We all, or most of us, want to contribute less and less to the amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere. One of the advantages of living outside of the United States is that one’s energy consumption is bound to be lower. Electricity is often relatively expensive, so it is used with more caution, and in many places, it is way easier to get around without a car. Yet as the developing nations continue to raise their citizens up out of poverty to join the ranks of middle class consumers, much of this default energy efficiency will be sacrificed at the altars of comfort, immediacy, and social prestige. And one of greatest signs of prestige is the automobile. So there is no escaping the impact of more and more new automobiles on the roadways of the world.
Back in the United States, the birthplace of “a car in every garage” development, technology is advancing, offering choices that will have global impacts. With climate changes that are causing severe weather and a world population that is ever growing, it is a key moment for the entire planet. Never before have we been so interconnected, with lifestyle choices of millions in one nation holding the very lives of billions of people around the globe in the balance. And because of the enormous environmental and geopolitical impact of one particular piece of technology that keeps the wheels of commerce rolling, it all comes down to what types of new vehicles are on the roads.
The big question facing the people of the United States is, “Should we be driving electric or hybrid vehicles, or depend on alternative fuels?” In this article, I will try to lay out the facts about these choices and the consequences for the global population if we chose unwisely. The answers for many may not be what they want to hear.
First let me debunk the idea of “clean” electric cars: they do not now, nor will that reality ever, exist. It is about now when I expect to hear a very loud trans-continental, trans-oceanic “IDIOT!” coming my way, but wait, before you waste all that carbon exhausting excited breath, and look at the facts:
Electric cars of course are not very polluting while driving on city streets, and they do not contribute to urban pollution directly. However, being powered by very large battery packs, whether they be lithium-ion (better suited to cell phones), sodium manganese- oxide (way too hot, @ 300 degrees Celsius!), sodium ion (best performance was at 7% loss of capacity on 100 cycles, lasting less than 1/3 of a year, with no rapid charge possibilities), and then there is the latest, a liquid being developed by MIT engineers, whereby the cathode and anode that make up a battery are contained in the small particles in a liquid nicknamed “Cambridge Crude,” which theoretically could lead to batteries with interchangeable tanks (A Big Maybe). This type of battery is said to be much cheaper to produce… until the big energy companies get hold of the technology.
But all this new and not so new technology will not change a simple formula: E=mc². Did you know that the battery packs for the Ford Focus EV weigh a whopping 500 pounds? And there is also the fact that the Perpetuum mobile has as of yet not been invented and we are all slaves to the first law of thermodynamics, where no matter what form of mechanized power we use, there is always a loss of energy via friction. Really heady stuff here, but as far as electric cars are concerned, this renders them absolutely useless due to the energy inefficiency required to make the system work.
Already, some Israeli entrepreneurs have come up with a scheme to have plug-ins located all over the world, which of course will suck one’s debit and credit cards to a bigger extent than conventional fuel does on today’s most energy efficient conventional (gasoline and diesel) powered vehicles. And the mere fact that the Chevy Volt is priced at $15,000 more than its gasoline powered equivalent, the Chevy Cruze, which reportedly gets 42 mpg compared to the Volt’s equivalent of 40 mpg, doesn’t help. The Volt is great for people who want to show off how environmental they are. It looks great for when they go to the country club or a charity auction, where they can show off just how conscious they are of the pollution caused by “regular” cars.
Oh right, that pollution thing, let’s think about that for a moment or two, shall we? Electric cars are pollution free, right? Not really. Facts overcome fiction here easily. Electric vehicles (EVs) are powered by batteries that have a built in physical limitation of how many times they can be recharged before they must be “recycled.” A brand new lithium-ion battery has a starting capacity of only 88-94%, representing a loss of between 6-12%, which drops off to 73-84% after 250 charge-discharge cycles. To prevent damage to its sensitive electronic systems, an EV stops working on pure battery power at about 50% remaining charge, at which level one could expect 1500 cycles on the batteries, but the number of charge cycles also plays a crucial factor in the health of the battery pack. In very hot climate such as Arizona, or any of the Middle Eastern desert states, for that matter, one will be lucky if their batteries last a year, and the same applies to very cold climates. So it stands to reason that the car will be plugged in all night, every night, so the owner can vroom out of the garage in the morning in style.
Now let us review what happens in the garage, while the vehicle is at rest. First of all, before it can be plugged in, there will need to be serious upgrades to electric infrastructure, because if more than a few people have EVs, it will not just to the home electrical system, but the entire neighborhood, the entire country. Current transformers that currently serve all the homes will be totally inadequate, and need to be replaced with larger capacity units as well as larger gauge wiring. The EVs will not recharge easily on 110 volt household current, and a switch to 220-240 volts will be required, so that the charge time can fit between arrival home in the evening and departure in the morning. While the EV busily sucks up the electrons needed to power back up, so-called “clean coal fired power plants,” sometimes thousands of miles away, pollute the night skies with all kinds of toxins and greenhouse gases, or maybe it is a nuclear power plant, the fuel rods of which will stay highly toxic for 10,000 years. And to charge that environmental object of pride in the garage, there is a line loss of 10-20% percent just to deliver the power to it, followed by another 15-20 percent inefficiency built in to the charging process, something one can actually feel in the form of the heat being released in the charging process, referred to as “waste heat,” which inevitably can set houses on fire while their unsuspecting tenants are sleeping.
