03 August, 2006

Electric Mini

Lately I've been fantasizing about constructing for myself an electric Mini Cooper. It's actually quite plausible; a number of hobbyist organisations facilitate the process, and financially it's not out of reach. A brand-new 2-door Mini convertible retails for a scant $24,000, and the conversion process, depending on the batteries you employ, comes to somewhere around $6,000. The sort of performance you get is highly variable, depending on weight of the car, aerodynamics, etc., and batteries.

These last are the critical component in electric vehicles and for alternative energy in general - fossil fuels can be burned to produce power on demand, but the same is not true of many renewable energy sources. Appropriate vectors are thus a critical technology (so you can store power for when you need it), and right now the focus seems to be on batteries, as the most easily achievable in the near-term.*

For cars, these range from simple lead-acid batteries, which might give you something like 50 mi of driving range, adequate for most people, to cutting-edge lithium polymer (LiPo) batteries, which have incredibly long lifetimes, almost no "memory" (that is, the battery does not degrade much over time, in contrast to say, NiCad batteries), and a much higher capacity than other types of batteries. Electric vehicles equipped with such batteries get ~300 mi of travel time before they must be recharged.

This is fine and wonderfully geeky, but it's not necessarily clear that an electric car is a good idea yet for the ideological purist. For one thing, this is not a zero-emission vehicle. It has the potential to be, certainly; if it's charged entirely by non-polluting, renewable energy sources, then it indeed can be considered as such. But most of the power in the grid comes from fossil fuels, and dirty ones at that (such as coal), especially on the Eastern seaboard, where I live. And the greater efficiency of electric motors relative to internal combustion engines means, if the power is oil-fueled, you're only reducing your pollution output by about half. This is good, but not great.

What it DOES do is push the problem back to a single point: non-polluting power generation is the only thing we need develop if we have an electric car fleet. This is appealing because it makes the task of regulation much easier, if only a single industry, especially a large-scale, extremely centralized one, is responsible. On the other hand, it pushes the problem out of sight, where it might actually be free to grow worse. There seems to be little action in the area of moving away from coal-burning power plants - except possibly retrograde action.

Thorny. Anyway, new poll on the right.

* Fuel cells, like the hydrogen-based ones much touted by George Bush, probably won't be feasible for another ten or twenty years, which some suspect is why Bush latched onto them - pie in the sky.

As an unfortunate coda to our last poll, you might read this story about polar bears resorting to cannibalism because of thin food supplies. Depressing. For further depression, read this review by Jim Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies, probably the best-known climate change researcher in the world (link courtesy of my Bong doppleganger).

I have to wonder if they know they're not supposed to eat polar bear liver.


I'm still for EVs despite the cons which you summed up. A lot of physical problems have been fixed out of sight, and when all is said and done, I just want the problem fixed.

I'm somewhat hopeful that through conservation and a shift of persoan spending priorities a significant number of people can be encouraged to switch to solar electricity for their homes. This will both increase the possibility of filling up the grid with clean solar energy and free up more centralized but less scalable clean energy for chomping fossil fuel market share both on and off grid.

I know the ideal solution is to get everyone on bikes, but that's just not going to happen quickly.  

Posted by Saheli

hydrogen is a pie-sky thing definitely, with all kinds of silly "how will that work, exactly" bits and pieces that make it look ridiculous compared to supplying greener transport through an improved electrical grid.

what hits me about hydrogen though is how unimaginative it is. it just shows us at our continuing worst facing this giant problem. here we are needing to walk away from how we live now, almost all of us, and we're talking about what magic elixir will come out of gas station pumps in the future, like we're nothing but clones of auto industry pitchmen hawking aircars to eisenhower.

it's ironic that we're so tied to life on this planet and its shortcut strategies of fixed behavior that we can't break habits that are killing us without major intervention. not only that we can't tell if we're living with the habits or not. think we've changed when we've only moved surroundings, switched costumes.

a long time ago we started thinking that dreams were more important than reality. opinions more important than fact. democracy has meant the distribution of opinion power from the few to the many. every science fiction book i read as a kid seems like it thought that dreaming, imagination, vision, progress, these were things that made us special on earth, and now i think those imaginary aspects of ourselves are the legacy component. the new part is being able to say, no, that's not the case. we have the brainpower to both create and edit and because of this our creativity skyrockets because it goes in productive directions. but the dreams are still the driving force. what are your goals, what do you live for, what do you want. picture it and then get it. picture it, picture it. if you make it real in your mind (and it's within the realm of what other people suspect to be real), you'll get it.

it's driving me wild, all these people who would rather sing a dirge than change their daily routines. the world isn't a song we're singing alone. even now people who should be writing music are singing the same dirges the same way they did 20 or 40 years ago. i used to laugh at slavic folks for indulging themselves this way. i really thought my people were tougher. 

Posted by hibiscus

Have you seen  ? 

Posted by DearDarlingDidi

Can you post a link to the electric Mini conversion process whose price you quoted?

