Winter Storm Power Outages Reveal Problem For EVs

Yesterday the Philadelphia area was hit with an ice storm only thirty-six hours after a snow storm dumped as much as nine inches of snow in and around the city. The force of gravity combined with the weight of the wet snow and half an inch of ice proved too much for many trees in the greater Philadelphia area, resulting in what can only be referred to as “The Great Treepocalypse of 2014.”

There was a chorus of breaking tree limbs that sounded more like a hail of bullets at the local firing range. And then at night, beautiful shades of blue, causing the night sky to glow from a cascade of arcing power lines and exploding transformers.

And in the aftermath, three-quarters of a million PECO (Philadelphia Electric Company) customers without power in the middle of winter, where temperatures are not expected to rise above freezing until next week. Some will be without power at least through the weekend.

It’s with events like this that we become all too aware of our dependence on the power grid. The hundreds of thousands without electricity (many without it for two, three, four days or more) exposes what should have been a glaring flaw in relying on the grid for our transportation needs as we look to mass adoption of electric vehicles (EVs).

Yes, I believe all cars should eventually propel forward by electric drivetrain. Anyone not stuck in last century thinking knows the electrification of our transportation fleet is crucial to energy independence, a cleaner environment, and addressing climate change. But how do we create and store electricity in a way that best uses current infrastructure, and allays the ever-present fear of change?

On the electricity storage side of the equation, technology is always improving and I believe current batteries are sufficient at this point for mass adoption. The problem is on the generation side. And this is where the Chevy Volt makes sense. The Volt’s combination of an electric drivetrain and a gasoline powered electric generator, serves as a bridge that links last century infrastructure technology to an eventual all-electric future. What I don’t understand is why more automakers aren’t going with this configuration for their EVs.

Electric drivetrains are the future of the automobile industry, but how we generate that electricity can change as technology and infrastructure evolve. So manufacturers should be designing EVs to be modular, with the ability to adapt as new electricity generating technologies come online.

I can understand why a start-up like Tesla prefers to design and manufacture pure electric vehicles, and so far that has proven a success, albeit with a niche market. But for the established automakers who sell cars in the millions, not the thousands, if they want mass adoption, they need to remove the obvious impediment, range anxiety.

And mass adoption would be a lot easier if the only extra burden for the customer, and an optional one at that, was the extra step of plugging their car in at home. Mass adoption happens when a new technology does not place an obvious burden on the customer compared to the old technology it replaces. In other words, for EV mass adoption to take place, customers should be able to plugin their vehicle as an OPTION not a REQUIREMENT.

By removing the need to plugin an EV, we remove the fear causing the impediment. Those of us who understand the advantages of EVs like to say the infrastructure is the problem, not the car, but tell that to someone who bought an expensive electric vehicle only to get stranded on the highway as a steady stream “old” tech vehicles whiz by. And if we roll our eyes at them, we can do so as we also scratch our heads wondering why most people would never consider buying an EV.

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