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Energy and Efficacy

The subject of electrification is one rife with controversy. As the society of today fractures over the concept, the society of tomorrow suffers as a result. The two main camps are these: those who wish for all perceivably carbon based energy forms to be banned in favor of exclusively non carbon energy generation, and those who wish to keep the world running as it has been with the immensely vast carbon based resources the planet has to offer. A specific set of buzz words may be coming to mind now for you, words that I want you to discard. The scope of this article is not to appeal to some arbitrary moral high ground as it related to carbon based fuels. Nor is it to discuss/dispute their current impact on the environment as that in end of itself is rife with controversy and deserves to be covered more thoroughly a future article. The goal of this article however is to highlight a few things that both sides tend to ignore, and speculate on a few solutions that don’t require agreement on either of the previous two points.

In virtually every energy discussion I see the topic that gets all major attention is energy creation, namely on how to replace existing infrastructure which relies to a high degree on carbon based methods of energy conversion. All manor of ideas from civilian carbon taxes to government control of the energy sector have been proposed in the past, but why focus strictly on energy generation? As is evidenced countless times in the human history, as the ability to harness and use energy in an environment occurred a leap forward for civilization and standard of living followed. Most importantly, not once in all of history have humans gone from a more energy dense innovation to a less dense energy innovation. Progress moves forward and to try and budge the needle the other way with the pitifully small returns of energy solar and others offer only weakens the nation that attempts it and lowers the quality of living for the citizens who reside in it. While the crusade against carbon is rooted in good intentions ultimately it is doomed to fail without innovation.

Having sufficiently emphasized the fact that the immediate removal of all carbon based energy is as absurd as it is reasonably impossible, permit me to direct your attention to something based in innovation that can actually be implemented outside of both sides’ arguments: Efficiency. Consider the following example: You, a normal person with a normal job, have to commute an average of 50 kilometers (31.07 miles) using a vehicle to get to work every day. Assuming you get an average fuel economy of 10km (6.2 miles) to the litre, you get an average round trip that uses roughly 10 litres (2.64 gallons) and a carbon emission per day of 23.1 kilograms (50.9 pounds). Assuming you have the same 5 day work week as most western countries do and a that weekly tally becomes 115.5kg (254.6lbs). Extrapolate this out over a year, add in leisure activities, and multiply that by the roughly 250 million who drive cars in the EU and the 228 million who drive in the USA and you begin to see the issue being disputed. Now take that same person and place them in an electric car. Assuming an electrical expenditure of 0.16 kilowatt hour per kilometer (0.26 kwh per mile), that same trip consumes 16kwh round trip.

Now here is where a major schism forms between the arguments of carbon and non carbon energy. The two primary arguments against this electrification of automotive are: the expense of electric cars for limited functionality, and the fact that presently even an electric car is powered by carbon still via the electrical grid of many nations. The first one is a fading problem with innovation as developments such as Sulphur based batteries begin to replace the Cobalt of current industry standard. It is for the time being though still a valid argument as the technology is not fully realized and efforts to force people to migrate will do nothing but hurt those who simply cannot afford them. The second argument however is different. I believe it falls into the category of a Straw Man Fallacy, wherein those arguing the point of electric cars still using carbon are misrepresenting it and therefore miss some of the potential benefits.

Assuming the issue of electric car affordability gets solved let’s take our example from before and continue to build on it. For the sake of argument we will assume you do indeed get your electricity from a carbon based plant. The aforementioned 16kwh trip using coal powered generation creates 0.94 kg (2.07 lbs) of carbon emissions. If you compare that to our previous number you’ll see just how stark the difference is. The electric car is vastly more efficient regardless of the source of the electricity.

