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January 19, 2007

Driving in The Wind

According to the US Department of Energy, 44% of the petroleum used in this country in 2005 ended up as motor (as opposed to aviation) gasoline. About 20% is used as diesel fuel.  Net imports accounted for 60% of the petroleum used that year!  If all our cars and all our trucks stopped using petroleum products, we’d be exporting petroleum – obviously not gonna happen for a while but this is the sector to target if we want the economic and strategic benefits of energy independence.

If whatever replaces petroleum as a transportation energy source substantially reduces CO2 emissions, that’s a big added benefit given that there’s a reasonable chance that the recent acceleration in global warming has at least a partial anthropogenic cause.

If you ignore capital cost, electricity is already a far cheaper way to run a car – even a very powerful car like the Tesla Roadster in yesterday’s post – than gasoline.  Trouble is that you can’t ignore capital costs; the Tesla cost almost $93,000 but saves at most $10,000 in fuel costs going 100,000 miles at today’s prices for gas and electricity.

But lets assume that mass production of electric cars, motors, and batteries will bring this cost down; the remaining obstacle is infrastructure.  The Tesla has to be plugged in for three and a half hours after 250 miles, not very good on a trip.  And, we have to ask, where’s this extra electricity going to come from and how’s it going to get where it’s needed?

Let’s start with the easy part: backbone distribution. We already have an electric power grid.  Presumably car batteries would be charged mainly at night.  The grid is just loafing after the daytime peak so the capacity for delivering kilowatts to cars at night is already there! Where additional capacity IS required, the economics of building that capacity are improved by smoothing out the daily use and allocating the fixed cost over better daily usage.

Part of the last mile distribution, at least in my fantasy, is Park n’ Charge. The parking space you already pay for is also equipped to top off your batteries (for a fee).  The fee is much higher during the day than at night, however.

Tougher problem:  you want to go more than 250 miles in a single trip in your car.  My prediction is that, when your batteries run low, you’ll pull into an “exchange station.”  In about the time it takes now to fill your tank with gas, your depleted batteries will be replaced with full ones and you’ll be charged for the net difference in charge.  We’ll feel the same way about the snapin, snapout battery pack as that we do about the propane tanks we routinely exchange rather than refilling.

The exchange stations will be attached to the electric grid and will recharge the battery packs, mainly at night.

Generation: our most expensive electricity is what we generate on-peak when lots of auxiliary fossil fuel capacity kicks in.  More off-peak demand will first use the cheapest and most environmentally friendly) electricity.  The economics both of building more nuclear power pants AND modern coal plants with carbon sequestration are improved by increasing off-peak demand.  Look Ma, no petroleum.  And not much CO2 either.

And then there’s that windmill from Costco for just $2000. With an average 12mph wind it’s supposed to provide 100KWH hours/month.  At five miles per KWH, that’s five hundred “free” miles per month.  Seriously, charging car batteries is an excellent use for wind and solar energy.  Since both these sources are sporadic in much of the country, their energy output can’t be depended on for baseline use and has to be stored.  In the future the cost of the batteries to store wind and solar energy will be in the cost of cars.  If the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, we still have the power plants attached to our grid to provide the electricity to charge up with.

What about fuel cells?  Best way to think about them is as a competing battery technology.  Using electricity from the grid to recharge fuel cells by splitting hydrogen out of water may become the preferred was to pack electrons to go.

It’s easy to fantasize what a gas-less transportation system and associated infrastructure will look like.  It’ll be much harder to get from where we are to where we oughtta be. The chicken-and-egg problem is substantial.  Without electric cars, there’s no market for a recharging infrastructure. Without the infrastructure, the market for electric cars is restricted. Ironically developing countries like China and India have an easier time getting to a modern transportation infrastructure because they have so much less investment in petroleum-based transportation.

Transition’ll be the topic for a future post but glad to have your thoughts on it as comments now.

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