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DT Debates: Is electricity really the best alternative fuel option for the future of cars?

The automobile is ready for a revolution, and so are its drivers. In this week’s edition of DT Debate, our own Amir Illiaifar and Nick Mokey go head-to-head over the  fuel that’s going to power this revolution. Will the EV pull through, or do we need to start looking elsewhere? This week we ask: 

dt debates question
 

Nick

 

nick mokeyUnless “the future of cars” only involves puttering around for 80 miles at a time then desperately searching for a cord so you can wait 20 hours to drive home, then no. Electric cars seem to be growing in popularity, but they remain insanely impractical. The truth is, there are already much better alternative fuels you can use right now.

First, the case against electrics: They have limited range of no more than a couple hundred miles, and only a few can even make it that far. They’re so slow to recharge that you have no hope of ever going far from home in one – even if you could string together enough charging stations for a trip. They’re extraordinarily expensive, and they use expensive battery packs that wear out before the rest of the car does – which also present an environmental hazard to dispose of. Their “green” factor is mostly an illusion, since half the electricity in the United States is generated by fossil fuels anyway.

So what genius alternative do I suggest? Biodiesel. Yes, the same crazy potion that some hippie is stirring up in his backyard with a 55-gallon drum of deep dryer oil. You don’t need new infrastructure, because you can pump it through the same network of 117,100 gas stations in the US that already exist. There is no “recharge time.” You can run it in existing (diesel) cars with no modifications. In many places, it’s cheaper than regular diesel – currently $3.99 a gallon here in Portland. And for those of you who are really in this for the karma: Because plants suck up carbon when they grow then throw it back out when they burn, it’s (theoretically) carbon neutral, unlike electricity from coal power plants.

Are there barriers? Yes, and I hope you’ll point them out, but I would buy a $23,000 Volkswagen Golf TDI over a $35,000 Nissan Leaf in a heartbeat right now.

 

Amir

 

Amir-IliaifarI’d like to start off by saying there really isn’t a single solution that will satisfy our alternative energy needs. Rather, it’s going to take a nuanced approach to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels. That being said, whether you like it or not, “the future of cars” (at the least the immediate future of cars) is electric. Don’t believe me? Ask Nissan, Toyota, General Motors, etc. That’s not to say there aren’t viable alternatives to battery-powered cars (you specifically pointed out biodiesel) but truth be told, there are inherent problems with virtually all alternative energy sources at the moment, biodiesel included.

What problems you ask? Well for starters there aren’t that many diesel cars in the U.S. to begin so either way people are going to have to either purchase a car that can run diesel or opt for an electron-powered alternative like a Nissan Leaf. Second, biodiesel fuel isn’t as readily available as you make it out to be, and when it is available is often more expensive than gasoline –the most expensive station near Portland is is selling it for $5.55 a gallon. That’s certainly a lot more than what it costs to charge a Nissan Leaf. For example, most public charging places are free — for now — but when they do in fact start charging people, the average price will hover around $1 per hour of charging. I’ll give you that the time investment can be annoying, but most will only need to charge their cars once a day at home anyway.

Now electric cars aren’t perfect by any means, but they are just as good of an alternative as biodiesel, if not better. Yes they are expensive, charging times need to improve, and range can be an issue (although this is grossly overstated by EV opponents) but the technology is here, electricity is all around us, and guess what? It’s continuously improving. The technology is still relatively new and unrefined but it will get better, faster, and cheaper. Not to mention EVs are cheaper to operate than their gasoline counterparts, all-electrics produce zero-emissions from their tailpipes (oh wait, they don’t have tailpipes!), and have improved performance ratios, but I’ll get to that later.

 

Nick

 

Nuanced approach? Haven’t you ever watched CNN? That makes for terrible debates, Amir. But I’ll bite and concede: Electric cars make sense for urban dwellers who never need to leave the city, fleet use, and some other limited scenarios. But the majority of Americans who care about the environment and want to make a green vehicle purchase would be better off buying a diesel and filling it up with biodiesel right now.

You’re right that both technologies will get better over time: electrics will get faster, cheaper, and charger quicker, biodiesel will become more widely available and cheaper. But the EV you buy today is stuck with the constraints of today’s technology forever, while a diesel owner benefits every time the fuel situation improves.

And it will improve. I’m not crazy enough to suggest we can stop pumping oil tomorrow and start growing it all with soy (until I get my bribe check from Monsanto). But the prospect of growing algae for biodiesel in massive oceanic farms is getting closer to reality every day. And again, the energy you consume driving on plant-based fuels essentially comes from the sun, not from coal or natural gas, which is often the case with electricity.

