Author Archives: David Ferry

Curbing Range Anxiety

David Ferry is a freelance writer and former Climate Watch intern, based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A Saba Roadster on display at a forum on the future of electric vehicles at St. Mary's College in Moraga, CA. (Photo: David Ferry)

A Saba Roadster on display at St. Mary's College in Moraga, CA. Photo: David Ferry

By David Ferry

Electric vehicles can reduce emissions, save money on fuel, and, according to their enthusiastic proponents, are even fun to drive. But are “normal” people ever going to buy one?

Despite the perceived benefits of going electric–and the all-out push from auto companies to roll out EVs as soon as possible–experts predict that American consumers will purchase about a million electric cars in the next five years (by automotive standards, that’s a small number). There are, of course, a number of reasons why the average driver would be hesitant to drop $30,000 on a strange new car, but the one that automakers (and the press) love to fret over is called “range anxiety”.

Range anxiety is the fear that your electric car will run out of juice miles from the nearest charging station. Most electric cars have significantly shorter ranges than their gas-powered cousins, and batteries take hours to recharge. As a result, studies have shown that an EV’s “electric leash” makes drivers nervous and may ultimately keep consumers from switching from unleaded to AC.

This apparent fear of being tethered raises two questions for academics and execs: How can automakers and municipalities reduce range anxiety? And does the condition even  exist?

A hundred years ago, before our vast network of public fueling stations was developed, early automotive adopters installed gas stations in their own homes and carried cans of petrol with them. Nowadays, an EV owner can convert the plugs in their garage but, as one panelist pointed out at a forum on electric cars last week, when your electric car’s meter hits zero, the only way home  is a flatbed truck.

So, how do you ease that anxiety? Nissan and the political leaders of nine Bay Area counties think that installing a public system of quick-charging stations will help. Nissan, which is releasing the electric LEAF this December, is working with the local officials to bulk up the region’s free vehicle-charging infrastructure. The hope is that easily accessible recharging stations will accelerate sales and bring some peace of mind to jittery EV buyers.

“It’s a psychological thing,” says Ron Freund, a board member of Plug In America, who also sat on the panel at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, last week. Freund says that while public charging stations often go unused, EV owners drive farther and worry less in cities with easily accessible charging stations.

(For a take on the strain all these electric cars may place on the grid, see Alison Hawkes’ post and companion radio story: “Invasion of the Electrics.”)

Alas, the meager number of public charging stations already installed won’t rid electric car owners of their fear of hitting “E”, says Andy Frank, a professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering at UC Davis.

“With EVs, there will always be range anxiety,” he says. Even though most people drive their cars fewer than 35 miles a day and single trips are generally under 11 miles (well within the range of electrics like the Nissan LEAF) recharging takes hours longer than gassing-up does, and consumers are hesitant to be without a car for 5-8 hours.

Which brings us to the contrary view: maybe range anxiety isn’t all that big of a deal. Tom Turrentine, director of the Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle Research Center at UC Davis, says it’s all hogwash.

“It is not as if potential EV drivers will buy a vehicle and head out to go to Lake Tahoe or grandma’s house suddenly to find themselves short on charge. Most of the drivers we have interviewed over the years never encounter such situations,” Turrentine wrote in an email. “They buy the vehicle and use it in a space that is comfortable for the range of the vehicle, seldom running it down below 50%, especially when they first own the vehicle. We all know our laptops are good for about 2-3 hours and don’t take them backpacking for that reason. If they go to Tahoe, they’ll take the hybrid or gas vehicle.”

Turrentine notes that most people in the market for an EV come from multiple-car households. Frank and Turrentine agree that an EV may make a very handy second car, but it’s a pain if it’s your only one.

So, who’s going to buy an electric car? People like Ron Freund, the board member from Plug-in America:

“I think it’s kind of an adventure,” he said, when asked about range anxiety. “I make it a game: I like to see how little energy I can use to go a mile.”

The electric engine of a "Plug-In Prius" (Photo: David Ferry)

The electric power plant of a "Plug-In Prius" Photo: David Ferry

Committee: No Free Lunch for Carbon Emitters

California’s cap-and-trade program took another baby step toward fruition on Monday, with the release of the state-appointed Economic and Allocation Advisory Committee’s final report on implementing carbon regulation.

Stopping just short of recommending a 100% auction of emission credits, the report, which is non-binding and was written to help the California Air Resources Board develop an economically sound cap-and-trade program, advises the state to sell off the majority of its carbon permits to emitters — with a few exceptions. Industries that “rely heavily” on carbon-based energy or compete directly with firms that do not face carbon regulation, the report says, should be “provided with assistance” or given funds earned from the auction.

