Posted: Mon, February 25, 2013 | By: Zeev Kirsch
Imagine if a policy of embracing Unbelievably Cheap Electricity was not only necessary but sufficient to bring about a dramatic electrification of America’s electric powerline infrastructure. Imagine a sustained and dramatic increase in the supply of electricity that could result in dramatically lower electricity prices. Imagine that coal, with the existing help of natural gas, and nuclear power, could make electricity prices drop so far and for so long that Wall Street, the captains of industry, and finance, had no choice but to drop their plans and and invest just about all their surplus capital into a massive Build Out of the electrical distribution infrastructure, electric automotive and truck manufacturing infrastructure, battery manufacturing infrastructure, and of course spend some of their capital towards scrapping old internal combustion engine factories.
Cheap electricity isn’t a dream of the future. It existed in the past before it was stripped from us. Before the coal industry was decimated prior to the Obama Administrations’ war on coal and the natural gas industries explosive growth of fracking that arose in conjunction with a policy that drove up electricity prices by killing coal, electricity was substantially cheaper, and more widely available. Despite all the environmental ‘progress’ that switching from coal to natural gas has yielded, electricity prices have continued to rise rapidly in the U.S. and electricity supply has not increased in any dramatic fashion. Arguably it has contracted in the last 5 years since Obama has taken office.
Now imagine the nightmare of expensive electricity we are now suffering from could be banished with the stroke of a pen. Imagine hundreds of massive dirty smokestacks that are currently dormant or decommissioned all around America being retrofitted with expensive scrubbers and put back online to burn coal. Imagine the environmental movement did something it never thought possible, embracing coal, liquid and gas fossil fuels, and nuclear fuels, as a means towards getting rid of the internal combustion engine and the entire petroleum cartel that rides on its back. Imagine that the leaders and trend-setters of the environmental movements finally acknowledged that you don’t kill an inefficient system by trying to fix it [fuel economy regulation] or making it feel bad [culture wars and Al Goreing the public]; you REPLACE an inefficient system by superior systems by promoting the proliferation of the superior system OVER the inefficient system.
What I am saying is that the electric motor has and continues to be the far more efficient system for delivering force to turn wheels than the internal combustion powered crankshaft can ever be. For this reason, the only way to push through the electrification of our transportation infrastructure, manufacturing base, and R&D cycles, is to promote a no-holds barred policy in support of electricity, at all costs, even the cost of a short term sacrifice of environmental goals and CO2 targets.
Could the environmentalists finally agree that shutting down the petroleum-based automotive industry was their primary goal and would thus justify embracing the ‘lie’ of clean coal, and then demanded Obama reopen West Virginia for business? Imagine that environmentalists actually introduced a new political platform that not only embraced building new coal fired electricity plants using the new scrubber technology (paid for by the public) but that they also demanded the simultaneous build out of more natural gas, nuclear power and hydropower plants all in the name of a coordinated policy of radically lowering electricity prices. Imagine if these same environmentalists demanded this was paid with an increased federal tax on gasoline. Finally, imagine that environmentalists encouraged all welfare recipients of working age in this country to work in the construction industry to help build out all these electricity generation plants, electrical transformer stations, high capacity power lines, etc….
This kind of grand plan does sound absurd, doesn’t it? Embracing the use of electricity seems to be a ridiculous notion unless that electricity is made by the sun or wind at ten times the cost of free market , ‘externalized cost’ [code for the fact that is is polluting], fossil fuel electricity. So, why even mention this pointless hypothetical?
Why? Because I love electric cars and electric bicycles. I have driven both and they are quiet, smooth riding, reliable and fun. I am not the only one who thinks so. Tesla Motors, funded by Elon Musk, is in the business of successfully persuading people to feel the same way I do, and they have succeeded so far, albeit in the niche market and on a small level with a limited number of wealthy purchasers.
Recently there has been a lot of hubbub about Tesla Motors getting a bad review from a New York Times reporter. Part of this hype and fake controversy is rooted in the large stock valuations and trading patterns of Tesla stock. However, when it comes to the actual story of Tesla, not to mention the Nissan Leaf and the plugin electric vehicle industry at large - the truth is much different than the hype of mass media. Even in the most rosy estimates, electrification of most people’s transportation options is not going to become affordable at a mass scale anytime soon. Meaning, it is highly unlikely we will see anywhere near 10% of all cars being fully electric plugin vehicles in the next 20 years.
