What are the Alternatives to Oil?
A key area in which oil distillates, which come from oil, are used is transportation. In the U.S., ~70% of oil is used for transportation purposes. In Part 5, I will focus on alternatives to oil in the transportation sector. Environmentalists like to say that oil can be easily replaced with electric and fuel cell vehicles in the transportation sector. But how realistic is that assertion?
Electric vehicles are all the rage these days. The impression given by some prominent promoters of electric vehicles in the U.S. is that in fairly short order the vast majority of American motor vehicle owners will be driving electric vehicles because electric vehicles are so much better than gasoline or diesel fuel powered vehicles. For one thing, CO2 doesn’t emanate from the tailpipe of an electric vehicle which makes electric vehicles superior in their eyes.
Also, electric vehicles owners say electric vehicles are fun to drive because of their rapid acceleration and quiet ride. I hear the virtues of electric vehicles in particular from liberal/progressive electric vehicle promoters who like the thought that every adult American will drive an electric vehicle to solve the global warming problem.
Electric vehicles have been around since the start of the auto industry. Many of the early cars in the late 1800s/early 1900s were electric but it became obvious fairly quickly that oil distillate powered vehicles had an advantage over electric vehicles.
The advantage that oil distillates have is that the energy density (energy content/unit volume) is significantly greater than electric batteries and that advantage still exists even with advanced battery technologies. To reduce the disadvantage for electric vehicles, auto makers put as many battery cells in series as they can to maximize the range of electric vehicles.
Current batteries used in electric vehicles are generally lithium ion batteries because lithium is the lightest of metals which reduces the mass of the battery and the vehicle although electric vehicles are still very heavy (Alternative batteries are starting to be used or are under development). Based upon data from Wikipedia, gasoline has an energy density from 13 to 38 times that of a lithium ion battery. For diesel fuel, the energy density is from 15 to 43 times that of a lithium ion battery.
What does that mean for present gasoline and electric vehicles? According to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) report, electric vehicles in 2021 had a median range of 234 miles. For gasoline powered vehicles, the median range was 403 miles.
Modern electric vehicles have the whole bottom of the vehicle covered with electric battery cells. Many electric vehicles now have a rated range of +300 miles. You are unlikely to achieve that range unless you are willing to drive very slowly at around 70oF.
There are three areas, in particular, where the difference in energy density is important.
1). Hauling and towing-Hauling and towing requires a significant amount of energy. Obviously the heavier the load, the more energy that is required. Hauling and towing with an electric vehicle can substantially reduce the range of the vehicle. There are many YouTube videos that demonstrate what happens when a trailer is towed with an electric vehicle.
To make a long story short, towing on flat terrain can significantly reduce the range of an electric vehicle. Towing uphill dramatically reduces the range of an electric vehicle.
2). Driving in cold weather-Cold weather can seriously reduce range. Obviously the colder the temperature, the more the range is reduced. There are numerous YouTube videos that highlight the effects of cold weather on the range of electric vehicles.
A further point about cold weather is that in winter it’s not unusual to use heaters, defrosters, windshield wipers, etc. that drain energy from the battery. Temperatures above 70oF also decrease the range but not as significantly.
3). Long distance driving-If you want to drive long distances with an electric vehicle, you have to be willing to stop more frequently to recharge the battery. Based upon media reports, with a Tesla Supercharger you can charge up in 25-30 minutes. If you frequently go long distances, particularly in cold and inclement weather, you may find that an EV is not your best choice.
Electric vehicles are portrayed as “green”. I suppose if the fact that CO2 doesn’t come out of a tailpipe is being “green” then they are green but if you consider the environmental impact of mining and refining metals like lithium, cobalt, nickel as well as other metals and metalloids, then electric vehicles aren’t so green.
I suppose the advantage for Americans is that most of the mining, refining and manufacturing of battery cells is done in other countries which will reduce U.S. CO2 emissions and allow electric vehicle owners to avoid the environmental impacts of the mining, refining and manufacturing.
