Category Archives: energy

The Unpopular Step That Would Popularize Electric Vehicles | Atlantic Cities

Eric Jaffe at The Atlantic Cities writes about my recent Foreign Affairs Article: Electric Avenue: How to Make Zero-Emissions Cars Go Mainstream


There is a pretty direct way to popularize zero-emission cars, but in political terms it would be a very unpopular step: issue a carbon tax. Owning a traditional fuel-engine car would become much less appealing if its sticker or gas prices included the cost done to the environment. Transport scholar David Levinson makes the argument in the May-June issue of Foreign Affairs:

A better, although more politically difficult, policy would be to charge those who burn gasoline and diesel fuel for the full economic and social cost of their decision. Right now, pollution is essentially free in the United States; drivers don’t pay anything for the emissions that come from their tailpipes, even if they’re driving a jalopy from the 1970s. If the government were to charge people for the health-damaging pollutants their cars emit and enact a carbon tax, the amount of pollution and carbon dioxide produced would fall. Consumers would drive less, retire their old clunkers, and be more likely to purchase electric vehicles.

Levinson concludes that cars are at a historical juncture similar to the one they faced a little more than a century ago. Back then the fuel-engine (thanks largely to invention of a self-starter) emerged from a group of competitors that included electric- and even steam-powered cars. Tomorrow’s winner may not be clear, but the mere fact that the contest has reopened is some form of progress.

The last paragraph refers to my article: Electric Antecedents: How the Electric Vehicle Evolved

Electric Vehicle in Kyoto

Electric Antecedents: How the Electric Vehicle Evolved | The Transportation Experience

Adapted in part from Garrison and Levinson (2014) The Transportation Experience: Second Edition, Oxford University Press. This provides additional background on the topic of  yesterday’s post Electric Avenue.

The Transportation Experience: Second Edition by William L. Garrison and David M. Levinson
The Transportation Experience: Second Edition by William L. Garrison and David M. Levinson

The automobile was the obvious technology of the future. It had been forecast and developed for nearly a century before mass production. Yet when the patent application of  future Congressman Nathan Read, an early steamboat developer in Connecticut who proposed a steam-powered automobile in 1790s, was read aloud in the House of Representatives, members struggled to suppress laughter. A century later some practical vehicles entered the market. The path was trod in fits and starts. In 1835 Thomas Davenport of Vermont built the first rotary electric motor which pulled 31-36 kg carriages at 5 km/h. In the late 1830s Robert Davidson of Scotland built a carriage powered by batteries and a motor, and later an electric coach, the Galvani, running on rail tracks. In 1851, Charles Page built an electric locomotive reaching a speed of 30 km/h. Those experiments ended without widespread market success. In parallel with steam and electric experiments, the Internal Combustion Engine(ICE) was patented in 1860 by Belgian engineer Jean Joseph Etienne Lenoir, who applied a coal-gas and air burning version to his three-wheeled Hippomobile. Nikolaus Otto developed his engine in the 1870s and Karl Benz used Otto’s engine to power a 600 watt (0.8 horsepower) three-wheel carriage in 1885. While today, the automobile is widespread and mostly employs the internal combustion or diesel engine, that technological outcome was not obvious to many of those in the field as late as 1900.

The electric grid, developed by Edison and others, was necessary for practical electrical transportation. Electricity was first widely applied in transportation to the streetcar. By 1879 Siemens and Halske built a 2.6 km line in Berlin. Battery trolleys were tested in early 1880s in places like the Leland Avenue Railway in Philadelphia, but by 1887, a New York financial syndicate funded Sprague Electric Railroad and Motor Company to build a 19.2 km line in Richmond, Virginia. Over the next three decades trolleys exploded across US cities. The electric streetcar, and other electric railways, transmitted power to the vehicle via a cable, a technology not suited for the automobile.

1893 World’s Columbian Exposition displayed six automobiles. The only one from the US, by William Morrison of Iowa, was electric. Yet the energy density of the battery remained the principal constraint on the electric vehicle’s market share. By the turn of the century, range and the energy per unit weight of battery compared with gasoline engines were already defined as key weaknesses by the best engineering talent of the time.

Battery-powered vehicles have more limited range (distance before recharging/refueling) than gasoline-powered vehicles due to energy density. The limits to battery technology result from battery weight. Each additional battery reduces the effectiveness of all the others, as they must spend some of their stored energy moving around other batteries instead of the rest of the car and passenger. Diminishing returns set in quickly. (The same issue affects liquid fuel of course, but it is not as severe since the energy density is higher).

While longer distance touring was a relatively small market, people consider the extreme use for the vehicle they buy, not the average, hence the personal trucks we see on urban and suburban streets. A vehicle must be usable in a maximal number of conditions. People imagined traveling longer distances than an EV could run. Other problems were the under-developed electric grid (as late as 1900 only 5 percent of factory power was electric) and lack of charging stations, especially at homes.

The plug to connect the car battery to a wall socket was not developed until 1901, prior batteries had to be removed from vehicles, no trivial task. While some electric utilities encouraged EVs and helped charge and maintain them at central stations, promoting local EV sales, most utilities saw these customers as nuisances rather than a source of business. Range (c. 1901) was about 4 hours, so charging was a frequent event. Fast charging (a charging time of one or two hours was considered fast) deteriorated the batteries. People thought of solutions. For instance, a charging hydrant, dubbed an “electrant.” located every few blocks was proposed, but never implemented, to permit travelers to pull over and pay for a metered amount of electricity. These ideas have been reappeared in recent decades as people seek to solve the same problems with electrics. Again, the number of charging stations remains quite limited, as no one wants to invest in a network of charging stations until there are many plug-in electrics requiring charges, and few will buy plug-in electrics if the cost and convenience does not match its technological competitors.

Another concept, developed by L.R. Wallis in 1900 was to have a parent battery company, from which batteries would be leased, and then swapped out when needing recharging for already charged batteries. This idea has been revived with Shai Agassi’s company Better Place in the 2000s, which hoped to develop a network of battery exchange centers, before entering bankruptcy. Similarly, electric garages, modeled on livery stables (for horses) were established to limit the owner’s need to deal with the difficulties of charging and maintaining the car.

While range and charging issues were obvious downsides, the primary advantages of electric vehicles at the time had to do with user interface. Charles Kettering had yet to develop the self-starter, so gasoline engines required the user to get out and crank. This was a non-starter for upper-income women, who thus preferred electric vehicles. EVs were often marketed to women, but this feminizing of the product may have discouraged men. An emerging middle class of urban professionals, managers, and white-collar workers formed a market for a new type of transportation.

The best-selling Oldsmobile sold only 425 vehicles in 1900. The market was still minuscule, but growing exponentially. Detroit in 1900 was much like Silicon Valley in the 1970s, with its HomeBrew Computing Club that begat Apple Computer and Microsoft. By 1912 Model T sales reached 82,388, in 1914: 200,000, in 1915: 400,000. Despite Edison’s encouragement of Ford’s gasoline-powered car, as noted in the opening quote, later Edison and Ford worked together in a failed attempt to bring about an electric car that was competitive with gasoline-powered vehicles.

In 1900 and 1905 the 1,200 electrics sold were fewer than 10 percent of all vehicle sales. Ultimately EVs fell further and further behind as economies of scale drove down the relative cost of its competitors, attracting a greater and greater share of consumers. Like Internal Combustion Engines (ICEs), EVs were rising in sales, but at a much more modest pace, growing to only 6,000 vehicles in 1912.

Because of the difficulty consumers had with charging, Salom and Morris of the Electric Storage Battery (ESB) Company proposed a fleet of rental cars (an antecedent to car sharing), where professional would charge and maintain the vehicles. Individuals would still rent or lease a particular car. However, this failed to get critical mass, and required picking up the car, rather than storing it at home. In the end this became a fleet of cabs, where instead of recharging batteries in the vehicle, batteries would be swapped in and out, and charged (slowly) out of the vehicle.

Owner of New York’s Metropolitan Street Railway Company, Henry Melville Whitney consolidated the electric vehicle industry beginning in 1898, acquiring ESB, combining with Pope, and absorbing the Riker company, with the aim of establishing a fleet of 15,000 electric cabs to serve urban America. This “Lead Cab Trust” began to fail when the batteries, designed for smoother running streetcars or stationary operations did not do well on bumpy road surfaces and the frequent charging and discharging use of cab service, rather than the more sedate private ownership. Batteries deteriorated with use along with age.

The Edison Storage Battery Company aimed to develop a nickel-iron alkaline battery to replace the lead-acid battery. Edison’s competitor, ESB, tried to perfect the lead acid battery. The New York Electric Vehicle Transportation Company, part of EVC (the Lead Cab Trust) was probably the largest consumer of such batteries. It also developed its own central station and substation, and started running electric buses on Fifth Avenue as well as other routes. Other subsidiaries of the Trust fared less well, the New England and Illinois branches of EVTC folded in 1901. Edison hyped his battery for years, but it was not widely used once it came to market, as the cost-energy density tradeoff never worked favorably.

