23 November 2010

Electric Cars and Electric Copyrights

* Netflix has made headlines with its new pricing plan. Essentially unlimited access to its online movie library, without DVD mailing, is $8 a month. The old DVD mailing and online movie library is $10 a month.

This puts in bold relief the excesses of draconian penalties for "pirates" who download movies for personal use. The fair market value of the downloaded movies is $8 a month. Theft it is perhaps, but it is merely petty theft of the most trivial kind. Statutory damage awards for copyright violations might not always have been excessive, but given the immense ratio of compensatory to statutory damages for downloading movies illegally, due to the falling value of downloaded movies, they are becoming constitutionally excessive.

* The Nissan Leaf goes on the market in December. It will be the first pure electric mid-sized sedan sold in the mass market, with a price of $33,000, an estimated annual fuel cost of $561, and a fuel efficiency equivalent of 99 miles per gallon based on a 1 gallon equals 33.7 kilowatt-hour equivalence. The fuel savings over ten years compared to the comparably sized Chevrolet Malibu (which retails for about $24,000) is about $11,000. So, even without tax subsidies, the Nissan Leaf is comparable in combined purchase and fuel costs to a comparable conventional vehicle. The price edge only grows if gasoline prices increase more quickly than electricity prices, which is very likely in the medium to long term.

The Leaf has a range of only 71 miles and takes all night to recharge at a 240 volt garage recharger, but the range is quite adequate for intracity driving. The average person drives less than 35 miles a day. Also, a significant share of intercity travel takes place on interstate highways or by fleet vehicles, where high speed (30 minute) recharging stations can quickly be added to the infrastructure, or can be replaced with freight rail.

This is really good news for the future of the species. One of the big questions facing us in the long run is whether we can continue to live life as we know it without oil. The vast majority of that oil goes to fueling cars and trucks. The Nissan Leaf is proof that this is possible for a large share of all cars and trucks. And, since electric drive vehicles use a technology that scales to larger and smaller vehicles easily, the implication is that current technology is sufficient to manage without most of the oil we consume, at an only modest price penalty (if any), with current technology. It might take a decade or two to actually design a full suite of electric vehicles, put in place a charging infrastructure, and replace the current supply of vehicles once oil prices made the advantage of electric vehicles over gasoline powered vehicles, but it wouldn't be a radical redesign of our way of life to do this even with no technological advances at all.

The Nissan Leaf and its plug in electric competitors will also make it easier to plan what increases in power generation supply are needed to meet the demand. Fortunately, since car recharging is something that will probably take place mostly at night when the demand on the power grid is lowest, an increase in electricity consumption from an increased number of electric cars on the road won't increase the amount of power generation capacity that we need by an equal amount. At first, no increase in power generation capacity will be needed, and even as electric cars make up a fairly decent share of the total mix of vehicles on the road, the increased generating capacity needed may be pretty modest. Also, hybrid gasoline and electric vehicles like the Chevy Volt can meet longer range demands, while doing most intracity travel in a more efficient purely electrical mode, at the cost of a considerably more expensive to build and more complex and hence maintenance prone machine.

One question mark is the lifetime maintenance costs for an electric car. Since it has far fewer moving parts, one might expect that it would have less maintenance needs, and the Toyota Prius which is a hybrid, has had above average reliability and low maintenance needs, but it isn't clear how long batteries will last and what it will cost to replace them if they have a useless life of less than the rest of the vehicle.

Replacing heating oil for space heating in the few places, mostly in the Northeast, with alternative fuels, is also technologically viable and often economic even at current prices.

There are some applications, like oceanic travel, long rural trips, air travel, lubrication oils, plastics, fertilizers and other industrial uses of oil, where electric vehicles can't replace oil. But, meeting these needs with renewable biofuels and organic fertilizers is a far more viable proposition than trying to meet the full demand for petroleum in our economy with renewable alternatives something that would strain our agricultural capacity to make food if most of the need couldn't be met with electric vehicles.

1 comment:

Kevin Dickson said...

Freight and intercity travel will move back to trains, which already are highly efficient.