The Solar-Charged Electric Car
Turbo-charged is so 20th century. Solar-charged is here and now.
It's the fifth of February, and I've just arrived at the Blade Electric Vehicles workshop in Harcourt, central Victoria, to take delivery of my new, fully-electric company car. As I watch the hum of activity from machinists, electricians, and owner Ross Blade, my mind flashes back to 1965.
Ross Blade takes 2002-2007 Hyundai Getz four door hatchbacks and rips the guts out of them. First he removes the engine, then he removes the spare wheel. Once he's finished this gutting he starts putting it all back together again, but better. What he puts back in transforms this modest little passenger car into the most technically and ecologically advanced car in Australia.
Thia zero-emission Getz - the Blade Runner - is the first of many to emerge from Ross's conversion process. What makes it special is its ease of use and performance. This is an urban run-about. The car has a top speed of over 110 kmh, a range of 100 km between recharges, and it can cost less than a dollar to recharge, depending on your household's power costs.
It takes about six hours for a full recharge and it costs around $35,000 - on top of the car cost - for the conversion. So I'm about to drive the most expensive little four door hatchback in the country, and I'm ecstatic. Paying $49,000 for a $14,000 car is not something most people would do with any great enthusiasm. However, there are many people who understand the value of supporting an emerging eco-solution, and who can afford to add this $35,000 conversion cost to their existing mortgages.
This is exactly what we did. Our bank called it a 'supplementary home loan' and we are happy to pay extra to help put a tiny cork in the massive oil flow that Australians encourage every year. This is part of the solution to the world's transport emission problems, along with public transport, CNG, recycled oils for biofuel, compressed air, bicycles, and walking!
What made the Blade Runner particularly appealing to me is that it's a here-and-now, local solution presented by an ethical small business.
The first drive
I try to keep out of the way as Ross charges, adjusts, and fiddles with various car components. Then the moment arrives. We stand by the roadside as Ross performs the very first test drive. We're left slack-jawed and wide-eyed as the car just whizzes off with all the acceleration of a 'normal' car. I'm amazed. The only thing I hear is the whizzing sound of the controller fans spinning as Ross disappears up the road at a great rate of knots. It's phenomenal to watch and it feels like I'm witnessing a piece of motoring history.
Ross returns looking as excited as we all feel, and soon we're ripping around the back roads of Harcourt trying to find the steepest hills in the district. The Big Hill looms and Ross shakes his head with delight as we belt up at 60 kmh. Ross then gallops along at 92 kmh until we return to the workshop for my turn. It's clear already: this car drives just as well as its petrol equivalent.
Time trials soon show a striking comparison. The petrol Getz does 0-60 kmh in 6 seconds. The Blade Runner does 0-60 kmh in 7 seconds. The car is an automatic with a 'town gear' for 0-80 kmh and a 'highway gear' for 80-110 kmh.
“Now, concentrate Gray,” I tell myself as I try to remember to put on my seat belt, indicate, and do all those basic things that I'm too excited to care about. I glide away from the workshop, my mouth dry with elation, and my pulse racing. I'm not the sort of bloke who's ever been particularly excited about any car but this is a supremely exciting driving experience. I keep waiting to be disappointed by some aspect of the whole experience but nothing emerges: it's just plain fabulous.
I think of The Jetsons in their flying cars, and other sci-fi movies of virtually silent vehicles. Thanks to the whirring controller fans, the car's not completely silent, which my wife, Judith, thinks is a good thing: she's worried about people getting run over as they step off a footpath without looking. A loud hailer strapped to the roof racks playing doof-doof noises could fix that problem.
I return to the workshop feeling like a Roman conqueror - but trying to keep a lid on it of course. Is it really that momentous? Veni, vidi . . . I came, I saw, I drove. Maybe it's not that momentous but it sure feels like it.
No doubt one day soon I'll get over the excitement but on that first day when the car came home, I barely slept. I drove it up to the front door of the office and plugged it in to recharge. The onboard charger turns itself off when the batteries are full, so it's super simple to recharge the car. But about 2 am I thought: “Maybe I might just go and have a little look at the car and check that it's . . . charging okay.” Another thought would shoot back: “Don't be a whacker - go to sleep!” So I tossed and turned half the night and I'll be relieved when the novelty wears off. In fact, I'll be utterly delighted when zero emission cars outnumber petrol and diesel cars on all our roads.
