By on October 23, 2008

Interesting letter to the editor from a guy in Baytown, Texas in this week’s Automotive News. “Chevrolet should give an electric generator for home use to the purchaser of every new Volt,” Ralph Buerklin wrote. “Hurricanes, ice storms, tornados and thunderstorms wreak havoc with above-ground electric lines. That is an Achilles’ heel for electric vehicles.” Tell me about it. While the Volt has an on-board ICE to rely upon, a pure EV is a whole ‘nother story. We have a generator.  We need it anywhere from two to five times a year here in semi-Upstate New York just to run the water pump, the furnace and the refrigerator—forget about lights, TV or computers. It typically happens when thunderstorms blow tree limbs across power lines, and if there are two things we have lots of, it’s thunderstorms and trees. Every 10 years or so, there’s a late-fall or early-spring ice storm that pulls down all the electric lines in entire counties. Last time it happened, some Hudson Valley homes were totally without power for two weeks and more.  I can do without TV, but I’d hate to be stuck in a dark house with a dead electric car. Nor do I think those little portable job-site generators can do the job. Our 4,000-watt generator dies from too much current draw if the furnace and water pump come on simultaneously, which is why we’re upgrading to a 10,000-watt propane- powered unit. The new one will be the size of a St. Bernard’s doghouse, and installation is not a trivial matter. So add one of those to your Volt options list, since I doubt the guys who live in Grosse Pointe even know how to spell “emergency generator.”

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22 Comments on “Wilkinson on EVs: Energize Me!...”


  • avatar
    cjpolk

    By “Grosse Point”, did you actually mean Grosse Pointe – as in Michigan?

  • avatar
    polpo

    I thought the whole freaking idea behind the Volt was that it had an onboard generator powered by the gasoline engine. So just keep that gas tank filled up and you’ll be fine.

  • avatar

    I saw the letter, and thought it was ridiculous. Especially the “give” part. There isn’t going to be a gift. If there’s a generator, then it’s in the price.

    polpo nails it: those two to five years the elecricity is out, the onboard ICE can essentially serve as an onboard generator. More than essentially, in fact: that’s what it is.

  • avatar

    cjpolk:

    My bad. Text amended.

  • avatar
    Greg Locock

    While Volt-bashing is good clean fun I’ve got to say this is a pretty low example. If you don’t recharge your Volt then you stick gas in it and it goes. No generator required. The original letter is just plain silly.

  • avatar

    Gentlemen,

    Excellent point about the Chevy Volt. I’ve amended SW’s text to reflect your common sense objections. Thanks for keeping us honest.

  • avatar

    What would Better Place do?

  • avatar
    miked

    Stephan, get a 16 KW generator. That’s about as big as you can get before they’re super expensive and water cooled. I can run my well pump, furnace, 1/2 the lights, all the computers, tv, sterio system, cook top, and oven off of mine and it doesn’t even begin to struggle.

    I wish I could have even gotten a bigger one. The weird thing with them is that you’re limited more by the number of circuits you’re allowed to have in the sub-panel before you get to the power limit. I think my max draw is somewhere around 9-10 KW if everything turns on at once. But I’m out of space in the sub-panel.

    You’re right, installation was not pretty. But it’s great now that it’s in.

  • avatar
    KixStart

    A while back, I read an article about someone using a Prius to power his house during a blackout.

    Also, in limited markets, Chevy offered a pickup with the very mild hybrid system that was able to supply power until the gas ran out. Probably not very efficiently but you could power the essentials in your house for a while.

    And the generator on a trailer to power your EV idea has been realized. Makes sense to me:

    Extended Range EV – Eat Your Heart Out, Lutz, you’re years late to that party, too

    Obviously, you only need and tow the trailer when going on trips beyond battery range. Around town, the engine and generator you don’t need get left behind and don’t slow down the EV.

    An interesting business model would be rental range extending trailers. If it’s something you only need a few times a year… why buy one when you could rent on those occasions? And range extending trailers could be offered in different configurations… bare generator trailers and larger ones that also hold cargo, covered or not.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    EV’s are not going to be the best choice for everyone. For most urban drivers, the odds of a gas crunch/shortage are probably as great as a power outage.

  • avatar
    eh_political

    Alternatively, rather than a 16kw, or 10,000 watt, you could stick with the 4000–I use a marine version of that, and buy a second cheap generator…If you are the slightest bit able to deal with the hassle of two units, say add a 6500 watt–I am guessing $400 USD, or thereabouts, it gives you more flexibility in terms of fuel usage/energy output. Plus gasoline is easier to cope with than propane, fill at will. Plus you can have generators at two locations, should the need arise.

    Or hey, ditch the furnace while generator is on, and use a couple of space heaters instead.

    I lose power 4-6 times a year, and a backup source is vital. Happy to choose portability and efficiency over the convenience of instant on, all power to everything–but that’s just me.

  • avatar
    JoeEgo

    Definitely a lame letter. Appears Buerklin does not understand how the Volt operates; though we can’t fault him too much give the fact you cannot currently touch a Volt.

