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Ignoring Energy Transition Realities: Some Unanswered Questions

edited March 2021 in Other Investing
Bee's "Ignoring Energy Transition Realities as We Greenify" discussion is important, and addresses quite a number of aspects which I will not discuss here.

I've taken the unusual step of opening a separate "chapter" on this subject, so to speak, because it seems to me that we, as a nation, are blithely stepping off a cliff without a whole lot of contemplation of the rocky landscape below.

Bee's discussion, like most others on this subject, makes some assumptions that I seriously question. Those assumptions go to the very heart of the issue: is it even realistically possible to have this electric "Greenification"?


As I write this, the last post in Bee's discussion is from kings53man, who contemplates a comforting scene of "thousands/M of electric vehicles [charging] in the night". This is absolutely not to poke fun at kings53man, because his scene is actually a pretty common picture promoted by the Green folks.

Now, before the bricks start flying, let's establish this: I fully understand the climate dilemma, agree that humans likely are major contributors to the problem, and that "something" major needs to be done, and soon.

What I have a great problem with are some of the blithe assumptions seemingly thrown out as "solutions", with little or no challenge from the standpoint of practicality. To keep things reasonably easy to contemplate, let's confine our picture to the United States.

OK, postulate that in "x" number of years no more internal engine vehicles are going to be produced. Anyone wanting a vehicle will need to be driving electrics. Fine... one problem solved.

Energy. It comes in lots of different packages. To list just four: coal, natural/synthetic gas, gasoline/diesel, electricity. To help visualize the issue, consider each energy package as a number of boxes- that number being relative to the amount of each being currently used. The total amount of energy needed is equal to the volume of all of the various boxes.

Keeping things simple, lets assume that one box of energy is equal to any other box of energy, and that any kind of box may be transported over any kind of energy distribution network: a mental picture of boxes being transported across the country through trucks and tankers, or more weirdly, shoving their way through pipelines and thin electric grid wires.

Now, the reality is that all of the presently existing energy transportation networks are pretty close to operational capacity. There's simply not a huge amount of extra room just waiting to be used on the existing electric grids or fuel pipelines.


OK, coal is obviously a loser, and can be replaced for the most part by natural gas. So that means more boxes of natural gas, fewer of coal. This is actually under way, and seems pretty easy.

BUT: natural gas is now deemed unacceptable also, and the proposed premise is to substitute boxes of electricity. Now things are getting a bit more complicated. First of all, the electrical distribution grids of the United States do not have the capacity to transmit a significant additional number of energy boxes.

Let's step back for a moment and try to visualize a couple of huge mountains of energy boxes. First, those boxes needed to support our national vehicle fleets. Second, the boxes needed to supply heating and cooking for homes and workplaces. It's being proposed that all of those boxes are to be transported somehow over our already stressed electric grids. To me, this is a typical picture of political operators who haven't the faintest idea of the actual practical realities of electrical transmission. Very much like the politicians who are responsible for the Texas power grid network.

Let's think for a moment about the actual efficiency of various energy types. Yes, electricity can certainly be used to generate heat, and fairly easily too. Unfortunately, it takes significantly more than one box of electricity to equal the heat energy in one box of natural gas energy. In other words, electricity is simply less efficient than natural gas to transport or generate heat.

Well, that's something that obviously needs more thought, so let's look instead at vehicles. Again, to keep things fairly simple, let's ignore large trucks and similar equipment, and just consider the average automotive vehicle.

OK, first, lets look at the mountain of energy boxes now supplied by gasoline or diesel fuels, and try to visualize those boxes also being stuffed through the national electric energy distribution systems. H'mmm- that's quite a puzzler also. Existing grids were largely built when the country was less populated, and it was a lot easier to construct major infrastructure without lawsuits and protests. Not suggesting that situation was ideal- simply stating a fact.

When pundits and promoters talk about the "electric grid system", most of us compose a mental picture of huge steel pylons with heavy electric wires marching across the land. We think something like "well, those really aren't all that pretty, but then the odds of having one of those in my backyard are pretty slim, and most of that stuff is someplace else anyway".

Really? The next time you're out and about take a moment and look at the wiring on any overhead electric distribution system. Try to imagine having to either replace most of those wires with much thicker wires, or alternately, to double or triple the number of wires. Take a close look at some of those power poles, and note the large metal enclosures which are mounted there. Those are transformers, and they will also need to be either much larger, or have many more of them. Speaking of the power poles themselves- do you notice that many of them are already pretty full of stuff, and that there really isn't a lot of room for more stuff?

Well, perhaps you're fortunate, and live in a nice middle-class area where everything is neatly underground and out of sight. Sorry- get prepared for a lot of digging and streetwork- all of those systems will need substantial upgrades also.

Wow! And how exactly is all of this going to be paid for?


Well, let's assume some sort of miracle on that, and consider how each new electric vehicle is actually going to receive it's energy packages via the grid.

Right! We're back to looking at "thousands/M of electric vehicles will charge in the night". Sounds easy enough. It's not too difficult to image a cozy scene of middle-class detached homes with one or two electric vehicles happily guzzling boxes of electric energy while their owners sleep away the night. OK, that's under control.

