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World Futures: The Distribution Of Stuff – Part Four

on February 28, 2019 - 1:37pm
Los Alamos World Futures Institute

In the previous column we looked at the release of CO2, carbon dioxide, from the movement of people and food, with the principle energy for movement coming from fossil fuels. We ended with a data point from the United States Energy Information Administration that 1.709 billon tons of CO2 are released annually.
Today there is great concern (by some) about global warming, climate change and projected changes in humanity’s living environment. While the atmosphere of earth is changing due, at least in part, to the percentage of CO2 (remember that cow flatulence also plays a role), we still have to move stuff.
The movement and distribution of stuff requires different amounts of energy per unit mass and the efficiency of the movement process. For example, food is moved in amassed configurations to reduce the cost of movement and energy consumed (one of the cost factors).

People, on the other hand, by individual choice, are moved very inefficiently. Recall that 135 million people in the United States commute and average 32 miles to and from work daily and 76 percent travel alone. One partial solution would be to dehydrate all food products. We could survive on ramen noodles using local water, assuming sufficient availability. This is probably unacceptable. Or we could eliminate all personal transportation vehicles. This is probably unacceptable. Or, we could change the source of energy for movement from fossil fuels to electricity.
We all understand electricity. Just plug in your appliance and it runs, usually.
Charge your cell phone and store energy in its battery and you are ready to go. Carry a backup battery and you can text or watch videos even longer. Of course you periodically need to recharge or refill your “electricity gas tank.” So why not have everyone convert to electrically powered transportation?

After all, when your fossil fuel powered vehicle needs gas, you refuel it at the gasoline station, assuming you have some money. If your car runs on electricity, just plug it into your power outlet. How much does gasoline cost versus electricity?

While we usually do not calculate the cost per mile of commuting, we do, usually, pay attention to the miles per gallon (or miles per fill up) our vehicle gets for a visceral gut feeling of commuting costs. And the price is cited in dollars, cents, and mils per gallon. Electricity is priced by the kilowatt-hour (kWh). How do you do the comparison?
To help us out, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created the miles per gallon gasoline equivalent (MPGe) metric. As an example, consider the 2019 Chevrolet Bolt EV Automatic (A1) vehicle. It has a combined (city and highway) MPGe rating of 119 or it gets the equivalent of 119 miles per gallon of gasoline. This is based on the energy content of a gallon of gasoline and the kilowatt-hours used by the vehicle. Per additional information, the vehicle uses 28 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity to go 100 miles. That means it uses 33.32 kWh to go 119 miles. So all you have to do is compare the cost of 32.32 kWh of electricity to the cost of gasoline to travel 119 miles with gasoline (4.76 gallons at 25 miles per gallon).  Or you could just use 100 miles for some calculations.

Doing some rough calculations using the cost of gasoline per gallon, the cost of electricity per kWh, assuming 25 miles per gallon of gasoline, and complete efficiency of the electrical charging system, I found the following cost numbers for travelling 100 miles:

State                   Electricity ($)    Gasoline ($)

  • Hawaii                13.01                7.29
  • Massachusetts    9.54                 4.79
  • California            13.09                4.50
  • New Mexico         8.48                 2.69
At first glance, you can really save money by going electric. But what does the vehicle cost? Here are a few 2019 base msrp’s: Chevy Bolt - $36,620; Honda Clarity EV - $34,200; Smart EQ Fortwo coupe - $29,050; and Tesla Model S P100D - $138,000. Who can afford to switch? And if it is required for all cars be electric, what is the trade-in value of your gas burner?

Now consider electricity distribution and the 2019 Hyundai Ioniq listed by the EPA at 25 kWh per 100 miles. Assume 13,474 miles per year and 222 million licensed drives (previously cited). Doing the math, you need 0.7478 trillion kWh input into the vehicles. Per my Google search, in 2017, 4.03 trillion kWh of electricity were generated in the United States. Of this generated electricity, 63 percent came from fossil fuels. Look at the numbers again: 0.7478 trillion versus 4.03 trillion. It should be an easy conversion, but why do we use so much electricity based on fossil fuels? And converting from fossil fuels powering cars to electrical power for cars will provide only a 37 percent reduction in fossil fuel consumption for car movement.
There is great concern about the emission of CO2 and its contribution to environment change. Some CO2 is obviously needed if we want to grow plants as we know them. But is our current CO2 emission level too high?  Where do we go?

In 1806, Francois Issac de Rivaz built a hydrogen-oxygen internal combustion engine. Seventy nine years later, Karl Benz developed a gasoline powered car and in 1913 the Model T was introduced. Today we have over 1.2 billion vehicles on the road worldwide and projected to be 2 billion or more by 2035. Fossil fuels or electricity is the question. While electricity seems to be the obvious answer, where do we get the stuff and how do we deliver it?
Until next time...
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