Houston, You’ve Got a Problem

This graphic represents what Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute think is a viable pathway to 0% oil use in the transportation sector.  It is part of the brilliant Reinventing Fire scheme “…for running a 158%-bigger U.S. economy in 2050 but needing no oil, no coal, and no nuclear energy.”  (I use Reinventing Fire as a textbook for my graduate class on clean tech.)

How do we get to zero oil use for transportation by 2050?  The main component of that compelling future is vehicle electrification.  What really fired me up this morning was reading the blockbuster review that the NY Times has just given the new Tesla Model S:  One Big Step for Tesla, One Giant Leap for E.V.’s.

Also, in reading a paper by Lovins yesterday – Proliferation, Oil, and Climate: Solving for Pattern – I was happy to learn that Deutsche Bank thinks that we are coming to “the end of the oil age.”  The DB paper, from three years ago, reports on a number of felicitous factors that point to the rapid uptake of electric vehicles throughout the world and says “…people tend to underestimate the tempo of change over the long-term, due to a bias towards perceiving and projecting linear rather than exponential growth/adoption functions, and frustration with the recent slow rate of progress. The dovetailing of circumstances enumerated above have given the transportation electrification dynamic a helpful shove, and we now seek the tipping point that will destroy gasoline demand and mark the end of the age of oil.”

One of the key steps in getting to the electrification of our surface transportation is perfecting the use of lighter-weight materials.  Lovins and Co. discuss this at length, noting the many felicitous properties of carbon composites, the same materials on which Boeing is relying to produce its revolutionary Dreamliner.

EV’s not only avoid the use of oil – a consummation devoutly to be wished for dozens of reasons (like price, war, pollution, etc, etc.) – but they are more efficient in every way than internal combustion engines.  As I wrote here last spring, the inherent gross inefficiency of the internal combustion engine surpasses even that of conventional thermal power plants.  About 5% of the energy in the fuel actually moves a typical automobile.  That’s a big incentive right there for prospective buyers of electric hybrids and pure electric vehicles.

The sober and smart folks at Pike Research predict that we’ll be selling nearly two million EV’s globally by 2020.  The Deutsche Bank folks predict that hybrids and electrics will compromise 20% of total world sales by 2020 and a whopping two thirds by 2030!

I had the pleasure of telling the folks at a “dialogue” sponsored by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers last year that I thought their investments might get stranded owing to demand destruction for oil.  As I wrote at DeSmogBlog a while back, there is a glaring paradox in the pursuit of tar sands oil and America’s drive to decarbonize energy.  Why use this noxious stuff at all when we’re trying to get off our addiction to oil?  Defense establishments in the US and the UK know the several threats that oil use imposes and are working to wean their operations from their dependence.

So, as I note above, Houston has got a problem.  Or, as the NY Times puts it in their review of the new Tesla:  “INSIDE TRACK: Step back, OPEC.”


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7 thoughts on “Houston, You’ve Got a Problem

  1. Great post, I promise I didn’t copy your title! This really does seem like the eleven hundred pound gorilla for the oil industry. Will they be able to continue to pollute and take risks in America without domestic demand for their products?

    The growth of digital technology has taught us how quickly our society can adapt to new trends that previously seemed remote or incremental, and electric cars are exactly the same. I’d like to see advances in battery technology next – with a major breakthrough there we really could say with some certainty that the internal combustion engine has had its day.

  2. Well, there’s the rub – batteries. The market responds to money. Hybrids and especially electric cars are simply expensive (regardless of the excitement at the NY Times). If you compare a conventional car with 40 mpg and $20,000 with a hybrid or electric at $40,000, the conventional car owner can buy 200,000 miles worth of fuel for the cost difference.
    Literally hundreds of not thousand of companies, universities and individuals are working on the battery problem to no avail so far.
    In simple terms this tells us that when fuel in the US is $8 a gallon Hybrids and electrics may make some sense, when fuel is $12 a gallon they will have an advantage and at $16 a gallon for fuel nobody will want a conventional car.

    • Kevin – The batteries have been and will be improving. The weight of the cars will be coming down. The charging infrastructure is being built out – globally. To quote, again, from the Deutsche Bank paper: “…people tend to underestimate the tempo of change over the long-term, due to a bias towards perceiving and projecting linear rather than exponential growth/adoption functions, and frustration with the recent slow rate of progress.” It sounds like you’re frustrated too. But we are in liftoff and will be hitting the stratosphere before you know it. As we go up with the technology, the prices will come down too.

      • Hi Bill – I hope you are right but, energy and transportation are not computers and cell phones. With energy and transportation we are facing basic physics problems that don’t respond much to clever ideas and manufacturing scale. Right now lighter cars cost more and lighter cars help mileage on conventional cars more than hybrid and battery cars for obvious reasons, so that’s no help.

    • Kevin,

      Like all of us to greater or lesser degree you make an informed prediction to the best of your study and ability about future answers. Your $8-12-16 equations are a good step in the right direction, although I suspect going up in $3 increments ($7-10-13) might be closer to how it will play out.

      You mention in a later post that “…energy and transportation are not computers and cell phones. With energy and transportation we are facing basic physics problems that don’t respond much to clever ideas and manufacturing scale.”

      Those basic physics problems are being solved as we speak largely as a result of the mega importance of the very young nano materials physics/chemistry disciplines. The improvements in battery energy densities are actually coming very close to following Moore’s Law of computer power and that’s at a young age. The approximately 10 times jump in battery density at ever lesser costs to match or exceed petroleum engines with electric engines is well on its way with a 3 times jump in the pipeline and proven, and another 3 or 4 times jump sometime in the next decade. (The Envia Battery ( http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/26/envia-claims-breakthrough-in-lithium-ion-battery-cost-and-energy-density/?_r=0 ), not the full Magilla, but what they’ve learned and managed to get into production since it was announced over a year ago, I believe will debut in the Chevy Spark this fall and it’s proving to beat the competition in size, weight and virtual MGP according to the EPA. The physics is proving to be conquerable.

      You don’t have to wonder why the oilers and stinkers are so frantic to deny and prevaricate. The bulk of their reserves will probably have to be left in the ground, not such a good thing for the stock price.

  3. By the way, the oil companies will be fine. When they make 15 percent on $4.00 gas that is a profit. When they produce one half as much fuel and make 15 percent on $8.00 gas, that is the same profit in dollars. When they make 15 percent on one quarter of the fuel they once produced but now sell at $16 a gallon that is still the same amount of money.
    Yes, fossil fuels will go away eventually but big oil will be fine for some time to come.

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