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The new California energy solution                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Sep/06/2022 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Politics & Gov, Society, Watching America,

Have you heard, California is about to vote on legislation to restrict the sale of gas-powered cars and ban them altogether after 2035. This is clearly a noble cause, and just as clearly has not been thought through very well. With so many contradictions to existing energy and environmental policy it will be interesting to see how this plays out over time.

In truth, the Governor had announced a similar plan in 2020 with related commitments to wind and solar energy, but that was not codified by the State Legislative bodies until now. I suppose, if you get your science from social media and online blogs, this seems like the idea whose time has come…but the truth may be substantially different?

First a little science. Global warming and related climate change is real. This is meaningful to humanity because we have built our cities around rivers and ocean bays that are in historically temperate regions. As temperatures, fresh water supplies and ocean levels change these population centers will no longer be as habitable. In actuality, the planet has been going through a warming cycle for the last 8500 years (since the last ice age). Clearly, we have not been producing car exhaust or burning oil for 8500 years, but our polluting ways, according to most science, is accelerating the warming process. As a species, we don’t appear to deal with this kind of change very well though it seems inevitable, and short of some global cataclysmic event, humanity will need to make some significant behavior changes to maintain the current standards of habitability.

The top 5 countries for producing of CO2 emissions are China, US, India, Russia and Japan at 9.9. 4.4, 2.3, 1.5 and 1 billion Tons of CO2 respectively released into the atmosphere each year. By most accounts California accounts for roughly 7% of the total US emission or 350 million tons annually. I know, if you do the math that means that California’s CO2 output is about 1.6% of the global production. It would be easy to rationalize that California alone making this change is not necessarily going to change anything, but that is not entirely true.

In the mid 1960’s with smog at extremely hazardous levels in the Los Angeles basin California got approval to create emission standards that exceeded the federal benchmarks. Initially, car manufacturers created California specific vehicle configurations, but eventually found it more cost effective to build to California standards and sell to the whole country. In that spirit, if the nation follows California, we could be significantly reducing the US CO2 production which is 23% of current global pollution which sounds like toppling the first domino. Still, a global issue is a global issue and just making a local change is only nibbling at the corners.

Pushing everyone into an electric car sounds good, but where will all this electricity come from? California has had a never-ending series of energy shortfalls over the last few years leading to rolling blackouts and the periodic need to fire up previously shuttered natural gas fired electricity generation. If we are going to transition 16 million vehicles to electricity, where will all this energy come from to charge these vehicles each evening? Interesting to note as well that there was a big push across California just a few years ago to convert all buses and garbage trucks to natural gas as a “clean energy” source.

In Europe the reduction in the carbon footprint is being partially achieved with nuclear power. California has one nuclear power plant still online, but it is slated for decommissioning in 2025 at the urging of the environmental lobby despite the fact that it provides 9% of the state’s current electricity needs. We don’t have the generation resources to meet our current demand and switching over all those vehicles to electricity will create a huge demand short fall. There seems to be a general belief that wind and solar will magically solve all the supply problems, but this is simply not realistic.

We deal continually with either the environmental hurdle, or the “not in my back yard” response. Many of the potential sites for new solar farms have stalled because the environment lobby has pointed to habitat issues for species of ground nesting birds, desert tortoises, or some other unique or protected species. While not a concern specific to California, some of the turbine wind farms erected in the northern plains states such as South Dakota have not tolerated the extreme winter conditions very well.

While not unique to California, the inadequacy of the electrical transmission grid is a major factor in the golden state. Currently, when there is a power plant shut down, there is insufficient transmission capability to move electrical power from one part of the state to another, or from adjoining states in sufficient volume. Many of the big solar farms of the Imperial Valley are isolated from coastal communities because no one wants to approve the necessary transmission line construction. In some cases, this is for environmental reasons, some for habitat, and in some cases because of the impact on the visual aesthetic. Therefore, even if everyone had an electric car, we don’t have the power grid or generation capacity to charge all those EV’s.

The notion of solar power is potentially a good solution is more an optimistic dream than a tenable reality. Even the new Federal incentives are in truth more like a “Catch-22.” There are huge tax breaks being offered to install “American made” solar panels. The fiscal incentive decreases with how much of the technology is made overseas. Current solar panel technologies are very dependent on the mining of “rare earths.” Key amongst these rare earths is cadmium and indium, but none of these special metals are allowed to be mined in the US because of the environmental impact to wildlife habitat in their mining. Mostly, these special metals come out of China, India and parts of Africa. Mostly, we seem to be exporting pollution generation in order to import the technologies we desire.

I guess no one is going to get the maximum tax break being offered for “made in USA solar panels.” At least for the near future.

Electric cars are in general not as “green” as they appear. While the electric cars do not have a tailpipe, they still have an environmental footprint. The available studies vary quite a bit, but it appears that the environmental break-even on an EV sedan vs a compact gasoline car is about 90K miles. This is because of the mining of rare earths for the batteries, the special processes for electronics and lightweight materials in the vehicle manufacturer are very energy intensive to produce. Additionally, most of these special motors and batteries are being made with large volumes of coal or natural gas generated electricity. One of the things these studies also point out is that there is no established methodology or technology for recycling or disposal of batteries for electric cars at their end of life.

Kind of like nuclear power and what to be done with spent fuel rods.

This does not mean that zero-emissions CO2 goals are fantasy, it is more the folly of California law makers. Rather than legislating the goal and letting industry find a way to achieve it, they are legislating specific technologies as the path forward. It is not unreasonable to believe that fossil fuel generated power and transportation has run its course. That does not mean electric cars are an instant replacement or that we can simply shutter all coal and natural gas power plants. The industrial age of the last 200 years has given us warmth in the winter, cool in the summer and transportation of goods and food beyond our immediate community. Coal, oil and natural powered this age that allowed humanity for the first time to really thrive. More important, we are not yet in a position to simply turn these energy sources off. On a smaller scale, replacing gasoline powered cars with electric vehicles isn’t really the magic solution everyone is hoping for. After 120 years of burning coal and oil, the most likely next solution is hydrogen fuel cells. There are already test fleets of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the road. In the interim the EV only looks better because it doesn’t have a tail pipe. In truth, EV’s are most likely a “transitional technology.”

It is difficult to say if one state’ zero-emissions goal, (1.6% of global output) will make a difference. Even if the rest of the United States follows California’s lead, this would not meaningfully address the global production of emissions. Nevertheless, just because other countries don’t reduce their environment footprint doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. As government policies go, more often than not a well-intentioned legislation comes with serious “un-intended consequences.”

In the 1990’s we saw a new phenomenon called “off-shoring”, this was the practice of move some or all of a manufacturing process overseas to reduce labor costs. Now we a looking at a new version of off-shoring to another country the mining of rare-earths, energy intensive heavy manufacturing, and the consumption of fossil fuels to create the things we want to use and consume locally.

Hmmm….off-shoring pollution generation…didn’t see that one coming.
Staying closer to home, I guess when I finally buy my first government mandated electric car the big question will be, will I ever get to drive it. I’m just not sure we will have the power generation and distribution grid to charge 16 million personal vehicles in California.

I guess I can always hitch a ride up to the central valley and ride on the high-speed rail. At least I will be able to see how well California implements transportation policy and new technologies as I ride from Bakersfield to Merced.

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Albert Schweitzer
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