    A quick aside relating to the Volt’s gas mileage and how it might be presented on the sticker. Take a look at the “Performance” tab on this Aptera page. Obviously the actual numbers for a Volt would differ. The Aptera is a highly aerodynamic 2-seater while the Volt is a Cruze sedan. But I believe this sort of MPG vs Miles Driven graph is an excellent way to illustrate how the Volt and other series hybrids perform.

  • avatar
    Stephan Wilkinson

    eh_political, we don’t use the furnace for heat. Two big woodstoves do that. But we do need it to heat hot water.

    As for gasoline being easier to deal with than propane, where do you get gasoline when the power is out county-wide and gas stations are dead? Sure, you can drive to the next county, but since we already have three big propane tanks, it’s an easy source to tap.

    And finally, I’m a bit baffled by all the comments about the guy (and me, I guess) “not knowing how the Volt works.” Didn’t GM recently reveal that the on-board ICE is solely to power the motor for range extension, not to charge the battery?

  • avatar

    @Stephan Wilkinson:

    When I read this guy’s letter in Automotive News earlier in the week, my first thought was that he didn’t understand how the Volt works.

    Why is it such an achilles heel even if the Volt’s engine doesn’t recharge the batteries? In the event of a widespread power failure that rendered gasoline pumps at filling stations inoperable, why is it any worse to have a Volt than any other car on the road? After all, 1) the Volt’s gas tank is probably not empty when parked, and 2) it’s getting better fuel economy than 95% of the other cars on the road.

    Finally, what exactly would be the point of a “generator trailer,” presumably powered by gasoline, to move a car that can propel itself when filled with gasoline – never needing to be plugged in for operation if that’s your choice – without needing to lug along a trailer with a generator?

    Do you keep a personal supply of gasoline at your home as well (perhaps in an underground tank) in case the gas station down the road doesn’t have power? That seems to be akin to what that AN letter writer is recommending for the Volt.

  • avatar
    chops

    Paul Niedermeyer :

    EV’s are not going to be the best choice for everyone. For most urban drivers, the odds of a gas crunch/shortage are probably as great as a power outage.

    Yikes! In the southeast hurricanes can cause both, at once, in the same place, or seperately. Charlotte is a recent example of a gas shortages caused by the refinery shut downs from hurricanes.

  • avatar
    Stephan Wilkinson

    chrishaak, actually I do keep a good supply of gas in the barn–probably enough to suffice for a careful month of the kind of short-range driving we do.

    And who ever said anything about “a generator trailer”? Not me.

    Paul, I guess you don’t live in the country. We have power outages routinely. Where I live, _everybody_ has an emergency generator

  • avatar
    JoeEgo

    @ Stephan
    “Didn’t GM recently reveal that the on-board ICE is solely to power the motor for range extension, not to charge the battery?”

    Yes, and that still changes not much when in an outage situation. Worst case when the power is out and you do not want to run the generator to charge your plug-in vehicle? Simply drive the car off the gas in the tank and the vehicle will experience worse gas mileage over the initial 40 miles (40 or 50-something mpg instead of no gas burned).

    Unlike a pure EV, the Volt does not NEED a large charge in the battery to function normally. That is the point of the vehicle: infinite mileage for normal commuting & grocery-getting with the built-in assurance of a gasoline fed range extender designed to provide the same flexibility of a normal ICE powered car.

  • avatar
    shaker

    Propane fuel for stand-by generators makes sense becuase the gasoline (even with stabilizer) eventaully breaks down into varnish.

    KixStart:
    The pure EV with “rental range extender” trailers is the best idea I’ve heard in a while!

  • avatar

    @Stephan Wilkinson:

    My bad on the trailer – for some reason that’s what I was visualizing when I recalled the original letter to the editor, plus KixStart’s comment made me think in those terms as well.

    My point still stands though that an EV that theoretically never needs to be plugged in (or certainly could do without being plugged in for a short-term – or even weeklong-plus power failure), so is no worse than a traditional gasoline-only car, if not better because the batteries are likely not 100% empty when parked and becuase it will go further on a gallon of gasoline than would most cars.

    JoeEgo made the same point above very well.

  • avatar
    Stephan Wilkinson

    Actually, I now see that Farago illustrated this post with a tow-along generator…

  • avatar
    yankinwaoz

    Crazy idea…

    Why can’t serial hybrid cars double as emergency power generators? Plug it in and power the house?

    Of course you can’t leave it running in the garage because of carbon-monoxide.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    I don’t see why you guys rely on fossil fuel so much (I do too). Watched a show tonight on local TV that showed a guy in Clarksville, TN who was powering a 2400 sq ft house off of solar array in his backyard. He also had a windmill on a post. The cost was around $20K and paid for itself. They charged big lead acid batteries that powered the house through cloudy days and at night. FWIW I saw an article that showed good lead acid batteries -not automotive batteries- can last over 10 and approaching 20 years. They are warranted for 10 years and prorated after that.

    Add to that a second solar array and you could power a small car like a corolla sized EV for all the local driving you’d need.

    I don’t mind some really fun cars for fun but for day in and day out used I’d be happier wearing out an electric “appliance”.


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