Random Thoughts – Randosity!

Are electric cars really good for our environment?

Posted in economy, fun in the sun, green energy by commorancy on January 8, 2011

On the surface, this question seems like it has a simple answer.  And that simple answer is ‘Yes’… or is it?  Let’s explore.

Green or Brown?

Electric cars seem like such a great idea until you realize that you have to plug it into the power grid to recharge the thing.  So, how is this car greener than, say, its gasoline counterparts?  On the one hand, the car itself runs clean.  No fossil fuels to burn so no emissions to speak of.  This is a good thing.  The bad thing is that it has to pull from fossil fuel derived electrical energy to recharge.  This ultimately means that while the electric car itself is no longer the gross polluter, that pollution has been pushed off onto the electrical suppliers.  So they, in turn, have to ramp up more fossil fuel production to handle the added load to charge these 240v batteries in electric cars.

So, how did that exactly save us anything?  Maybe it makes the buyer of the electric vehicle feel more environmentally conscious until we consider where and how the power was generated to recharge that electric vehicle.

I should point out here, though, that the tires, the plastic parts and the moving parts are all derived from or utilize fossil fuels.  For example, nearly all lubrication is almost always fossil fuel derived.

Alternative energy sources

As more and more electric vehicles are deployed onto the nation’s roads, the power grids will have to be enhanced to support the power generation needed to recharge these cars.  That means, ultimately, more fossil fuels being burned to create that energy to send it down the line to recharge your car to let you go to work.

We need to rethink this entire process.  We need to find a way to get clean power generation from nature. Unfortunately, energies derived from solar, wind or water are temperamental and, at times, impractical.  That is, we can’t rely on solar, wind and water derived energy to support the numbers of people who want to buy into electric vehicles let alone power the entirety of people living in the US.  So, the grid suppliers have to dip into fossil fuel derived energy generation to provide electricity across the board.  As more and more of these vehicles hit the road, the grid may eventually become overtaxed by the cars and we may, once again, end up in rolling blackouts.

So, we need more stable forms of energy that are renewable for a lot longer than fossil fuels.

Running out

It has already been predicted that we are on the downward slope of fossil fuel supplies on earth (i.e., peak fossil fuel supplies).  Those rich abundant supplies that were once everywhere are slowly drying up.  If we, as a society, don’t find more clean renewable power generation, our information age may come to a halt leaving us squarely back at a time without electric power or natural gas.  A time when there were no cell phones, no cars and no grocery stores.

If you think about the things that are all around you every day that derive their existence from fossil fuels, you begin to understand the scope of a society where fossil fuels have run out.  That means, no new plastic, no gasoline, no fossil fuel generated power, no oil for motors, no computers, no iPods and no cell phones.  In fact, there won’t be much of our present society left if the earth runs out of fossil fuels.  This also includes lack of medicine and all that that implies, but let’s stay focused on energy sources.

Clean burning, natural, renewable energy sources

Are there any?  Sure, if you count water, wind and solar.  But, as I said, these are temperamental.  What other power generation tools do we have?  Well, there’s also atomic energy that heats water to steam and turns turbines. Unfortunately, the safeguards necessary to prevent another Chernobyl are too prone to human error.  Atomic energy generation is just too risky. So, are there any others? Yes.

Thermal energy

Not just any thermal energy, the earth is home to lots of geothermal energy.  The difficulty with geothermal energy is getting to it and, secondarily, preventing the creation of accidental volcanoes and eruptions.  So, where could we utilize geothermal energy and maximize the energy generation?  In the ocean, of course.  There’s plenty of water to steam and turn turbines.  There are plenty of open geothermal pockets under the ocean that lead into the water.  So, we should be able to figure out a way to take advantage of these open pockets to turn ocean water to steam and generate electric power.  The trouble, of course, is getting the power from the ocean floor back to a distribution grid to send the power out.

Geothermal energy is about the only energy on the planet that can be easily harnessed, that exists on its own and that is completely renewable.  Unless the Earth dies, geothermal energy is about the only source that we can rely on as constant.  Just look at Old Faithful to see just how stable geothermal energy can be.  The only difficulty is in trying to find a reasonably consistent geothermal vent that can be reliably used to generate energy using steam turbines. However, once enough of these are found, these can be used to eventually replace burning of fossil fuels to generate heat to generate steam to to turn turbines to create energy.

