Coal Fueled Teslas

Several countries are making proclamations that state all new cars shall be electric by a certain date.  Who decided on electric cars?  I know they sound “clean” but where does that electricity come from?

About 30.4% of electricity in the United States is generated from coal.  About 19.7% is generated from nuclear.  So over 50% of the US power is from coal and nuclear. The remaining is as follows:  natural gas = 34%, hydro = 6.5%, wind = 5.6%, biomass = 1.5%, solar = <1% plus other misc. sources.

While there are more engineers alive today than all during history there are several problems with electric cars that have to be overcome.  Of course everyone knows that batteries are a problem.  They are heavy, do not hold enough charge for long trips, are expensive and they are a problem to dispose of at the end of their service life. The electric motors themselves require rare earth magnets for high efficiency.  You can induce an electric field without them but the efficiency suffers.  Most rare earth magnets are mined in China.

One very big problem with mandating that all cars be electric is the grid.  If everyone charged their cars at home at night the existing grid would not be large enough to handle the additional load.  Not only would we have to burn more coal or build more nuclear power generating plants, we would have to upgrade the existing electrical distribution system (the grid) to service all the additional electric load that the EVs would require.  Most older home electrical services would also have to be upgraded as well.

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Government decrees seems to have decided things, however, decrees from on high are not engineered solutions.  What happened to free market solutions?  The government did not decide for people to turn in their horse and buggies for cars; market forces did so because they were more efficient.  Even so the transition took many years to completely phase out animal power.  In spite of all the movies showing the latest in German tanks during WWII most (about 80%) of the logistical “beans and bullets” were still moved by horses and wagons even as late as 1944.  This was 40 years after Ford’s model A was introduced onto the market.   A shift from IC (internal combustion) engine powered vehicles to EVs will take longer than anyone in government thinks right now.  Until some “magic” is discovered soon to make batteries hold more power in a smaller package that is lighter and costs less and charges faster, there is going to be trouble talking people into buying them.

Whatever happened to natural gas powered cars?  The existing internal combustion (IC) engines can run on compressed natural gas (CNG) with minor modifications. Fueling stations are not too difficult to build and natural gas is already distributed around the country.  Regular gasoline fueling stations could offer natural gas with the addition of a compressor and metering system.  Fueling at a commercial fueling station could be done in about the same time it takes to fuel a gasoline car.  While people state that compressed natural gas (CNG) is dangerous to handle, I counter that gasoline is equally dangerous and we seem to manage.  Finally, we have an abundance of natural gas in the United States so it makes sense to use it here. Regular IC engines that burn natural gas would allow for long trips, which are the main problem with electric cars.  Natural gas also burns cleaner than gasoline. Engines also last about twice as long when burning CNG.  The cost for CNG per mile is also much less (about half) the cost of gasoline with the present pricing.  There are several production cars now that run exclusively on CNG and some that run on both CNG and gasoline.  The Honda Civic GX runs on CNG and has almost zero emissions except for carbon dioxide which is the same thing that we breathe out and that trees require for life.

There are over 1 billion (1,000 million) passenger cars and light duty vehicles in service around the world today.  Currently there are only about 2 million electric vehicles (EVs) in service around the world.  That is only 0.2% of the total of passenger light duty vehicles.  There are currently 24.4 million CNG vehicles in use. There are about 5 million CNG vehicles in China, 4 million in Iran, 3 million in Pakistan, 3 million in India, 2.3 million in Argentina but only 0.16 million in the United States.  Most of the current growth of CNG vehicles is in the Asia-Pacific region of the world.  Right now it appears the problem is that gasoline is just too cheap.  If there were more CNG fueling stations and there were tax incentives for CNG cars like there are for EVs then I feel CNGs would be much more popular.  I can remember in the early 1960s it was quite common for most light farm trucks to run on butane that is similar to CNG.  Most could run on either butane or gasoline and would start on gasoline until the engine warmed up and then would switch over.

Fuel cells that run on hydrogen are not a realistic alternative.  Hydrogen and oxygen can be made from water through electrolysis.  The process requires electricity and is not economically efficient.  Offshore platforms with wind generators can convert seawater to hydrogen and then pipe the hydrogen to shore easier than sending the electricity to shore.  Even so, a distribution system would have to be set up to use it in automobiles.  It would make more sense to store this hydrogen and use it in power generation to be distributed through the existing power grid than to try to construct a hydrogen distribution system.

Many people have no idea that most natural gas was simply flared off at oil well sites since the discovery of oil to as late as the 1940’s in many parts of the US.  The natural gas was a nuisance in most instances and it was flared so the oil could be produced.  There was no infrastructure to collect the gas and distribute it for sale.  Oil could be easily collected in tanks and hauled to a refinery in trucks or rail tank cars. Natural gas was a bigger problem to collect and transport.  Much of the commercialization of natural gas was pioneered in Shreveport.  Companies such as United Gas Pipeline Company and Texas Eastern Transmission Company were built upon harnessing the natural gas and bringing it to market.  After WWII the Big inch (24”) and Little inch (20”) pipelines were purchased from the US government as war surplus and converted from oil pipelines to natural gas carrying product from the East Texas fields to the Northeastern US for a distance of 1,200 miles. It took unheard of fortunes to slowly create the infrastructure of compressors and pipelines and right-of-ways to make it all happen.  Then markets had to be developed to use the natural gas.  It is doubtful that it could even be done again in today’s regulatory environment.  The fact that we have such a collection and distribution system for natural gas is just one more reason to use it as a fuel for transportation.  Not to mention that we currently have such a glut of natural gas that we are trying to send it around the world as we cannot use it all domestically.

I believe that there is not a single solution to the problem of automobile propulsion in the near future.  City buses, postal carriers, local UPS delivery vehicles could easily run on compressed natural gas (CNG) from a single central fueling station.  Trains could also easily run the on board electrical generators on natural gas instead of diesel to power their electric motor drives.  Commuter cars could easily be electric since they have limited range but the real workhorse vehicles that need longer range capability could be a combination of CNG, gasoline and diesel fuels.  The true answer is to let the markets decide.  Fuel taxes or road use tax could be adjusted based on how clean each fuel burned.  Diesel fuel would probably have the highest fuel tax, followed by gasoline, and then natural gas.   Right now there is no fuel tax (or road use tax) on electric fuel for electric cars.  This probably needs to be adjusted somehow based on miles driven and type of fuel used to produce electricity in your area.  If most of the electricity is generated by coal in your area then your indirectly coal fired EV probably pollutes more than you imagine.  After all, the road use tax is supposed to be used to build and maintain the highways and should be paid for by those who use the roads.  Those who travel more use more fuel and therefore pay more road use tax.  Somehow electric cars must be taxed as well to pay for the roads on which they also drive.

Unleash the engineers on the problem and keep the government decrees out of the picture if you want the best solutions.  One size doesn’t fit all and multiple solutions for different applications in different areas will present themselves.  Top down central planning never works best.

The same can be said of money.  Government decreed digits in a computer might not be the best way to store wealth and transact business.  Crypto-currencies, gold and silver coins, and other forms of money might work much better.  Because of government decree only FRNs (federal reserve notes) qualify for payment of taxes.  FRNs are issued by a private bank that was given a license to conjure up money out of thin air.  It’s hard to compete with that type of government subsidy.

The government mandarins should get out of the way with their tax credits, subsidies and special privileges’ and let the market decide what works best in both cases.