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The electric car fetish

Not too long ago a dinner guest at a party I attended told me that my concern about the peaking of global oil production was misplaced. Didn't I know that the electric car was already on its way? That a lot of smart people were involved in making it a reality before too long? That the main problem of charging on long trips had already been solved with battery switching stations that could now be deployed?

I registered my skepticism that the electric car would ever become a widespread phenomenon. I cited resource constraints for key metals needed for batteries and the length of time needed to turn over the existing car fleet--around 17 years in the United States, for example. That assumes, of course, that the necessary infrastructure to produce such a fleet is already in place, which it isn't and won't be for some time, if ever.

If the peak in oil production is close by, then that alone would doom the widespread adoption of an electric car fleet since global society could soon be dealing with an immediate oil crisis that wouldn't wait on the slow cycles of new technology adoption. (Some people believe we are already dealing with that crisis and that it began with the 2008 oil price spike which saw crude oil futures vault to $147.)

One can easily cite all the obvious impediments that constrain the widespread adoption of private electric automobiles: the lack of charging infrastructure; the poor performance of electric vehicles for range and acceleration compared to gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles; consumer skepticism about electric vehicles; and the creaking existing electrical infrastructure which would probably need serious expansion to accommodate a worldwide fleet of private electric automobiles. Perhaps all of these problems could be overcome if the world had decades to work on them. But it is doubtful that we have that kind of time.

In addition, there are three issues which rarely get a hearing. First, in the United States, for example, transportation produced 33 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions in 2008. (I was unable to find comparable figures for the world.) If the entire automobile and truck fleet were to be electrified, the amount of carbon dioxide emissions would decline, but not by as much as one might expect.

The problem is that as of 2006 (the latest year for which global figures are available) 66 percent of the world's electricity is generated by conventional fossil-fuel powered plants, according the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The number is 71 percent for the United States, the country with about one quarter of all motor vehicles in the world--about 256 million out of approximately 1 billion.

That means that simply replacing the current gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicle fleet with one running on electricity will not even come close to reducing carbon dioxide emissions from that source by the 80 percent that scientists say is vital to preventing catastrophic climate change. We'll simply be substituting cars powered by gasoline and diesel with ones powered indirectly by coal and natural gas.

Of course, we could greatly increase our deployment of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to accommodate the need for new greenhouse gas-free electricity generation, couldn't we? There are three problems with this view. First, both sources are intermittent, so we will have to maintain a substantial baseload generating capacity using fossil fuels to ensure adequate electricity production when the wind fails and the sun isn't shining.

Second, the scale of deployment would almost be unimaginable. The energy density of windmills and solar panels is at least an order of magnitude lower than that of fossil fuels. The square miles of photovoltaics and the number of windmills needed to generate electricity for an automobile and light truck fleet would imply an enormous footprint for these sources of power. Third, the time to scale up such solutions to the necessary level might be decades. This is the so-called rate-of-conversion problem. It actually takes time to implement alternative energy and infrastructure solutions. The key question is: How much time do we have? The answer appears to be: Not very much!

Let's assume for the moment that climate change can be ignored--a big and dangerous assumption, I know! The next question we must ask then is: Is there enough fossil fuel and nuclear power to run an electric car infrastructure? Several developments should give us pause. First, a recent study suggests that coal production from existing coal fields may peak in 2011. That's not a misprint. Second, even though claims for vast supplies from new shale gas fields are being bandied about, there is reason for caution about natural gas supplies as well. Shale gas reserves are actually much more limited than widely believed; they are costly to produce; and, their extraction will likely be hampered by concerns about water pollution. Recently, the governor of New York ordered a moratorium on shale gas drilling until concerns about groundwater safety could be evaluated. Similar actions from other states seem likely as concerns about water supplies mount, and legislatures pause to think through stricter regulations that will mean slower exploitation of this resource.