But what about the huge number of Americans who live in apartments, multi-family housing, or who need to park their vehicles on the street because they don't have suitable garage space?

And, thinking about this a little more, exactly what kind of plugs and extension cords will all of this need? The present vehicle charging systems don't just plug into the nearest 120 volt outlet with a #14 extension cord from Home Depot. No, each charging station needs to be installed with a power source that is pretty heavy-duty and able to handle the increased load.

Has anyone, anywhere, even begun to think through the financial implications of any of this? We have a substantial percentage of Americans who even now can barely keep food on the table. And they are going to have to install an expensive charging system in older homes which would need significant wiring upgrades to even accommodate this?

So now we are telling those people "sorry- but having a vehicle is just for the better-off folks"?


I've deliberately only touched on a few of the aspects of this whole thing. Having spent much of my career in electronics, I naturally tend to look at things from a somewhat technical point of view, and fully understand that others may not do so. But, as demonstrated here in California, and also so very recently in Texas, placing ignorant political activists of any persuasion in charge of problems requiring some degree of interest in and understanding of technical reality is not particularly helpful.


  • Nicely put @Old_Joe. Unfortunately just looking at USA is only touching a small part of the problem. Duck Duck Go (coal fired plants in India & China) & see what you come up with.
    Stay safe, Derf
  • edited March 2021
    @Derf- thanks for your comments. And yes sir, you are exactly right with respect to China and India. I tried to stay focused on the US, and I can't even see much that's hopeful here.

    Mark Twain is reported to have observed that "you cain't squeeze two gallons of corn likker into a one-gallon jug". Unfortunately the same principle applies to electrons and wires.

    We've made and will continue to make major improvements in the generation of our electricity, and I'm pretty sure that almost everyone here at MFO is aware of the advances in clean power generation and improving battery storage. It's not the generation aspect that concerns me so much. It's the ability to transmit and deliver the outrageously huge amount of energy via the existing transmission technology, and the attendant costs which someone must pay, somehow, and which seem to be dismissed by the energy advocates as a minor issue which will be dealt with... somehow.

    One thing for certain- if we do somehow decide to deliver most of our energy via the electric grid there will be more high-paying jobs building that infrastructure than were ever lost in coal or natural gas. The only question is how will we pay for that?

    Take care-
  • @Old_Joe,
    This caught my eye; I agree (and there are many other hurdles -- some known, some unknown -- to be surmounted as well):
    "What I have a great problem with are some of the blithe assumptions seemingly thrown out as "solutions", with little or no challenge from the standpoint of practicality."

    Are you familiar with the work of Vaclav Smil, an impressive Canadian energy specialist?
    I refer interested folks especially to his 2015 Power Density (MIT Press). A bit from the publisher's blurb on the book:
    Power density—the rate of energy flux per unit of area—is an important but largely overlooked measure. ...

    [Smil] argues that our inevitable (and desirable) move to new energy arrangements involving conversions of lower-density renewable energy sources will require our society—currently dominated by megacities and concentrated industrial production—to undergo a profound spatial restructuring of its energy system.
    As I recall, he writes that alternatives to fossil fuel, especially renewables, could provide only a small percentage of the power Americans use today, given existing setup.
    I wish there were some knowledgeable people guiding US policy aspirations in this arena.
    Also: Canada is a partner. Maybe all of North Am should be considered as a single energy space.

  • edited March 2021
    @InformalEconomist- Good morning. No sir, I'm not familiar with Vaclav Smil, but I'll be taking a look at his work, thank you. From your note it sounds like he and I are looking at the situation from the same perspective. To be honest, I haven't taken my thoughts on this to that logical endpoint. If I were much younger, that would be a great area of interest, but at 81, the most that I'm going to see is the messy beginning of the end of this energy system cycle.

    The concept of "power density" is what I was trying to describe by putting power "units" or packages into "boxes". You can look at this in either of two ways- if the "boxes" of power are all of equal value, then it's going to takes a lot more boxes of electrical energy to equal one box of gasoline/diesel/natural gas energy. Or, from another perspective, one box of gasoline/diesel/natural gas has a lot more power than one box of electric energy. Either way, expecting to transform a significant amount of the gasoline/diesel/natural gas energy to electric energy is simply going to overwhelm the existing electric power distribution network to the point that it seems foolish to even consider that as a viable option.

    When many of our political "leaders" can't even encourage their people to wear a mask to save grief and lives I don't see much chance of a "profound spatial restructuring of [the] energy system" coming from that quarter.

    As I tried to describe, it isn't just a matter of more or bigger ultra high energy grids- it's going to come right down to each and every persons residence as well, and all of that at a fantastic monetary cost. Does that seem likely to happen any time soon? And if not, what might our plan "B" look like? It seems to me that we don't even have a viable plan "A", never mind a backup.

    I'm really glad that I'm as old as I am, and that we don't have children who are going to have to fight through this for their entire lives. I'm afraid that the real question is how far the planetary destruction due to the warming cycle will progress before people are forced to deal with it, and how much will be left to salvage at that point.
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