The Ups and Downs of Nuke-Powered Sleds

Did you know that sometime in this remaining lifetime of yours you might find yourself driving a nuclear-powered car? ‘Tis true, ’tis true. You also might be driving a solar-powered, wind-powered, landfill-gas powered, hydroelectric powered, ocean-energy powered, coal, oil or natural gas-powered car. ‘Tis true, ’tis true.

As it stands the US gets about 20% of its electricity from nuclear power and with President Obama’s new commitment for more uranium-fired power plants, we could see that percentage rise a few points. So, depending on what grid your electric car is recharging from, or what time of day it is, your car could very well be storing electricity generated at a nuclear plant. If this is the case, then you will have a nuclear-powered car.

This of course is assuming that someday you shall be driving an electrically-powered car, which is a likelihood that increases daily.

Financial help from Washington, using money on loan from taxpayers is helping to push along the drift toward electric driving. The requirement for automakers to meet new fuel economy standards is also helping the effort.

But government is not the sole force behind this electric drive effort: Small companies and startups are getting into the electric car business because they want to. Large companies too. Many of the majors are guaranteeing that electric cars and trucks are in their model portfolios of the future because they want them there.

Here are some reasons for the interest in electric cars…

1- Zero or largely reduced carbon emissions removes the cars as contributors to climate change.

2- Zero or largely reduced noxious emissions removes the cars as contributors to unhealthy air pollution.

3- Then of course there is the issue of oil supply. Manufacturers have seen the results – the widespread failure of their businesses – due partially to a spike in oil prices.

4- Leaps in technology, particularly in batteries. Lithium-based batteries with less weight and more stored power have improved range. Charging times have become reduced too. High voltage charging (440/480 volt for example) charging times could near that required to fill up a tank with gas. High voltage charging could also eliminate the need for battery swap-on-the fly schemes.

5- There is also battery life and afterlife. The lithium batteries are expected to last roughly the life of the vehicle. Also, when batteries can no longer hold enough charge to propel a car they can work in semiretirement storing electricity from renewable energy from the grid, like solar power.

6- Lastly, there appears to be enough demand in the marketplace. There are those people who want to charge from home, possibly with home-generated electricity. And there are people who want the relative simplicity of electric drive. And then there are the early-adopters who just want electric drive because it is new and different.

So if there is anything which is holding back the commercialization of electric cars it’s the cost of batteries that drive up the cost of the whole vehicle. Further, pure battery electric drive should not be expected to totally dominate the vehicle market for decades. The mix of vehicles on the road will range from conventional vehicles, any combination of hybrids, plug-in hybrids as well as variations of bio-fuel-powered vehicles for many years.

Me last thoughts are these:

President Obama’s yet-to-be-approved budget has $54 billion in federal loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors…you’ve probably heard this. ‘Tis true, the reactors will provide emission-free power, but nuclear power to charge electric cars is not necessarily the “green” way to go.