PetroCanada and Electric Cars

June 22nd, 2006 by Potato

I had this thought ages ago, and started to write this article/post back on the Potatomas break. Unfortunately, a change in government and apathy made it more or less pointless to bother finishing & posting it. However, Netbug’s recent post reminded me of this, so I decided to ressurect it.

My thoughts on the matter are quite simply that Crown corporations can be put to a lot of good if the government would use them as such. CN & Bell laid transcontinental networks when it was economically unattractive to do so publically; the CBC gave us an ostensibly independent broadcaster; the LCBO prevents a company from being tempted by profit to sell alcohol to minors (and also brings more than beer to the North). In this line-up, PetroCanada stands out a bit, having only been started after foreign companies already had a decent gas distribution system in Canada. Perhaps that’s why it was privatized so quickly.

But, it has a big capacity to do important things if the government would turn it towards those uses:

  • A government-controlled oil company can help control pump prices, relieving the fears many Canadians have that oil company collusion is robbing them blind. Perhaps not the best thing for the big picture, since high gas prices might help more than they hurt (vis-a-vis curbing demand for SUVs, making people actually walk down the block, etc.).
  • Use the already present retail distribution system to introduce alternative fuels such as E85, hydrogen, or battery charges. This could be huge, since it can break the viscious new technology cycle: oil companies don’t want to offer alternative fuels because they don’t sell, since no one has the cars; the car makers don’t want to build and market the cars because no one will buy them; and no one will buy them because they can’t take them anywhere and expect a fill-up. It’s why we’re pretty much stuck with hybrid technology as the only alternative to gas/diesel (it’s good, don’t get me wrong, but we could perhaps do better).

I find it an exciting prospect, really, to leverage a Crown corporation’s ability to bring about uneconomical transformation on the taxpayer’s bill. It’s something that could become really big: once the government has a decent distribution system out, it can make the car makers sell a certain percentage of cars taking advantage of that (and knowing Canadians, a decent number would buy anyway, once it’s even remotely feasible). If research needs to be done, well a few well-directed NSERC grants could plug that hole. Then, the manufacturing & product design could be done here in Canada, providing jobs when the technology eventually starts to spread south of the border.

Now, let’s move on to talking about electric cars.

They are a very strange beast: they produce zero emissions (though you will need the generating capacity somewhere, so at worst we might just say that they take the emissions that would clog a downtown area and shift them to the location of the power plant… which can also conceivably scrub them better), get great acceleration and decent cruising efficiency, yet are barely produced at all currenly. The reason, of course, is that electrical storage in chemical batteries has terrible energy-to-weight ratios (after all, you have to carry around all that battery, rather than burning it up completely as you go), so their range is often limited.

Range is, in fact, probably the biggest reason electric cars haven’t taken off: you simply can’t recharge them quickly, like you can with a quick stop at the gas station for a hybrid or traditional combustion engine car — so once you run out your battery, you’re stuck there for 8 hours while you charge up the slow way. And the range just barely covers relatively routine treks (such as to the cottage, or driving downtown and back to the 905 five times in a day), which makes many people nervous.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way: tons of devices around us have replaceable/rechargeable batteries, and that is perhaps a model for electric cars that the car companies haven’t looked at closely enough. When my camera runs out of juice, I simply go to any convenience store and pick up a pair of AA’s, plug them in, and off I go. We could make cars the same way: pick a decent-sized battery and make it standard across all cars. A small car might have 6, say, and a large electric SUV might sport 18 in an array, but the point is that you can then drive across the country and swap out your batteries as they dry out. All you need is a distribution system that keeps a decent number of them charged up and in stock.

Which brings us back to PetroCanada.

Of course, this concept is not without its challenges. In addition to having someone decide on the battery standard, and having someone set up a distribution system of chargers before the first car is actually sold, there are engineering challenges to solve. Electric cars that currently exist (or, for the EV-1, I should say, formerly existed) are engineered tight, with all kinds of innovations made to save on weight and extend range. If batteries were broken down into smaller standardized subunits, it would make them heavier and bulkier since more space would be wasted on the plastic casing and less spent on actually charge capacity. It might also make placement in the car more difficult, since you’d need to get access to the batteries somehow (whether from beneath the car, the trunk, hood, or from panels in the side), so they couldn’t be squeezed in between other parts wherever space could be found. The bigger the battery is, the faster a changeover could take place, and the more efficient the design would be. However, batteries are heavy, so it doesn’t take much before it’s infeasible to expect even a relatively healthy, in-shape person to change them manually, let alone an elderly, injured, or out-of-shape driver. Planning on simple hand-pumped cranes to help might work, but even the most simple tools foil some people (there are people out there who can’t pump their own gas as it is). At first, providing full-service might work, especially since even self-only stations still have at least a cashier on hand, and the electric fleet will likely be small enough at first that that person could afford to run out on the rare occasions he or she was needed.

An interesting social dilemma is also raised: who owns the batteries? Who is responsible for replacing them when they no longer hold a charge or are otherwise damaged? With permanent batteries, it comes down to either the car owner or manufacturer (depending on the warranty) owning up. But with batteries changing hands every time someone takes a trip of more than 250 km, it becomes more complicated. At first, PetroCanada could own the batteries, but that would raise all sorts of problems once other distribution lines opened up (whether say, Shell also got in on the recharging station game, or if an all-new company started up like an Ontario Solar & Windmill Recharged Green Electric Car Coop). Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer for this one. Even if the batteries were insured by a government agency (perhaps funded by a portion of each new electric car’s purchase price), that would leave open the problem of American cars coming across the border to change out their faulty cells.

Completely new technology, such as capacitor banks, flywheels, or superconductors might allow permanently installed storage devices and bypass these legal issues, while still allowing for quick-charge stations to extend range… but none of these, AFAIK, store electricity well over the long term.

Finally, one very clever method to extend the range of electric cars is the Genset trailer. I’ve never personally seen one of these, but they look absolutely brilliant. They basically consist of a small gas or diesel generator that provides the electricity needed to run the car (or, if you prefer to think of it this way, the electricity needed to constantly charge up the batteries as you drive). I don’t know why they don’t sell electric cars along with one of these right now (or with a roof-rack or trunk-mounted version, since a generator + fuel tank doesn’t have to be huge). It’s basically like having a plug-in electric car with the option of switching to a hybrid mode for long-distance travel.

Footnote: the transmission on my car has been making unhappy noises since I got it back from the police. I think I might go and give the Civic Hybrid and the Prius a test drive while the weather’s nice, and start thinking about retiring the Accord (though that’s probably still a few years down the road).

2 Responses to “PetroCanada and Electric Cars”

  1. Netbug Says:

    How does the pro[p]ane redistribution system work now? I know there are different gas stations that allow the trade in of the old tank for hte new one. It could work the same for fuel cells; the company that sells them makes a retail profit off the exchange rate (say $5 per battery).

    And ya, we’re dreaming. The greed is still too big.

  2. Robin Says:

    Yeah not a bad idea bug.

    Maybe something like the beerstore. Bring back your empty battery and get your deposit back?

    I like it. But I think a “Star-trek” like transporter is still the way to go! :p