An End To Fuelishness

There is a great deal of debate today about how we should power our cars. Most recognize by now that the petro-diet we’ve been on is unsustainable in the long run. It’s hazardous to the environment, and given America’s dependence on foreign oil, it’s also impoverishing our country. But while gasoline may have lost it’s luster in the eyes of social planners, there are many champions of liquid fuel champing at the bit to take its place. I am here to argue that a major key to our energy future lies in spurning them all, and moving straight to electricity. It’s time to put an end to fuelishness!

We should look to abandon liquid fuels in general. For one thing, they’re socially regressive. They make us dependent on the powerful minority that delivers the fuel. We will all pay extra at the pump for empowering a new generation of fuel masters. Liquid fuels also require distribution systems which are enormously expensive to build and maintain. In the case of hydrogen, the existing system of refineries and gas stations is largely useless. A new system would have to be built at huge expense. Who would ultimately be asked to foot that bill? Ordinary customers, that’s who! Biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel pose fewer infrastructure problems. But all forms of liquid fuel require wasting huge amounts of energy simply to move the stuff around where people can use it. Then there’s the safety question. Is it really a good idea to mix fleets of gas trucks with normal passenger traffic? That’s an issue ethanol can only make worse, as it ignites more easily than gasoline.

Many who recognize the problems of hydrogen will argue for various biofuels. But biofuels have their own problems. Using corn to produce ethanol may be great for corn farmers, but it’s not going to solve our energy dilemma. Growing corn is itself a fossil fuel intensive process. So the net energy payback from ethanol isn’t good. According to Cornell University scientist David Pimentel, it takes 1.3 gallons of oil to produce one gallon of Ethanol! Ethanol also diverts land from food production and is already driving up food prices. Switch grass is a better alternative than corn, but with the potential exception of algae, all methods of making biofuel will require huge tracts of land to supply a significant portion of current energy demand.

Changes in land use inspired by biofuel initiatives are increasingly raising alarm with climate change activists. Brazilians have cut down huge sections of the Amazon rain forest to cultivate sugar cane for ethanol. Similarly, large areas of Asian peat lands are being converted to Palm oil plantations to make biofuels. Scientist are warning that these activities may release many times more carbon into the atmosphere than will be saved by the modest greenhouse gas improvement ethanol provides. Fixing our energy problem at the price of losing the war on global warming isn’t a road we can afford to take. Replacing gasoline with biofuels is not the answer to our problems.

As if these reasons weren’t enough, engines powered by liquid fuels are incapable of running efficiently. Heat Engines, which is what combustion engines are, are doomed by basic thermodynamic laws to be inefficient at normal temperatures. The only environment in which heat engines can be truly efficient is far too cold for humans to survive. Gasoline, ethanol, biodiesel, natural gas–it doesn’t matter. They are all doomed to be wasteful. In practice, combustion engine vehicles succeed in using less that a third of their fuel energy to produce motion. The rest goes out the radiator, tailpipe, or is bled off as waste heat. This is a matter of basic scientific law, and beyond debate. As a result no strategy aimed at achieving real energy efficiency can survive the widespread use of combustion engines. The same is true of any strategy which hopes to defeat global warming. If we are truly serious about fixing these problems, we need to end our reliance on the combustion engine. It’s that simple.

Electricity is the solution to our energy problem. The development of batteries capable of driving a generation of electric cars Americans can be happy with is well underway. Nanotechnology is in the process of radically extending the range of electric cars with batteries that can recharge in a few minutes. Unlike biofuels, electric cars don’t produce 80% of gasoline’s emissions: they have ZERO emissions! While heat engines are stuck well under 50% efficiency, a well maintained electric car can be 90% efficient. As Intel’s founder Andy Grove points out, electricity will also provide a unique flexibility in handling our energy problems. It can be produced from many sources, including solar and wind. It can be transmitted with virtually instant speed across the landscape. Unlike hydrogen or natural gas, we won’t have to completely rebuild our delivery system to accommodate electric cars. The national electric grid as it exists today is already capable of moving us in the right direction. Yes, the grid will need to be augmented as electric demand grows. But there’s no reason this can’t happen in an orderly fashion in the years to come. Current initiatives by the fledgling Obama administration are already beginning to lay the groundwork for the smart grid of the future.

To replace liquid fuels, the electric game plan will rely on a bridge technology called the hybrid car, a type of vehicle which combines a traditional gas engine with a rechargeable electric storage system. Hybrids have existed for some years, and are currently manufactured by several companies. Hybrids use several techniques to extend gas mileage, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the process. The plug-in hybrid, which owners can recharge at home, represents the next step, leading eventually to the all electric car. Over the coming years, this progression will provide a clear path traditional car manufacturers can take to help us evolve an electric future.

During this period there will be many temptations to extend our long reliance on liquid fuels. But it is critical that we not allow ourselves to be distracted from the goal of an electric future. In order to fend off catastrophic climate change, there can be no place for widespread use of liquid fuels. Either we stop dumping massive amounts of carbon dioxide in the sky, or we will pass on a sickened planet to our children. The electric car is the one way for us all to keep driving and avoid that outcome. The alternative is catastrophe.

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