As for compatibility with existing vehicles, yes, diesels only account for about 1 percent of new cars sold in the U.S. right now, but EVs are even more of a fraction (0.3 percent, as of April). And the rest of the world is far more endeared to diesel. In Europe, close to half of all passenger vehicles sold run on diesel. That’s not to mention commercial equipment: semi trucks, delivery trucks, locomotives, construction equipment, boats, busses, you name it. If it’s heavy, it runs on diesel.

EVs make sense for some applications, but when you look at their range limitations, high up-front cost, limited battery lives, and the pollution produced where the electricity comes from, I’m not convinced they’re the best alternative to gas right now.

 

Amir

 

I know you’re arguing that biodisesel makes sense now and in the future, but I think you’re missing the point here Nick (please don’t fire me for disagreeing with you). The fact is:  biofuels — specifically the biodiesel magic juice you’re championing — aren’t a viable option now, and until those massive oceanic algae farms actually come about, it’s not a great option for the environment either.

Biofuels have been around for some time now, and there is a reason they haven’t taken off, and no it’s not all because of big oil standing in the way – although I’ll admit they may have their hand in the cookie jar, err… oil drum. Many environmentalists are opposed to biofuels like soy-based biodiesel because of its negative impact on the environment. According to recent research conducted by Princeton University and the Nature Conservancy, almost all biofuels today cause MORE greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels once you factor in the full environmental cost it takes to produce them and has been found to be the leading cause in rising global food prices.

And it makes sense, if we are going to start utilizing biodiesel more and more it needs to come from somewhere, right? As more land is used to plant soybeans for fuel not only is more carbon released into the atmosphere, but those lands and the crops it produces are being taken away from production. Last I checked, according to U.N. reports, there are over 900 million people worldwide suffering from malnutrition and hunger. If we can’t even provide adequate amounts of food now (actually we can but that’s another debate), then how are we supposed to when the world (or even the U.S. alone) needs those very crops we use to feed ourselves for fuel?

I know you disagree, but electrics are much more viable now. Electricity is all around us, it’s relatively cheap, and it can be harnessed from truly renewable sources like the sun and the wind. It’s not perfect, but as the technology is refined and continued advancements are made, it stands as one of the better options for alternatively powering our vehicles.

 

Nick

 

You’ll hear no disagreement from me that biodiesel isn’t the perfect solution right now, but neither is electricity – that’s why we’re talking about the future, and which alternative fuel makes the most sense to focus on moving forward. I’m no more for blanketing the Midwest in soy fields to make biodiesel any more than you’re for strip mining the entire country of Bolivia to make lithium batteries. Either of these technologies carried to their extreme would cause major problems right now. So yes, my argument rests on more advanced technology – which exists but hasn’t been deployed on a large scale — that would allow us to grow biodiesel in the ocean.

As for that Princeton study, note that it critiques not biodiesel but “biofuels,” which includes ethanol. Lumping biodiesel in with ethanol is like lumping Alec in with the rest of the Baldwins – it’s the outlying exception in a miserable pool of failure. Without getting derailed here, ethanol (as a fuel, not delicious booze) is a complete sham that was foisted on the American people through subsidy-grubbing politicians, and the Princeton study is correct. It’s not good for anyone.

My beef with electricity is chiefly this: We’re making most of it by burning dredged up dinos anyway. If we had clean, abundant fusion power plants supplying electricity to outlets everywhere, it would be worth the inconvenience (long charging times, limited range) and expense ($10,000 batteries) required to make electric cars. But instead we’re going through great lengths to mostly shift our CO2 production somewhere else.

Biodiesel is essentially liquid solar energy. Not just the fuel itself but the methods required to supply it are relatively clean and sustainable, and new tech will allow it to scale. Unless the breakthrough for boundless clean electricity is just around the corner, to me, biodiesel still makes more sense.

 

Amir

 

Again I have to disagree. This isn’t just an environmental argument, although it can quickly derail into one. No, this is about what makes sense now and in the future. There is an underlying element here  and — at the expense of sounding like some border-patrolling militiamen — it centers on national security. Electrically-powered vehicles provide a viable alternative now and in the future to shaking our dependence on oil from regions that are not only unstable, but overtly hostile. Again, EVs are far from perfect, and  the limitations you brought up are spot on, but battery tech is constantly getting better. It’s already decent now, in the future with advancements in inductive (wireless) charging technology we may even be able to charge our cars while on the go.

Now you’ve mentioned several times the possibility of growing biodiesel from large scale algae farms in the ocean, but building those farms to scale will require LOTS of energy and isn’t cheap. Harvesting methods are already difficult, involving centrifuges and high electricity needs. When you factor in the harvesting methods the cost of biodiesel skyrockets.  It would appear that collecting biodiesel might not  be as clean and sustainable as we are lead to believe. Not only that, ocean environments are far more dynamic and unstable than those on land. What’s going to happen to those ecosystems once we section off large parts of the ocean for algae farms?

 

The reality is, electricity is our best option now, and with continued advancements in technology, could very well be even better in the future.