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Two Roads Diverged in Energy Futures

Published on 10/1/2022

Rarely does an exchange on social media measure up, but League Climate Team member John Smilie’s posts usually educate, prompt thoughtful discussion, and aim toward the common good. His recent post was worthy of a wider audience so we’ve brought the conversation here.

“An EV battery has about 8kg of lithium. 2021 production was 100k tons. If every kg is used for EVs, that's 12.5M cars. We currently make 80M [million] cars. We're going to need: one) fewer cars; two) more lithium; three) alternative chemistries,” Smilie wrote.

Fewer cars and more lithium? Both sound intimidating. First, there’s the myth that American independence is indivisible from car ownership. True that affordable cars and cheap fuel allowed middle-class Americans to see more of the continent than early settlers. Yes, twenty-four percent of American households own three or more cars, and on average, most households own more cars than there are drivers in the home, as
 Smiljanic Stasha of writes. 

But plenty of Americans own one or fewer cars. Smilie tries not to drive as much as possible. It’s almost viable in a small town, except, as he noted, “
The lack of non-car options to get to anything in the northern quarter of town (including the hospital and most doctors’ offices) is appalling.” He had to ride a bike on the road to get to his appointment.

“We need ‘
better public transportation and walkable cities, which implies less single-family exclusive zoning,” commented Drew Rawlings. We need bike and walking trails to the medical and commercial vectors of the city, as well as to apartment complexes and neighborhoods. Thus far, Crawfordsville’s leaders have been vision-centered in energy and parks planning. It’s safe to ask: How can we develop our town as an exemplar for smaller, industrial or rural towns so that we move all citizens, including low-income, low-mobility citizens to high-traffic areas without expecting them to own cars? In addition to building out trails, can we woo car-sharing companies and expand the Sunshine Van services.  

The second trouble, the one with lithium is that it’s now in high demand with the move to longer-lasting electric vehicles. Lithium and other minerals now used for batteries are now rare than fossil fuels. Lithium, nickel, cobalt, and cadmium power modern batteries, which is great because batteries now last longer. A Prius’ battery often lasts the life of the car, which is up and over 200,000 miles. The rapid increase in demand for lithium means companies can increase prices.  Bloomberg’s Mark Burton and Thomas Biesheuvel reported this month that lithium costs went up fourfold in China, the largest market source.

Enter Smilie’s third solution: chemistry. 
Right now Smilie noted that “Hydrogen cars take three times the input energy to fuel, and hydrogen is notoriously difficult to distribute and store. If hydrogen cars have a role, it will be fuel cells not combustion, and hopefully those fuel cells can be recharged with electricity rather than pumping fresh hydrogen in.”

Time for an explanatory paragraph on hydrogen fuel cells: Hydrogen is the simplest, most abundant element on earth. It’s an energy carrier, which means it allows the transport of energy in a usable form from one place to another. But hydrogen, like electricity, must be produced from another substance. It can be produced—separated—from a variety of sources including water, fossil fuels, or biomass then used as a source of energy or fuel. Because it has the highest energy content of any common fuel by weight (about three times more than gasoline) and the lowest energy content by volume (about four times less than gasoline), it has excellent potential for vehicle power. Its only byproduct is water. 

Hydrogen’s promise is throttled currently by two obstacles: its current source is fossil fuel, and it will require massive investment for R&D as well as infrastructure. The industry is currently researching end-to-end, zero-emission hydrogen with renewable technologies like chemical electrolysis. Electrolysis technology splits the hydrogen molecules, then compresses, transports, and stores them. Otherwise, we can also use biomass or waste as a hydrogen source (again, hydrogen is delightfully abundant). 

The second barrier is infrastructure. We need to replace oil and gas mining, refining, and fueling stations with hydrogen production and stations. They must be as ubiquitous. Why pursue hydrogen rather than mere battery-based electric vehicles? Hydrogen fuel cells will not run down or need recharging like electric battery technologies. Hydrogen fuel cells contain no moving parts. They produce energy silently while being extraordinarily reliable.

Right now 
Smilie is “super skeptical on the viability of hydrogen for anything smaller than a semi. It might have a role in aviation or shipping, but even with shipping it will probably be converted to methanol or ammonia first.” None of that is fully carbon-free, nor is it accessible enough for individual car technology. But hydrogen power is already cleaning up factory air. Forklifts using hydrogen cells reduce indoor pollution and are showing promise in steel production. 

EV or hydrogen, we have a more promising future than the present. As Smilie noted, “Also electric motors are just plain better than combustion motors. More efficient. Instant torque. More torque. Less complex. Less maintenance. Burning stuff sucks.”

So, while 1.3 million electric vehicles drove the roads in 2019, only about 18,000 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles existed. Now that the Inflation Reduction Act is funding some of the infrastructure for EVs and hydrogen power, we are at a crossroads. What technology is the best investment for the next several hundred years? Which source should industry and government encourage for power- hydrogen or plug-in?  One could paraphrase Robert Frost, “Two stations emerged on yellow lined roads, and we can’t travel both. Being one nation under threat of climate death, we look to longterm growth, Then took the best discerned, having the better claim. 

We must discern: how will we address our finitudes and human nearsightedness, to build for more than a century of progress.