GM’s Volt: Will it save or shift energy?

Last week GM introduced its new extended-range electric car, the Volt, an impressive response to demand for a more energy-efficient vehicle. If Volt lives up to GM’s promised 230 miles per gallon, it will indeed help to change the energy landscape of America. But what are the implications of such a shift?
For illustrative purposes, let’s assume Mr. CP Minuteman purchases a $40,000 Volt just as it rolls off the assembly line in its first production year, 2010.
His old “gas-guzzling” car (which featured a mere 30 miles per gallon, let’s say) is taken off the road, which means no more visits to the gasoline station to fill up a 20-gallon tank in order to travel about 600 miles between fill-ups.
Instead, Mr. CP Minuteman will economize by going electric-only. And he can do that with the Volt — as long as his trips are no more than about 40 miles.
After that, a gasoline-powered generator kicks in, giving him 50 mpg for long enough to speed him along another 350 miles (assuming the fuel tank has a 7-gallon capacity).
Bottom line: Mr. Minuteman is going to use far less gasoline for his miles traveled, especially if he restricts his trips to 40 miles or less. Yes, the small gasoline generator may kick in, but it’s intended as a backup to the real power center, which is Volt’s battery system.
A full charge of the Volt would take about six hours on a 110-volt wall outlet, or three hours on a 220. And this brings us to the point: What will be the impact on the nation’s existing and future energy portfolio?
President Obama has set a goal of having 1 million electric cars on America’s roads by 2016. Assuming a big jolt from Volt’s 2010 inauguration, it could happen. So over a few short years, a million people abandon (at least partially) the gas pump for the wall outlet. That’s a shift from gasoline to electricity. Increased demand for the existing electric-power grid.
Here in Michigan, we are caught up in a debate between the good folks at Consumers Energy, who want to build another coal-fired plant to meet rising electric demand, and environmentalists who don’t want any more coal-burning plants at all.
Indeed, they want all of us to turn down the lights, insulate and embrace all kinds of other energy-saving practices to reduce consumption. By doing so, they believe it’s possible for Michigan consumers to save $3 billion in electric costs over the next 20 years.
But what if Volt (and Nissan’s even more efficient Leaf) are wildly successful? What if a million, or millions, of car buyers turn to the electric car?
Our point is neither to belittle the electric car nor the well-meaning environmentalists who see it as an antidote for what ails Americans (a stubborn love affair with the internal combustion engine). It is, rather, to suggest that we are on the cusp of huge change, and that no one can know all the unintended consequences of this shift.
Millions of Americans cannot plug their Volts and Leafs into the electric outlets without creating a huge new demand for electricity. We would stake Mr. Minuteman’s historic old britches on this prediction: Michigan will continue to need power plants for many years to come. Yes, coal-fired.
And if Consumers cannot build a clean coal plant, will it have to buy from “dirty” coal plants elsewhere in the Midwest? An interesting question for all of us to ponder.— The Jackson Citizen Patriot