The report pointedly advises against handing out free permits to utilities. Although the state’s utilities will almost certainly pass increased costs onto customers, the committee predicts that the price spike will provide an incentive for Californians to start saving energy. The committee’s press release says the report takes a “household friendly” approach to cap-and-trade, recommending that at least 75% of the proceeds from selling carbon permits be returned to households through either tax cuts or direct financial transfers.

Even before the report was released on Monday, the looming possibility of a carbon permit auction was causing anxiety in industrial circles. The AB-32 Implementation Group, an organization that aims to protect California business interests, claimed last week that if the price of carbon is set to $60 per ton, “large employers could be subject to an ‘Auction Tax’ of up to $143 billion by 2020.” Environmental groups have been urging the Air Board to auction off all the carbon permits initially offered.

In a written statement, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger responded to the committee’s report, saying “the best program will be one that returns value to the people through tax cuts, rebates or dividends, and I applaud the Committee for recognizing those options.”

Here’s a quick run down of the rest of the report’s key recommendations:

Protect Low Income Households

The report recommends returning some of the auction’s profits to low income households, since such households tend to spend a greater percentage of their income on energy.

Invest in a Low Carbon Economy

The committee recommends that the state create an independent Investment Advisory Board to help make it reach its low carbon targets.

Simple Auctions

The state’s carbon permit auctions should simple and allow the public to sell permits in the auctions along with the state.

The Heated Debate Over Temperatures

87583224As the war over warming perception spills into a new decade, the last month of 2009 provided fresh ammo for the prevailing view. According to a preliminary report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the “noughties” may have been the warmest decade on record.

And despite the rare sprinkling of snow we woke up to one December morning in the Bay Area, the report also says that 2009 will likely go down as one of the hottest years in modern history. Based on climate data from January to October, the WMO says that 2009 will likely be the fifth warmest since scientists began keeping records in 1850.

If that last claim seems improbable, you’re likely in Canada or the United States: The data shows that every continent but North America saw above-average temperatures in 2009, and that parts of Asia and Africa experienced their warmest year yet.

Dean Moosavi, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, chalked the apparent discrepancy up to the Pacific ocean phase known as La Nina, and said it’s important to note the difference between weather and climate. “Snow in Houston this week, for example, is not proof of the absence of global warming any more than a large drought in the summer is proof that global warming is occurring,” Moosavi wrote in an email to Climate Watch. “You have to look over much longer periods of time…decades at the least before you can see a climatic trend of significance.”

This is perhaps a good place to acknowledge the oft-heard claim that the planet has actually been cooling down for more than a decade. In an article published in NOAA’s online magazine ClimateWatch (not affiliated with KQED Climate Watch), David Easterling of NOAA’s Climatic Data Center explains the statistical quirk that produces that mirage.

But Moosavi says he’s not quite ready to make a pronouncement. “I am not yet convinced that the 2000’s were warmer than the 90’s at this point,” Mossavi wrote. “Given the political and economic stakes of a statement of this type…I would be very cautious before declaring the 2000’s the warmest decade.”

Stanford’s Mark Jacobson, on the other hand, was less equivocal: “As 8 of the 10 warmest years in the history of surface measurements are in the 2000’s, it is clear that the 2000s was the warmest decade on record,” he wrote in an email.

The WMO findings come on the heels of a pair of reports that indicate that despite the global recession, average temperatures are on track to rise between 4 and 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

For some perspective, the California Climate Change Center’s 2006 report on the risks of global warming predicts that a 6 C increase would have a devastating effect on the state. The report projects that a 10.5 F increase (just a little under 6 C) would result in up to 100 extra days of “extreme heat” in Los Angles and Sacramento, a 90% reduction in the Sierra snowpack and a 2-to-3-foot increase in sea levels.

The half-dozen climate scientists contacted for this post agreed that the 6 C prediction was within the realm of possibility, and most had the same answer when asked how the world should combat this risk. Stanford professor Ken Caldeira chose to respond in capital letters: “WE HAVE TO ACT NOW.”

“The question isn’t so much whether we need to take action this year or next, but rather how much more expensive and difficult are the solution and the impacts, if we delay,” Chris Field, director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology, said. “Delaying action on climate is sort of like delaying action on paying your credit card bill. You may get by for a few months, but the problems get worse through time and more expensive to address.”