Why? For all the hoopla about electric cars there is a real problem with them. The United States, and every other industrialized country, does not make nearly enough electricity for even 10% of transportation-vehicle miles to be driven using electricity pulled off the grid. This grid includes all the solar roof panels that can barely provide enough power to get your car to work once a week at a cost competitive with gasoline.
Consider that this story is in part due to the fact that electricity prices have skyrocketed in response to a lack of supply, while gasoline prices have spiked moderately due to Wall Street and gasoline supplies are at a decade long high. It wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time about six years ago, everyone was screaming about peak oil and the dirty old coal demon. Why did this change?
I will leave the petroleum story aside and focus on the fact that government has shut down coal power plants and restricted their usage in a manner never done before. The result? More expensive forms of electricity sources have filled in; namely natural gas and nuclear power. Solar and wind have made inroads but are still essentially in the permanent position of playing catchup for the next few decades. They are not and will not be dominant sources of energy in the next coming decade or two because of inertia.
Indeed, when you look at the rapid growth in wind and solar power that followed upon the heels of Kill Coal initiatives, you are left realizing that the Coal regulation and intentional undercutting of cheap and plentiful sources of electricity may well have been effectuated to make room for solar and wind power investment which would otherwise not be profitable due to cheap electricity. The next big ‘sale’ the current government regime is pushing forward is carbon credits, another tampering that will inevitably raise prices of electricity by limiting the supply of that electricity produced by the cheapest solid fossil fuel source - coal.
Ironically, you may even be aware that while we are decommissioning our coal industries plants and properties, countries like China are literally choking on their own smog as they race to build and open a few new coal plants every week. Why? In order to provide cheap electricity to power the factories in which they produce our solar panels and wind turbines. Manufacturing of these industrial goods requires a lot of electricity, and that electricity is coming from coal, albeit Chinese Coal.
This, however is not the entire picture of why the West is failing to rapidly electrify its transportation network.
In juxtaposition to the western pursuit of expensive electricity in the name of ‘clean air’ that is itself filled with petroleum fuel smog, China is rapidly decreasing the cost of its own electricity for residential consumption, industrial production, for lighting their cities and yes, you guessed it, even for their transportation. China is the most advanced electric transportation country in the world. How could this be? While the promise of electric cars has been dangled out as a decades long promise in the West, China has been busy manufacturing, selling, and using tens of millions of electric pedal bicycles and dedicated electric scooters for over half a decade now. Estimates are that over 50 million people world-wide (most in china) are riding on Chinese electric scooters and bicycles. The electric bicycle functions as a light electric scooter that possesses a backup capacity for pedaling, should the batteries run out mid-trip.
Coincidentally, I live in New York City, and electric bicycles have all but taken over the bicycle package and restaurant delivery food segment. Electric bicycles are the norm now. And it only took about ten years for this massive transition to occur - the very first electric bicycles appeared on the streets of New York circa 2003-2004.
Take note that the Chinese government never encouraged the electric bicycle trend directly, rather, it evolved out of a combination of cheap electricity available for batteries, a rapidly increasing demand for dedicated urban vehicles throughout China’s sprouting cities’, and finally, from the relatively high petroleum prices facing Chinese consumers.
The nutshell here is that in China, gas is expensive and cars are expensive but scooters are cheap and electricity is cheap and the roads are crowded. The notoriously laisse faire, yet authoritarian, Chinese society has led humanity to one of its first true exponential transitions toward electrification of transportation. (It doesn’t hurt that Chinese society was accustomed to commuting by bicycle for fifty years prior to the meteoric rise of China in the last 2 decades.)
Are you unimpressed with China’s accomplishments because electric scooters cannot do what electric cars do? There is merit in this objection. China’s electrical system, their electrical lines and grid certainly are not able to supply the amount of electricity needed to power a massive society-sized fleet of electric cars, nor do they have the transformers and charging infrastucture to rapidly build out a huge electric car industry. However, there is a small seed of growth in electric cars in china just as there is in the USA, particularly in the taxi and fleet vehicle segment. However, the exponential growth pattern that the electric scooters/bicycle industry enjoys remains to be copied in the electric auto industry. Will it happen in China first? Or will it first happen in the West?