Posted by aaronb

1) tesla car is cool. too bad it doesn't have the top speed stomach for racing - an electric race car would go a long way toward getting gearheads out of their bunkers. see audi R10 . (i have no idea if an electric car could run a big race - would switching battery packs at a pit stop be possible or permissible? it'd be pretty funny to see...)

timeframes are funny to think about. industrial R&D is now slower than glacial pace. still, we need something to replace the heavy duty diesel engine and racing is a good way to learn about big power in a practical size.

2) something inside me wants electric cars that are ordinary street vehicles to have four doors and a rear hatch. something people can use for deliveries. 

Posted by hibiscus

Haha - there's no Mini conversion process as such, but this  quotes $4-$6K as the ballpark for the conversion. Note that this means you're disassembling a car, removing the engine block, etc., by yourself. Greasy! Other sites say you can get LiPo batteries in for something like $8K (no link handy at the moment), which seems like it might be worth it. 

Posted by saurabh


And possibly unwise! Otherwise you might get anecdotes like this:

My car teacher calmly told the kid who accidentally almost connected the positive and negative leads on a battery by laying down a wrench in the wrong place, "you should move that or the battery will explode."

Posted by Saurav

The problem with point-source polluters is that they have huge financial incentives to avoid regulation, which gives them millions to billions of dollars to spend avoiding or caputuring air regulators, legislators, etc. It's no different in a way from car manufacturers, who do what they can to avoid regulation, but the difference is that each individual car buyer is only marginally affected by new regulations, while power plant owners are affected to amounts in the millions.

So while car buyers might shrug off catalytic converters, power plant owners will fight them for decades. In fact, that already happened. Same thing with other efforts to reduce Nox and Sox.

When I see electric cars, I think of them as nuclear-powered.

I like the idea of zip lines across cities, where the elevators to get up to the top can be windmill-powered and then you just hop on and slide down to whatever neighborhood you want to visit. Oh and look, there's a beautiful girl outside with a bicycle.  

Posted by hedgehog

sorry if that wasn't quite clear. i fully support your proposed project. i think an electric mini would be a lot of fun. i was just questioning the political implications of electric cars.

also, there's no reason electrics can't get racecar speeds. if nothing else, these things are (hybrid, diesel-powered) electric `cars'  -- and they are considerably beyond monster truck. 

Posted by hedgehog

22' tall, 46' long, 24' wide, in case anyone's wondering. tires are about 10' diameter. (my, what a big payload you have, grandma! the better to consume you from the inside out, my dear.)

battery tech is very good now. if it doesn't already exist it should be easy to build an electric-assist bike that an average adult can lift and that can be completely solar-charged for a daily commute. this is not something i think is really needful, but i do think the transition to all bikes would be eased by a more practical assist mechanism.

so i guess this brings up the other question i have that i should probably ask a larger group but maybe just maybe...

let's assume we have a quarter-block parking structure (60,000 sq ft) with a completely solar collecting roof, all necessary battery infrastructure, and 12 hours of direct sunlight.

goal #1: overnight parking for completely electric 1-ton cargo capacity vehicles with a range of at least 100 miles, with the solar infrastructure completely recharging the in-vehicle batteries when they're home to roost. how many vehicles can this facility host?

goal #2 is tougher, this time it's daytime visitors. how much hp equivalent per person would be available given six 2-hour recharging sessions per parking space, assuming:
(a) one-person vehicles (assisted bikes)
(b) two-person vehicles (pedal cars or runabouts)
(c) four-person vehicles

(this reminds me - why don't gyms reclaim the BTUs blown on exercycles every day and weight machines every day? no financial gain? seriously, what's weight training but "regenerative braking" by another name, and if you're already buying the machine, why not put the juice to use. at the very least people could spin-charge their ipods and cell phones. actually you could probably set that up with a regular bike, too - a charger attachment on the drive wheel.) 

Posted by hibiscus

goal #3. is it possible to build a completely electric race car that could win 24 hours of le mans, the big daddy of car races. problems:
(a) power-to-weight ratio
(b) battery swap frequency must be within the range of refueling sessions for other cars
(c) car doesn't get lighter as it uses up fuel!

sorry, yes, goal #2 is unanswerable because i @$&*% up. i hope this is better:

goal #2. daytime visitors.
(a) assuming 12,000 visitors every day (six 2-hr stays of 2000 people each), how much power per person would the solar system generate?
(b) given a vehicle that can carry 400lbs of people-cargo at 25mph, what would be the minimum square footage of a collection system capable of charging 1,000 such vehicles for a 20 mile trip, in 2 hrs?

is 400 lbs really enough? because i do want this imaginary 2-seater plug-in pedal-electric-hybrid thingie to be able to do some kind of serious chores. (this could be a cart-like thing or a tandem-bike-like.) i was thinking person=160 + cargo=40. adult boys are generally heavier than that tho...

WOW! Great site. Very informative.Thank you. 

Posted by Kelli

Holy crap what a cool blog. You sir are a good and decent nut-case. Yesterday in my local shop I found "extra mild" salsa. I was sickened and had to be removed under the power of a stranger's kind hands. Now I know that someone else cares. Thank you. 

Posted by Green Fish

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