Nature has a way of showing the interdependency of things, of bringing to naught man’s boasts of innovative triumph and, at the same time, highlighting the need for creative thinking and nobility of human spirit.
And so it happened that an unusually forceful late-night storm roared through the Washington-Baltimore region late in June, toppling trees, severing branches, damaging homes and cars, and consigning several souls to eternity.
I and mine were lucky. The only thing we lost was electricity. But it was a dysfunction that lasted long enough to highlight the genius and shortcomings of the 2012 Chevrolet Volt extended-range plug-in hybrid electric car.
The Volt is a midsize four-door hatchback whose front wheels are driven by an electric motor delivering the equivalent of 149 horsepower and 273 foot-pounds of torque. The car can travel at speeds up to 100 mph for 35 to 50 miles — depending on driving style and conditions — on battery power alone.
At about 70 percent of battery discharge, the Volt’s 1.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine automatically takes over to keep the electric motor humming and the drive wheels turning for an additional 300 miles.
Recharging the Volt’s lithium-ion battery pack (16kWh) can take three to 15 hours — depending whether you use an available quick-charge system (240 volts) or regular house current (120 volts).
But there was no electricity at my house after the storm. I had earlier discharged the Volt’s battery pack on a meandering drive through Northern Virginia, thinking that I could recharge overnight using regular house current. But the wind and rain came and the lights went out.
The morning after, the Volt’s dashboard information screen showed “0.1 mile” of effective battery power left. I didn’t panic. The car’s information screen also showed 233 miles remaining in the Volt’s 9.3-gallon fuel tank, which requires premium gasoline.
The Volt can be driven gasoline-only as long as you’re willing to buy the gas — and as long as there is gasoline to be bought, which can be a problem if there is no electricity.
Service stations’ fuel pumps are powered by electricity. If there is no electricity, there is no gasoline. If there is no gasoline, the Volt’s generator won’t be able to generate anything to keep the Volt moving.
Suddenly, the circle of energy use and generation was completed in my mind. If there is no coal, oil or nuclear power to run electric power plants, there is no electric power. If there is no electric power, from either power plants or batteries, there isn’t much of anything else. It is a circle of dependency, of which the Volt and cars like it are an increasingly important part.
Frankly, I’d rather save oil to run the power plants, without which everything goes to pot. The Volt can help us do that, affording 35 to 50 gasoline-free driving miles in daily commuting without sacrificing longer-range trips.
There’s another thing: batteries — robust, heavy-duty, quiet-running, long-lasting batteries. Here is where creativity born of crisis comes in.
Companies such as Mitsubishi, Samsung, and East Penn Manufacturing in Lyon Station, Pa. are working on such batteries. Had they been in position at homes and businesses in the storm-struck Washington-Baltimore region, a lot of food would not have gone sour, businesses would not have had to close their doors for lack of electricity, there would have been more service stations pumping gas to keep the Volt’s generator and other generators going, and certain Northern Virginia neighbors would have been able to sleep at night.
Sleep? Yes. Fossil-fuel-fed generators are great for stepping in temporarily for failed power plants. But they are absolutely noisy and, thus, lousy neighbors. Batteries that can temporarily handle heavy loads are more amenable to peaceful living.
Maybe that will be the ultimate outcome of our experiments with battery power in personal transportation. Maybe we will develop batteries that can do much, much more than power automobiles.