Fossil Fuel Whack-A-Mole

“I believe strongly that this country has to get off oil … The electrification of the
automobile is inevitable.”

Bob Lutz, GM Vice-Chairman, in Newsweek magazine, 2007

“Our view is that oil production will peak in the near future. We need to develop power train(s) for alternative energy sources,” to “move beyond petroleum.”
Katsuaki Watanabe, President of Toyota, June 2008

Our pattern of dwelling in America would not be possible without the everywhere, anytime mobility of the automobile. The initial catalysts for our grand experiment with suburbia were abundant and cheap gasoline, the GI bill of 1944, and the vision of William Levitt who brought land outside of cites like New York and Philadelphia and constructed “towns” made of thousands of low cost homes. Levitt’s invention would be duplicated all across America and gradually devolve into the suburban sprawl, traffic jambs, and one hour commutes of the 21st century.

I spent my early childhood in a Southern California version of one of these post WWII developments. We lived amid thousands of homes laid out in military grid formation with wide asphalt streets, concrete sidewalks, and the occasional park and school. We ate 25¢ hamburgers at America’s first drive-in restaurants and fell asleep eating popcorn in the back of our family station wagon at the local drive-in theatre. Cars where central to our lives and Detroit was still king of the automotive world. Like a Paris fashion event, the annual introduction of new car models was exciting news and we all looked forward to how our nation’s car designers would drape and color the latest in sheet metal fashion for America’s showrooms. Everyone in the neighborhood could play “name the make, model, and year of that car” and when a new model arrived in someone’s driveway, we all gathered around to admire and compare.

However, today the shine is off the Studebaker. Levitt & Sons has gone bankrupt. A victim of overreach and the sub-prime mortgage crisis. What’s left of the Detroit auto industry is hemorrhaging cash as they scramble to survive in a $130 per barrel, SUV killing world. In an effort to save our vast investment in suburbia and our automotive lifestyle major auto companies and a few entrepreneurial startups are designing and beginning to promote plug-in hybrid, all electric, compressed air, and hydrogen fuel cell cars as the answer to rising gas and diesel prices.

I have to question whether we will just transition painlessly to the next generation “power train” or will this new autopia be a game of fossil fuel whack-a-mole before we have to face up to to the unsustainable reality of suburbia? In the short term the answer is a tentative maybe as we navigate the two decades between today’s emerging crisis of peak oil and tomorrow’s crisis of peak coal.

Understanding and Comparing A New Generation of Automotive Power Trains
Nothing is free when it comes to energy and transportation, and all of these new automotive power trains will merely transfer the current demand for gasoline into a new demand for electricity. In America, that means we’ll be trading off oil against coal and natural gas which together comprise the base fuels for about 80% of our electrical capacity.

Electric, compressed air, and hydrogen cars often get promoted as super clean, zero emission, technologies and I still get the occasional email from friends who seem to think that the laws of thermodynamics have been suspended for these new technologies and that we’ll be driving around burning water for fuel.

The truth is that all of these new power trains will require fossil fuel inputs to get us to work and back. Electric and plug-in hybrid cars will depend on lithium ion batteries that will need to be plugged into the national electric grid every evening for a recharge. Air cars will depend on high pressure storage tanks of compressed air that will have to be re-pressurized every evening using electrical power. The one question that usually goes unasked and answered for hydrogen cars, is “where does the hydrogen come from?”. The unfortunate answer is that hydrogen will come from the electrolysis of water and that will require an energy input of either electric power or the burning of natural gas. In addition, after creating the hydrogen, much like air, it must be compressed to store enough usable energy for the fuel cells to convert hydrogen into DC electricity for the power train.

Although there are cost tradeoffs between the three options, based on the efficiency of converting electrical power into miles driven, lithium ion electric cars have a clear advantage. A study by the Institute for Lifecycle Environmental Assessment based on incorporating each of the three drive trains into the equivalent of a Ford Taurus gives the lithium ion technology a three to one advantage in miles per kwh of electrical input.

Based on electrical rates in Denver, and 18 miles/gallon for a Taurus, the “equivalent gallon” costs of all three technologies easily beats our current national average of over $4. However, when you compare the CO2 emissions, based on 1.8 lbs/kwh in Colorado, only the electrical car emits less greenhouse gas than the equivalent gasoline powered Taurus.

A Game of Fossil Fuel Whack-A-Mole?
We get about 60% of our electrical energy from coal and about 20% from natural gas. The good news is that coal plants, which provide most of our base load power, have excess capacity after about 10 PM at night, and ased on a study by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory that assumes plug-in hybrids gain a 50% market share by 2030, we’ll only need an additional 8 large power plants to meet that new electric car demand. The bad news is that if we plug in at 5 PM instead of 10 PM, we’ll need an additional 160 large power plants to meet demand.

In either case, we’ll be burning millions of tons of additional coal to power the electric, hybrid plug-in, compressed air, and hydrogen cars of the near future. In the process we’ll be driving up the cost of coal and electricity and hastening coal’s eventual depletion.

An October 2007 report by the Energy Watch Group estimates that we’ll be facing a world wide peak in the production of coal sometime around 2030. This study does NOT factor in a new generation of automotive power trains that rely on electricity. Since electrical power generation is the primary end use of coal, this peak in coal production will only move closer.

I agree with Bob Lutz that “the electrification of the automobile is inevitable”, but if we think coal is the answer then we’re just playing a pathetic energy endgame of Fossil Fuel Whack-A-Mole.

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2 responses to “Fossil Fuel Whack-A-Mole

  1. Well I think the fossil fuels are already going to be over very soon. So we do have to look for the substitute. And hydrogen is the biggest alternative the mankind has, that leaves no pollution and is cost effective.

  2. Thanks for your comment Aparana,

    I agree that fossil fuels are nearly over with respect to automobiles, but hydrogen is not a fuel, it’s more like a storage medium that fuel cells can act on to generate DC electricity. It’s true that there are no tail pipe emissions from a “hydrogen powered” car, but there are emissions from the power plants that will be used to generate hydrogen via electrolysis and from the compressor’s used to fill a storage tank with liquid hydrogen. If that input energy of electrical power comes from a coal plant, a hydrogen car can actually pollute more than an equivalent gasoline engine car. If it comes from a renewable source like wind or solar, then we have a beautiful marriage, but even then a battery powered car will be more efficient in terms of converting that energy into miles/km driven.

    John

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