The Ergosphere
Tuesday, June 21, 2005
 

The Grand Delusion

I am constantly amazed and disgusted by the pig-headed ignorance of the public at large.  The ignorance allows them to believe the impossible, and pig-headedness leads them to insist that they get it.  This ignorance is promoted at the highest levels of government; the result of this, sooner or later, is going to be disaster.

I can't think of anything in recent history which shows this more clearly than the results of a recent Yale University poll.  Some of the results are encouraging: The answers on several questions are mildly encouraging: With these numbers you'd expect people to be ready to deal with the source of the problem, immediately and personally:  fuel taxes, guzzler taxes, opposition to environmentally-damaging actions, that kind of thing.  Unfortunately, John Q. Public doesn't seem to have a clue as to what it takes to solve the above problems: This is sad and frustrating; when the American people know what they want, they appear to have no clue about what it takes to do it or even what is physically possible.  This conflict of desires vs. knowledge is certain to yield nothing but wasted effort, perhaps with a generous larding of pork for certain special interests charged with finding ways to do the impossible... efforts which are conveniently doomed to failure and thus justify "research" indefinitely.

Who's responsible for this mess?  There are a number of culprits, ranging from the general refusal of the American public to take personal responsibility for e.g. reducing the amount of foreign oil used to special interests protecting their turf.  But there's one group, headed by one person, who have a responsibility to the nation as a whole but have been complicit in this rather than doing something about it.  That person's desk has sported many things over the years, but one slogan stands out:  The Buck Stops Here.

President Bush is personally responsible for many of these misconceptions.  He has directly promoted the idea that we can cajole or drill our way to cheaper gasoline.  He has stated that hydrogen vehicles are a solution, rather than a far-off prospect which may never materialize.  He has signed tax breaks which encouraged people to waste fuel rather than save it.  And, most damning of all, he terminated programs to develop American hybrid vehicles just as the need became obvious and foreign companies readied to take the market.

President Bush is rapidly losing what political capital he had.  I suspect that this is because he is no longer trusted; people have listened to him for five years now, and after many comparisons of words vs. reality and deeds they have finally concluded that he can neither be trusted to say what he knows to be true nor to do what he says he's going to do.  He may already have sunk too far, but some straight talk might raise his stock again.  He would have to begin by telling America what it needs to hear, whether or not it wants to:
  1. World oil supplies and their prices are largely outside of American control.  Neither sweet-talking the Saudis nor drilling in ANWR will have much effect on what Americans pay for gasoline.
  2. American oil production is falling, and nothing will reverse this.
  3. As a consequence, the only way to reduce oil imports is to use less oil.
One can agree on goals but differ on means.  But if I were a Presidential advisor, I'd suggest this:
  1. Put the hydrogen initiative on the back burner.  Cut funding to no more than $100 million for research and demonstrations until cost targets are met.
  2. Eliminate the first-year tax writeoff for heavy trucks; put them back on the normal depreciation schedule for vehicles.  But most importantly,
  3. Demand that, by model year 2012, all cars and light-truck passenger vehicles sold in the US have the option of running at least partly on grid electricity rather than liquid fuel.  Give subsidies to purchasers of vehicles which can do it sooner, phasing out in 2011.
We could have had cars running partly on grid electricity in 1990, when the California Air Resources Board wrote its first ZEV mandate.  Lead-acid batteries would have sufficed for ten to twenty miles of gasoline-free driving; Los Angeles could have been cleaner faster.  And the USA could have started a move away from petroleum as the crucial energy supply for our transport network.

It's fifteen years later.  Technology has moved on; batteries are more powerful and lighter, electronics are smaller and more powerful, electric motors pack more horsepower per pound than ever before.  There is nothing we could have done in 1990 that we cannot do better today.  If the President of the United States said it was important, can we have any doubt that it would finally happen?

UPDATE 6/22/05 02:28 EDT:  Winds of Change has a quote that so perfectly reflects my point that I will substitute just one term (outlined in bold) and otherwise let it stand:
As far as many of them are concerned, the best way to fix the energy situation is to neutralize the administration (in the sense of what they see it's ability to do harm) or at least force it to comply with their preferred policies. They tried to do this in the 2004 election and appear to be moving forward with that policy to this day because, simply speaking, they regard the administration as having screwed up energy policy and don't trust it to do a decent job as far as anything else is concerned.
WoC was talking about Iraq, but I think this is spot-on for so many other things it's scary. 
Comments:
An extremely important culprit is the media. It's not educating people, in fact it's actively misleading people. As Molly Ivins says, they're just not getting the news out.

