September 8, 2009

Would we have been better off without oil?


We would have gone to Electric Vehicles. In 1899 EVs outsold everything else (1,575 electric vehicles, 1,681 steam cars and 936 gasoline cars were sold). By 1912 there were thousands of EVs on the road, and electric trucks were also selling well. Here's some interesting history and analysis.

Ferdinand Porsche
designed an extended range EV like the contemporary Chevy Volt in 1904*. Given that an ErEV uses 10% as much liquid fuel as a contemporary US ICE vehicle, it could have run on our limited supplies of ethanol - the Model T was built to run on ethanol. where the Volt is today, roughly

The lack of oil would have slowed down personal transportation only slightly.

Isn't oil irreplaceable?

Electricity successfully replaced oil in the late 1800's for lighting - the Edison bulb was superior in every way to kerosene. If gasoline for automobiles hadn't come along, the oil industry would have been in real trouble.

Now it's time for electricity to do the same for transportation. Electric motors are superior in every way to infernal combustion engines. Now that oil is no longer dirt cheap, and batteries are finally good enough to power hybrids and plug-ins, the transition is under way.

“I'd put my money on solar energy… I hope we don't have to wait til oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” —Thomas Edison, in conversation with Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, March 1931

That's a great quote, isn't it?

I read a conspiracy theory once, that claimed that Edison was developing an improved battery and planning an EV in cooperation with Henry Ford, but that all of his labs were attacked by arson to prevent it. I have no idea if this theory is credible**.

In the long run, of course, Edison was right. In the meantime, we have a solar derivative in the form of wind as our cheapest source of renewable power.

*Many ErEVs have been designed, including production models in 1916, and concept models later in the 1960's, 70's and 80's. The EV-1 engineers built a rough version, in order to simplify vehicle testing. The Renault Elect’Road was the first ErEV sold, in 2003. It was discontinued after 500 were sold. It uses a manually controlled 21hp genset to extend the range of its 13kwh nimh battery pack. Electric only range is 50 miles, 60mph max speed, and the 10 liter gas tank allowed perhaps another 100 mile range. See here.

**Here's a quote from an enthusiastic reviewer of a book that discusses it:

"His new book, an exposé of the confluence of corrupt forces that killed the growth of nonfossil transportation fuels, the trolley system and what is now called "alternative energy," is presented in the context of history stretching over a millennium, back when wood was man's primary fuel and horses were the main form of conveyance.

"Quite the gripping Gilded Age saga. Black documents the machinations of the coal industry as well - back to the 13th century or thereabouts, the Royal Foresters and proscriptions against the commonry taking so much as a twig out of the woods; this evolving into use of coal far before the Newcome engine. Exactly how much of this is suitable stuff for Art Bell I'm not sure and don't care; the material on the decades of half-measure attempts to market crude EVs is where the story really hits its stride. " (source of quote)

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