The self-starter for the automobile was modeled on the newly motorized cash register, by National Cash Register engineer Charles Kettering. His company DELCO was acquired by General Motors. This seemingly modest innovation made the gasoline powered automobile usable by those without the strength to turn the crank, and thus as easy to start as an electric. After Kettering, the automobile become an electric system in miniature: Its generator (with the battery) was the central station, which distributed current through a network for uses like starting the car, but also for headlights, and later radios and other purposes.Battery makers thus boomed not from selling batteries to makers of EVs but from selling to makers of gasoline-powered cars containing an electric self-starter.

Electric Vehicle in Kyoto
Electric Vehicle in Kyoto

It would be nearly a century before EVs became popular again.


  • Hoffmann, P. (2002). Tomorrow’s Energy: Hydrogen, Fuel Cells, and the Prospects for a Cleaner Planet. The MIT Press.
  • Koppel, T. (1999). Powering the Future: The Ballard Fuel Cell and the Race to Change the World. Wiley.
  • Lienhard, J. (2006). How Invention Begins: Echoes of Old Voices in the Rise of New Machines. Oxford University Press.
  • Nye, D. (1992). Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940. The MIT press.
  • Schiffer, M., T. Butts, and K. Grimm (1994). Taking Charge: The Electric Automobile in America. Smithsonian Institution Press
  • Sperling, D. and D. Gordon (2009). Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability. Oxford University Press, USA
  • Swift, E. (2011). The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Plug and play: the Chevrolet Volt, Detroit, January 2009. (Mark Blinch / Courtesy Reuters)

Electric Avenue: How to Make Zero-Emissions Cars Go Mainstream | Foreign Affairs May/June 2014

I have an article in the current (May/June 2014) energy-themed issue of Foreign Affairs: “Electric Avenue: How to Make Zero-Emissions Cars Go Mainstream” about the evolution and prospect of EVs and other alternative fuel vehicles.

The opening paragraphs:

In 1896, a 33-year-old engineer working for the Detroit branch of Thomas Edison’s Edison Illuminating Company traveled to New York for the firm’s annual convention. The automobile was the obvious technology of the future by then, but it wasn’t yet clear what would propel it: steam, electricity, or gasoline. Edison had been tinkering with batteries that could power a car, so he was interested to hear that the engineer from Detroit had invented a two-cylinder gasoline vehicle. After hearing a description of the car, Edison immediately recognized its superiority.

“Young man, that’s the thing; you have it,” Edison told the inventor. “Keep at it! Electric cars must keep near to power stations. The storage battery is too heavy. Steam cars won’t do either, for they have to have a boiler and a fire. Your car is self-contained—it carries its own power plant—no fire, no boiler, no smoke, and no steam. You have the thing. Keep at it.”

Available at quality newsstands everywhere.

Sidewalks are Hotting Up

Brendon writes in:

Heating a sidewalk section has climate change implications. I calculate the 26-year cost of your section at $8,722 at the low end and $9,708 at the high end (depending on the discount rate you assign to the future impacts of climate change. I tend to lean towards the higher end). This means your break-even point is 8% to 20% higher, meaning maybe 173 to 192 pedestrians per day. Of course with a carbon tax in place, there would likely be more walkers in some places, meaning heating the sidewalks become feasible in more places.
Now, if you could use waste heat that hasn’t been previously captured to heat sidewalks, as they are proposing to do with the new “interchange” plaza and HERC steam, the carbon footprint becomes effectively zero additional. Much less per kWh/BTU.
Other interesting facts, heating all the sidewalks in Minneapolis with electricity from the grid for one year would produce more greenhouse gases than the disposal of all our solid waste and wastewater does over the same time period. The additional energy consumption would be equal to about 1/3 of the current annual consumption in all residential properties in the city. It would increase the city’s annual electricity consumption by 8%.

He nicely identifies a feedback effect, heating up sidewalks will create more emissions, which will heat the atmosphere, which will eventually negate the need for heating up sidewalks. There must be an equilibrium point here.
More seriously, the use of waste heat is a great idea, especially near the HERC. The problem would be building infrastructure to distribute that more broadly. There might also be waste heat from wastewater (which is still liquid in the winter, and thus warmer than the ground around it) which we don’t capture, or let go to roads, by running sewers under the streets rather than the sidewalks.

