23 August 2022

Our #1 technological, environmental and economic problem: upgrading the electric grid ASAP

Years ago my uncle and his wife, who were then acting as consultants to industry and academia doing research on critical issues involving technology and economic impacts, did a study regarding the future of electric vehicles in California. This was in the 90s, and it was not at all clear that technologies that led to GM's EV1 would ever yield a practical electric car. As a non-scientist but the son of an engineer and a reasonably scientifically literate person, I was skeptical of their optimistic conclusions. The rubric oft repeated at the time, that there was no way that a multi-step energy conversion: power plant > grid > converter > inverter > battery > electric motor would end up being practical, or, more importantly, more efficient than directly burning a high-energy fuel in the car's ICE (internal combustion engine). After all, then, and for the most part, still, the electricity was generated from fossil fuels in the first place. There would be little or no climate impact. 

But I was wrong. Even then. The problem then was batteries, and range, but the overall process is so much more efficient than burning highly refined gasoline that a policy of incentives and mandates to move us more quickly to replace our ICE fleet with other forms of transport with EVs playing a central role was fully justifiable even then. Since then, with the invention of practical modular Li-ion batteries and other promising technologies, EVs have become not only quite practical, but their many advantages are winning them more and more converts. (I love my EV, even more than my plug-in hybrid, which I only bought because the charging network remains inadequate). 

So, where are we now? Sadly, not in a real good place. EVs are wonderful. They are simply superior in every way to ICE vehicles, and with reductions in battery costs, they are already cheaper to operate over the life of the vehicle. And vehicles with actually greater range than comparable ICE vehicles are just about to start appearing on the market. So, what's the issue? 

The problem, of course, is the grid. We simply do not have the capacity in this country to quickly ramp up near total conversion to electric cars, trucks and buses. We could have, had we listened to forward thinking people like my uncle and his wife. But we haven't. So now we have all these political problems but we also have a huge challenge to build out something on the order of 50% more electrical capacity in this country just as quickly as is humanly possible, since we have so much dithering around to make up for. Of course it's not just transportation. We have to stop using natural gas to heat and cool interior spaces, and essentially convert all energy usage to electricity. Even aircraft, for which there may be other solutions, will have to fly using fuel made from air and biomass... an easy chemical trick, but it requires massive amounts of power. Same with the water crisis. The earth is 70% covered with water. The problem is that the natural processes to create fresh water are insufficient in the face of climate change. But we can make fresh water from seawater or other less pristine water sources, the key, again is massive amounts of power. 

I also used to oppose nuclear power, for pretty good reasons; the cost and safety were just not that great (actually especially the cost; nuclear reactor technology has improved so that if there were new plants, especially fail safe liquid fluoride thorium or even uranium low-pressure reactors, they could be made modular, factory-buildable and safer than coal or even wind). But we now have to pull out all the stops. A massive TVA like program to build more clean power, hydro, wind, solar, and nuclear, everywhere, on a crash equivalent-of-war mobilization basis. It is the only way to achieve net zero carbon in time for best projections on climate change without making drastic and unacceptable cuts in energy consumption. 

Donald Trump and his BS are not what's important. This is what's important... and our political leaders need to get this through their heads and start pushing for this now. 

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