Some people might wonder if there's any advantage - Greenhouse-wise - to an electric car if the electricity comes from dirty, coal-fired power stations. After all, 90 per cent of Australia's electricity comes from coal. Various Australian and overseas studies have shown however, that if you centralise the emissions by recharging a network of electric cars from coal, the net result is still massive decreases in air pollution.
In fact, a phenomenon known as 'thermal lag' means that if electric cars are recharged at night, they have little impact on fossil fuel consumption. This is because giant coal-fired power stations must run at around 80 per cent capacity all through the night - even though there's little demand - to be able to cope with the peak morning power needs. They can't simply be turned down to a simmer. It's a bit like turning around the Queen Mary: it's a slow process. So some bright spark worked out that three million cars could be recharged overnight on the Californian electricity grid without adding any fossil fuels to the system.
Now, to me, that all seems like an awfully short-term way to approach vehicle transport and Greenhouse solutions. At the top of my list of daydreams is the idea that I could recharge our electric car from the solar panels on the office roof, backed up by off-peak, 100 per cent solar GreenPower from the mains grid.
For readers unfamiliar with GreenPower, visit the website www.greenpower.com.au. The latest figures show that more than 645,000 customers throughout Australia - households and businesses - pay extra for their electricity to ensure that it is all generated by renewable energy. Australians are embracing GreenPower in droves. In fact, more than 55,000 new customers signed up for GreenPower in just three months late last year. And yes, GreenPower is fully audited each year and according to Choice magazine, the electricity companies really do stick to their requirements to generate new renewable energy to replace the amount of electricity you use each year.
The 100 per cent GreenPower that the Earth Garden office buys to supplement the solar power generated from our roof panels means that our new electric company car is being recharged by solar power. You could say that it's a solar-powered car.
Under the bonnet
It is weird to look under the bonnet of the Blade Runner and recognise not a single component except the brake fluid reservoir. The most obvious component is the big box with twin fans. This is the controller and it inverts the DC (battery) power to AC (alternating current) to run the high-tech AC motor. An AC motor runs cooler, more smoothly, and with greater power than a DC motor. Underneath the controller, virtually hidden from view, is the 40 kw electric motor, which is three phase to give the smoothest possible motoring. The car retains a standard 12 volt automotive battery to run the car's accessories and safety systems.
The powerful onboard charger is mounted under the front passenger seat and the fans whirr reassuringly when the battery bank is being charged. Moving back, the petrol cap hides a fancy little electric socket. The car is recharged with a standard 10 amp, household extension cord, although Ross supplies a heavy duty version with each car.
The batteries are mounted under the rear seat where the spare tyre once sat. Initially I found it a little disconcerting that there's no spare tyre - probably because I've spent many a night around the campfire in the Great Sandy Desert using the old Tyre Pliers kit to pull apart punctured tyres and repair them. But I'm assured that for urban run-abouts most people either ring their State motoring association or make a temporary repair with those cans that spray gunk into the flat tyre as they reinflate them. Apparently modern radial tyres are becoming so reliable that some of BMW's latest models have no provision whatsoever for a spare tyre.
The Earth Garden electric car is fitted with Michelin silicon tyres filled with nitrogen. This cost another $325 after trade-in of the original tyres. Silicon tyres have much better rolling ability than standard rubber tyres, giving up to 10 per cent longer range betwen recharges. And filling them with nitrogen means they stay inflated much longer because the nitrogen molecules are much larger than air molecules.
Back to the batteries. On board is a bank of 55, 3.2 volt lithium ion batteries. These are far more environmentally friendly, and safer, than lead-acid batteries and, according to a 2005 British study, have an extremely high rate of recovery of all the metals and other components when recycled. The battery bank sits snugly in the space formerly occupied by the petrol tank and spare wheel, and the system voltage is 180 volts, peaking at 220 volts during recharge.
In the magazine, Alan goes on to discuss:
TOP | BACK TO NEW EDITION