Among the many issues facing us today is the cost of personal transportation. To a large extent, modern American manufacturing was built largely on making cars and all the steel, carpet, glass and all the other products that are required in a car. Interestingly, the electronics sector of our economy, far bigger than automotive, has increased it’s contribution to the modern automobile, but that’s another topic.
There is a lot of material being published about our use of cars and our dependence on foreign oil. Oil and Gas companies made the decision some years ago that it was cheaper to send tankers of gasoline refined on foreign soil than to ship the crude oil and refine it here. That was the beginning of the current problem. Now after many years of disuse, our refining capacity has been mothballed. What you don’t hear much about is the fact that a lot of that capacity can be brought back within a year by recomissioning old plants. Yes, new plants are needed. Yes, in the short term we need to drill for oil.
But the really strange discussion is around the energy equivalency of various conservation techniques, and the number of barrels of foreign oil that it will save. Most of the time, these equivalencies are purely theoretical. The only thing that will save barrels of foreign oil is more fuel efficient cars and driving less. And by the way, American consumers have been demanding higher efficiency cars since the first Oil Embargo in 1974 when I bought my first Moped and my wife and I went to school and back on a gallon of gasoline a week. Anything else is a political statement, and one that should really be ignored.
It is dis-information to say that using compact flourescent light bulbs is the equivalent of so many barrels of crude oil. Yes, there is an energy equivalence, but there is no direct connection between the two because light bulbs consume generated electricity. So there might be a valid statement about how many pounds of carbon dioxide the compact flourescent saves in our national energy picture based on emissions from coal fired power plants. But even that’s difficult to measure, what percentage of our national energy supply is nuclear? Doesn’t that mix require that we calculate the CFL bulb CO2 savings as a percentage of the fuel mix that goes into the national power supply?
Similarly it is a common to talk about the energy equivalence of a battery’s energy storage capacity compared to the energy density of gasoline. This too, while appearing to be very scientific and logical, is very lopsided. It ignores the fact that we are really talking about transportation. The proper context would be that an electric car has an efficiency of 80% to 95% of input energy converted to output of the moving vehicle and an internal combustion engine is only 25-40% efficient in converting gasoline’s stored energy to mechanical motion of the car. So comparing the energy density of gasoline with the energy density of batteries is out of context and misleading. And yes, batteries are still not where we need them to be. But the Lithium technology is a good first step, and it’s being aggressively engineered to improve density even further and bring costs down at the same time.
If the IRS allows 50.5 cents per mile, and the emerging electric cars cost .04 cents a mile to operate, that’s the real cost of technology comparison that counts.