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Will Electric Cars and Solar Power Make Gasoline and Utilities Obsolete? 734

Posted by timothy
from the that-dog-won't-hunt dept.
cartechboy writes "Since the dawn of time (or modern civilization) two things have happened: utility companies have made money by selling us electricity, and oil companies make money by selling us gasoline. But is it possible we are on the verge of upsetting this status quo? Tony Seba, an entrepreneur and lecturer at Standford University, is writing a book in which he essentially predicts electric cars and solar power will make gasoline and utilities obsolete by 2030. How, you might ask? In his book, titled Disrupting Energy: How Silicon Valley Is Making Coal, Nuclear, Oil And Gas Obsolete, he predicts that as people buy electric cars the interest in clean energy will increase because who wouldn't want 'free travel'? Combining the use of solar panels and electric cars, consumers would be able to do just that. The miles electric cars travel on grid energy stored in their batteries eliminates the demand for gasoline, and it turns out many electric-car owners have solar panels on their homes while eliminates or dramatically reduces their dependence on utilities. So as the amount of electric cars on the road increases, the cost of both solar panels electric-car battery packs will decrease, right?"
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Will Electric Cars and Solar Power Make Gasoline and Utilities Obsolete?

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  • by RevWaldo (1186281) on Thursday January 23, 2014 @03:22PM (#46048807)
    Make that massively deployed. We need to start thinking about renewable energy sources that will deliver not only just enough energy but fucktons of it (it's a technical term.) Energy to desalinate water for cities, drill tunnels to link the continents with supersonic rail, launch vehicles into space using maglev, scrub the atmosphere, plasma-burn our poisonous waste, air-condition our domed cities, and all those other "big science" ideas that we'd be doing if we weren't waiting for fusion energy to finally work.

    .
  • Ice (Score:5, Interesting)

    by sootman (158191) on Thursday January 23, 2014 @03:24PM (#46048827) Homepage Journal

    Many years ago, ice was very expensive and rare. It was cut from frozen lakes in the north and was shipped all over. [wikipedia.org] Unimaginable now, and not everyone could have ice. Then, refrigeration came along and anyone, anywhere could have virtually unlimited ice for just the price of a machine, the cost of its maintenance, and electricity and water. Being able to preserve food (and medicine) is one of the single biggest contributors to lifespan and overall quantity of life the planet has ever seen. Being able to keep things arbitrarily and efficiently cool is also a key component of many manufacturing processes. Or anything else we currently take for granted -- imagine Google trying to keep their servers cool with harvested ice!

    But what if the ice companies of the past were as powerful as the energy companies of today? What if they got laws passed that made creating your own ice just as expensive as the older, horribly inefficient methods, for no reason other than "we're rich and we want to stay that way, but we don't want to have to compete with progress"? Imagine if it was prohibitively expensive to buy a refrigerator, and illegal or expensive to make your own. Where would we, as a society and a planet, be?

    (The same argument can be applied to stifling IP laws as well.)

  • by dkleinsc (563838) on Thursday January 23, 2014 @03:44PM (#46049119) Homepage

    1. One reason oil and coal appear to be cheaper is that the costs of CO2 emissions are completely externalized. Introduce a cap-and-trade system or a CO2 tax and suddenly those won't look quite as economically attractive. (Obviously, you'll have to ignore this point if you think that there are no costs of CO2 emissions, as some do.)
    2. Another cost of oil that is mostly externalized and doesn't apply to solar are the military efforts to secure access to oil drilling locations. Again, less oil, less need for military ventures overseas that cost ridiculously large amounts of taxpayer money.
    3. The cost per KwH for solar installations has been dropping steadily. That means that the capital investment that oil and gas are competing is going down, the time needed to pay back the investment in electric bill savings is dropping, which means more people will opt for solar panels, regardless of what happens to other markets.
    4. There's a libertarian argument to be made here: If you have your own solar power plant that can power your house, then you don't need the heavily regulated utility companies. A power plant that doesn't exist has no government regulatory agency and the staff of bureaucrats that go with it. So by extension, you're reducing your own reliance on the government.
    5. Even without addressing points 1 and 2, the cost of accessing oil has been going up over the long-term. That's going to affect demand sooner-or-later and push people towards alternatives.

    It's sane, but I don't think it will happen by 2030. There's just too much money to be made in not having widespread solar power that I doubt we'll see a changeover anytime soon. And I'd expect homes to be converted before cars, since we know how to get a solar-powered home that works well, but electric cars have limits that are currently not as easy to adjust to.

  • by Todd Knarr (15451) on Thursday January 23, 2014 @04:06PM (#46049495) Homepage

    The problem with electric cars is the battery: high weight, limited capacity and thus range, hazardous materials which make replacement and disposal a headache. But, electric cars don't really need a battery, they need a source of electric power. Turbine engines run a lot cleaner than piston engines, have better fuel efficiency and run on a much wider variety of fuels, the problem was always stepping down the shaft speed to something a physical driveline could use. It's a lot easier, though, to run a generator at the high RPMs a turbine shaft naturally runs at, and a generator supplies electric power. I get the feeling the next step won't be pure-electric cars, but a hybrid with the conventional piston engine replaced by a small turbine and generator. That would reduce the demand for high-priced fuels, and also reduce the size of battery packs since you'd only need one with a ~20 mile range to cover short hops where it wouldn't be efficient to spin up the turbine.

    Turbine start would be easy: any generator is in principle also a motor, and since with no fuel being burned the turbine shaft isn't under load it shouldn't take too much power to spin it up enough to start. I'd imagine this'd make them really popular in northern latitudes where getting cars started in the winter is a bear. A turbine would be easier to start, plus would immediately start providing heat for the interior and defrosting.

