Alternative Fuel Vehicles & Engineering Opportunities
As an increasing number of electric-only cars (compared to Prius types whose gasoline engine charges the battery) are put into primary service, the nation's grid is going to feel the stress. In fact, our electricity generation and distribution system is already under severe stress and it is only through impression, near super-human efforts of planners and engineers that blackouts and brownouts are not a regular occurrence. Rationing of electricity in the form of multi-tiered billing schemes encourages customers to dial back energy consumers during peak demand times by charging higher rates. Elaborate grid interconnections actively switch supply and demand circuits to route energy where it is most needed in as efficient a manner as possible. Smart Meters are being widely deployed in order to determine usage statistics on household occupancy, time of use, type of appliances being operated, quantity of use, etc., in order to eventually (in some cases already) penalize customers monitarily or even deny access to electricity. Generation capacity is barely keeping up with demand as many coal-fired plants are being taken offline and equivalent alternative sources are not available to replace them. New nuclear power installations are not even being seriously considered. We are just about at the physical limits of our power generation and distribution system; there is no Moore's Law for the grid. This, at a time when central planners are doing everything within their power to impose electric vehicles on the populace.
On the demand side of the out-of-balance equation is the consumer market. Appliance efficiency has been improved about as much as possible for clothes and dish washers, televisions and computers, lighting (the CFL debacle is another tragedy of bureaucracy), etc. Granted, there are still a huge amount of old, inefficient equipment that needs to be replaced, but that is not going to solve the problem anytime soon. Industry faces its own set of obstacles, primarily massive costs involved with re-outfitting assembly lines, updating logistical systems (transportation, records keeping, accounting), complying with government regulations, and much more. Engineers are contributing now and will do so much more significantly in the future as high tech solutions are needed to manage such an intertwined, complex maze of requirements.
Traditional internal combustion engine vehicles are themselves now entirely dependent on computer management in order to start, idle, accelerate, cruise, brake, steer, handle a bump in the road or a make a sharp turn. We depend on software for navigation, system health management and troubleshooting, security, hands-free cellphone communications, and even for tuning the radio. Electric cars add to the electronics and electrical work load, battery management (charging, cell balancing, fault detection, isolation, and suppression); electric motors on each axle with sensors for optimizing traction (acceleration and braking), efficiency, heating, and torque; electric brakes (to supplement motor braking) and electric steering, and crisis management to avoid and if not avoid, then contain and minimize the ramifications of failure.
It is a daunting task to be sure, but ultimately not beyond the capability of the world's engineers. You need only look at the amazing record of the aerospace industry to have confidence that with enough manpower, resources, and determination, all of the new challenges will be overcome. The highest hurdle might prove to be not the technical aspects, but the financial. Will a large enough portion of the world's consumers be able to afford the complex solutions when the traditional products are no longer available because of having reached the end of their lifecycle or because of government bureaucrats outlawing the sale and/or trade of them (i.e., forced obsolesence)?
The charts below are screen shots from an interactive application on the U.S. Department of Energy's Alternative Fuels Data Center website. It shows currently existing resources for the many forms of alternative energy replenishing sites. The top image displays only public locations for recharging electric vehicles, while the bottom image shows sites for all fuel types. Click on either to single out each type of fuel - hydrogen, natural gas, ethanol, LPG, etc.
The map above shows only the electric vehicle recharging stations in the United States.
The map below shows refueling stations for all forms of alternative energy vehicles.
Posted September 16, 2013