Conservatives complain about reporters being liberal, but it's the publishers who control the media. Rupert Murdoch, through Fox news, has done enormous damage.
 
I think the plug in hybrid is a good idea, far better than corn or soy ethanol.

The way cars are designed at present, it takes a lot of energy for people to idle in traffic jams on their way to work.

With a plug in hybrid, 15-20 miles might get people to work using juice that is produced overnight, and best of all, we won't waste nearly as much energy in stop and go or traffic jams.
 
Unfortunately, corn and distillers have well-financed lobbies and big PR apparati; GO-HEV's do not.
 
You make it sound so easy.

Point A is arguable, but I won't do it here.

Point B is trivial. Really, how much difference will this make?

Point C - voila! No wonder you don't like President Bush - you want King Canute.

We can't mandate our way into anything, as California found out. If we couldn't make ZEV work there in a state which is probably the most politically hospitable to it, what makes you think it'll work when nationalized?

Let products mature. I'll probably have a Prius or similar the minute prices become defensible and I don't feel like I'm a beta tester. Incidentally, what do you drive?

And why focus on automotive consumption exclusively? How about saving some ass-chewing for all that petroleum that's being burned for electricity and heat in the NE, where they're so dead set against nukes and don't want wind turbines where they can see them (of course no one wants to hear them).

They're perilously close to the limits of their power distribution now, dependent on hydro imports from Canada. Let the Canucks cut back on the power, as they must at times of low rainfall, and watch what happens even now. Then see what happens if powering cars becomes popular (sure, they can do it overnight in lower load periods, but we know that that won't happen, especially for commuters who have to get back home). And did I mention that the northeasterners don't like power lines either?

And what a coincidence - that's where so many of our liberal ecobabblers come from. They won't save energy until they figure out a way for their illegal alien workers to do it for them.

Start smaller. Find a state full of liberals like Vermont and see if you can get this passed there. (fat chance!) Once we have a credible example working you can leverage that.
 
The biggest issue with switching to electric is the grid. It is not handling the loads we throw at it today. If we fail to upgrade it across the board, throwing the energy for transportation into it can simply never happen. Suburbia cannot float the solar area for PV recharging - too many trees and too little roof. And I am not killing the trees - they are needed for cooling the house and to recycle at least some CO2 in the city.

I am building an electric right now, but I am a teency minority in a minority. The first time I hooked up my charger, I blew the transformer out behind my house. When they replaced it, I asked them what the date was on it - we looked - 1972!

The current grid is decrepit - the only thing worse may be the pipeline infrastructure. But my opinion is that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and so I got my new transformer. Because in the end, they do want me to buy electricity. Electric companies are salivating over the prospect of electric car profits, even as their knees clack together out of fear for the grid.
 
J. Bowen:

"We can't mandate our way into anything, as California found out."

So California was never able to force cars to be built to deal with their particular pollution problems, then?

You're missing a distinction.  When CARB wrote the ZEV mandate, there was no battery technology on earth which could make an electric car go even 150 miles on a charge at a price people could afford to buy.  The EV-1 cost a fortune and went something like 90 miles.

On the other hand, amateurs had been converting old gas-powered cars to electric with lead-acid batteries and getting 40-50 mile ranges for years.  20 miles is easy; it was even easy back then.  Detroit would have resisted for political reasons, but the engineering would have been a piece of cake.

"Let products mature."

You gotta get 'em to sprout first.

"Incidentally, what do you drive?"

Volkswagen TDI.  I considered the Prius but waiting lists were running 6 months; I could not even find one to sit in.

If DC had been selling even a 60 MPG hybrid last year, I would have been in line for one.

"And why focus on automotive consumption exclusively?"

Personally, I'm not.  That's just where the biggest difference can be made in the short term.  It's also where the American people most need to get a clue.

"How about saving some ass-chewing for all that petroleum that's being burned for electricity and heat in the NE... ?"

You mean the 3% or so of national electric consumption that's from petroleum?

I think they ought to be using it more efficiently, of course.  Instead of burning petroleum in a car and throwing away the heat, then burning more in a furnace and generating only heat, they should put cogenerators at their houses and charge batteries in their cars.  Home heating oil only accounts for about 4.5% of US consumption, but making it do double duty and allowing a shift of some of that demand to electricity from other sources would make a significant dent in demand.

(Hmmm... this page indicates that it might be more like 2% than 4.5%... I don't have the time to sort out the difference right now.  Maybe the other page combines fuel oil with propane.  Whatever the number is, though, it's not much.)

"Let the Canucks cut back on the power.... Then see what happens if powering cars becomes popular[.]"

Um, the hybrid cars start their engines sooner than they would have otherwise?

