The Energy Trap

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Many Do the Math posts have touched on the inevitable cessation of growth and on the challenge we will face in developing a replacement energy infrastructure once our fossil fuel inheritance is spent. The focus has been on long-term physical constraints, and not on the messy details of our response in the short-term. But our reaction to a diminishing flow of fossil fuel energy in the short-term will determine whether we transition to a sustainable but technological existence or allow ourselves to collapse. One stumbling block in particular has me worried. I call it The Energy Trap.

In brief, the idea is that once we enter a decline phase in fossil fuel availability—first in petroleum—our growth-based economic system will struggle to cope with a contraction of its very lifeblood. Fuel prices will skyrocket, some individuals and exporting nations will react by hoarding, and energy scarcity will quickly become the new norm. The invisible hand of the market will slap us silly demanding a new energy infrastructure based on non-fossil solutions. But here’s the rub. The construction of that shiny new infrastructure requires not just money, but…energy. And that’s the very commodity in short supply. Will we really be willing to sacrifice additional energy in the short term—effectively steepening the decline—for a long-term energy plan? It’s a trap!

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MPG for Electric Cars?

A typical efficient car in the U.S. market gets about 40 MPG (miles per gallon) running on gasoline. A hybrid car like the Prius typically gets 50–55 MPG. In a previous post, we looked at the physics that determines these numbers. As we see more and more plug-in hybrid or pure electric cars on the market, how do we characterize their mileage performance in comparison to gasoline cars? Do they get 100 MPG? Can they get to 200? What does it even mean to speak of MPG, when the “G” stands for gallons and a purely electric car does not ingest gallons?

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100 MPG on Gasoline: Could We Really?

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Since I was a teenager, I frequently heard stories that some guy had invented a car that could get 100 miles per gallon (MPG), but that powerful interests (often GM, Chevron, etc.) had bought rights to the idea and sat on it. We suckers were left to shell out major bucks for gasoline, when a solution was in hand and under wraps.

Leaving aside the notion that such a design would bring unbelievable prosperity to its holder (i.e., no real incentive to sit on it), let’s look at what physics says is possible.

We like cars because we can travel quickly from point A to point B. So let’s evaluate the energy requirements to make that journey at freeway speeds. We will use the somewhat awkward (although appropriate) speed of 67 m.p.h. because it conveniently maps to 30 meters per second. At these speeds, aerodynamic resistance is the dominant energy drain, so we will start by evaluating only this to get a lower bound on fuel efficiency, and find that we do a pretty good job! Continue reading