What happens to electric cars when rolling blackouts hit?

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Electric cars are great. They are supposed to divorce us from being dependent on oil (mostly, as electric cars do contain a large amount of plastics, which are made out of oil, but that’s a one-time “oil expense”), run extra quiet (for now, as manufacturers will have to add some noise) and require several hours of recharge pretty much daily, or at least every other day. Oh, wait, that last part is the “not so great” part.

And last week I read a news that could make it even worse: Austin Energy is about to join a study on stopping electric cars from charging during rolling blackouts. Remember, you charge for many hours to be able to drive for one or two hours. So, if there is a rolling blackout, there’s a chance that “smart grid” may decide that your car shouldn’t charge right now. I don’t know if the idea of sucking the energy back into the grid from fully charged car will fly at all, so I’ll just assume they simply prevent you from charging.

There hasn’t been a gasoline “black-out” in the US for quite some time. I suppose hurricane-related gasoline shortages are more or less possible if you live near the coast, but in those cases you can avoid being stranded by evacuating a bit earlier, or having a spare canister. Unless you’re actually forced to idle in traffic for hours, you’re okay. And even when gasoline is not available, you generally can go for a few days before you have to “re-charge” and actual charging process takes less than half an hour. But this is just not possible for electric cars.

You can’t get an extra canister — a spare set of batteries is too large and heavy and impossible to self-install. You can’t efficiently re-charge current generation of batteries in half an hour, so even if you drive to the area where electricity is available, you need to sit there for several hours until you get “full” charge. Essentially, you’re screwed. Your home is hotter, and you can’t go to work, because your car is out of juice. Yuk!

And I understand if a rolling black-out was something as infrequent as a hurricane, but they seem to happen more frequently (plus small local outages due to lightning strikes, etc, even though in such cases outage lasts just a couple hours). Given how twitchy people are about nuclear power, and how uneasy environmentalists are about coal and how long it takes to build a new natural gas plant, the shortage of capacity is pretty much guaranteed as more and more cars will switch to electric power.

So I think the answer, for now, is to avoid all-electric cars as your primary vehicle. Heck, even super-capacitor may not help that much, if your car is prevented from charging, or if it’s too large/cumbersome to pick up at a local “electric station”. The best bet is a hybrid — you still get to pick gasoline wherever it’s available, and you can drive for a week without need to re-fuel. But all electric car? No, thanks.

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