Are you getting the picture yet about the environmental misconception called the electric vehicle? There is nothing green about it at all. Also take into account all the batteries that will end up in landfills, and all the PCBs that are in the transformers that would be replaced all over the country. In short, if you want to be “green” with your mode of transport, drive a car that has the latest in anti-pollution devices, while giving you 40 to 50 mpg, drive less, and use public transport like so many people do all over the world for whom owning or driving a car is a luxury, not a necessity. That is much more environmentally conscious that driving EVs or hybrids.
Now on to next item, which is possibly the best of all solutions, and that is the liquid natural gas (LNG) powered vehicle. Until a much better transportation method comes along, which will involve teleportation and a transmogrifier in every household, I personally cannot envision a cleaner burning vehicle than one powered by LNG. And to make things even better, an incredible amount of that resource has been discovered and is being tapped and piped to market. In several countries, such as Mexico, a few hundred dollars will convert a gas hog into a clean burning LNG fueled vehicle, making it more economical to operate as well as having the advantage of virtually no polluting hydrocarbons spewing into the atmosphere. The same conversions are available worldwide, with varying price tags, and once Wal-Mart’s refueling stations start offering LNG to consumers, it will take off in the US, too.
A much worse alternative is that which is being promoted by the friendly-sounding bio-fuel industry. However, there are currently about a billion people around the world starving because each gallon of ethanol produced from edible grains is subsidized in the USA at 54 cents per gallon, and speculators have driven up the price of those edible grains. The really obscene part of this equation is that it takes over 26 pounds of corn to make 1 gallon of ethanol. And then you add the cost of harvesting, crushing, extracting, the various enzymes needed, as well as yeast, and you are coming close to $2 per gallon of ethanol. But then there is that 54 cent per gallon subsidy, which goes to the giant agribusinesses such as Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and all their parasitic brethren, all having jumped on the bandwagon once G.W. Bush mandated the use of ethanol in fuels dispensed at gas stations across the USA.
Now we get to the reason why the use of ethanol impacts us all, regardless of where we are in the world or whether we own a car or not, because it is about land use for food production and the long-term effects of high food prices. According to research done at Cornell University by David Pimental, a leading agricultural expert:
To power the average vehicle in the US for 1 year on ethanol-blended fuel would require 11 acres of productive farmland, the same amount of space required to grow all the food for 7 people at US standards. In developing nations, 20 families can probably be fed on the same amount of land. Adding up the energy cost of the production of corn on this 11-acre plot and its subsequent conversion into ethanol, 131,000 BTUs (units of energy) are needed to produce one gallon of ethanol, which will only yield 77,000 BTUs of energy for your car, a loss of 54,000 BTU’s per gallon, while reducing the fuel mileage of the vehicle by up to 25%. It is a classic lose-lose situation that is only sustained by the nearly bankrupt US government subsidizing the agricultural giants that are presently making billions of dollars from taxpayers, while those billion people in other countries cannot afford the basic staples anymore.
Meanwhile opportunist speculators have driven up the price of all grains to levels never before seen, pocketing additional billions of dollars at the expense of the poorest of the poor, causing starvation, infant death rates not seen since the 19th century, and malnourishment in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru and elsewhere. Do these speculators have no conscience? The short answer is: “What is a conscience, and can I sell derivatives of it or bundle it and sell it to unwary investors?”
In spite of pending record harvests of grains, speculators are managing to keep the price of grains artificially high. Finally, some organizations such as OXFAM are starting to urge the world’s producing nations to pass rules to take speculation out of the food equation. I personally have very little hope that such changes will happen, as long as the 4 largest producers in the world, known as the ABCDs (Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill, and Dreyfus) have a chokehold on politicians by way of lobbyists.
The US is not alone. Some of the recent developments in Argentina expose the shameful practices of nations like China buying up or leasing huge tract of land all over the world planting mostly soy in fragile environments, while also acquiring important water rights to irrigate the monoculture disasters.
The bread riots in Egypt and the subsequent fall of its authoritarian government are only an indicator of things to come. You can oppress people with edicts such as a permanent “state of emergency,” declare a state of siege or impose martial law, but when you starve their families and leave them with literally nothing to lose, they will go out into the streets and plazas and offer up their very lives for the betterment of their offspring. Whatever happened to all that surplus food that was being distributed worldwide by USAID? It’s in everyone’s gas tanks! Surely this must go down as one of the saddest chapters in the US foreign affairs. We don’t have money to feed the starving masses of the world, yet we can give billions in military aid to Israel, Egypt, India, Pakistan and even wealthy countries like Australia. We give them foreign aid that they must spend on US built weapons systems. It is sort of like turning plowshares into swords. Just what is wrong with this picture?
So what can we do? We can be educated about energy and land use issues so that we can make more conscionable lifestyle choices. We can be thoughtful consumers, wherever we are in the world. We can support the research and development of different alternatives. We can live outside of the US, the world leader in perpetrating these crimes against humanity, and avoid feeding the beast. We can work toward individual, community, and national food sovereignty. And we can care.
About the author: Jamie Douglas is an Adventurer, Writer and Photographer with an amazing array of Nikon equipment, and a lifetime of experience traveling and documenting. He currently enjoys the great weather and fine wines of Mendoza, Argentina, and edits Expat Daily News and Expat Daily News Latin America
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