Energy deficit

Fossil fuel sources should be considered as previously stored energy pockets.  Energy that was created by the sun. The sun first fostered the growth of plants and animals here and then these plants and animals died, decayed and converted into fossil fuels.  These fuels from many many years ago are now being used today to operate our economy.  The trouble is, these fossil fuels are finite and we are using them very rapidly.  In fact, we may have used more than half of all of what’s on Earth to operate our economy from day to day.  Consider when we drilled our first oil well vs how much fossil fuel we use today.  As a result and because these resources are finite, we will eventually run out of it.  Since we really have no idea how much more we have until it all ends, we should now consider that we are living in an energy deficit, and on borrowed time.  That is, we are using more energy now than we should in order to allow for support of future generations.

So, while people continue to have babies, they aren’t asking when these babies become adults will they have a future? And, what of these kid’s babies?  Where will they be?  This is why we are now living on borrowed time at the expense of our future generations who may find themselves looking back at us thinking how selfish we were.  And they will be living at a time when they may be burning candles, eating locally grown foods and doing subsistence farming just to keep food on the table.  They may have our technology, but no energy to run it.  What will become the currency of that day?  Perhaps seed.  Once the world ends up as local economies without contact to other remote economies, the government won’t be able to keep order.  So, the government as we know it will cease to exist.  Without cars, then there’s no need for driver’s licenses or car license tags or any other governmental taxes or fees as they won’t make sense in a local economy.

Without thinking ahead for renewable energy sources, our future generations may have no future.  At least, not the future we see today.  In fact, their future may not resemble anything of  our information society.  This is very likely where we will end up without finding a new fuel source for power generation.  This is the importance of finding clean renewable energy that is synergistic with the Earth.

Electricity is not a power source

Electricity generation is the end result of the work from some other device (i.e., burning fossil fuel turns turbines that generate power).  Electricity is not a power source itself, however.  But, electricity is what drives every part of our economy today.  Just think what the world would be without electric power.  Without locating and instituting a replacement for fossil fuel electric power generation,  the world’s economy will likely end as we know it when our fossil fuel supplies dry up.  Our dependence on fossil fuel power generation is nearly 70% of all power generation in the US as of 2009 (and it is likely similar if you look at the world overall).

Full circle

So, that electric car you buy today borrows against fossil fuel power generation (coal, natural gas & petroleum) to recharge your brand new electric car.  Obtaining power from the local power grid ensures that at least 70% of the energy placed into your electric vehicle was generated by coal or natural gas, both of these resources are finite and coal does not burn clean.  So, a renewable synergistic power generation source is a must for the Earth and the future of humanity, let alone the electric vehicle which is only truly green once we have this renewable power source.

In addition to regenerative braking, we also need to consider more car regenerative power sources to keep the car from requiring recharging nearly as often and to allow for farther traveling distances. For example, someone could invent a paint that acts as a huge solar panel. So, every inch of the external painted surface could double as a huge solar power generation panel while driving in the sun. Additionally, alternating polarity magnets could be placed below highways to generate current as you drive over them which continually recharges your car’s batteries as you drive.   Thus, drastically increasing the mileage of an electric vehicle with far less need to recharge as often.  Also, fans could be placed behind the grill of the vehicle to capture wind energy as you drive.  Again, all of these techniques add even more power generation to the vehicle that increases mileage while also keeping that car aesthetically pleasing.

Looking at today’s electric vehicles, these designs seem so infantile compared to what could be achieved with proper governmental infrastructure support of electric vehicles.  Right now, electric vehicles look green, but really aren’t. Once we harness truly clean renewable energy sources (like geothermal energy) combined with more extensive regenerative power sources, we might finally be able to call the electric vehicle green.

3 Responses

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  1. Giselle said, on January 8, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    Great post.. But u seem to leave out a few very simple answers to accomplishing a solution for a greener car. Fuel cells answer almost every problem running a vehicle fossil fuel free.. Since u use distilled water which is turned into hydrogen gas and oxygen which can run a car engine and has already been done. Surprisingly whenever u see a person promoting these fuel cells as an alternative.. They just disappear from the face of the planet lol. Let’s look at this in more detail.. Electricity is required to change the water into gas.. it is used immediately as power for ur vehicle so no dangerous gases are stored as seems to be the reason we are told these fuel cells are not feasible . The conductive pieces of the cells need to be kept clean or u can’t run the fuel properly.. So hence plenty of business for mechanics and shops and car dealers.. They aren’t gonna lose out lol. In a cold climate the
    fuel itself will need to be kept from freezing .. But I’m sure that wouldn’t be a problem for all the inventive geniuses. There numerous ways this fuel cell can be used to power ur car.. Use hydrogen as the actual kick in the engine.. or use the gases to create electricity to run the electric engine. No wonder the US wants to buy all the rights to our water… Lol!
    Anyways that is one solution.. But I can’t agree with ur solar paint.. Impractical to say the least but the fan in the front is pretty cool. Let’s hear some more pros and cons to the fuel cell.

