Friday, 5 October 2012

Cleaner Cars; Clean, Cheap Energy; and the Future of the Planet

In 1972, when I was in grade 10, a book called Limits to Growth was published by a group called the Club of Rome. It became a best-seller, its subject was important, and its conclusions were terrifying, so I could not ignore it, even though it was a difficult read for me at the time. The book combined modern data and computer models with the time-tested assumptions of Thomas Robert Malthus in his book An Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus and the Club of Rome agree that certain resources are limited or grow slowly, according to a linear growth model, while population and its demands for the resource grow exponentially. The Wikipedia page on Limits to Growth summarizes the study:
Five variables were examined in the original model, on the assumptions that exponential growth accurately described their patterns of increase, and that the ability of technology to increase the availability of resources grows only linearly. These variables are: world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion.
And the conclusions:
Two of the scenarios saw "overshoot and collapse" of the global system by the mid to latter part of the 21st century, while a third scenario resulted in a "stabilized world."
The conclusions threatened the ability of many industries and politicians to pursue "business as usual," and the "stabilized world" would be uncomfortably constrained for many people, so the book ended up being widely dismissed and attacked. It was an "Inconvenient Truth," Mark I.

Nevertheless, the production and consumption predictions of the book have been generally upheld in the twenty- and thirty-year updates. I have found it difficult to tuck the book away in the back of my mind and retain a generally optimistic outlook. Only a few general principles have fought back in my mind against the book's specific predictions. One is Buckminster Fuller's "You can do more with less." For example, the amount of copper used in a transatlantic phone cable is huge, but a few ounces of the stuff in a telecommunications satellite could outperform the cable. Another is Larry Niven's dictum that all problems are solvable, if you only have enough energy. Is pollution a problem? With enough cheap energy, you could trap the pollutants then shoot them into the sun! (That is not a serious suggestion, by the way; I'm just illustrating the concept). Finally, there was a calculation, probably by Isaac Asimov, that most of the scientists who had ever lived were still alive. That was a comfort, in theory, but I didn't see results that removed the worries that Limits to Growth had planted.

Until this week.

I've been doing a little research, spurred by a series of TED Talks, that has left me more hopeful than I have been in years. No, strike that. I'm actually feeling excited.

Let's start with energy, a field where changing technology can make a large difference in our use of limited resources and our production of unwanted materials such as pollutants and greenhouse gases. A TED Talk by Amory Lovins breaks down the use of energy in the United States with this graphic.

It illustrates that there are two main types of energy produced in the United States. Three quarters of the energy from burning oil and gas goes to transportation; three-quarters of the electricity that is generated goes to buildings (homes, offices, etc.); one quarter of both goes to factories. The two types of energy are largely distinct: only one percent of the electrical generation comes from burning oil, though about half of it comes from coal.

That means that we could make a substantial reduction--a three-fifths  reduction, in fact--of our demand for oil and gas by switching over to all-electric cars. If you have reservations or objections at this point, please hold them back for a while; I'll address them later. For now, let's look at the present and immediate future of electrical car adoption.

Although there were electric cars before Tesla Motors started production in 2008, the Tesla Roadster, in my opinion, was a game-changer. First, it addressed and reversed the common conception that electric vehicles were, by nature, slow, unattractive, and limited in range--little more than street-legal golf-carts. The Roadster was a two-seater sports car with very impressive acceleration, quiet ride, and suspension and handling that were (thanks to the use of some parts from the Lotus Elise) competitive with other sports cars. The car could go a respectable distance (320 km) per charge. Its base price of $109,000 meant that only rich people could buy it, but those were exactly the people who would set the taste for electric cars in people of more limited means. Tesla has planned, from the beginning, to take the profits from this niche product to create more affordable models, as it has done.

The Tesla Model S is a four-door sedan that began selling in June, 2012. The 85 kWh model achieves 425 km per charge for a base price of $95,000 U.S. and the 40 kWh model achieves 160 km per charge for $57,400 U.S. An intermediate model with a 60 kWh battery pack is planned. These prices are high, but are similar to , say, a BMW 7 Series car at $71,000 to $137,300. The Tesla could compete on price as a top-tier luxury sedan if it also competes in quality. Fortunately, the reviews indicate that it does.  Reviewers and industry analysts love it. More than half of the company's planned production of the model is already reserved by customers.