"Find a state full of liberals like Vermont and see if you can get this passed there."

Vermont has neither the population base to support the production, nor the pollution issues to justify starting there, nor the legal authority to go its own way; the Feds have reserved this power to California, so that's where it has to begin.
 
j:

" The biggest issue with switching to electric is the grid. It is not handling the loads we throw at it today. If we fail to upgrade it across the board, throwing the energy for transportation into it can simply never happen."

You mean the grid is not handling the peaks we're throwing at it today.  This is a symptom of poor management, most specifically flat-rate billing.

The truth is a little more complicated, and a lot rosier (I addressed this specific issue last year).  But to get down to brass tacks:

Total electric generation in the US in 2003 was 3848 billion kWh, or 439 GW average.  Net summer generating capacity was 953 GW, or more than twice average consumption (winter capacity is higher due to greater efficiency in both gas-turbine and steam-cycle plants).  Our average energy consumption for transportation, making somewhat pessimistic assumptions, was a bit over 180 GW.

Conclusion:  the grid will have no problems either producing or carrying all the energy required by our transport sector, as long as it's done during off-peak hours.

"Suburbia cannot float the solar area for PV recharging - too many trees and too little roof."

Bully for you and your trees!  But are you sure you can't find a way to manage some solar?  I'm sure the roof of that 3-story apartment building a couple blocks over isn't shaded, and neither are the strip malls on the main drag... nor their parking lots.  Oh, and how about the industrial parks around town; how much unused roof have they got?

If you're building an electric, you're probably not going to be driving all that many miles every day.  50 miles at 200 Wh/mile is 10 kWh.  You should be able to generate 10 kWh a day with maybe 1.6 kW of panels; at 16% efficiency and 1 kW/m^2 of light, they'd need to cover 10 square meters.

A 3-story apartment block of 1000 ft^2 apartments would have about 30 square meters of roof per unit.  Then you've got the industrial and office parks, and the strip malls, and their parking lots....

Doing this individually might be a little difficult, but doing it as a widespread effort doesn't look hard at all.

"Electric companies are salivating over the prospect of electric car profits...."

Of course.  The more loads they can get into the off-peak hours (like electric cars), the more they can flatten their load curve.  The capital costs scale roughly with the peak load, so the closer the average moves toward the peak the more money they can make from the same investment in equipment.
 
I wonder what would need to be done to support a GO-HEV? That is, what % of vehicle owners store their vehicles close to an AC outlet, and what the remainder of owners would need to be able to charge their vehicles?

I suppose there are several scenarios depending on battery charge speed: 5 minutes or less allows use of charges at "gas" stations, but if several hours are needed, then it's harder. Induction in the roadway?
 
Fortunately, that's easy to answer.

1.  Take typical or maximum daily electrical energy requirement, in kilowatt-hours (at the charger).
2.  Divide by expected number of hours parked.

Voila, you get the typical and maximum power requirement in kilowatts.  Alternatively, you can divide the energy requirement in kWh by available kW to calculate the charge duration.

A GO-HEV which gets 5 kWh from the batteries (20 miles @ 250 Wh/mile) and has a battery/charger efficiency of 65% would need as much as 7.7 kWh to recharge.  I have an extension cord in my closet; it's rated at 125 volts, 13 amps.  De-rating it to 10 amps and assuming low voltage conditions of 110 volts, it would deliver 1100 watts.  Worst-case recharge time:  almost exactly 7 hours.

That's a 50-foot cord, by the way.  Such simple measures should be usable by almost anyone with a garage or attached carport.  That would take care of everything that most people really need; if you can't get a full recharge in a 2-hour stopover, you burn a little more fuel.  Big deal!  Adding circuits for big chargers can wait; we can reap lots of benefits on what we've got.

Induction systems in the roads are another matter.  If you think that just repairing the potholes is expensive, just wait until you see that bill.
 
Well, what I was thinking about was access to chargers. E.g., in Chicago, where I live, I would estimate that 50% (or more) of cars are not stored overnight in private garages, where they can be easily charged (many are on the street, others in parking garages). So, the first question is what % of vehicle owners have easy access to a charger, and 2nd, what do we do for the rest?
 
What do you do for the rest?  Hmmm....

Plugs in parking meters (or "power posts" for unmetered parking), installed and maintained by the utility, with payment handled by digital coinage?  When it's a real meter, the payment handles parking fees too.

I can see cars with cord reels like vacuum cleaners, and meters which auto-eject the plug when you turn the key.

Of course, this probably wouldn't matter for several years.  The big problem is in the suburbs, and commuters who come into the city to park in garages or lots would be taken care of there.
 
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