And Boycott Biodiesel.
It is hardly surprising that the latest generation of electric and hybrid cars are being marketed according to the key misconceptions that our great collective energy illiteracy permit. Happy drivers of The Volt or The Leaf, who are freed from pumping dirty and expensive gasoline, are contrasted in recent advertisements to their beleaguered conventional auto-driving brethren. The myth is that unlike gasoline, electricity is clean and virtually without cost. After all, it comes right from the walls of the most sanitized suburban enclaves, separated from the industrialization that makes them possible by noise-barriers, fences, as well as a great gaping ideological gulf.
The truth, of course, is that electricity can be just as dirty as gasoline. Only it is generally dirty somewhere else. So great is this distance, though, that even the relatively comprehensive thinkers at All Things Considered on NPR last year ran a story (with straight faces) about a zero-emission electric car, confusing its lack of a tailpipe for the elimination of emissions.
This sort of illiteracy is easily enough cleared up. The logic of geographical displacement is easy enough for most people to grasp. The images of belching smokestacks can be superimposed over the deceptive images of a pollution-free electric car in the mind’s-eye of a large enough portion of the population to eventually put the myth of the clean, green, emission-free electric car to rest.
Defenders of the electric car will of course protest: if you actually do the math, these plug-ins and hybrids do appear to have a smaller energy or carbon footprint—at least if enough “externalities” are maintained. But even to the extent that this might be true, it is besides the point—or at least the one I am making—about the diesel-truck sized hole in industrial society’s comprehension of basic energy literacy.
Far more troubling than this hyperbolic deception described above, however, is the potential net harm that electric and hybrid cars, as well as those run on bio-fuels, are likely to cause if they become adopted on a broad scale. This sort of energy illiteracy is less easily cleared up, as it requires a more complex grammar of energy than the subterfuge upon which electric car enthusiasm depends.
It is often suggested that coal replaced biomass, that oil replaced coal, that natural gas might replace both of them. Thus the conclusion that biofuels and electric cars might replace a transportation system run on oil. Unfortunately, coal replaced the burning of wood only in a very specific sense: it replaced the burning of wood as the PRIMARY fuel for heating and smelting of ores. If looked at in terms of total quantities, the use of coal was added to the burning of wood, which nevertheless continued to increase well into the coal age even up until the present moment.
Similarly, oil surpassed coal as a primary fuel, but in no way could it be said to have replaced coal, whose usage continued to rise even as the oil age was reaching its greatest moment of acceleration.
While the belief that renewable energy might replace fossil fuels even in the specialized sense, as the primary fuel whether for transportation or electricity, has not progressed far beyond the fantasy phase, it is certainly clear that they won’t replace fossil fuels in the more ordinary sense, in that more electrically powered cars will result in less oil usage. This will have a profound impact on the carbon-footprint of humanity as we approach a point of possible no-return with regard to atmospheric CO2 levels. For alternative fuels, such as bio-diesel, and alternatively powered automobiles will not replace conventional ones. They will simply be added to them, whether directly or according to the regrettable fungibility of atmospheric carbon.
As Gail Tverberg has recently pointed out, there is sufficient demand for every barrel of oil we can currently pump out of the ground. Should more become available, either at current prices or with the likely weakening of prices that greater supply would cause, it too will find a ready market and will disappear into our thickening air. In other words, current world demand will have no problem meeting any rise in supply, unless accompanied by severe financial dislocation. (http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2011-11-22/it-really-possible...
If this is true, the increased production of biofuels or electrically powered autos will, among other things, simply be ADDED to the total current supply of liquid fuels. Their carbon footprint, as well as their equally important general ecological one, will be ADDED to the current footprint of oil. Whether this happens through the burning of biofuels (even if we don’t consider the forests likely to be cleared for increased cultivation) or through more coal burning electrical power plants the increase of atmospheric carbon could be disastrous.
Even if our imaginary electrical car fleet were to be run off of wind turbines and solar panels, the consequences would be significant. The oil freed up from the transport sector would almost certainly be used for increased industrial expansion, while the wind turbines and solar panels are, themselves, not without their own ecological footprints.
The stark choice, then, may be to live in a world that uses 85 million barrels of oil a day (or however many remain available in years to come), or to live in a world that uses 85 million barrels of oil AND that is littered with solar panels and windmills.
As with most arguments, I should note in closing, that my title might overstate things a bit. There are, after all, other good reasons to experiment with alternative ways of powering our transportation system. Perhaps a future carbon tax will convince us to leave some of our oil and coal in the ground so that “clean energy: is actually replacing, and not just being added to, our current diet of fossil fuels. Perhaps the peak of peak oil will be sharp enough that electric cars will play a crucial role in easing the resulting jolt to society.
But in terms of a real solution to the global climate disruption, the electric car and the increased use of bio-fuels fall into what I wish were a more familiar category of ill-advised fantasies: the fantasy that we can somehow find a way of increasing or maintaining our technological and geographical conquest of the earth and all its biospheres and atmospheres that doesn’t also increase or maintain our destruction of them. . The hubris with which our society clung to this delusion will some day be legendary. Decreasing the scope, size, and scale of the human endeavor is the only realistic solution to a climate on the verge of runaway change