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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Of volts and dolts

I don't own an electric car -- truth be told, I fear that my driving days may be in the past -- but I like the idea of an electric car. That is why I'm infuriated by this inane piece in USA Today, which claims that electric cars create just as many emissions as traditional engines.

Can you spot the flaw in this reasoning?
Electric cars' global-warming benefits are small. It is advertised as a zero-emissions car, but in reality it only shifts emissions to electricity production, with most coming from fossil fuels. As green venture capitalist Vinod Khosla likes to point out, "Electric cars are coal-powered cars."
Of course, electric car proponents would venture that the perceived rapid ramp-up of renewables will make future electric cars much cleaner. This, however, is mostly wishful thinking. Today, the U.S. gets 14% of its electric power from renewables. In 25 years, Obama's Energy Information Administration estimates this will have gone up just 3 percentage points to 17%.
First of all, the Energy Information Administration projections cited by USA Today are certainly wrong. Second, all such projections are based on "if present trends continue" reasoning, which doesn't account for either a technical revolution or for a political decision to remake our energy infrastructure. In this country, we are still subsidizing fossil fuels -- and we have yet to announce a plan to go in a new direction.

We can, we should and we must do better than 17% renewable energy. We need to clean up our energy act.

The fact is, it will be much easier to implement cleaner forms of centralized electricity production than to fill our highways with substantially cleaner non-electric cars. The latter goal is probably impossible, while the former goal is in the difficult-but-doable category.

Nobody knows where or when the next alternative energy breakthrough is going to occur. We may get a happy surprise in the fields of biomass, fuel cells, geothermal, tidal power, wind power, or solar power. We may even discover a much safer form of nuclear power.

Although no-one ever called me an optimist, I feel confident that the heroes of science will come up with a truly revolutionary way to implement one or more of these approaches to renewable energy. I wish I could tell you when that day will come, but I can't.

But I can tell you this: We can "clean up" the way we make electricity a lot more easily than we can clean up the ungodly system used to propel my old Ford minivan. Yes, a Tesla is a polluter when you plug it into an outlet that gets energy from a power plant that burns fossil fuels. But the same Tesla instantly becomes a non-polluter when it plugs into a source of electricity produced by solar panels or a hydroelectric dam. 

So let's accelerate the transition to electric cars. Let's create better batteries. Let's create a national "charging station" infrastructure. Let's make it easy and convenient for electric car owners to recharge their vehicles while having lunch at a diner on Route 66. And let's spend what we need to spend on R&D in order to make cleaner electricity production a reality.
Of all the $$$$ we burned up in the sand in Iraq, if we'd spent a fraction of that on photovoltaic and battery research instead, we would be world leaders in that technology. But we had an oil-friendly government that considered socialized science to be a bad thing while it glorifies socialized arms production and socialized war.

"renewable energy" is a pipe dream, and this is not an ideological point, but basic thermodynamics. Renewable sources have inherent hard limits that no technological ingenuity can overcome. The basic problem is that all of them are high entropy sources of energy - the energy is so diffuse, that the energy you need to expend to harvest it makes the whole undertaking virtually pointless. And this is before we even begin to talk about the problems with storage/on-demand availability, and distribution.

A much safer form of nuclear power has already been invented, and has been for about half a century. (breeder reactors, fast reactors, etc.)

Nuclear is literally THE only option, if humanity is expecting to meet its energy demand beyond the next 50 years or so.

Renewable energy dreams are bad science, wishful thinking, that are extremely dangerous as maintaining the belief that they can EVER be viable substitutes prevents deliberation and planning of actually viable alternatives.
Anon 5:48, people lived almost exclusively on renewable energy until the use of coal began with the industrial revolution.

Most people who talk about "energy demand" are making assumptions based on present consumption habits and present growth rates. You're right, it is not possible for 9 billion people on the planet to all drive around in SUVs. Fortunately, only idiots are proposing that they should.
Even coal powered cars are more efficient than petrol-power, and releaseless emissions, although still more than if they were plugged into renewables.

Nuclear is a pipe dream, too expensive, too unpopular and requiring rare enrichable uranium, which would run out in a few years if it had to power the whole world. Thorium and fusion reactors are still decades away, as they have been for the last several decades.

Renewables rely on being properly developed. Solar is quite useful and micro-hydro could produce large and reliable amounts of power, while wind power is just an excuse to subsidise private companies.
Look up oil from algae. It would not require a change in infrastructure at all, as the oil can be refined into gasoline that will run in current automobiles. It can be used for anything that petroleum can be, with the difference that it has near zero emissions when burned. It's certainly an interesting possibility that deserves more research and testing.

As to nuclear, just look at the still ongoing situation in Fukashima (that our press doesn't feel is very important, even though millions of gallons of highly radioactive water has been pouring into the pacific daily for a few years now, with no sign of let up). THAT is our future with nuclear....a nightmare of contamination that will remain with us for thousands of years. It's a huge disaster waiting to happen (and already has happened in "isolated" incidents like Chernoybl and Fukashima.....and will happen again, with certainty).
The uranium will NOT run out in about 50 years. More precisely, the rare uranium isotope (U-235) that is currently used in most reactors WILL run out in 50 years or so unless a rapid transition is made to reactors based on the plentiful U-238. The technology to do so has been in existence for a while!

The tragedy here is that in order to utilize the U-238, we need to conserve the U-235. If we run out of U-235, the large supplies of U-238 - sufficient to sustain humanity for literally (!) many thousands of years, are useless. Think of U-235 as a matchbox, and U-238 as a large pile of wet wood. In order to use it, you need to conserve the matchbox, But right now we are fueling the fire directly with the matchbox.

As for living on renewable energy prior to the industrial revolution - this is of course correct, but I find it hard to imagine that such a drastic reversal is politically possible, or even desirable.

Solar energy has its applications, e.g. in residential energy consumption - however, this only accounts for about 30% of energy demand. It is impossibly expensive to do so, but even if you did it, you still have done nothing about the energy demands of industry and transportation - where solar and other renewables are virtually useless.
The overall complaint of the original article is correct - electrical cars simply move the exhaust pipe to a centralized location - the power plant.

Consider that as it is, an average coal fired power plant burns a train full of coal, about a mile and a half long, EVERY.SINGLE.DAY. It should be obvious that if you that large enough increase in energy demand for charging electric vehicles - not meetable with renewables - will simply mean burning more coal, instead of petroleum.
it takes approximately the same amount of energy to move a car, no matter how you get it.

A much better option is getting rid of cars altogether. This is a technology with no future.
Whether from algae or catalytically sythesised fuels or bio-diesel they all release more or less the same amount of emissions, but those emissions are absorbed back into the next generation of fuel. As the fuel has to be produced it is necessarily far more expensive than fuel brought out of the ground.

U-238 and U-233 aren't usable for energy production. U-238 isn't radioactive and therefore can't be used to generate heat and drive a steam turbine.

Electric cars are normally lighter than other cars to make them more efficient, due to the short range of electric cars. The difference, though, isn't the amount of energy required to move the car, but the efficiency of the generation of the energy. Burning petrol in a car is much less efficient than fueling it from a power-station fired by gas or coal.
Dude, breeder and/or fast reactors powered by U-238 and/or Thorium have been built since the 1950s, and the putting new ones online is ramping up really fast, esp. in Russia, and the rest of the BRICS, since apparently they have the basic arithmetic skills to understand that this is not only the best, but simply the only option to ensure viable energy supply.

And it is simply crazy to suggest that biofuels, algae, and all that nonsense is "more efficient" than petroleum - last time I checked photosynthesis was only about 1% efficient. Petroleum is simply the accumulated energy from sunlight in plants. It took millions of years to accucmulate it, and only about 100 hundred to burn it all out, precisely because photo synthesis was so inefficient.
I love the comments and yes if I had the $ I would buy the sun car.
I drive only to town once week and it's is about 10 miles one way so a few solar cells on the roof would charge the car.

Nukes, I remember when we would all have one in our backyard to power the house. The short is the industry woke up to the fact nukes are only better if large like todays large solar farms. It's about control and just imagine every building have a solar skin.
There are no safe nukes and I hate covering the so-called useless desert with panels that are still controlled by those that control the nation.
Solar Has been competitive for over 18 months, in that it is at grid parity in the desert southwest and falling. The cost per kilowatt/hr is continuing to fall as more capacity is added. Industrial levels of production will be achieved as the large photo-thermal arrays come online and price per unit falls. Coal is doomed once solar is cheaper, sometime in the next 2-4 years depending on what winds up being the most efficient technology and how quickly its brought to market. Efficiency of scale will ensure that every array will be cheaper than the last and the maintenance should be minimal, so that all the real costs are in the construction.

A few thorium reactors would be a good idea, as you can use them to dispose of the "spent" fuel rods from conventional reactors.
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