Gimme Juice

Tom Easton

Before the automobile was the horse, and Lo! the streets were covered with horse puckeys and the air was filled with stink and flies. Most especially in cities.

People were happy to see the steam engine and the trains it enabled. But trains were restricted to tracks, emitted smoke and sometimes sparks, and had to haul large amounts of firewood or coal for fuel. Road-worthy steamers showed up too but never really caught on; the famous Stanley Steamer of the early 20th century was a Johnny-come-lately.

What really got rid of the horse puckeys was the discovery of petroleum. It and its derivatives such as gasoline, diesel oil, fuel oil, and kerosene are energy-dense, ash-free, and easy to transport in tanks and pipes, as well as abundant and relatively inexpensive. They are thus well suited to powering internal combustion engines, and it did not take long for inventors to come up with affordable automobiles to take advantage of them.

Coal, petroleum (and its derivatives), and natural gas are fossil fuels. Eventually we realized that for all that they get rid of horse puckeys in the streets, they too have problems such as air pollution, landscape destruction, and oil spills, as well as urban sprawl and strip malls. They also emit huge quantities of carbon dioxide, a major contributor to global climate change, AKA global warming, which threatens to raise sea levels, drown coasts, hammer agriculture with droughts, encourage the spread of disease from the tropics into the temperate zones, and so on. The litany of ill effects is long enough to make one wonder whether horse puckeys might not be preferable.

Fortunately, there’s an alternative.  Electric cars came on the market at roughly the same time as the early automobiles. They relied on heavy lead-acid batteries and had just enough range for Grandma to toodle around town. And the batteries had to be charged with electricity generated by burning fossil fuels.

Today electricity can be carbon-free. It can even be cheaper than fossil fuels; in December 2018, a massive Chinese solar power plant was pricing its output at less than the cost of coal-generated electricity (https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnparnell/2018/12/30/new-chinese-solar-plant-undercuts-cost-of-coal-power/#7db224ed1182). Since renewable energy prices have been dropping (http://www.reeem.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Pablo-Ralon-IRENA.pdf ), we can expect to see similar price differentials elsewhere and for years to come.

Not that solar’s the only carbon-free energy source. There are also wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, and tidal power sources. And in 2011, the World Wildlife Federation noted in a report that energy derived from these sources “has the potential to meet the world’s electricity needs many times over, even allowing for” the way the sun only shines for part of the day and the wind doesn’t blow all the time.  Supply can be evened out with a wide-scale “smart grid.”  Many other reports concur. Given the political will, we could replace 80 percent of fossil fuel use by 2050 and go up from there, taking perhaps a century to reach 100%. It’s doable (http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/can-the-world-run-on-renewable-energy/). Given the problems we have come to see in our dependence on fossil fuels, it’s necessary too.

We do not yet have a unified global effort to stop using fossil fuels. If it were up to Big Energy, we might never see such an effort, for as long as they can continue to sell coal, oil, and natural gas and the electricity, gasoline, and home heating oil derived from them, the longer they can continue to make bazillions of dollars. It’s not hard to understand why they buried their own research showing that climate change was coming and then tried to cast doubt on the work of other researchers (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/exxon-knew-about-climate-change-almost-40-years-ago/). They’ve also done their best to buy the politicians who might have bent public policy in a wiser direction (http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/347/oil-politics.html).

That may be changing, however:

–In 2015, the G7 countries called for an end to fossil fuel use by the end of the century (https://www.carbonbrief.org/daily-brief/g7-leaders-agree-to-phase-out-fossil-fuel-use-by-end-of-century ).  

–In 2017, the UN called for the G20 nations to phase out fossil fuel subsidies by 2020 (https://unfccc.int/news/g20-must-phase-out-fossil-fuel-subsidies-by-2020 ).

–In 2018, California passed a law requiring newly built homes to have solar panels (https://www.npr.org/2018/05/17/612082781/california-to-require-all-new-homes-to-have-solar-panels-starting-in-2020).

–Also in 2018: California announced plans to phase out fossil fuels by 2045 (https://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/2018/0911/California-to-phase-out-fossil-fuels-by-2045 ).

–In 2019, Germany announced that it would phase out coal use by 2038 (https://news.abs-cbn.com/business/01/27/19/germany-should-phase-out-coal-use-by-2038-commission).

It’s not unified, and it’s not global. But it does look like some momentum is gathering.

Meanwhile, electric cars are gaining momentum too. In California, one in ten of all new cars sold is an electric, and the state has half a million of them in total. Twice that many have been sold in the United States as a whole (https://www.greencarreports.com/news/1120565_a-million-electric-cars-sold-in-the-u-s-led-by-california).

They have a long way to go to take over, and they may never totally eliminate gas-burners. Cars can stay on the road for decades, especially if they have a fanbase willing to spend time and money on renovations. People still drive Model T’s, after all.

But hybrids are getting more popular. They have a gas engine that either keeps the battery charged or kicks in when the battery gets low.

So are all-electrics, and though they have come a long way from the old Grandma-toodlers, they still are weak on range. It helps when employers and parking garages—and even municipal parking lots—set up charging stations. But that’s not as convenient as being able to gas up at a filling station.

To get that kind of convenience we need better batteries, faster charging, and “filling” stations equipped to charge those batteries in no more time than it now takes to fill a tank. Another approach is a battery swapping system—when you pull into the station, they pull out your exhausted battery and then slide in a fully charged one. To make it work requires standardized battery packs that fit all cars (just as gasoline does).  Making the batteries lease-only (like the old Bell phones) would keep people from gaming the system by swapping a decrepit old battery for a new one (and the batteries are expensive).  This approach also requires redesign and re-equipping of “filling” stations—and there are a lot of them.

Another approach relies on hydrogen. If we have enough solar, wind, and other electrical generation capacity to have surplus at certain times of day (demand is low at night, for instance), the surplus electricity can be used to electrolyze water (split its molecules) into oxygen and hydrogen. Hydrogen can be burned directly in an internal combustion engine, so it can be (and has been) used as automotive fuel. It can also be processed through a fuel cell to generate electricity. Since it’s a gas, it can be stored in tanks and moved around through pipes, so it might be easier to adapt filling stations to using it.  People complain that hydrogen is flammable—but then so is gasoline, with the added problem that a gasoline leak stays on the ground, around your ankles, while a lighter-than-air hydrogen leak rises into the sky.

It took about half a century to build the automobile infrastructure up to a network of filling stations and paved roads that we would recognize today. We didn’t build the Interstate system till the 1960s! With electric or hydrogen cars we just have to retool the filling stations, as well as build more renewable electricity sources. Much easier, especially since the timeline people are talking about is also a matter of decades.

Will we do it? Ask your local politician, if you can find one without a pocketful of Big Oil’s money.

Actually, why isn’t Big Oil doing it? It would be expensive, sure, but they could have a lock on selling what makes your car go. At least until the independents get in on the action.

Perhaps they are waiting for demand to go up. In 1951, carmakers sold over five million gas-burners. Going from one million electrics sold so far to five million a year might do it. But starting now to retool the filling stations and build more wind and solar farms would surely get us there faster.

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