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Solve this or you solve nothing (1)

A few miles from where I live there is a cycle track that is – apparently – spoiled by a series of stone slabs placed about a metre apart over a couple of miles.  They are, in fact, what remains of the world’s first steam railway sleepers across which in February 1804 Trevithick’s steam locomotive transported a cargo of iron from Merthyr to the Glamorgan canal in Abercynon.  While the engine managed to haul its ten ton load the nine miles down the valley, the return journey up to Merthyr placed too much of a strain on the engine; mechanical breakdown resulting in it being towed by horses for the last few miles.

Fast forward 134 years and another steam locomotive – Mallard – secured the (still valid today) world speed record of 126 mph for a steam train.  Mallard was to Trevithick’s engine what the Concorde was to the Wright Brothers’ machine which gave the world its first powered flight in 1903.  And, of course, we see the same kind of progression in the development of almost every technology that was ever invented.  But here’s the thing: Mallard and Concorde were their respective technologies’ end of the line.  Nobody is bothering to build a steam engine faster than Mallard.  Nor is anyone looking seriously at supersonic commercial flight.  The reason, in two words, is diminishing returns.

What Trevithick and the Wright Brothers gave us was little more than a “proof of concept” – basic designs that proved the theory.  Once established, engineers and scientists rapidly found cheap and easy alterations that would improve performance.  As time went on, however, the improvements began to shift from cheap and easy to the costly and difficult end of the spectrum.  Both Mallard and Concorde – and, for that matter the Apple i-phone – were major feats of engineering.  But they came at a cost; both – along with the Apple i-phone – required huge public subsidies in order to operate.  And eventually voters get fed up seeing public funds squandered on vanity projects that very few of them ever got to enjoy.

Electric cars – powered from on-board batteries – have been around since 1859.  However, they were quickly eclipsed by internal combustion engine (ICE) cars which even then offered far greater speeds and ranges.  The early electric cars drew their limited power from lead-acid batteries of the kind found in most ICE cars.  And while improvements continued to be made to electric motors, it was battery storage that proved to be the limiting factor for electric cars.  The development of modern lithium-ion batteries – coinciding with the global drive to curb greenhouse gas emissions – helped propel Elon Musk’s high performance (and once again massively subsidised from the public purse) Tesla electric cars to prominence.  Following the release of the Roadster and the development of new longer range Tesla cars, we have seen several other companies including Nissan, Daimler and BMW bring electric cars to market.  Nevertheless, for all the competition and technical input to electric car design, the weight to range ratio of lithium-ion batteries places practical limits on the utility of electric cars when compared to ICE cars.

In short, the first lead-acid powered electric cars were the equivalent of the Trevithick engine, where modern lithium-ion batteries are akin to Mallard; they are the very height of technological advancement, beyond which only fractional improvements can be made and only then at huge cost.  All of which is merely another way of saying that the dream of switching from petroleum-powered vehicles to a new generation of electric alternatives powered entirely by renewables is just that: a fantasy that will never be realised in practice.

The reason for this is not electric cars themselves, but the limitations of the state of the art batteries that power them.  Lithium-ion batteries are a poor substitute for one of nature’s more energy-dense “batteries” – petrol/gasoline; a by-product of the oil refining business.  Petrol is a light fuel that is useful for transporting small numbers of people or relatively light goods over long distances.  It is, however, a poor fuel for moving large numbers of people, heavy loads or raw resources.  To carry out those tasks, an even denser “battery” is required – diesel fuel.

Diesel is the lifeblood of the civilisation that we live in and depend upon.  It powers, among other things, the mineral extraction, agriculture and transportation that provide us with the food we eat and the goods and services we consume.  Without it we could not make, transport and deploy a single wind turbine or solar panel.  Nor could we maintain the critical infrastructure – roads, railways, electricity grid, water and sewage system, food distribution, ports and airports – that allow more than 7.5 billion of us to continue to live on this planet.

According to the UK Road Haulage Association:

  • 89% of all goods transported by land in Great Britain are moved directly by road (but even the 20% that is not moved by road often needs road haulage to complete journeys to/from ports, airports or rail terminals).
  • 98% of all food and agricultural products in Great Britain are transported by road freight.
  • 98% of all consumer products and machinery in Great Britain are transported by road freight.
  • 5.4 million People work in the haulage and logistics industry.
  • The sector is the UK’s fifth largest employer.

According to the UK government, in 2016 the domestic haulage industry moved 1.89 billion tonnes of goods more than 19 billion kilometres.  Without diesel fuel only a fraction of this movement would be theoretically possible (assuming some combination of a massive fleet of smaller petrol vehicles, a duplicate rail freight system and a flotilla of redundant ships together with spare port facilities were on hand).  In practice, as UK government papers outlining the risks of a no-deal Brexit have made clear, if the trucks stop running the UK will very rapidly grind to a halt.

