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Transition to an electric world

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The world is slowly becoming more electric, although the transition may be completed over the dead bodies of those who love internal combustion engines.

I’m not one of them. I like electric cars and electric bikes, and I want solar panels on every roof. Unfortunately, our electrical infrastructure isn’t ready for the change, which explains why I don’t yet have an electric car or solar panels on the roof of my business. I do have two electric bikes, however, and an electric chainsaw.

What’s it going to look like in 2043? Will it be as hard to find a gas station as it is now to find a charging station? All we can say for sure is that the cultural changes will be as great as the physical ones.

Some people will resist. Someone I know posted a comment on Facebook ridiculing all the fools who want to save the world with electric cars, but who don’t seem to realize that electricity is mostly produced with fossil fuels.

That’s true, but even when produced with the most polluting fuel — coal — the power from a large generator fueling 1,000 electric cars is cleaner than 1,000 internal-combustion car engines.
It’s a question of size efficiency. And although natural gas and coal produce the most electricity in the United States, a substantial percentage comes from non-fossil sources. Renewable sources like wind and solar are still low, but growing — especially wind, which now produces more power than hydroelectric from all our dams.

One of my tennis buddies has an electric car that he drives up from Animas most weekends. Apparently, it takes a different mindset. Many users of electric vehicles pay extra to set up a charging station at their home. You can charge at night, and your slightly higher electric bill will be much less than the cost of gasoline you don’t have to buy.

It’s like charging a phone. If you have moderate use and get into the habit, there is little inconvenience. Your car will have enough power to get you wherever you want around a town or city.

Road trips are a different matter. You’ll need a digital map to navigate from one charging station to another, and you won’t be able to refuel in three minutes. A fast charging station will take 20 minutes or more to get you powered up. It’s a culture change to plan your fuel stops to correspond with meals and rest.

For most of us, this brave new world is still out of the question. Cheaper fuel and tax credits don’t come anywhere near offsetting the luxury price of electric cars and trucks. I used to think the premium price was a marketing strategy to get early adopters to pay the startup costs, but I recently read an article showing exactly why electric cars are so expensive. It’s the batteries.

But the high cost of batteries is slowly coming down. Eventually, you’ll have to pay extra to get a gas car. Many auto hobbyists will pay because they like the feel, sound, culture and nostalgia of internal combustion, even though some electric cars can drive circles around even the hottest gas cars. We’ll know we’re into the electric car age when people start bringing souped-up electric cars to the auto show at Gough Park. The big changes won’t happen without improvements in electrical infrastructure. Charging stations need to be as available as gas stations. And the cost of electric fuel has to remain lower than gasoline.

One way to keep electricity cheap is to generate it for free. Wind and sun don’t cost anything, but giant windmills, fields of solar panels and high-capacity electrical lines have a high one-time cost. The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, so another expensive and difficult technology is needed — energy storage. The more intermittent electricity we get, the more we need huge batteries or alternate storage technology.

But many scientists say we have no choice. If we don’t phase out polluting fuels, we’ll have catastrophic climate change. Even climate skeptics can hardly argue that expensive extracted fuel is better than free fuel.

There’s more than enough sunshine and wind to supply all our electrical needs if we solve the storage problem. But we also need to solve the economic and regulatory problems. Electric companies like PNM have incentives to sell fueled power rather than free power, and they push regulations that make solar difficult. The regulatory reasons I don’t have solar panels on my office building roof are a complex topic for a future column.

Change is hard. Cultural resistance and technological problems slow the transition from fossil fuels and internal combustion engines. Whether we can change fast enough to prevent climate apocalypse remains to be seen.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Southwest Word Fiesta™ or its steering committee.

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Bruce McKinney

Bruce McKinney is a Silver City business owner, close observer of local government and occasional troublemaker. In his column, which appears every other Wednesday, he tries to address big questions from a local perspective. Send comments and ideas to bruce@greensilverlinings.com.
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