By New York Times
LONDON — Electric cars are riding high, as incentives and new models make them a realistic option, but the fresh attention may highlight flaws of this fuel source in comparison with gasoline and other alternatives like biofuels.
The attention being paid to the electric vehicle industry rankles some in the biofuel industry, whose own hype was abruptly halted by a glut of production in 2007, subsequent bankruptcies and a fall from grace after a link was drawn — which they dispute — between biofuels and higher food prices.
Yet gasoline-powered cars may trump both alternatives for decades as the least-worst option, with wider adoption of more efficient conventional cars helping to curb carbon emissions and oil dependence.
The uncertainty is striking for a $5 trillion global auto and fuel supply market where there is agreement only that the number of cars will keep rising, perhaps doubling to two billion by 2050.
The momentum is with electricity, following an oil price spike in 2008, lavish government incentives and a crippling downturn across the wider car industry. Last week, the United States completed fuel efficiency standards, following similar rules in Europe.
Green cars took center stage at auto shows this year in New York, Geneva and Detroit, including all-battery cars; hybrid varieties that switch between electricity and gasoline; and small, more fuel-efficient conventional cars. But battery-only electric vehicles are expensive.
Last week, Mitsubishi Motors and Nissan Motor announced prices for their battery-only electric cars, which are in production already or about to be introduced. Before government subsidies, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV will sell for ¥4 million, or about $42,000, and the Nissan Leaf for ¥3.8 million. And a single charge allows for a driving range of about 160 kilometers, or 100 miles, far less than for a gasoline-powered car, which American consumers typically expect to exceed 300 miles on one tankful.
Electric cars also have to contend with the multibillion-dollar cost of a new charging infrastructure, although they benefit from running costs at about a quarter of gasoline prices today, according to electric car advocates.
“The electric vehicle sector certainly has momentum, but it’s questionable whether it has the legs for the longer term, at least at the moment, and whether it has enough scale,” said Peter Wells at the Center for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff University in Wales.
Success depends on drivers’ accepting limitations on range and recharging time, which is several hours, said Pierre Gaudillat, research and development manager at the British-funded Carbon Trust.
“I don’t see any major breakthrough on the horizon,” he said.
Customers may have to compromise on what they expect from a car, perhaps tailored for commuting, and from ownership — for example, buying the car but renting the expensive battery.
Hybrid gasoline-electric cars overcome the range problem but are still pricey because of their complexity and battery costs.
Sales of gasoline-electric vehicles are expected to reach about 1.3 percent of an estimated 67 million light vehicle sales this year, according to J.D. Power and Associates.
Battery-powered, all-electric vehicles are expected amount to about 20,000 units but by 2015 could have a market share of 0.3 percent.
The International Energy Agency said electric and hybrid vehicles would need to make up at least 7 percent of global car sales by 2020 to reach emission reduction targets to avoid more dangerous climate change.
Global biofuel production, meanwhile, will grow 16 percent in 2010, according to the Global Renewable Fuels Alliance. Biofuels are made from sugar, corn and oil seeds now and perhaps in the future from grass, crop waste and wood.
Rising biofuel demand has stoked prices of feedstock like corn, but may have played only a small part in the food price spike in 2008, analysts say.
Royal Dutch Shell is a big backer of ethanol, striking a deal in February with Cosan of Brazil to create an ethanol venture that is expected to have revenues of $21 billion a year.
Ethanol made from Brazilian sugar cane is profitable when oil prices are more than $40 a barrel; oil prices currently hover around $80. That has created an auto market in Brazil in which most new cars are flex-fuel, handling any blend of gasoline and ethanol at no extra cost.
Gasoline may continue to dominate both alternatives in the car market, especially if oil price increases are muted by efficiency drives. Automakers are already making smaller engines that are more powerful and more efficient, while the carbon emissions savings of both electric cars and biofuels are disputed.
“I think oil-based transport fuels have such a competitive advantage and dominance that you need a compelling argument to move to something different, and the case has not been made for what that is,” said Chris Mottershead, vice principal of research and innovation at King’s College London and formerly consultant on climate change at BP.
Yet technology to replace gasoline still attracts investors, even those doubtful of any climate threat, given the vulnerability of the United States and other countries to oil prices. The United States imports more than half of the oil it consumes.
HSBC is one backer of electric cars, investing $125 million in January in Better Place, a California company that wants to build charging networks and lease batteries to customers.
An HSBC climate change analyst, Nick Robins, stressed a wider benefit, or “positive spillover,” from electric cars.
Car batteries could help balance the demand for electricity by recharging at night, when demand has traditionally been low, he said.