And the winner is… BATTERY ENGINEERS!
Back around the time I wrote the book Green at No Cost in 2009, the world of fossil fuels, biofuels, and batteries had a different look.
Fossil fuel consumption was peaking, and biofuels and batteries were on an exponential upward curve.
In my engineering circle, there was a variation of the “liars and damned liars” joke that went, “there are liars, damned liars, and battery engineers!”
It’s time to take that back.
It’s the CO2—Stupid!
Our transportation energy use is a complex mix of commercial and personal vehicles. Our entire economy is underlain by the mobility of these transportation modes. Improving mobility has the dual advantage of increasing commerce and saving time.
The graphs show how closely energy and carbon dioxide emissions correlate, but they are not the same thing. Imagine a world where transportation is powered directly by the sun. Would we think about mobility the same way? With fossil fuels, it is now mainly the CO2 we care about. CO2 emissions correlate with resource depletion and externalized costs.
The real issues in transportation center on vehicle efficiency, vehicle right sizing, capacity utilization, flow efficiency, route efficiency, and proximity improvements. The value process challenge is to improve transportation efficiency so that sustainable fuels can be substituted for CO2-emitting fuels in order to get Green at No Cost.
Competitive Renewable Fuels
As new technologies propagate, they grow to an equilibrium state. As technologies mature and are better understood, tax and regulatory mechanisms gradually mitigate or remove externalities such as negative environmental impacts. Green taxes raise the price of a finite or harmful product to the level of the next viable sustainable alternative.
For example, placing a tax on pollution-generating electricity allows clean-generated sources of electricity to compete. As clean technologies improve, they will be able to undercut the floor price and displace the old technology. Coal-generated power will soon be a thing of the past.
Which country became the world leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in 2008? The USA! Did the USA implement massive government intervention to go green? No! The reduction came through the price mechanism. Green taxes can give the price mechanism a push in the right direction.
Battery-powered transportation requires enormous increases in electric power generation. Fortunately, these resources dwarf our needs, and batteries can store the fluctuations of day/night and windy/calm conditions. We do need infrastructure to distribute these supplies, so how do we pay for the investment?
Pay at the Pump
Once upon a time in North America, a tax on gas paid for the highway systems tied the continent together.
Societies have shown they will willingly pay transportation taxes to fund investments in transportation infrastructure. Historically, transportation infrastructure provides massive benefits to society and increases standards of living through trade, commerce, travel, and security.
A carbon price can cover homegrown infrastructure investment while offsetting the externalized cost of pollution, a large-scale energy security apparatus, and the rapid drawdown of resources.
While battery engineers are having the last laugh, biofuel engineers are having to stretch out their timelines.
“Research by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), has shown a direct and positive relationship between carbon pricing and innovation, even at low carbon prices. We could eliminate our costly and often ineffective technology-specific subsidies that require governments to pick worthwhile ventures.” ~ (Christopher Ragan 2011).
At that time, transportation fuel consumption for the US was about 150 billion gallons per year. Steep growth in biofuel production along with a significant improvement in efficiency would cause supply and demand to intercept sometime around 2030.
Since our vehicle fleet and fuel distribution infrastructure was all set up for liquid fuels, biofuels seemed to be the leading contender for sustainable transportation.
Back around the time, I wrote Green at No Cost in 2009, the world of fossil fuels, biofuels, and batteries had a different look.
Fossil fuel consumption was peaking, and biofuels and batteries were on an exponential upward curve. Since fossil fuels were running out, finding ways to save was essential. Green at No Cost laid out ways to reduce consumption by 2050 by 60 percent. At that time, transportation fuel consumption for the US was about 150 billion gallons per year.
However, projected growth in biofuel production halted its exponential rise right when it was expected to take off. Current production is stuck around 1% of total consumption, taking biofuels out of our sustainable future for decades to come.
A decade ago Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV) were projected to improve efficiency 4 times compared to Spark Ignition Engines (SIE), the equivalent of cutting current gas prices from $6 to $1.50 per gallon.
While Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV) were the most efficient, the purchase price was not affordable to mainstream buyers.
Could cost reductions for these batteries ever save this technology from the engineering epithet that, “there are liars, damned liars, and battery engineers!?”
The trick is to find the balance between first cost and life cycle cost
While super high-efficiency motors were available, they were not affordable nor necessarily practical. In 2010, total vehicle and fuel costs of $30,000 for a Spark Ignition Engine (SIE) vehicle used $2.50 per gallon of gasoline driving 100,000 miles at about 25 miles per gallon.
It would have taken a gas price of 7 times $2.50, $17.50 per gallon, to equal the cost of the battery of a Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV).
“The limiting factor to the cost-effectiveness of EVs is the price of batteries. Today batteries are around $700 per kW, but they need to come down to $300 per kW to be able to compete with conventional vehicles.” ~ (National Renewable Energy Laboratory A. Brooker, M. Thornton, and J. Rugh NREL 2010).
Humble apologies to battery engineers. The growth and cost reduction curves for batteries have proven out just as growth for solar power generation are coming on stream with clean power to fuel clean transportation.
Tesla has gone beyond the $300 per kWh, leading the pack at $100 for 2022, shooting for $50 per kWh by 2030.
What does this mean? Is my vintage muscle car destined for the museum?
Conventional gas vehicles were projected to increase slightly in total cost of ownership back in 2020. Supply chain disruptions in the last two years have caused that cost to shoot up. Meanwhile, government programs are piling on subsidies that reduce – temporarily – the price of Battery Electric Vehicles.
What does this mean for the built environment?
Science fiction fantasies usually show a future with us herding into railcars. Green vehicles give people choice-based clean alternatives that run on existing infrastructure.
In 2010, savings in fuel consumption were required to reduce both costs and emissions. Green at No Cost required 4 times more efficiency to balance 4 times more cost. With scarce and diminishing resources, costs were bound to go up.
The abundance and endless stream of solar energy takes away supply-side constraints. Effective storage – batteries – takes away demand-side constraints, so long as we can recycle those resources.
Green at No Cost takes the view that we should, and always will, improve the efficiencies and capabilities of our world and choose what we value most. What we do with our ever-expanding options and capabilities will be the subject of our continuing series at Green at No Cost.