The fossil fuel debate sadly takes up too much real estate due to rearguard fighting against disinformation that litters the landscape. It’s a huge task merely to point out the fundamentals, such as how much fuel we actually consume, how much we rely on it, and how hard it will be to change to something else.
Elaborating on these subjects comes across as a single-minded defense of fossil fuels, and it’s not. Certain fundamental realities need to be clearly understood by the masses before even considering switching to new technologies on a large scale. We shouldn’t crap on idealistic scenarios just because they are revolutionary, but before adopting them wholeheartedly we need to keep in mind the realities that have been forgotten, ignored, or distorted, like the fact that we globally consume 95 million barrels of oil and 340 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day. Replacing that energy will require, to put it mildly, some thought. Converting a city to run on renewable energy would be a daunting task, and it’s not ideological propaganda to say that converting a country or 10 percent of the globe would be a an infrastructure project of staggering proportions.
A byproduct of this jousting is that misinformation itself may take root, such as the thought that us energy industry workers dismiss electric vehicles (EVs) or the like as preposterous. Some may, but many do not, and some long ago expressed great admiration for Tesla and what it’s accomplished. Anyone who’s ever climbed into a Tesla has to be impressed by the packaging, technology, and pretty much the whole package.
Vehicles that move via electric motors are an inevitable development. What is not inevitable is that standard battery packs that have become synonymous with EVs will power them. EVs have come to mean only one thing – huge battery packs that power electric motors and are charged via some sort of plug in. We focus on what happens downstream of that plug in, that is, the auto’s range, features, size, etc. What happens before the plug in is simply taken for granted; power is everywhere and it’s cheap, especially so if consumed during the night. But that is a gross oversimplification.
Electric power is somewhat inevitable, because it’s clean and because the alternative – oil – is soon going to become scarce, or cheap oil will anyway. Shale oil makes the headlines, but it can’t possibly keep up with global demand. Environmental concerns will only add to the cost. For personal transportation, that means that fossil fuels’ predominance will, at some point, slide. The most logical replacement will be through electricity, but a valid question is: will the electricity be from batteries, or from hydrogen?
Don’t laugh. It really is a horse race, though you would never know that from the media. Battery-electric vehicles have all but taken over in the global view thanks to lazy reporting. It’s easy to get swept away by headlines about Volvo’s EV plans, or Porsche, or whoever…but availability of vehicular options isn’t going to be the problem; infrastructure is.
Green energy has two main thrusts – solar/wind to generate it, and batteries to store it/power everything. But the two pillars of the faith are presently incompatible. Solar and wind produce maximum power at the wrong times, and there are not sufficient batteries to store the incredible amounts of energy that are required to fuel society every day. (In winter, there is no hope of replacing natural gas, but that’s another story.) The difficulty of the task shouldn’t be underestimated; people have been trying for a very long time to come up with brilliant new energy storage solutions, and we’re not getting that far. As an example, California (or some parts of it) was considering storing solar power by melting salt, and extracting the energy as it solidifies. If they’ve gone that far, imagine all the alternatives that have been tried and discarded.
Hydrogen, however, makes a lot of sense for storage of electricity, which can then power fuel cells and electric motors. While not without its challenges, hydrogen offers a huge infrastructure-related benefit that die-hard environmentalists fight against tooth and nail, on principle.
First, the drawbacks: hydrogen is difficult to store and transport, requiring special pressure tanks that take up space in vehicles and require additional infrastructure at fueling stations. The storage difficulties also touch on the biggest knock against hydrogen, that the infrastructure would have to be built from scratch. Hydrogen critics point to this as insurmountable and/or impractical to consider.
On the other hand, those criticisms miss an important point. Hydrogen can be sourced from natural gas. The critical infrastructure for natural gas distribution already exists; incremental portions would only be required to be built on that infrastructure. The word “only” is perhaps a little weak; there is a lot of building required. However, it is important to compare apples to apples, to compare the electrical infrastructure that would be required to energize mass numbers of EVs.
This latter point is often downplayed or swept under the rug by fossil fuel haters. They point out that EV batteries are themselves storage, which is true, and which could be used to move power back and forth into the grid as required as part of the smart grid.
That is definitely true, but it is also true that a mass conversion to a smart grid will be an incredibly daunting task, absolutely comparable with building out a hydrogen fuel system.
The biggest benefit of hydrogen though is that it is fundamentally more synergistic with solar and wind power than batteries are. Or, in other words, hydrogen is the battery. Hydrogen could be created when the sun is strongest and the wind blows hardest, as opposed to a mechanical battery which is expensive, cumbersome, wears out, and is full of toxic metals that are in short supply and/or are toxic to mine and process.
No one can even pretend to understand all the implications of upending the fossil fuel industry (lost jobs, obsolete infrastructure, decimated stock portfolios, government tax revenue annihilation, etc.) and rewiring the electrical industry (implement smart grid everywhere, rewire residential neighbourhoods for peak loads, battery production, etc.) within even a moderate time frame. Imagine the infrastructure in place to deliver 95 million b/d of oil and 340 bcf/d of natural gas, and imagine abandoning that to build a replacement. No academic I’ve ever heard of has tried to imagine that scenario. There are many that gleefully speculate on what a 4 degree temperature increase would look like, such as the ridiculous but famous New York magazine piece, but no one can imagine what would be the implications of a single one of these mega-events would be, like if the value of the top 10 petroleum companies went to zero in short order (hint: several trillion gone from pension funds and investors, not easily replaced with green profits).
And finally, some wag, as sure the sun will rise tomorrow, will bring up buggy whip manufacturers, how one industry naturally dies as another rises. Go ahead with the futile analogy if you must, but please provide a few data points for the excruciatingly lazy comparison: over the 10-20 year period when automobile sales took over, how many buggy whip jobs were lost in the transition, and how many automotive jobs were created? If the prevailing sentiment is that this ratio would be the same in the transition from fossil fuels to green energy, the world is as doomed as if the temperature goes up 100 degrees.
Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam here