Have Battery, Will Travel

Moving the American road from gasoline to electricity will require radical common sense. Until now the range of electric cars has paled compared to the gas guzzlers we’re use to. But that’s in the process of changing. Recent developments in nanotechnology are leading to new types of batteries which will have far greater capacity and far quicker recharge cycles than current products. AltairNano of Reno Nevada has created technology capable of producing devices which hold three times the charge of current lithium ion batteries, and which recharge in a matter of minutes while operating safely in a wide range of temperatures. Researchers at Stanford recently announced a nanowire technique capable of holding ten times the charge of current generation lithium ion devices. With such power packs, electric cars could eventually surpass gas powered cars in range.

But it will be a few years before these technologies become widespread and cheap. Right now it’s the cost of fancy batteries which makes electric cars so expensive. For a public used to driving 300 miles on a tank of gas, the limited range provided by current electric technology isn’t attractive. How can we overcome the obstacles presented by these limitations? Shai Agassi’s Better Place is a company working to find answers to these questions. One of their more interesting concepts is to establish Battery Exchange Stations for travelers on long journeys. You would drive to a Battery Exchange Station as if it were any gas station. But instead of "filling up" the station would use an automated procedure to swap out your spent battery, and replace it with a charged one. According to Better Place, you’d be on your way with a fresh battery in less than three minutes.

Battery exchange stations are a great idea, one capable of letting electric car drivers go on long journeys. But we should take the concept a step further by establishing government standards for Universal Road Batteries, or URBs. Such standards would be designed to let owners of different electric cars share common battery types. The idea is to promote the interoperability we now take for granted when fueling our cars. It doesn’t matter what kind of car you drive today: a two seat sports car, a sedan, SUV, or pickup truck. You can go from coast to coast knowing that in every state you can pull into a gas station where the pump will work with your car, and what comes out will get you on your way. So the URB isn’t a radical concept, but a way to give electric cars the same freedom to operate over long distances that gasoline provides us with now.

URBs would also help us make sense of renewables. Solar and wind are intermittent sources of energy. In power company lingo this type of energy is known as non-dispatchable, meaning that when the energy is available, the grid either needs to accept it, or it will be lost. This differs from traditional forms of energy like coal or oil which stick around until we decide to use them. So a key factor in adopting renewable energy sources is the ability to store that energy when it’s available. URBs would fulfill this objective in spades, and in the process provide a huge incentive to develop renewable energy. Millions of interchangeable electric car batteries would represent an energy sink of formidable proportions, one which would provide instant justification to tap the sun and wind to make electricity.

Unlike traditional forms of energy, much of this activity could take place on a decentralized basis by ordinary people. Having a widely practiced Universal Road Battery standard will help every family with a wind machine or solar roof panel power their own car. People with spare acreage in windy states will have an incentive to start their own wind farms, knowing they can "sell gas" to cross country electric car drivers in the form of URBs. And unlike current day gas station owners, these people won’t be passing most of the profit on to a giant corporation. That’s the thing about an electric-renewable economy which won’t be true for other forms of energy. Both the big and the small will get to play. We’ll have the best competition of all, the kind that lets you make something for yourself when someone else decides to overcharge for it! That’s supposed to be what capitalism is all about. It won’t hurt our democracy one bit either!

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