A substantial amount of fossil fuel energy goes into mining and refining of elements that go into electric batteries as well as the manufacturing of electric vehicles. The argument that electric vehicle promoters make is that less CO2 is generated from electric vehicles over their lifetime compared to oil distillate powered vehicles so electric vehicles are good for the environment.
The problem is that an electric vehicle will still produce significant quantities of CO2 over its lifetime even if it’s less than an oil distillate powered vehicle. I don’t expect electric vehicles to be our salvation when it comes to global warming. If people really want to reduce their carbon footprint, they should be walking, bicycling or riding mass transit. From what I see, the vast majority of Americans don’t go anywhere without a motor vehicle.
A problem when it comes to walking and bicycling in the U.S. is that the U.S. has to a large extent been designed for motor vehicles and only motor vehicles. In the last ~75 years, urban development has been concentrated on suburbs and exurbs. Destinations in suburbs and exurbs are spread out and roads are dangerous for bicyclists and pedestrians. Some suburbs and exurbs don’t even have sidewalks because you apparently aren’t supposed to walk in those areas.
Even the streets in most American cities aren’t designed to accommodate bicycles. Bicyclists in American cities can only dream of having bicycle infrastructures like the European cities of Utrecht and Groningen as illustrated in these two videos:
The goal of the present U.S. federal administration is to have 50% of all new personal motor vehicle sales be electric by 2030. I place the probability of achieving that goal at essentially zero. Even if that goal was achieved, most vehicles on the road would continue to be oil distillate powered vehicles because of the large number of oil distillate powered vehicles presently on the road and the long time needed to replace the present fleet of vehicles.
A report in February 2022 put the percentage of the ~250 million cars, SUVs and light trucks in the U.S. that are electric at less than 1%. U.S. new light vehicle sales in 2021 were approximately 15 million vehicles.
There will be a lot of people who won’t buy an electric vehicle for the reasons given above. There are a lot of people who won’t buy an electric vehicle because they can’t afford to buy one (The average price for a new EV in the U.S. is $66,000 according to Kelley Blue Book). There are people who won’t buy an electric vehicle because they don’t want an electric vehicle.
In terms of U.S. oil consumption, there are numerous industries that are not conducive for going electric such as long haul trucking, construction, agriculture, logging, mining and aviation. Also, the U.S. military uses on the order of 250,000-300,000 b/d of oil. What they use it for to a significant extent is not conducive to electric vehicles.
I hear some liberal/progressive commentators who promote the idea that in fairly short order everything will be electric and all electricity will be produced from renewable sources. I am highly skeptical of that. I don’t see the present economic system as being able to function without huge inputs of fossil fuel energy, including oil.
Fuel Cell Vehicles– There is a lot of talk about hydrogen (H2) being a significant energy source for motor vehicles in the near future. Figure 1 is a diagram of a fuel cell:
Figure 1*-Diagram of a fuel cell
*From the Internet
In a fuel cell, a fuel such as hydrogen come in contact with an electrode (anode), the electrons get stripped off the H2 and the hydrogen ions react with O2- ions to form water. The electrons go through an external circuit that can power a motor. The electrons then proceed to the cathode to form O2- ions from O2.
What I find interesting is that now hydrogen is color coded so that we have green hydrogen, blue hydrogen, grey hydrogen and black or brown hydrogen depending on how the hydrogen is produced.
What environmentalists want is green hydrogen, hydrogen gas made from water. It’s actually quite easy to generate hydrogen gas from water through electrolysis. The problem is that it’s energy intensive and expensive. Of course to be environmentally produced, the energy for the electrolysis would have to come from renewable resources.