Profitmobiles (EVs)

Quartz: Elon Musk’s electric car company Tesla Motors is now cash-flow positive:

“Elon Musk just disclosed on CNBC that last week, for the first time, Tesla Motors was “mildly cash-flow positive.” That’s only a couple weeks later than Musk’s earlier prediction that Tesla would become cash-flow positive by the end of November. The electric-car company is also paying back early its $465 million loan from the US Department of Energy, and the company is ramping up production to 200 cars per week.”

10,000 cars per year is still a bit less than the 13 million cars per year in the US market, but it is more than zero, or what EV production has been historically. It would be about half of Nissan Leaf sales (18,000) or a third of the Chevy Volt (~30,000).
More on Electric Drive sales here at the industry trade group. Sales of hybrids + EVs are now up to 3.3% of the total market. Most of that is hybrids though.

Routing around failures

Updated November 26:

AE sends me to, which has this article: Driving on this Quebec highway? Watch out for that hydro pole

“A hydro pole in Johnville, Que. was left in place after construction crews moved the highway to correct a dangerous curve.”

Hydro poles are electric poles in American English, Hydro being the nickname of the company that provides power (mostly Hydro-power) in Quebec.
The article says it’s been there two months, but they will fix it, just a coordination problem.

The Quebec pole can be contrasted with this Chinese holdout, around which they built a road.ChinaHouse
This reminds me of Dr. Seuss’s Zax.

The Zax
by Dr. Seuss From The Sneetches and Other Stories Copyright 1961 by Theodor S. Geisel and Audrey S. Geisel, renewed 1989.
One day, making tracks
In the prairie of Prax,
Came a North-Going Zax
And a South-Going Zax.
And it happened that both of them came to a place
Where they bumped. There they stood.
Foot to foot. Face to face.
“Look here, now!” the North-Going Zax said, “I say!
You are blocking my path. You are right in my way.
I’m a North-Going Zax and I always go north.
Get out of my way, now, and let me go forth!”
“Who’s in whose way?” snapped the South-Going Zax.
“I always go south, making south-going tracks.
So you’re in MY way! And I ask you to move
And let me go south in my south-going groove.”Zax Then the North-Going Zax puffed his chest up with pride.
“I never,” he said, “take a step to one side.
And I’ll prove to you that I won’t change my ways
If I have to keep standing here fifty-nine days!”
“And I’ll prove to YOU,” yelled the South-Going Zax,
“That I can stand here in the prairie of Prax
For fifty-nine years! For I live by a rule
That I learned as a boy back in South-Going School.
Never budge! That’s my rule. Never budge in the least!
Not an inch to the west! Not an inch to the east!
I’ll stay here, not budging! I can and I will
If it makes you and me and the whole world stand still!”
Of course the world didn’t stand still. The world grew.
In a couple of years, the new highway came through
And they built it right over those two stubborn Zax
And left them there, standing un-budged in their tracks.

Driverless Cars

Tim Taylor (Conversable Economist) on: Driverless Cars:

“The fully self-driving car isn’t right around the corner. Clearly, costs need to come down substantially and a number of complementary technologies need to be created. However, we do already have cars in the commercial market with cruise control and anti-lock brakes, as well as cars that sense potential crash hazards and can parallel park themselves. Changes like these happen slowly, and then in a rush. As the report [Self-driving cars: The next revolution From KPMG and CAR] notes, “The adoption of most new technologies proceeds along an S-curve, and we believe the path to self-driving vehicles will follow a similar trajectory.” Maybe 10-15 years? Faster? “

A pessimistic colleague of mine writes:

the arguments in favor of energy efficiency will be swamped by the added demand. Right now, people don’t drive more because it’s a pain. If I can drive while sleeping, I’ll be more likely to work in one city, commute to another; or, go to the cabin every weekend; or, allow little Johnny to sign up for a soccer league since the car (not me) will drive him; and so on.
automatic-drive cars would make travel much more convenient, which would increase travel demand — likely, a lot. That’s not a benefit for energy consumption.
maybe we’ll have electric-only cars, which would help with local emissions but not energy consumption; and, we’ll only get those if we require them, which it’s not clear we will..

I agree distances will increase, but the cars will be more efficient as human driving patterns (excessive braking and stop and start, e.g.) will be replaced. There are parallel trends in making cars more energy efficient as well. How this nets out is unclear, but I am more optimistic.