Let’s take this another step. The calculations above just count the emissions of a vehicle that has already been fueled. We all know though that for conventional cars one has to fuel up at a station, and how does that fuel get to said station? You guessed it, another even bigger vehicle. Your average tanker truck can hold roughly 34069L (9000 gal) of a normal petroleum product and has an efficiency rate of about 3219 kilometers (2000mi) to the tank (1136/L, 300/gal). In simpler terms it yields us a kilometers to the litre of 0.095/km, or roughly 7/mi per gallon used. Our carbon expenditure for a full tank on this truck is a staggering 3044.48kg (6711.929lbs) being released into the atmosphere. Factor the fraction of fuel you bought that originated from said truck at a station. Your efficiency goes down even farther and the fully realized emissions increase.

Taking this yet another step farther we can consider the vehicle itself. No engine is 100% efficient at energy conversion at the present. Your average gasoline engine gets about 12-30% efficiency when it comes to converting the fuel into actual mechanical power for your wheels. Compare that to the over 70% efficiency of EVs. On every step of the journey for fuel you are losing efficiency. You lose efficiency by having to transport it, a physical object, to the station using another fuel powered vehicle. You lose more having to go to fuel your vehicle up. Even if you stop on your way somewhere that slight detour is still losing efficiency. Then on top of all of that you have the engine itself yielding only a fifth to a third of the energy you give to it returned to you as the desired mechanical energy and motion. Inefficiency after inefficiency after yet another inefficiency.

Now the point of this article comes into focus. An area often completely overlooked in the war to fix the system is the inefficiencies in the system itself. Instead of focusing on the pointless and often ill received methods of radically changing the system turn your attention and minds to what can be done without infighting or inflicting the will of one group over the wellbeing of others. Instead of trying to uproot and start over we can instead optimize and hasten the transition.

A more astute reader may be asking themselves “but aren’t EVs still powered by carbon based power plants?” You would be quite correct, but that only strengthens my case. You see, unlike fuel which is a physical object with actual mass, electricity is without mass. According to these estimates the power that comes to your home gets there with over 90% efficiency, dwarfing that same metric for our petroleum hauling truck. Even if the power station is indeed carbon based the 70+% efficiency of the EV as well as the aforementioned transport efficiency can dramatically improve our overall performance, and therefore lower our emissions. Factor in that virtually every carbon based plant gets its fuel by train (x9 less energy per kilo/pound as opposed to trucks) and you overall have dramatically improved your emissions while simultaneously not causing rolling energy blackouts in order to meet your goals.

We can do even better though. With recent breakthrough technology it appears the world is on the cusp of room temperature superconductivity. The potential of this technology alone is so immense I can hardly begin to explain all of the ramifications it will have if and when it is produced and used en mass. For those who are uninitiated, superconductivity is when a material can transport electrons with 100% efficiency. Room temperature superconductivity would allow for things once in the realm of impossibilities to become reality. It would completely eradicate the inefficiency of transporting energy to your home and EV. The existing power generation could power multiple times what they currently service as that energy would no longer be lost. Novel concepts like hyperloop technologies could be powered effectively and cheaply, to the point they would dethrone traditional railways for the title of most efficient way of transport for goods and people (raising the efficiency of carbon electrical plants even more). Computers and daily electronics when fully integrated may see stark battery life improvements. I could write an entire article about the benefits of this singular technology and still not begin to scratch its potential.

In closing I want to yet again stress that the idea of electrification is impractical without carbon free electricity generation is a fallacy. I will also stress that both governmental mandating of transitioning energy and the forcing offline of carbon based energy generation while no alternative exists is as idiotic as it is socially tone deaf and economically unviable. The middle ground is clear though: focus on electrification, improve the efficiency of the system, lower carbon generated. In a forthcoming piece I intend to explore viable replacements of hydrocarbons and share thoughts on the future but to do anything with that information one must first reassess their own views and learn to think critically about how to get to an end goal. Taking a parlance from personal financing, you can’t pay off debts overnight. You have to word towards that goal, taking slow steps along the way that snowball into the end result of being financially free. The same goes for hydrocarbons. A debt accrued over three generations is not one that can be paid off overnight. It will take time, concessions, and natural progress in science being utilized instead of mandated as this paper lays out clearly. The future is coming and it can be a lot brighter than people think, pun intended.