If we only had the energy

Published 2:40 pm Monday, December 14, 2009

During and prior to Thanksgiving, Ivan was here at Birdland. At one point he, our youngest son Nate, and I were sitting around waiting for the football game to begin and kicking around ideas about a variety of subjects. One of the things we discussed was the use of hybrid and all-electric cars and the effect of this on air pollution. Ivan is an engineer and the Director of Electricity Supply for Con Edison in New York, so we thought his ideas would be informed and up-to-date.

I had initially thought that we could talk about alternative fuels, but soon learned that alternatives arent a good solution to the problem.

With ethanol, for example, the cost of tilling, planting, harvesting, transporting, processing, and distributing means that it takes almost as much energy to produce as it delivers. Ethanol is corrosive, and manufacturing is a source of carbon as a by-product. Waste disposal makes the nuclear option less attractive.

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The all electric car idea is a good one, but the problems associated with it are going to take years to resolve. The first of these problems lies in the area of battery technology. While advances in this field appear to be coming rapidly, we still do not have inexpensive batteries that will hold available energy for long enough periods, are light enough to be easily replaced, and will last long enough to be practical.

The second problem isnt directly related to the car itself, but to the source of the energy it will use the power plants. A shift to all electric cars will force an equal shift in demand on power plants, which are the number one source of air pollution in the country.

It is true that power generation plants have far less demand at night, so re-charging at home during off-peak times makes sense. That still means increased load. This would cause equipment to wear out and need to be replaced faster.

The increased load will mean either new plants or running current plants for longer periods of time i.e. more pollution.&bsp; A move from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy, then, becomes the real concern.

Wind farms are a good idea, but getting the power from places where wind farms are an efficient source of power to where it is needed is proving to be difficult. Other criticisms include: noise, the effect on surrounding property values, aesthetics, unpredictability, TV/Radio signal interference and safety issues. Duke Energy recently announced that they will build a wind farm in Colorado in 2010, and that they already have a 20-year contract for the power they will generate. Incidentally, off-shore wind farms are a growing technology that we may see more of in the future. &bsp;

Solar power is another good idea, but you cant use solar technology on cloudy days or at night. The problem of storing the power is again an issue in this scenario. Nate mentioned reading about a plan for using laser technology from space to activate power generation on earth that is at least in the exploration stage very interesting. &bsp;

Ivan suggests that some combination of these technologies is likely to be the next step in our search for answers to producing enough clean power to make the switch to electric cars viable. He warns that progress in battery technology is still necessary.

We had a lot of fun imagining that future service stations will carry a supply of charged batteries that could be switched out, that batteries for differing makes and models of cars need to be standardized, and that those batteries should slide easily In and out of place so the consumer can use them, etc.

Because of his position and training, Ivan foresaw problems with having sufficient storage space for a service station to carry enough replacements to get through a day. He said, Think about how many cars go through an average service station in a day. How much space would be needed to accommodate that many cars with batteries? How would the station owners then go about re-charging the units they collect each day in order to be ready for the next days traffic? And self service wouldnt be practical for a large number of consumers due to the weight of the units.&bsp;&bsp;&bsp;&bsp;&bsp;&bsp;&bsp;&bsp;&bsp;&bsp;&bsp;&bsp; &bsp;

While the solutions to becoming more environmentally friendly, energy efficient, and less dependent on oil are not in our immediate future, it is heartening to know that the problems are being addressed. I hope that the R&D money is out there and being spent wisely. &bsp;

As Ben Franklin said, Energy and persistence alter all things~ Birdland written by Don Weathington