The Ergosphere
Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Getting down to earth

(NB:  This post was almost titled "On Bullshit", but I thought the better of it.)

Over at Futurepundit, a commenter quotes a 1979 Mother Earth News article about a home-built hybrid car.  This article is, unfortunately, typical for the publication:  short on firm data and long on claims, some of them dubious.

The blogosphere and society in general are full of people making unsupported claims and questionable statements.  Picking them apart is a good hobby; it dulls the superficial attractiveness of the nonsense and sharpens the mind.  A few examples will suffice to illustrate.
According to David, the Opel has not only a virtually unlimited range (when driven prudently), but also a top speed of 90 miles per hour . . . and emits a minimum of pollutants as it tools along the highway.[Emphasis added.]
It did?  How did they know that it was so clean?  Did they measure it?  Put it on a chassis dynamometer with an exhaust analyzer?  What are the chances of that?

Lawnmower engines of the day were bad polluters even by old standards.  They were air-cooled (with consequent loose tolerances), had no pollution controls and often ran well rich.  A 1979 car would have had an early catalytic converter system, perhaps with air injection; the lawnmower engine had none of these things.  By 1982, cars were running closed-loop mixture controls to make the catalysts work better.  The one advantage the lawnmower engine would have is that it could run at constant speed.
... the engineer installed four 12-volt, heavy-duty automobile batteries-in series-which are "fed" by a 100-amp generator that's run off a 5-horsepower lawn-mower engine.
He's certainly not producing 100 A @ 48 volts (4.8 kW) with a 5 HP (3730 W) engine.

Nor was the builder cruising at even a continuous 55 MPH on a mere 5 HP.  I'd believe that "prudently" meant 40-45, not the 50 claimed.  If a typical car requires ~20 HP to cruise at 60 MPH and drag scales as speed squared (meaning power scales as speed cubed), the ~4 HP available through the engine, generator and motor would deliver enough power for about 35 MPH; a small car like an Opel would get a bit more out of it.  That's plenty for around town, but forget cruising the Interstates.
Hot or traveling in a very mountainous area-could, however, tax the car's charging system . . . but even these demands don't pose much of a problem, because the batteries can be brought from a 1/4 charge (the effective "dead" state, with a built-in safety factor) to a full charge in only 15 minutes.
The author states that battery can be charged from 25% to 100% in 15 minutes using less than 4 kW.  This means the storage is 1.3 kWh at most, which is quite a bit less than the Prius carries.  You're not going to get much range on that; any driving on Interstates better be between closely-spaced exits.  (An alternate explanation is that the claim was erroneous or the builder was mis-quoted.)

How many people bought the plans for the hybrid conversion and expected "miracle carburetor" results?  How many built it and were disappointed?  I don't know, but my money is on the square marked "most".

My point here is to show that the Mother Earth News is not a technical journal, and its breathless praise should not be mistaken for honest and critical analysis.  Neither should most of what's found on the blogosphere or the media at large, unless you can confirm the claims and repeat the calculations... and that goes for The Ergosphere as well. 
On that subject, EP, there's been something that's bothered me about your post on energy requirements a few weeks ago, and that is that you start your analysis with the amount of energy individual homes need, but you don't look into things like -- well, what do they do when they aren't home? Why, they're at work, of course, and that requires energy, too, and a lot of it. Which is to say, I think you ought to go back and revisit your calculations more holistically; start with the overall amount of energy consumed and work from that rather than looking at residential energy consumption and arrive at a (at the very least, potentially) misleading conclusion.
That's an excellent insight, Rob.

I didn't analyze the energy requirements of work because it's inherently complex and reliable conclusions difficult to reach.

Homes are relatively simple; people cook, watch TV, use their computers and so forth.  They heat water for their laundry, showers and hot tubs.  They use gas in the furnace and stove.  Work can cover everything from an outdoor tree nursery to a foundry.  Compared to analyzing the commercial/industrial sector niche by niche, homes are a piece of cake.

One other thing I didn't look at in "what side" is how much energy is actually required for a given purpose, rather than what's currently used.  Rebuild a house (or commercial building) with SIPs, optimize climate control, use light tubes or fiber optics to cut electric requirements.... By the time you were done, how much of the 36% of primary energy that goes to buildings could you eliminate?  A lot, and that would have come off the top in that analysis.

But that wasn't my goal either.  Stanton had taken a certain figure for per-capita energy consumption (equivalent to 230 tons wood/year), based on his own figures.  His calculations are unrealistic, coming out to 98 kW/capita continuous; in contrast, the USA's 100 quad/yr consumption spread out over 280 million people is a mere 12 kW of primary energy.  European lifestyles use even less, and could be made far more efficient with today's technology.

I don't analyze some things because I haven't the time or the patience.  If you do, more power to you.  I try to make sure that my conclusions are valid and useful within their domain.
"On Bullshit" indeed. I recommend everyone read Harry Frankfurt's book to get EP's complete message here.
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