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America's Invisible Energy Policy

Once in a while I point out that the United States lacks an energy policy to deal with our oil problems, but we do have one. You can be forgiven for not knowing much about it because that energy policy is largely invisible. I was reminded about it by a story at physorg.com called $25,000, 350-mile-per-charge electric car could be reality by 2017, DOE says.

In an event flanked with all the electric cars that have recently come to market, and a handful of those that are poised for sale later this year, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa flipped the switch May 13 on the 500th electric-vehicle charging station installed by Coulomb Technologies as part of its ChargePoint America network.

Coulomb, based in Campbell, Calif., received $15 million last year from the Department of Energy, and $22 million in private funds, to install 4,600 chargers across the country by the end of 2011. About 1,600 are slated for California, 210 of which have so far been installed. L.A. currently has 71 Coulomb charging stations, including the one installed today in the California Science Center parking lot.

"The Department of Energy is happy to be a part of this [event], but more importantly we're very happy to be really trying to push for the electrification of vehicles in the U.S.," Chu said. "The reason is very simple. We have to diversify our transportation energy."

There's part of the policy—electrification of vehicles in the U.S. Here are the details.

Oil prices may be in flux right now, [Chu] said, but developing countries' demand for limited oil resources will continue to push prices higher. He noted that China sold 16.7 million vehicles in 2010 and will sell 20 million cars annually within the next couple of years. The U.S. sold 12 million cars last year.

"Because of increased demand, we've got to think of all the other things we can do in transportation. The best is efficiency," Chu said.

Efficiency! Who could object to that? We can disregard 19th century cranks like Stanley Jevons, who noted in his book The Coal Question that greater efficiency led to more, not less, energy consumption over time. Here's the money quote.

Batteries are the "heart" of electric vehicles, [Chu] said, adding that the Department of Energy is funding research that will drop the cost of electric-vehicle batteries 50 percent in the next three or four years and double or triple their energy density within six years so "you can go from Los Angeles to Las Vegas on a single charge," he said. "These are magical distances. To buy a car that will cost $20,000 to $25,000 without a subsidy, where you can go 350 miles [on a single battery charge] is our goal."

It is not an accident that Chu used the word "magical" in this context. As I first described in Steven Chu's Energy Miscalculations, Chu has a seemingly limitless, abiding faith in the power of science & technology to solve all our problems, as if by magic. To see what I mean, watch this 2009 Charlie Rose interview of Chu, starting at about the 47:00 mark. Before serving as Obama's energy secretary, Chu headed up the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Chu's view of life's complexities is simple. Fund the national labs, give the best scientific minds working there some money, let them play around for a while, and voilà! — a solution will appear.

There are some problems with this happy scenario, to wit—

• It doesn't require that Americans change their behavior much. They will use a battery recharging station instead of a gas station. This is why Chu was the right man for the job.

• Replacing our current liquid fuels infrastructure will take decades. So far, a whopping $37 million has been spent to build 4600 charging stations across the entire United States.

• Chu's magical time frame for the $20-25,000 car which will go 350 miles on a single charge is six years from now. Conveniently, Chu will be long gone by then, even if Obama wins re-election. But the price of oil and gasoline is already exorbitant in 2011, so I guess we're all expected to wait around until 2017 to see if his science experiments worked.

• Assuming the experiments do work, how many Americans will be queuing up to buy a $20-25,000 car in 2017? Most Americans don't have a pot to piss in now. They will be in much worst shape in 6 years. Only 12 million cars were sold in the United States last year, which is considerably lower than sales were during the "boom" years. What will the fleet turnover rate be in 2017? There are 250 million cars and light trucks in this country. How many decades will it take for these electric vehicles to significantly penetrate that market?

• Unfortunately, as I described in The Secretary Of Synthetic Biology, there is a very good chance these technological advances in battery technology will not occur. Although I was speaking of 4th generation biofuels in that older article, the same reasoning applies to batteries.

And that's not everything there is say on this matter. Where are all the wind farms, the solar concentrators, and the rest that will eventually power all these plug-in electric vehicles? They don't exist now, and they won't exist in 2017. Or thereafter.

The more fundamental problem of course is that the economic growth party is coming to an end. When Obama chose Steven Chu, he was selecting a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who fervently believes there are no limits to growth, a man who presumably would oversee the technological breakthroughs required to support that growth in the future. Chu assures us that the coming energy changes will not disrupt anybody's life, which will basically go on as before.

As things stand, we've been left holding the bag. We've got nothing.

Well, OK—there's the Chevy Volt. GM plans to make 16,000 this year.

I ran across a Ted Talks video featuring Naomi Klein which seems apropos here. Klein is politically conventional (left-wing version). She belongs to the liberal/progressive/Grist/Daily Kos/Jon Stewart wing of the Democratic Party. Thus in the video below, she talks about how the depletion of easily recoverable oil has forced the development of Alberta's tar sands, which she regards as an environmental problem, and a climate change problem, and not an alarming warning sign, like ultra-deepwater oil, of impending scarcity due to our inability to produce enough crude to keep things running.

Thus it seems that these aptly-named progressives also believe in unlimited technological progress! Concerns about "peak oil" (or other limits to growth) have never been on the agenda of the liberal/progressive/Grist/Daily Kos/Jon Stewart wing of the Democratic Party. These people think that all we have to do is build some wind farms here, a few solar arrays there, and then electrify our transportation system. Sound familiar?

But Naomi is learning. As you listen to her talk Addicted To Risk, think about Steven Chu and his magical science experiments. Ask yourself why doesn't Chu consider the possibility of failure?

By. Dave Cohen

Dave Cohen writes the blog Decline Of The Empire. His commentaries cover a wide variety of subjects, including the American economy & macro-economics, the oil markets, peak oil, politics & policy, environmental issues and global warming. Dave was writing search engine software before he gave up on the industry in 2005 after 20 years as a software engineer. Dave has a M.A. in theoretical linguistics and was working on a Ph.D. before leaving The University of Texas at Austin in 1985 to do research in Artificial Intelligence. He attended the University of Chicago as an undergraduate.




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