Without a massive build out of electricity generation plants, higher power lines, transformer stations, and charging stations themselves capable of delivering multiple 30kw DC charging lines (potentially to supply electric trucks one day as well), neither China nor the West will be experiencing an exponential growth in their electric-auto sector. Transitioning from petroleum to electricity-fueled transportation will continue to be decades beyond our reach.
No matter what happens, there are many moving pieces in establishing the economic feedback loop that leads towards this desired electrification tipping point. There is a chicken-or-the-egg element in the relationship between mass adoption of electric vehicles and mass supplies of cheap high voltage electricity. However, one of the very primary obstacles towards accelerating this feedback loop are the rules that prevent coal and nuclear plants from producing unlimited amounts of electricity at whatever price-points they want. The government may want to protect the atmosphere from coal, but in doing so, it is ensuring our vehicles, trucks, and trains will burn petroleum fuels for the extended future.
I am writing this article because I do not think the battery technology for mass adoption of electric vehicles is ‘not there yet’. I also do not think we lack the technology for building out our infrastrucuture of charging stations and electric power lines. If anything we arguably lack the political will to force through a level 3 charging standard winner. For those of you who are unfamiliar, high voltage high speed charging stations have yet to agree on a standard plug format and are now suffering from the same problem as the cell phone industry did before the Samsung and Apple plugs because the 2 standard plug/chargers available on all phones.
I am writing because I believe cheap plentiful electricity can exist again and must exist again as it is the only path forward, away from the internal combustion motor and the petroleum industry that goes with it. Our short-sighted, somewhat foolish, Western environmentalist movements have focussed on the wrong goals - instead of promoting a plan to quickly push the entire USA auto fleet off petroleum fuels in the next 15 years, they’ve pursued an agenda against cheap electricity because they demonize the fuels that generate electricity.
While Tesla and Nissan are busy convincing the public that Level 3 fast charging (about 10 times faster than level 2) is ‘just’ around the corner, they are neglecting to mention what would ever happen if even a small amount of drivers started regularly filling up on pure synthetic lightning instead of gasoline. What would happen is the cost of electricity, of transportation fuel for electric vehicles, would skyrocket. Case in point—-Estonia’s recent experience with rapid electrification.
A plan to electrify even 10% of the U.S. automotive fleet within ten years requires that the costs of electricity must be cratered. This can only happen by embracing ALL forms and sources of electricity. This includes nuclear, coal, natural gas and all other sources of electricity. Investment in solar, wind, and alternative forms of clean renewable energy do not necessarily need to suffer under this regime. The buildout of solar and wind can continue alongside a resurgence of coal IF the entire pie is growing and more demand for electricity results from more purchases of electric vehicles. A simultaneous buildout of the powerlines and charging infrastructure could make this happen. This situation could be a win-win for everyone but the Petroleum Industry.
So where does this lead us? To the conclusion that the promise of smog free cities devoid of internal combustion engine fumes from cars and trucks is incompatible with the promise of ridding ourselves of fossil-fueled electrical plants, particularly big coal. More specifically, it is incompatible with the fairy tale that even half of our electricity will be produced by solar and wind energy, when that fairy tale relies upon the suppression of coal and nuclear energy as well as the introduction of carbon taxes upon natural gas.
I’m all for the investment in solar and wind technologies. But if the policy of requiring mass adoption of solar and wind power comes with the price-tag of killing king coal, it will necessarily kill the electric car. If you ask who killed the electric car, and you answer that the petroleum industry did it, you might wonder if they figured out that one good way to push their agenda was to push you into believing that Lie - that killing coal was 100% a good idea for the environment. It is not.
Electric cars will help the environment because one day, when and if over 15% of cars on the road are fully electric vehicles, Americans will finally realize that the transition off the internal combustion engine is not only extremely profitable for the first world, but also, it is an entirely necessary step towards the eventual transition off ALL fossil fuels.