A problem associated with generating and using H2 in fuel cell vehicles is that much of the original energy used to generate the H2 is lost at steps along the way ending in the actual driving of a fuel cell vehicle as shown in Figures 2 and 3:
Figure 2*-Comparison of providing energy to a fuel cell vehicle verses an electric vehicle
*From the Internet
Figure 2 illustrates the process by which an energy source, such as the sun, is used to generate electricity to create hydrogen from water, the process of distributing the hydrogen and finally the use of H2 in a fuel cell vehicle. Note that the process of providing energy to an electric vehicle requires one step.
Figure 3*-Energy losses in the process of providing energy to a fuel cell vehicle
*From the Internet
What Figure 3 illustrates is that a considerable amount of the original electrical energy (100 watts) used to generate and use the H2 gas is lost in the process of hydrogen generation, compression and distribution of the hydrogen, the conversion of the hydrogen to electricity in the fuel cell and then the process of using the electricity in an electric motor.
What Figure 3 shows is that only about 38% of the original 100 watts of energy makes it to power the vehicle. If the H2 has to be hauled significant distances, I can see the loss during transportation being much greater than what is illustrated in Figure 3.
For an electric vehicle, about 80% of the original electric energy used to charge a vehicle’s battery is available to power the vehicle.
Hydrogen can be burned directly in the engine of a motor vehicle or it can be used in motor vehicle fuel cells. The advantage of a fuel cell is that a fuel cell is more efficient than burning H2 in an internal combustion engine.
There are two fuel cell vehicles presently available, the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo. The Mirai starts at about $50,000 which is cheaper than the Nexo which starts at around $60,000. A fuel related problem at the moment for fuel cell vehicles is that only two states, California and Hawaii, have hydrogen gas filling stations.
Report Conclusion-Promoters of fracking make the case that fracking is a game changer for global oil production. U.S. tight oil production from fracking delayed peak global oil production a bit but at this point, it’s clear to me that U.S. tight oil production will decline in the coming years and it doesn’t appear that production will increase significantly in the foreseeable future in other countries that could conceivable produce significant quantities of tight oil.
Vladimir Putin has indicated that Russia will not go the fracking route anytime soon and that is the country I would expect to have the highest probability of significantly increasing tight oil production.
China may have significant shale formations but they tend to be deeper than in the U.S. which makes it more difficult and expensive to produce tight oil. Fracking requires a lot of water and a lack of water is an issue in the prime shale regions within China. China’s oil producers have been working on fracking but there has been strong public opposition to the technique due to the problems it creates.
In Venezuela, the Orinoco Oil Belt has a considerable amount of extra heavy oil but there will be no significant oil production increase in that region anytime soon due to the political and financial situation there.
In terms of electric vehicles, Americans with the financial means will tend to buy electric vehicles, at least for one of their vehicles, but people without financial means will tend not to buy electric vehicles. Those who buy electric vehicles may feel smug about being “environmentally superior” but I don’t expect that electric vehicles will alter U.S. and global CO2 emissions by all that much in the foreseeable future.
I don’t see fuel cell vehicles having a significant impact on the U.S. or global automotive fleet anytime soon.
The coming years will be interesting when it comes to oil depletion. We are facing a serious problem in my view. Most Americans are oblivious to oil depletion and think oil production, either U.S. or global, can increase for a long time to come if not forever.
The U.S. DOE/EIA and the mainstream media in the U.S. have promoted the idea that oil will always be available to Americans in the quantities they desire so it shouldn’t be surprising that Americans think what they think about oil supply. And if the price of oil rises significantly, they are sure to find a scapegoat.
We have at least one political party in the U.S. that promotes the idea of infinite or near infinite oil supply as well. What the members of the party think about is all the money to be made from that oil, consequences be damned.
The U.S. has designed a transportation infrastructure tailored to motor vehicles and to a large extent only motor vehicles. What we need in the U.S. is a dramatic change in land use planning that doesn’t require people to have motor vehicles to get to where they want to go. Our direction will not be easy to change but the time to start a serious national change is at hand.
Teaser photo image: By John Tarantino – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22228468