sites tend to be in protected areas -- sorry, no drilling in Yellowstone. Moreover, experience has shown that existing wells have definite capacity limits. Drawing too much heat depletes them, at least for a time. For these reasons, "geothermal cannot be considered a renewable resource, at least in the United States," the Cato report concludes.

As long as we're talking theory, remember that electrics open the door to one more possibility, one with neither dead birds nor dead fish. We could run these cars on nukes.

Oops, forgot about that doggone laugh test.