  • Re:Uh? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Layzej (1976930) on Thursday January 23, 2014 @04:06PM (#46049499)

    They will put a "mile-o-meter" device in your car and charge/tax you for distance driven, Its been done before and will be easy to implement with today's technology.

    I propose we call this crazy new "mile-o-meter" technology an "odometer" - from the Greek words hodós ("path") and métron ("measure")! ;)

  • Re:Uh? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by lgw (121541) on Thursday January 23, 2014 @04:17PM (#46049635) Journal

    Batteries are already safer than fuel tanks. The only problem here is the manipulation of public perception regarding battery safety. Already we have efforts underway to undermine that perception

    Energy-dense, safe, cheap: pick 2 (at most). If you imagine some conspiracy to undermine public perception (beyond the normal sensationalism of the media), you should go back on your meds. The big energy companies will make their profits either way.

    What I would be on the look out for is an industry trend away from fossil fuels and on to hydrogen.

    Hydrogen is only practical to store and transport as a palladium-family hydride. While that gives very dense and very safe power storage, those metals aren't cheap: like a catalytic converter, it would take $100-200 just for the metal. You can actually make this "pumpable" with small palladium spheres, allowing existing gas infrastructure to be used for transport (the DoE patented the details during the Bush years, effectively protecting it as public domain), but the used palladium will need to be returned (like a battery swap) and the prospect for fraud there likely dooms the whole system.

  • Re:Ice (Score:4, Interesting)

    by bluefoxlucid (723572) on Thursday January 23, 2014 @04:45PM (#46050015) Journal

    I'm implying that solar panels are hilariously stupid and the worst solution to a problem.

    In major installations, they're inefficient as living fuck. you can do much better with parabolic concentrators, solar towers, the like. Shiny flat glass is not only inefficient, but fragile.

    In minor installations, they're expensive as living fuck, inconvenient (eventually you'll need to repair that roof...), and have dodgy ROI. Oh and better add on insurance--a 15 panel installation here has no less than 5 damaged panels, 3 of which are completely destroyed. Nobody else has solar. With long ROI, the risk of just coming out negative is so high.

    Solar water heat: evacuated tube collectors into a tank. Hell, in general, a solar collector--a trombe wall on the roof, evacuated tubes, whatnot--with an insulated pipeline circulating to a solar mass (a concrete, water-filled, or beeswax box packed inside massive insulation, about the size of a chest freezer if you use beeswax but that shit is expensive as silver!) is a lot more effective. You can pipe the collected energy to water heating, space heating, space cooling, and even to electricity generation using a sterling engine (potentially you could use a high-temperature heat pump to achieve cooking and high temperatures for more efficient heat-engine power generation, same concept as a solar tower).

    Advantage? In the case of evacuated tubes, extreme simplicity, low cost, ease of management, lower hazards, fast ROI (less than a year). A trombe wall on the roof has the disadvantage of being fixed, but the advantage of being fixed as well: the roof builds up over top of that part, containing insulation (You don't want your heat to radiate back out) and all the elements of a roof. It can be used for just space heating, or used as an isolated minor thermal mass and collector for a basement-stored thermal mass used to drive thermal equipment (water heater, space heating, sterling generator, thermal cooling, etc.). The disadvantage is weight--it's going to be a big piece of 2 inch thick concrete on your roof--and the complexity of insulated plumbing.

    Direct heating and thermal cooling reduce the number of transformations and increase efficiency of utilizing collected solar power. Solar energy used for space heating comes in as thermal energy (light) and is moved as thermal energy to space heat at near 100% efficiency. Solar energy used for cooling comes as thermal energy and is used to drive a thermal air conditioner (like those natural gas ACs that are all the rage now). Solar energy used to generate electricity is piped through a sterling engine to achieve 38% energy extraction as electricity instead of 19% or less.

    And then you need to consider mass core geothermal plants, non-disruptive hydroelectric (as opposed to disruptive), wind, quantum-newtonian-oscillation generators, and of course the storage mechanisms like FTL gasodiesel manufactured from atmosphere using excess electricity.

  • Re: Uh? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Immerman (2627577) on Thursday January 23, 2014 @11:25PM (#46053383)

    > I wonder if it's better to put the emphasis on reducing energy use in the home rather than on the automobile.

    The reason that doesn't work as well is
    (1) people have moving towards more energy efficient appliances, etc for quite a while - going much further would require a change of lifestyle, and causing those intentionally seems to require either invasive mandates or a massive organized cultural blitz. Neither of which would go over well in the US. Besides which cars are responsible for about 30% of US CO2 emissions, while IIRC households are closer to 15%, or maybe 5, I forget exactly.

    (2) Cars are horribly inefficient - a well tuned power plant can burn fuel at ~50% efficiency, a car is typically doing good to get into the 25-30% range.

    (3) power plant emissions can be scrubbed to extract as much CO2 and pollutants as mandated, while short of putting frequently replaced exhaust filters in your car it can't do much better than having a catalytic converter to finish burning some of the more noxious intermediate byproducts.

    There's also a second, longer-term advantage to moving to electric vehicles. A gasoline engine can only ever run on gasoline, but an EV will run on whatever the power plants are using. Coal, solar, nuclear, wind, you name it, it all makes the same kind of electricity. That allows us to, at a later date, shift much more quickly to alternate energy sources, without the 20+ year lag as new car technology percolates down to the second-hand masses.

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