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Electricity

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Batteries: rechargeable and potentially renewable

Car engines can use electricity in two ways:

Batteries (the subject of this page)
Battery-powered cars, which include battery electric vehicles [BEVs] and hybrids, use the electricity that is stored in an on-board battery to propel the vehicle. Batteries are potentially renewable, provided that their electricity is produced via a renewable source such as biomass fuel or solar power.
Fuel cells
Fuel cell powered vehicles convert chemical energy into electricity. Hydrogen fuel cells are the most efficient, and therefore the most widely used for transportation. To learn more about the fuel cell, click here.

Production

Electricity for car batteries comes from the same sources that power our homes, offices, and everything else. The bulk of this power is produced at using fossil fuels, though a small (but increasing) amount is derived from renewable sources such as wind and the sun. For an official, detailed look at U.S. energy sources, see this Department of Energy table

Infrastructure

Since BEVs merely require an electric outlet to recharge the car’s battery (just plug it in!), the infrastructure is already in place. Electric car recharging stations are scarce, however, and this is a problem, especially since today's electric cars have limited range. If an electric car runs out of juice it takes hours to recharge; you can't just plug it in for a minute at the gas station or drive-through. It remains to be seen if U.S. cities will install charging stations in increasing numbers as electric cars return to the market. Public charging station availability will become less of an issue as BEVs increase their range and shorten recharging time but if you're driving an EV you're going to need one at some point.

Advantages

The most obvious advantage to battery-powered cars is their lack of emmissions. If all of Los Angeles, for example, drove electric cars, the air quality would greatly improve. Electricity is also a more efficient solution for personal transportation than gasoline; more energy is lost in the manufacturing, distribution and consumption of gas per unit of energy created than is lost with electrical power. Reduced noise is another environmental advantage of electric cars.

Disadvantages

With all of the hype about electric cars and hybrids it's easy to overlook the problems. As previously mentioned, the energy to charge batteries has to come from somewhere and most of it is generated at fossil-fuel burning power plants which are massive sources of air pollution. Battery disposal is also a problem. Batteries are large, toxic and definitely not biodegradable. However, this might not be as big a problem as some imagine. The lead-acid batteries in conventional autos are at least as bad. Developers of new power supplies are increasingly conscious of recyclability and durability. It might turn out that BEV batteries last longer and are more recyclable than lead-acid batteries. Rather than a problem unique to the electric car, battery disposal should probably be considered as part of a larger problem: the vast amounts of resources consumed and waste produced by the production and consumption of personal transport. Performance is also an issue for electric cars, but this is sure to improve (see Tesla!).

The Future

The future of electric-powered cars is decidedly bright. Electricity is widely available and consumers like the cars. If renewable energy sources can be used to power these cars, the sky is the limit. Additionally, recent advancements in flywheel storage and nanotechnology suggest that car batteries of the future could be substantially more efficient than current power supplies. Please see our Emerging Technologies section for more about this amazing battery.

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