This is the fundamental flaw in a bright green narrative that pretends that we can address the human impact crisis by deploying non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies to replace fossil carbon in the generation of electricity and then swap out all of the internal combustion engines that we depend upon with new electric motors.  We cannot.  While states in Western Europe and North America have deployed masses of wind turbines and solar panels to (unevenly) generate up to a third of their electricity, this feat depends upon a huge amount of sleight of hand.  In the 1980s and 1990s much of the energy consumption of these developed states was offshored to less developed regions – for example, textiles from the Indian sub-continent; manufactured goods from Asia; minerals and food from Africa.  The result is that most of our energy consumption shows up in their carbon emissions data (no wonder the developed states signed up to a deal that allowed them to continue burning fossil fuels).  On a global scale and excluding wood burning and hydroelectric, non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies account for less than three percent of our energy mix; not even enough to slow our growth in energy consumption.  Indeed, had the global economy stopped growing in 2015, the oil, gas and coal that we would have saved would be greater than all of the electricity generated from non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies.

World Energy Consumption 2017
Source: Global carbon emissions 2007-17

At this point many bright green aficionados will object that at least by deploying wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars they are doing something toward curbing greenhouse gas emissions.  But they are not.  It takes fossil fuels to manufacture, transport, deploy and maintain non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies.  As Jonathan Watts at the Guardian recently reported:

“Extractive industries are responsible for half of the world’s carbon emissions and more than 80% of biodiversity loss, according to the most comprehensive environmental tally undertaken of mining and farming.

“While this is crucial for food, fuel and minerals, the study by UN Environment warns the increasing material weight of the world’s economies is putting a more dangerous level of stress on the climate and natural life-support systems than previously thought.

“Resources are being extracted from the planet three times faster than in 1970, even though the population has only doubled in that time…

“Each year, the world consumes more than 92b tonnes of materials – biomass (mostly food), metals, fossil fuels and minerals – and this figure is growing at the rate of 3.2% per year.”

Importantly, these figures exclude carbon emissions from vehicles:

“The biggest surprise to the authors was the huge climate impact of pulling materials out of the ground and preparing them for use. All the sectors combined together accounted for 53% of the world’s carbon emissions – even before accounting for any fuel that is burned.”

Swapping existing power plants for non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies, and swapping billions of ICE cars and small goods vehicles for new electric versions in some version of a “Green New Deal” on a scale that also delivers economic growth at pre-2008 levels requires at least a doubling of our current extraction of what remains of our planet’s depleted resources; something that more or less guarantees a climate akin to that enjoyed by the dinosaurs.  And even if it “succeeded” we would still depend upon diesel fuel for almost all of our heavy lifting simply because there is currently no substitute.

Sure, there are a handful of small electric delivery vehicles.  Cities around the world operate battery-powered buses and refuse collection vehicles.  There are even a couple of wholly impractical prototypes of articulated (semi) trucks for which no appropriate battery technology currently exists.  In an analysis of the claims made for long distance heavy trucks, Venkatasubramanian Viswanathan highlights the current limitations:

“The payload capacity of these vehicles, as stated before, is an important parameter for the trucking industry, and in a fully electric vehicle, the payload capacity would be reduced significantly because the battery pack weight forms a significant fraction of the GVW [Gross Vehicle Weight]… 

“A key conclusion from this analysis is that, with current Li-ion batteries, we would have no meaningful payload capacity if we need a driving range of 900 miles since the battery pack and the vehicle weight together would account for nearly the entire GVW limit of 36,000 kg (40 tons).”

Thus we need some yet-to-be-invented battery technology that is far lighter and far more energy-dense than our leading edge batteries.  Ideally we would need some kind of liquid energy storage medium.  Perhaps one with an energy-density of around 35-40 megajoules per litre as opposed to the 2.5 megajoules (at best) per litre that we can squeeze out of a state of the art lithium-ion battery.  Diminishing returns at this point in battery development mean that we are never going to achieve the advances in energy density that would bring us anywhere near to replacing diesel fuel.  As Mark P. Mills recently pointed out:

“To be blunt: there is simply no possibility that more government funding for wind turbines, silicon solar cells or lithium batteries will lead to a ‘disruptive’ 10-fold gain. All those technologies are approaching physics limits…

“We know from history that revolutionary discoveries happen. We also know they come from basic research that unveils entirely new phenomenologies and not from deploying R&D funds to improve or subsidize yesterday’s technologies…”

The key question before us, then, is NOT how do we operate diesel-powered trucks (and tractors, trains, ships, cranes and planes) using only batteries and wind turbines?  The question that we have to answer is what would be a viable non-carbon emitting alternative to diesel fuel?  At present there isn’t one.  And as a result, the only choice before us is to begin the unpleasant task of dismantling the highly exploitative and consumptive civilisation that we have built in the years since the industrial revolution.  Because if we cannot find an alternative means of powering the heavy lifting that our civilisation depends upon, collapse is inevitable anyway. 

Until you solve the diesel oil problem, you solve nothing!

As you made it to the end…

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