The Future of Energy Special Report

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After lying dormant for a year, energy is back in the news. Oil prices are rising and there are new questions about nuclear reactors in the wake of the massive earthquake in Japan. And as always, the structural issues in energy remain: we're putting ever more CO2 into the air and we're dependent on foreign sources for oil.

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The good news: there is no shortage of ideas about how to make our energy system cleaner and more resilient. Over the next three weeks, we'll be looking at three key technological areas that may shape our world over the coming decades: batteries for electric vehicles, new ways of harnessing nuclear power, and the battle within the environmental movement over large solar farms.

We've chosen an unusual way of getting at what the next decades may hold: we're looking at episodes from the past to help frame what might happen in the years ahead. There are two reasons for this. One, changing the biggest industrial system on earth takes time. If you want to know what's going to happen a decade out, it would behoove you to know how the system developed. Two, we have access to three exclusive excerpts from my book, Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology, which comes out later this month.

Each week, I'll frame the discussion with an excerpt and a forward-looking question that arises from the history. Then, energy experts from different arenas will explore that topic, chewing over some of the biggest ideas out there.

This week, we'll be looking at electric vehicles and their source of power: the battery.

As it turns out, using batteries to run an electric motor that turns some wheels isn't difficult. It's actually a lot harder to use the controlled explosions of a gasoline-powered car than it is to use the current from a battery. Gasoline, after all, was something like liquid dynamite. So, as early automobile experimenters tinkered with powered vehicles, many looked to electricity. By the late 1890s, there were a variety of electric cars scooting around American cities. As you'll read in the chapter excerpt, the very first large-scale car concern, The Electric Vehicle Company, ran electric taxi cab service on the eastern seaboard. Their range was limited then, as now, by the amount of power that could be stored in their batteries. Some have seen the ultimate failure of the corporation as proof that battery-driven electric could never compete technologically with fossil fuel-based alternatives.

That's led many people to believe, as Thomas Edison did, that the dominant factor in the success of the electric car will be improving the battery. Throughout the 20th century, everyone knew that batteries needed to become lighter and to store more power. It would be nice, engineers figured, if the batteries could discharge their stored energy more quickly.

So, here we are 110 years after the first electric vehicles debuted, batteries have improved a lot. They're smaller and lighter and they pack more punch than the lead acid batteries of yesteryear. Cars like the Tesla Roadster, Chevy Volt, and Nissan Leaf provide similar performance to gasoline-powered cars. But many questions remain about the reliability and cost of the batteries.

Which brings us to our big topic for the week: Will creating better batteries determine the future of the electric vehicle? Are they already good enough? Are there ways to engineer around the physical limitations of electrical storage systems?

To answer this question, we've reached out to Shai Agassi, head of Project Better Place, Dave Vieau, CEO of battery maker A123 Systems, two battery scientists at the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency, and David Kirsch, a leading historian of electric vehicles.

Dave Vieau, whose publicly traded company is considered one of the leaders in lithium-ion battery tech, leads us off with his take that "Batteries Are Ready to Replace Gas Tanks."

Image: spyker3292/Flickr.
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