CHANGE FROM THE OIL STANDARD TO THE KILOWATT STANDARD
by Edwin D. Reilly, Jr.
for the Sunday Gazette
Two days into his sixties, Duane Moore—a man who had driven
pickups for as long as he had been licensed to drive—parked his
pickup in his own carport and began to walk wherever he
–Opening line of “Duane’s Depressed,” by Larry McMurtry, 1999
"These days I don't drive much. I bought a hybrid, but we keep it
in the garage mostly."
–Barack Obama, May 24, 2008
Last Sunday I walked to church, but neither my motive nor that of the fictional Duane Moore was to save gasoline. Duane wanted to change his life by never driving again; I just needed the exercise. And as to Barack, he’s a driven man these days and likely to remain so for another eight and a half years.
Until gasoline passed three dollars per gallon on the way to four, and except for a brief peak centered around 1980, the cost of gasoline in constant 2005 dollars had been steadily falling from the equivalent of $3 in 1920 to $1.50 in 2000. The current feeling we all have of being hard pressed to keep driving is due more to the rate at which prices have been increasing than to the price level itself. For the moment, and probably continuing for the next few years, annual increases in family incomes will not keep pace with escalating prices, not only of motor fuel but of food and everything dependent on such fuel. US Airlines decision not to give out any more free pretzels is absurd, but symptomatic.
For a century, we
essentially had the motoring world to ourselves. But by 2030—possibly
What that something has to be is either sharing the limited supply of gasoline and diesel fuel, which is the same as home heating oil, with the rest of the world, or use far less of it. Preferably none of it. Just as the country eschewed the gold standard decades ago, we must abandon the oil standard for the kilowatt standard—as quickly as possible. All cars must be electric, and the electricity used to recharge their batteries must not be generated by burning oil; it must come from a combination of hydro, solar, wind, and yes, even nuclear power. All homes heated with fuel oil must be converted to natural gas.
A few months ago, a close friend bought a Prius, then my son Daniel did. In my first ride in Dan’s car, it was fun to watch the fuel consumption gauge climb to 50 miles per gallon. But in the long run, that won’t be good enough. Even a Prius burns gasoline.
As I started my Web
this piece, I was curious about two things, one comparatively trivial,
more profound. The first had to do with what I thought was the strange
inversion of the relative price of diesel / home heating fuel and
years, diesel was cheaper; suddenly, to the consternation of long-haul
and those in our northeast who heat with oil, the price of diesel has
hopscotched over gasoline. But only here, not in Europe, Asia, and
Well, it turns out
that when crude
oil is fed to a refinery, it becomes all it is cracked up to be. And
two ways of doing it. The American process produces a certain
diesel fuel, and a certain greater amount of gasoline. But in most of
world, the percentage of diesel produced is higher. Still not more than
gasoline, but higher. So the laws of supply and demand here and
differ, and when the recent crunch came, the
The second thing I
was the relative efficiency with which various systems of
energy. I found this at http://strickland.ca/efficiency.html
expressed in passenger miles per gallon (pmpg). For urban service, not
surprisingly, railroad is tops at 200 pmpg, followed by the trolleybus
at 750, a
diesel bus at 280, a Toyota Prius (with four passengers, I suppose) at
light motorcycle at 150, and a Ford Explorer with four passengers at
second chart, one for “long-distance transportation,” gives top rank to
“diesel-electric commuter rail with standees”
at 936 pmpg. (I wonder how many hang off the sides of the train like in
A third chart labeled “typical efficiency in long-distance service” gives top rank to high-speed electric trains at 380 pmpg. (The efficiency of any electric mode of transportation, of course, must be rated in pmpeg, that is, passenger miles per “equivalent” gallon, using a conversion factor between electrical energy and the energy content of a gallon of gasoline. The conversion factor is given in the Website I cited.) But the big surprise, to me at least, was that second on this list was the “Tesla Roadster” rated at 328 pmpg. But what is that, pray tell? I had never heard of one. Wikipedia to the rescue!
“Tesla,” of course, I knew about, the electrifying Serbian-American Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), rival to our own Charles Proteus Steinmetz. Made by a company named in the former’s honor, the Tesla Roadster is a fully electric plug-in sports car that can travel 220 miles on a single charge of its lithium-ion battery pack at an efficiency equivalent to 135 mpg after it accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in four seconds.
Four seconds? Well, that doesn’t excite me. Typically, I take at least four minutes to do that in my car, despite its willingness to do much better. But 135 miles per gallon certainly catches my attention. So what is the catch, and do they come singular or plural?
One is that the current price of the Tesla is $120,000, but that will come way down over the next few years because there will be reasonably priced competitors. Another is that there has to be a place to plug-in and recharge after 220 miles, or else one must not stray more than 110 miles from home. But some day, all those truck stops whose gastronomically ambiguous signs say “Eat here and get gas” will change them to read “Eat here and charge it.”
Edwin D. Reilly,