Sarah B. graced Ethics Alarms with a thorough and valuable discussion of the practical weaknesses of the climate change religion, or cult, or whatever it is. Here is her Comment of the Day on the post, “On Climate Change Fearmongering”…
There is a massive problem with climate change solutions proposed by this summit and many others, and they all come down to an attitude that electricity is as magic. All solutions to climate change seem to ride on the attitude that if we can just get everyone on perfect electricity and have them drive a Tesla, that we can get rid of nasty coal, natural gas, and oil. There are better options (nuclear) and worse options (wind and solar) for that approach, and while I could point out why replacing all fossil fuel electric production with nuclear, wind, or solar would fail to provide adequate electricity at all times from a technical standpoint, that is really unimportant to the discussion, as they all have one existential problem. Electricity cannot replace fossil fuels.
When it comes to replacing fossil fuels as the energy source of transportation, there are several obstacles that have to be overcome, and currently we don’t have any ideas of how to overcome them. Climate change activists are depending on revolutions that may or may not materialize. But something would have to dramatically change to address the fuel needs of heavy machinery, supply chain vehicles, and long-distance travel.
First, we can look at farming equipment. Tractors and combines cannot run long enough or far enough on battery capacity. Batteries just do not have the adequate power to mass ratio to allow these big machines to do their job.
Next, we can look at semis. A group ran a test by driving an unloaded electric semi truck across 1-80 in Wyoming in the summer. That stretch of road is known for three major troublesome spots: the Summit between Cheyenne and Laramie, the greater Elk Mountain Area, and the Three Sisters close to Evanston. These sections are especially difficult for traditional semis in the winter, so a summer trial without a load is somewhat of a joke. However, the report exuberantly exclaimed how well the semi did on the Summit (going down that steep grade, not up it) and the Elk Mountain area was handled with ease (coincidentally without the 60+ mph winds that make that region well known in energy circles for its wind farms on the day in question as they are found mostly in the winter time), but the desperation of the authors was clear when they discussed how the semi completely failed going up and down the mountains referred to as the Three Sisters. The truck struggled up the hills at a maximum of 5 miles an hour, draining the battery and blocking traffic as it dropped an entire lane out of service from a supply chain artery of our nation.
As for long-distance travel, there are two major issues. The first is the actual range of batteries, which are typically rated for pleasant ambient conditions and no peripheral electrical use. Current batteries suffer a dramatic hit in the cold. Without turning on the heat in the car, the range of the battery drops by around half or more when the ambient temperatures drop below freezing. With the best (and most expensive) battery of last year, that is a 300 mile range dropping to 150. Add in heat to the car, and no rural traveler can get to the next town.
The second issue is effective charging. The ultra fast chargers take 30 minutes to charge the car to 80% (80 to 100% is very time-taking to achieve even on these and is not considered in any large scale calculation due to the impracticality of the functional charging). 80% of 300 is 240, so that means on a standard trip, there are 60 miles of range that are effectively removed from consideration. What this amounts to is more frequent need to charge, placing higher demand on charging stations. If we suppose that a normal refuel at a gas station takes 10 minutes, that means an electric charging station would have to have 3 times as many chargers as a gas station has pumps to achieve the same throughput. This becomes exponentially worse if a station installs the slower, but less-expensive chargers.
None of these obstacles are per se completely intractable. However, the retooling required is extensive, both from an engineering/infrastructure standpoint as well as a personal activity standpoint. Moreover, the aggravating problem is that the general focus is on solutions that only have meaning in a dense urban environment. Extended charging stations, such as in parking garages, charging at home, and many other solutions are focused on the short range commuter-style needs of urban and suburban populations. Few of these solutions have any practical application in the rural areas, especially the remote West where a great many towns are a hundred miles or more from a large town, and often even farther from a town with, for example, a major hospital with a NICU. Of course, it makes sense to focus energy on the problems that are easier to solve and then see if the more resilient problems can be tackled later. But when the push is to ban all ICE vehicles without having these issues addressed, this is a serious problem.
The penultimate issue is resourcing. Batteries require cobalt and lithium, which are expensive to mine. Currently the mining rates are utterly inadequate to produce the batteries needed to replace ICE vehicles. Lithium is not a horribly available material, and even modest increase in the number of electric cars would require increasing lithium strip mining (using diesel powered equipment) by 2000%.
Add into the picture cobalt, which is used as a stabilizing agent. We already have cobalt shortages as is, and the increased demand from additional electric vehicles would only exacerbate that problem. Worse, there is the human cost of cobalt. Cobalt is mainly mined in third world countries without child labor laws. The most cost-efficient way to mine cobalt is to send a four-year-old or equivalently small child, like perhaps a malnourished six year old, into a small crack and have them carry out a semi-toxic form of the mineral in their bare hands. This is extremely harmful, even ignoring that the unstable nature of cobalt mines gives way to huge numbers of small cave-ins. To procure cobalt in a humane, ethical manner would dramatically increase the cost. The question really becomes how many more cost increases we can afford.
Finally there is problem of battery reclamation. There is no viable way, at this time, for us to recycle these batteries very well, and the vast majority of these batteries end up landfilled. We all recall that you shouldn’t landfill batteries, especially lithium ones, right? Well, these batteries are so hard to handle that they almost always end up there, except for some small reclaimers who still end up putting most of the dangerous minerals in the landfill.
I won’t even cover the issues with airplane travel. It cannot be done with only electricity, at least if you like staying in the sky.
One last point in getting rid of fossil fuels: up until now we’ve only discussed replacing fossil fuels in transportation. But fossil fuels are used in many other products. To eliminate all fossil fuels, there will be no more cheap carpet, varnish for tables, or plastic of any kind. Semi conductors practically cannot be processed without petrochemicals, which removes all of our computers. Carbon steel (the most prevalent stuff) is out, which rids us of concrete structures and most houses have steel in them too. Wood and paper products will become significantly more rare, as may logging areas are in areas with no electricity access for miles around, so the equipment uses gasoline. How about lubricants? Any time you have moving parts, you need lubrication and lubricants are all massively petroleum based. Food and farming are in need of petrochemicals. Fertilizers that allow for farming significantly above subsistence level require petrochemical fuel byproducts. The N and P in your NPK fertilizer come from petrochemicals, even though some of them take a rather indirect route. Since most of our refrigerants are petrochemical in nature we can bring back the chlorofluorocarbons that have major negative impacts on the environment and the ozone layer to keep our refrigerators running, though they have been working to eliminate those. Most medicines use petrochemicals in their formation. On the plus side, this will rid us of the vaccine mandates as Moderna and Pfizer used petrochemicals in their designs, such as polyethylene glycol. Ammonia, the cleaner, as well as acetone, are fossil fuel based. Those all require petrochemical processing to make in sufficient quantities to make them affordable. Synthetic fabrics are made with or processed by petrochemicals. Many makeups and perfumes, even the organic ones, require petrochemical derivatives to process. And this is just a short list. Most of our entire chemical industry uses petrochemicals. If you want a chemical, in most cases it has been touched by the petrochemicals.