Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Electric Koolaid, The Acid Test

Electric, electric, electric. Goodness gracious great googly-moogly balls of electrons! Onward electro-soldiers marching as to war. Somehow, saints presarve us, the advent of the electric car has somehow morphed into what is shaping up, in the progressive eco-weltanshaung, as one of the signal moral issues of the age. At every turn of the media wheel the electric vehicle seems to advance as not merely a panacea for AGW but also in having its severe limitations characterized as necessary penance for the historically criminal depredations of the reviled internal combustion engine.

It's old news by now that Progressivedom is utterly besotted by the alleged looming catastrophes caused by nasty old human beans and that any alternative to the equally nasty infernal hydrocarbon burner is viewed as a potential savior. So electrics are about to have their day in the sun. And it will be a very bright day which will require ridiculously expensive sunglasses. Several manufacturers are promising to have all electric product out over the next couple of years and why not? The meedja, technological doofuses that they in large part are, seem determined to act as public relations flacks for such product. Some tutting is heard over the high cost of these products but one gets the impression that those who might actually be able to afford one of these wallet busting electro-toys should be considered eco-traitors if they don't buy one.

Over and over is heard the refrain that whatever operational defects an electric car might have, and they are legion, that "fuel" will be a cheap proposition. An electric motor is a much more efficient device compared to an ICE in respect to what percentage of its fuel is converted into useful work. Conventional engines hover around 40% whereas electric motors convert around 90% of their input into work. This sounds like a slam-dunk win for the zap-mobiles but is it? It is true that the cost of the juice to move a vehicle a mile is quite a bit less than the pump cost of the same amount of 87 octane bang-water. It is equally true that huge industrial infrastructures are in place to deliver both electricity and motor fuel and that they are of a similar magnitude. If infrastructure cost is a wash then the primary factor in electricity's seeming advantage is that power companies buy truly vast amouts of fuel, frequently on long term contracts, which results in a far lower cost per kilowatt hour delivered to the consumer than is possible for gasoline which is purchased retail a few gallons at a time at the local Stop & Rob. And yes gasoline delivers the equivalent of kilowatt hours as it is burned.

The question then, for the more analytical eco-warrior at least, is whether electric or gas vehicle power results in the actual burning of fewer pounds of hydrocarbons per actual mile driven. This is what should concern the noisy advocates of electric power and not how much it will cost the consumer to get down the road although this fact is certainly part of the present soft sell. Finding out such information is not easy and believe me I've tried. Tellingly electro-advocates do not trumpet such information and I suspect it has little to do with how available it is but rather how disadvantageous the comparision with gas power is in reality.

Instead, with a nod, a wink, and a head fake we are blithely assured that the stupendous additional amounts of electrical energy needed for any putatively sizable plug-in fleet can easily be accomodated by a head-long, cost be double-damned, bugger the nay-sayers gigantic increase in wind and solar power. Funny thing though. After several decades of wind and solar power development, increasing to near frantic levels in the past decade, their combined contribution to the nation's energy needs has reached an essentially irrelevant one percent. To increase that percentage to relevant levels will require many thousands of multi-million dollar wind turbines and/or thousands of square miles of solar cells and several trillion dollars. Which of course we have laying around now in massive unused dollar heaps since the federal government has been so parsimoniously judicious in handling the economy.

The possible cheapness of EV fuel aside very few advocates of alternative transport methods make the claim that the public will actually save money by employing them. In fact to many if not most alternative fuel activists the mere mention of economic viability is considered extremely bad form. Any condideration of filthy lucre whatever is seen as a near criminal "distraction" from the holy mission of saving the planet and any public pushback on the issue stirs calls for more intensive "education" of the obstreperous petit-bourgeosie. Indeed the breaking of the bank, and the back, of the criminally wasteful western lifestyle is not seen as lamentable by-product but rather as a laudable goal in itself.

The need for additional electrical energy in this, and most countries for that matter, will increase no matter how many environmental tantrums the political class may throw. No prodigies of conservation, period, will alter this fact and neither will that fact be altered by exhortations, however strident, of wanting society to return to some allegedly halcyon juice-less era such as the 19th century. Not gonna happen bunky, not even if the seas rise a thousand feet and the average temp in Reykjavik is the same as in Phoenix today. The need for juice will only increase whether or not the wildest catastrophic fever dreams of climate-change hysterics come to pass. Even if, contrary to AGW hysteria, the climate actually cools in the next century the need for more electricity will relentlessly increase. The developing world in particular will drive the increase regardless of the self-righteous bleatings of Malthusian garment-renders who would deny them the privilege in the holy cause of defeating AGW.

So where's the voltage going to come from to run our lappity tops, high SEER fridges, HD flat-screens, and our oh so au courant cruncy green juice-mobiles? Those who think that blanketing the entire midwest in 400 foot tall wind turbines or covering Arizona in solar cells will be our saving grace are not part of, as progressives style it, the reality-based community. Neither will the need be met by ethanol, bio diesel, clean coal, wave generators, fuel cells or any other of the legion of "low impact" ideas that range from merely impractical to outright crackpottery. In the long run, in the decades and centuries from now long run, our electrical energy needs will only be realistically be met by large increases in the horrid N-word.

Nuclear energy, whether it be generated by current conventional fission means or the commercial development of fusion generation will be powering the 21st century and the centuries beyond until dilithium crystals or some other unimagined breakthrough occurs. This is the really real reality whether or not any given "community" is on board with the whole idea. Really large increases will be required along with huge expenditures but it is the only truly "renewable" energy source that will minimize, if certainly not eliminate, land use issues, power density issues, load response issues, and lastly but perhaps most importantly, grid reliability issues. Modern ultra-redundant fission reactor designs exist that should reduce to inconsequentiallity most safety concerns and self-sustaining breeder reactor designs that reduce or eliminate the past problems of such devices are already in use. Fusion reactors are a technological Gordian knot that may well be cut in the next few decades but their commercial viability will likely not come to pass before the middle of this century. Consequently self-sustaining super safe fission designs are the best medium-term bet. Interestingly those who seem enamored of all things Euro-centric somehow ignore or dismiss the French solution which is of course that they generate 80 percent of their electricity by nuclear means.

The whole nuclear waste issue has a far greater political dimension than a technological one with rampant NIMBYism being a severe operational constraint.
It remains to be seen if this societal revulsion will stand forever if the lappity tops and big-screens, not to mention the juice hungry EV chargers, begin to regularly brown-out. We'll see but at least nuclear energy is a proven reliable and low land use generation technology that requires no trapeze-act bets on its technological viability. One large nuke on a couple of hundred acres of land can generate as much or more power than a thousand giant wind turbines occupying hundreds of thousands of acres and it can do it when the sun don't shine and the wind don't blow. It may not be any cheaper on a kilowatt/hr. basis than any other method but on a kilowatt per acre basis it reigns supreme. Also as a complete system nuclear power's carbon footprint is about a low as is imaginable which should impress the AGW alarmist community a lot more than it apparently does although this may be starting to change.

If you count yourself among those forever adamantly opposed to nuclear power regardless of need then perhaps you should forego that shiny new electric vehicle that will serve only hasten the day when nuclear energy must inevitably prevail.

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