Op-ed column: Abandon oil standard for a kilowatt standard

ast Sunday, I walked to church, but neither my motive nor that of the fictional Duane Moore was to s

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 went.

— “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 $3 per gallon on the way to $4, and except for a brief peak centered around 1980, the cost of gasoline in constant 2005 dollars had been steadily falling from the current-day equivalent of $3 in 1920 to $1.50 in 2000. The feeling we all have now 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 Airways’ decision not to give out any more free pretzels is absurd, but symptomatic.

Something has to give

For a century, we Americans essentially had the motoring world to ourselves. But by 2030 — possibly sooner — China will have more cars than we do and import as much oil as we do today. Although India’s economy isn’t growing quite as fast, its oil consumption is skyrocketing. And since gasoline production 22 years from now is almost certain to be less than today, something has to give.

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.

Interesting discoveries

As I started my Web research for this piece, I was curious about two things, one comparatively trivial, and one 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 gasoline. For years, diesel was cheaper; suddenly, to the consternation of long-haul truckers 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 Australia. Why?

Well, it turns out that when crude oil is fed to a refinery, it becomes all it is cracked up to be. And there are two ways of doing it. The American process produces a certain percentage of diesel fuel, and a certain greater amount of gasoline. But in most of the world, the percentage of diesel produced is higher. Still not more than gasoline, but higher. So the laws of supply and demand here and elsewhere differ, and when the recent crunch came, the U.S. users of diesel/heating oil took the greater hit. It is also the case that a few years ago, to the great benefit of those who suffer from asthma, our government decreed that the sulfur content of diesel be reduced to close to zero.

This too, helped bring the price of diesel above that of gasoline. The consolation to diesel users, if there is one, stems from the fact that the energy content of diesel is greater than the energy content of gasoline by just about the same ratio as their respective prices per gallon.

The second thing I wondered about was the relative efficiency with which various systems of transportation used energy. I found this at strickland.ca/efficiency.html expressed in passenger miles per gallon (pmpg). For urban service, not surprisingly, railroad is tops at 2,000 pmpg, followed by the trolleybus at 750, a diesel bus at 280, a Toyota Prius (with four passengers, I suppose) at 240, a light motorcycle at 150, and a Ford Explorer with four passengers at 100. A 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 India.)

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 Web site I cited.)

Big surprise

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 Jr. lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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