As for nuclear power providing the additional electrical capacity we would require, one need only review the history of the civilian nuclear power industry to realize that there is little chance of this happening. The regulatory hurdles to rapid expansion are very large. The amount of uranium left to power the current fleet of uranium-fueled reactors is in doubt. And, the lead times to build nuclear generating plants are measured in decades, not years. Nuclear-generated electricity will likely do no more than maintain its share of electricity production in the decades ahead as plants beyond their service life are decommissioned.

So, what can we do about transportation? The quickest way to reduce liquid fuel consumption and thus carbon dioxide emissions in transportation would be to implement ride-sharing programs based on successful pilot programs around the world. This would mean allowing people to use their private cars as essentially part-time cabs. The advantage is that it reduces traffic, fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions NOW--not at some unspecified date in the future. The technical issues have already been worked out. It is the cultural ones which are the sticking points.

Second, we should in my view electrify public transportation to the extent possible. This would protect this part of our transportation infrastructure from sudden fuel shocks. And, it should be possible to do this with only a fraction of the outlays needed to make private electric cars available. In addition, public transportation should be vastly expanded with an eye toward new ways of configuring public transport that require significantly less energy, meet consumer expectations more readily, and can be cheaply and modularly constructed.

If the public had been able to foresee that the private automobile would lead to the despoilation of huge swaths of prime farmland to build roads and highways; the emptying out of many of America's and the world's cities into suburban sprawl; high blood levels of lead in children (from leaded gasoline which is now outlawed); a sedentary lifestyle that would contribute to an obesity epidemic that reaches down into children younger than 10; a nightmarish number of people killed and maimed on roadways each year; air pollution that regularly threatens human health; climate change through the production of greenhouse gases; and dependence on a fuel supply--petroleum--that has led to several wars and which regularly undergoes huge price swings; if they had known all that, would the public have agreed to allow the private automobile to become the dominant form of transportation in the so-called developed world?

It's time to let go of the car culture so we can rid ourselves of its myriad ill effects. And, it is time to let go of the electric car fetish that is merely an extension of that ruinous car culture.

Editorial Notes: UPDATE (Jan 3). Two responses, one from the left and one from an electric car supporter. From the left: Fight or Die by Michael Dawson:
Kurt Cobb is a good writer with many useful things to say, including in this recent post. Alas, Cobb also seems to be among those still peddling the notion that cars-first transportation is a mere attitude, rather than an imposed institutional requirement of big business capitalism. “It’s time to let go of the car culture so we can rid ourselves of its myriad ill effects,” Cobb urges. But what if “letting go” isn’t nearly enough? What if the powers-that-be will continue to dictate our transportation options, whatever our attitude? What if what we really have is not a shared “car culture,” but corporate capitalism, a.k.a., a globally dominant system of powerful interests and institutions whose primary function is to further enrich the rich? (MORE AT ORIGINAL)
A second response comes from an electric car advocate, Steven Weiss of the NW Energy Coalition: Quite a few fallacies in the article. First, you don’t need all-electric vehicles for every car. Best would be the short-trip commuter car in a family, and long-distance trucks that could be charged with a fairly small number of charging stations along the interstates. Also hybrid cars that don’t need to be charged get very good mileage and could be improved beyond today’s technology. Second, the statement about solar and wind taking huge amounts of space has been widely discredited. Coal-mining (and shipping and burning) take up about the same space as renewables. Yes, we need a lot of space for renewables, but it’s still something less than 1% of the amount of land used for agriculture in the US. Third, the problem of integrating vast amounts of variable renewables can be fairly easily solved using those plugged in vehicles! A smart grid can control the charging rate of the cars (also water heaters and controllable building thermostats) to match load with variable resources. This allows the grid to need fewer fossil reserves, not more. Of course we also need ride sharing and increase the use of public transportation, but let’s not give up on a realistic strategy: Conservation and fuel efficiency improvements to cut demand growth to zero (not that difficult, really); and then ramp down coal use over the next 30 years or so through more renewables and some more natural gas use. Steve Weiss Sr. Policy Associate NW Energy Coalition

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