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Electric Ride Powering A Transportation Revolution

By: Gary Mason
Globe & Mail
July 7, 2008


Link to original opinion column

The Solar Taxi made a pit stop in Vancouver last week. At the wheel was Swiss adventurer Louis Palmer, who set off from Lucerne almost a year ago in his quest to become the first person to circumnavigate the globe in an electric car.

Thirty-two thousand kilometres down, 18,000 km to go. Mr. Palmer is hoping to traverse five continents and visit 40 countries as he spreads the word about the Swiss technology fuelling his journey.

But perhaps more than anything, he is focusing attention on the profound revolution under way in the world of electric car technology.

The Solar Taxi uses solar cells to absorb light and a new high-energy battery made from common salt, ceramics and nickel. It can travel about 300 km on a single charge. The battery can be charged about 1,000 times, which would allow the vehicle to travel between 200,000 and 400,000 km.

The Solar Taxi is a prototype, and as such is still treated as a curiosity. But Don Chandler, president of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association, says the sleek vessel represents a major step in the evolution of the battery-powered car.

"The only issue now is scaling up [the Solar Taxi] to a larger format," Mr. Chandler told me.

The electric car has been around in various guises for more than 100 years. But with gas prices being what they are today, the pressure to produce a reasonably priced, battery-powered car for the masses has never been greater.

Mr. Chandler says that day is likely only a few years away.

That's when General Motors hopes the Chevy Volt will start rolling off assembly lines in Detroit. The Volt is a direct descendant of GM's EV1, the battery-powered vehicle whose suspicious death in the 1990s inspired the movie Who Killed the Electric Car? (The movie suggested that production of the EV1 was halted in part because of lobbying by oil companies.)

While the Volt is being billed as the world's first mass-produced electric car, it is technically a hybrid. For the first 64 km of a trip the Volt will run on a rechargeable battery. For longer drives, a gasoline generator would power the car. But the Volt's battery should take care of most people's daily driving needs.

Renault-Nissan, meantime, is entering into a massive electric-car project with Israel. More than 500,000 electric-charging stations will be installed throughout the country to help power the up to 20,000 electric cars the company plans to begin shipping there in a few years time. The cars are expected to be able to travel 100 to 160 km on a single charge.

Electric cars aren't without environmental problems of their own. The power they consume must come from somewhere, which will put even more pressure on our electrical utilities. Still, they have zero emissions and as such remain our best bet for beating back global warming.

So what is Canada doing to get ready for the arrival of the electric car?

Well, not a lot. But Mr. Chandler's association was able to persuade the City of Vancouver to recently change its building codes and bylaws to bring more plug-ins to residential parking spaces and ensure future buildings are equipped to handle a world with electric cars.

The city recently approved new green building bylaws that require new homes and apartment buildings to include infrastructure for electric car plug-ins. Calgary is doing the same thing.

The biggest concern consumers have about the electric car is its capacity, Mr. Chandler says. How far can it go? But most people aren't aware of just how little mileage capacity they actually need. According to Statistics Canada, Canadians drive an average of 50 km a week. And their average commute to work is 7.2 km.

"So 95 per cent of the time they don't need a car that can go 700 km on a tank of gas as cars do today," Mr. Chandler says. "An electric car that can go 150 km on a single charge is more than enough for most people."

And when they do need to make that occasional long trip they can rent a car, Mr. Chandler says, from the growing number of car co-ops that are popping up around the country.

Co-ops in Vancouver are doing a booming business. After paying an average of $500 to join, a co-op member can access cars parked all over the city. You can book one online and are charged by the kilometre.

"We are going to change the way we think about driving," Mr. Chandler says. "And the electric car is going to drive a lot of that change. And its arrival, in a mass way, it's just around the corner."






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