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Monday, July 7, 2008

The Better Battery Lie

What would you think if a candidate's grand plan to remedy the gas crisis was a contest for the invention of a better gas tank?

McCain has issued the single funniest campaign promise of the century.

Trying, I am sure, to position himself as a green candidate, he issued a statement that he would introduce a plan to offer a $300 million dollar "x-prize" type award to any group that could "invent a better car battery".

News flash to McCain, we are in the throws of an energy crisis. There isn't enough energy! Nowhere is this more true than with electricity. You can't just go a-drill'n for electricity. Ever hear of a power plant? Electricity is a secondary source... must be converted from a primary source (oil, gas, rivers, wind, solar, wave, geothermal, nuclear). In fact, electricity is more of a transmission medium than a source. And of course any transmission system uses some of its energy just getting that energy from there to here.

McCain is appealing to the public's ignorance.

Electricity is incredibly convenient. Once all the wires have been installed... just walk over and plug in that George Foreman. But don't confuse convenience with efficiency. Electricity transmission isn't all that efficient. Some 25% of electricity produced at a power plant is lost to friction in the wires... escapes as heat! Compare that to the transport of gas in tanker trucks. You see those huge 45 foot long tanks being pulled by a truck drawing its energy from those relatively dinky 55 gallon gas tanks just behind the cab.

But what really makes McCains "plan" outrageous, is the same thing that makes any talk of a nation driving around in electric cars outrageous. We can barely power our little laptops and light bulbs and cook our dinners on the power carried on our nation's electrical grid. Look around your house... see any 300 horsepower motors running at full throttle? The most power-hungry home appliances suck up about one horsepower worth of energy. A house full of appliances going full bore is using way less than a 10th the power your car uses to cruse down the highway.

So what would happen if everybody was to fill their car's "tank" (battery) with electricity every night? This would add 10 to 20 times the demand on a system already operating near maximum capacity.

When you run out of milk, do you complain about the empty carton? Would a better milk bottle result in more milk? That is simply and sadly hilarious.

We don't need better containers for electricity.... we need electricity to put in all those containers. I doubt if McCain is smart enough to deserve a conspiratorial critique, but if he was, I would wonder if he was trying to create another four year long smoke screen or excuse for inaction. You know, get people to believe the problem is about the battery to deflect interest in the real problem of energy access and production.

Which is not to say that improvements won't be made in batteries. Of course they will. A better battery is one that will hold more in less space, weigh less, have a longer life, recharge faster, be cheaper to manufacture, operate safer, contain and release fewer toxins, and easily recycle. But even if we had the perfect battery right now, we wouldn't be any closer to a national or global electric vehicle solution.

Listen, nobody wants to dam up more rivers, and really, there aren't that many left to dam. Nobody seems to want a nuclear power plant near them. There is limited geothermal to be tapped. Solar and wind hold the most promise as sources for electricity... but the infrastructure is expensive to build up. So far, solar and wind are still very very very alternative... supply just single digit fractions of the electricity demanded by our domestic lifestyles. If you re-figure your numbers to reflect the energy demands of transportation, forget about it... solar and wind would contribute less than one tenth of one percent of demand.

If a candidate was truly interested in solving the energy problem, he or she would be talking to the real issues. Where do we get the energy? How can we reduce our demand? How can we make cars that use a lot less energy? What would it take to divert more of the energy that is now distributed at gas stations onto our electrical grid? Is that even an efficient or effective solution?

Here is a hint: If cars weighed one third as much as they do now, they would use roughly a third of the gas they now use. If today's cars get 30 mpg cutting their weight by two thirds would result in 90 mpg. What that energy is or where it comes from really doesn't matter as much as how much of it is used to get you and your stuff from point A to Target.

If you are interested in solving the global warming problem, burning less fuel matters more than what you do with the energy after you burn it. A nation driving cars that get 3 times the millage puts only 1 third the green house gasses up where they can mess with the earth.

Either we need smarter candidates, or we need candidates willing to be honest about difficult issues. Becoming a smart and informed electorate is a good way to get both.

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