So, electric vehicles are already competitive with internal combustion vehicles at the mid-upper end of the market. What's needed to bring them to the true mass market is better batteries: ones that hold more charge per unit of weight, recharge faster, and are cheaper overall. The first Tesla solution, a battery pack containing 6,831 laptop batteries, will only take it partway down to mass adoption. We need, at the least, a battery that weighs no more, costs no more, and supports an eight-hour drive on one charge.

Fortunately, there are new battery technologies that could take the electric car all the way down to the common man. For example, IBM recently announced it is working on a lithium-air battery that outpaces the lithium-ion battery we all know. It says that a car with these batteries could achieve 800 km per charge. They admit that, even if the research succeeds, it will not be ready for production until about 2020. On the other hand, GM announced in August, 2012, that it is supporting the development of lithium-ion batteries at Envia Systems that could raise the all-electric range of its cars to 160 or even 320 km per charge while cutting the cost of batteries in half. These batteries may be available in "a couple of years." Other next-generation ideas for battery technologies could cut the costs of electric cars.

If the technology is there, the market could adopt it surprisingly quickly. For example, a study in the U.S. showed that from
July 1, 2008, through September — a period that included the cash-for-clunkers program — more than 14.8 million cars and light trucks were scrapped in the United States.
Since there are 193,979,654 vehicles classified as "Light duty vehicle, short wheel base" (i.e. the common car), it would take a bit over 13 three-month periods to replace the internal-combustion cars in the U.S., or 3.25 years. Once this was done, the car population would make far less noise and no pollution during use and require no fossil fuels to operate. Their energy requirements would come, instead, from the production of electricity. Since that does not require oil, the oil industry would, in theory, be decimated. Oil-producing countries that have little else to sustain their economies, such as Saudi Arabia, would see their income shrivel. Powerful forces would struggle to prevent the change. At the same time, though, we must admit that these powerful forces once included the auto industries themselves. Those companies, plus the public demand for clean, cheap transportation, will probably, messily, prevail. Let's give the transition a decade or so to happen.

Now we have to admit that switching to electric cars does not eliminate the demand for energy; it simply switches the source of the energy to power plants of one sort or another. If their primary fuel is coal, then we simply move our pollution from the cities to the power plants. Admittedly, this in itself may be worthwhile, although the CO2 levels in the atmosphere might not benefit. To achieve the full environmental benefits of electric cars, we must supply them with power from environmentally clean sources--hydro power (where available), thorium (when available), solar, and wind. Unfortunately, though, solar and wind power have a common problem. The sun goes down, the wind dies down, and the lights in town will dim until the old reliable sources can ramp up to make up  for the shortfall.

Solar and wind power, frankly, will not be able to reliably fill the need until there is a way to store large amounts of power until it is needed and then release the power instantly. A Canadian Chemist teaching at MIT, Donald Sadoway, thinks that the Liquid Metal Battery solves this problem, and has formed a company called Ambri to commercialize it. In 2012, Time magazine listed Sadoway as one of the "Hundred Most Influential People in the World." Bill Gates believes in this technology, and is one of its major investors. Its effect on the economics of clean electricity production may wean whole countries off coal, the same way that electric cars will, I believe, wean them off oil.

Limits to Growth is correct that the demand for certain resources expands exponentially and that the earth cannot indefinitely supply that demand. The only way to stave off the collapse of all the systems that maintain our civilization is to make use of two other resources that can also grow exponentially: science and technology. The results of certain fundamental changes due to these two resources can slash our demand for other resources, such as oil and coal. What I have learned in the last week is that game-changing new technologies either have appeared in the last few years or will appear in the next couple of years. These, as a byproduct, offer hope of reducing the carbon we put into the air by four fifths. In short, as Donald Sadoway put it in his TED talk,
If we're going to get this country out of its current energy situation, we can't just conserve our way out. We can't just drill our way out. We can't bomb our way out. We're going to do it the old-fashioned, American way. We're going to invent our way out, working together.

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