    • commorancy said, on January 9, 2011 at 2:34 am

      Hello Giselle,

      Actually, I didn’t mention fuel cells intentionally, although I admit I probably should have at least discussed their drawbacks. While I realize that fuel cells do work, there are some intrinsic problems with fuel cells that also do not make them an optimal or fully green technology choice to operate a vehicle. After all, my point was not only making the car green, but also making the planet green as well. We need to do both to survive as the human species. Unfortunately, fuel cells today require hydrogen to operate and there are several issues with this that prevent the fuel cell from being truly green.

      First, there’s the physical size and weight of the fuel cell. To create a large enough fuel cell to operate a vehicle continually, the battery ends up consuming far too much empty space of the vehicle. This means that you lose your trunk and possibly even parts of your back seat to accommodate the fuel cell. Then, there’s the weight of it. With that much size, comes weight. The trouble with the weight is that, regardless of the power source, carrying that much additional weight around will reduce your overall mileage. The idea is to insert a power storage technology that’s light rather than heavy.

      Second, there’s the issue of hydrogen storage. To operate a fuel cell, you need stored hydrogen gas or liquid in a tank. The hydrogen and oxygen combine in the comb chamber to create heat, electrical power and water. The water ends up being the primary emission in this process. As the hydrogen gets used up, you have to refill. So, we change refilling from gasoline to hydrogen gas with fuel cells.

      Unfortunately, hydrogen gas storage requires an infrastructure of hydrogen dealers to sell you hydrogen gas. It also means that we will need an infrastructure of manufacturers to produce the pure hydrogen gas to fill each car’s tank to allow for the process to work. And, even more unfortunate, producing pure hydrogen gas today entails the use of fossil fuel (oil and natural gas) heating processes. So, again, filling the car’s hydrogen tank means fossil fuel processes were involved. So, fuel cells don’t solve our clean renewable energy problem.

      If you’re thinking that fuel cells are capable of splitting hydrogen and oxygen from water and then combining it to generate power, fuel cells today don’t work like this. The processes necessary to split the hydrogen from the oxygen in water are not nearly fast enough to generate power to operate a vehicle. Those fuel cells that are capable of both splitting and combining are impractical to place into a vehicle. This is why car fuel cells require an external hydrogen tank that needs to be refilled.

      It all goes back to geothermal energy to produce electricity. That electricity powers our grid and charges each electric vehicle. We need a method to get clean renewable energy from start to finish. Just looking at the car alone is not enough and doesn’t address the entire ecological problem from start to finish.

      Thanks for your reply.

    • commorancy said, on January 9, 2011 at 3:07 am

      Hello again Giselle,

      I want to address the solar paint issue separately. You’re probably thinking of just replacing the entire car’s surface with ugly solar panels. That’s not what I envision. We already put flecks of metal in paint today (i.e., metallic paint). Those tiny flecks could just as easily be power producing flecks in a substrate that moves the current along. To the eye, the flecks would look like any other metallic or shiny fleck. But, underneath, you have power generation. Granted, not enough to power the car fully, but it doesn’t need to be. Trickle charging is all that’s necessary here. I mean, most cars sit out in the sun a large part of the day. Why not use that sunlight to trickle charge the vehicle? With proper ingenuity, it is possible to create aesthetically pleasing, yet practical replacements for things like paint.

      Note that if the entire substrate is capable of moving power through the car, a scratch or dent shouldn’t affect the power generation. Also, because the current would be low, you wouldn’t be able to feel the current by touching the paint either. Of course, with an insulating top coat, you wouldn’t feel it anyway. The only one issue might be grounding out due to water, but the car should be equipped with a moisture sensor to disconnect the solar paint during overcast or rainy days when it wouldn’t work anyway.

      Thanks.


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