atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

#3250: "Too cheap to meter" would be good

UK pondering a switch to a thorium-based energy economy.

...actually, that's an exaggeration. The UK is contemplating including thorium reactors in its infrastructure--but having Parliament consider the issue is not the same as the UK surpassing the US.

If you think that man-made CO2 is a dire threat to the ecosystem, you shouldn't be talking about "cap and trade" and other nonsense. What you should be doing is finding ways to make the emissions-free generation of electricity as cheap as possible.

The big stumbling block that gets in the way of the electrification of personal transport is the fact that batteries just don't have the energy density of fossil fuels. Look: pound for pound, gasoline has more energy tucked in it than dynamite does--their relative explosiveness is due to differences in how the molecules behave in seeking lower energy states. When gasoline explodes, it's merely burning very fast while dynamite actually explodes--but ironically the molecule stores less energy than gasoline's does. Less energy, but released much faster, makes bigger bang.

(In The Terminator where Arnold asks the gun dealer for a "phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range"? Do you know how much it will hurt you to absorb 40 watts of energy in a millisecond? Hint: don't plan anything else that day--or ever after. A 40-watt incandescent light bulb, however, does not emit much light and is poor illumination for a room.)

You can pump a dozen gallons of gasoline into your 1995 Ford Escort in about 10 minutes at most--including "paying at the pump"--and that gasoline will take you some 400 miles.

A Chevy Volt must charge for 14 hours, after which it will take you 40 miles before the gasoline engine must start up.

See the problem?

For most people, a 40-mile range is just not practical. A day of running errands can use that up--and 40 miles is optimistic. That's on a pleasant day when you don't need heat or air conditioning in the car.

...but what if you could park the car and plug it in while you shopped? While you were in the bank? At the hair salon, browsing the tool store, waiting for your kid's braces to be tuned up? Eh?

What if you could park your car over a charging coil and not even have to plug it in?

Understand this: right now electricity costs $0.12 per kilowatt-hour because the utility companies have to buy fuel to burn in their boilers, to make steam to turn turbines. But what if it became so cheap to generate electricity that it cost more than it was worth to bill by the kilowatt-hour?

Internet access used to cost a packet. Before it was the Internet, if you didn't work for a university or a defense contractor you had to dial in to an online service like Compuserve. It cost ten dollars an hour (for 300 baud access!).

But look how things are now: you pay a flat fee ($40 or so) per month and you get virtually unlimited high-speed access to the Internet. (Okay, my provider limits me to 150 GB per month. 150 GB is a stunningly high number if you're not streaming video or running a torrent box 24/7.)

Internet access is so cheap businesses can afford to give it away as a way of enticing customers to patronize them. Public libraries offer it, and other places do--some of them rather surprising.

Uranium and thorium are abundant enough in Earth's crust that there is absolutely no physical reason we couldn't be generating electricity that's too cheap to meter. All the barriers are political.

...and, ironically, some of those barriers are erected by the very people who wish we'd stop burning hydrocarbons for energy.

And if electricity were too cheap to meter I can guarantee that electric cars would be a hell of a lot more commonplace than they are now. Especially if businesses began to offer "Free car charging!" as a premium for their customers. And if your electric car could be charged whenever it was parked, you'd be able to drive farther before you had to park it for those 14 hours and refill the batteries.

We wouldn't have to enact any new taxes or controls or anything; hydrocarbon-powered vehicles would just gradually go the way of the dodo. There'd be plenty of people who'd stick with them, of course--but enough folks would make the switch that the EPA could safely do away with emissions controls on the remainder, because so many people wouldn't be burning gasoline and diesel any more. (As things stand right now, I'd be totally fine in this brave new world: most of my driving is 1-2 mile hops. Sometimes I go 10-20, but not often.)

But the story doesn't end there.

...because what happens when electric cars find such wide adoption? Competition, that's what...and companies start putting a lot of money into trying to develop better battery technologies, things that store more electrons per cubic centimeter, and do it faster, than what we can do at present--because the company that has faster-charging batteries--or batteries that can go longer between charges, or both!--will sell more cars than the one sticking with lead-acid or lithium ion batteries.

And eventually, electric cars have the same range as hydrocarbon-fueled ones. And someday maybe they can even be charged as quickly as the old stinkers were refueled.

* * *

Some of this is pie-in-the-sky. Most of it. We're not going to do the smart thing because there are too many entrenched special interests out there.

But it'd be nice if we could. Oh well.

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