Friday, January 05, 2007

I know I've written a lot of random stuff lately. (A friend of mine said he wasn't going to read my blog anymore because of the post about my phobia.) Random is the norm with me.

And then to think I had the nerve to post U2 lyrics followed by a picture of baby Jesus. I am a heretic and an infidel. No wonder nobody left comments on the last post. Everybody must be getting ready to round up a lynch mob.

I've been thinking a lot about alternative fuel vehicles and stuff. I think generally I'm a big supporter of alternative technologies and innovative products. There are a couple of things that bother me about the current enthusiasm for alternative fuels.

1. There is no such thing as a zero emission vehicle. There are too many factors contributing to environmental impact to make that claim. Even if the vehicle produces no hydrocarbon emisson in the exhaust, there are many ways it impacts the environment. Lets say for example you have an electric car. Zero emissions right? Wrong. The electricity you use to charge your batteries is produced in a factory that probably burns coal. The coal is transported to that factory in trucks that burn hydrocarbon fuel. The car contains many batteries. The batteries are produced in factories that use electricity produced by coal, or nuclear, or whatever. The batteries are made of toxic lead and sulfuric acid. The batteries will eventually need replacement. The tires of the car leave rubber on the roads, are produced in factories, and transported in trucks. The people who work in the factories defecate and fart and urinate and spit and sweat and breathe. Guess what they exhale? Carbon Dioxide- a greenhouse gas.

2. When viewed with an eye that looks at total environmental impact, the benefits (if there are any) to the alternative fuel vehicles currently on the market really don't amount to much. What really matters is the energy density to cost ratio. Let me explain: Energy density is the a measurement of how much energy can be contained in a certain volume or mass. With gasoline for example, the energy density of gasoline by mass is 46.9 MJ/kg and by volume is 34.6 MJ/L. While gasoline engines don't exploit this potential due to inefficiencies inherent in their design, they use a fairly efficient fuel. Compare that to the energy density of Lead Acid batteries. By mass you get a whopping .09-.11 MJ/kg and by volume .14-.17 MJ/L.

What this means is that to have an electric car that has the performance of a gasoline car (without adjusting for higher efficiency inherent in electric motors, and the energy recovered by regenerative braking) you would carry 500 times the weight and your fuel would take up 200 times the space of gasoline.

This isn't a fair comparison at all because as I mentioned, electric motors are more efficient than gasoline engines and there are ways to recover some of the energy used in an electric car that can partially compensate for losses. Nevertheless, major obstacles have to be overcome before alternative technologies can compete with the established infrastructure.

Getting back to the energy density/cost ratio. Ultimately the price of energy will be the factor that determines what technology succeeds in the marketplace. The price of gasoline, high as it is, is still lower than competing alternatives when viewed in terms of cost per energy utility (that's a name I just made up for mass energy density and volume energy density taken together.) And there are huge incentives to manufacturers to further develop technology to increase the efficiency of gasoline engines. They benefit from an established infrastructure that would have to be redesigned from the ground up for most alternative fuel sources.

So what will happen if the market price of gasoline gets so high that alternative technologies get a foothold? Some analysts believe gasoline will be sold cheaper to stay competitive. This is probably true. As long as producers of petroleum can lower prices and still be profitable they will do so.

So basically what I'm saying is, it takes a long time for changes to happen. And the hype surrounding alternative fuels is just that: Hype.

So what can we do as consumers to make a real difference? We can reduce our consumption in realistic ways. We can drive less. We can be more sensible in the choices we make about what we consume and how we consume it. We can be educated and take a more reasoned approach to reducing our environmental impact. And most of all, we can ride more scooters from the Scooter Lounge.

(Hold for applause)

Thank You, Thank you very much.

(Bow, exit stage left.)


Martin said...

I agree. I liked your other blog, by the way, just didn't comment on it.

We discussed this issue in my Anthropology course, and I use the argument all the time with my rabid environmental friends.

Hey, I wrote you about your trailer, but that could be a nice environmental impact. If you could take more stuff on your scooter!!


AzĂșcar said...

I remember finding out that it costs more in fossil fuels to MAKE ethanol than burning ethanol yields.

I don't know the answers right now, but I do know that we can't keep going in the same burn and don't care direction. I want to reduce my carbon footprint. I won't even consider driving a car that gets terrible gas mileage or, just as important, puts out too much in waste.

I think there are little things we can do and other ideas that we can demand. I'm looking forward to the day where I can build or renovate a house to become more efficient in our everyday life. I'm a big one for sustainability.

spitzer said...

entropy is a "B."
p.s. every hummer contributes five feet of limestone to the white cliffs of dover every year.

b. said...

I had a feeling that was going to end up an informercial. It was very, very informative...thanks for the education.
Ummm.....I had my 14 year old son read your post with the U2 lyrics for an assignment he had in Drama. Does that make me a bad mama?

socali71 said...

I would love to comment on this blog. I had a speech communic. class several semesters ago and my topic was "why your next car should be a hybrid." BUT-I am afraid of all the xtra carbon dioxide i would expel if I were to get any more excited, retrace my steps on this issue and comment that some of your points I disagree with. Now that saved a little energy- see if we could all just do our part. . .