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Shocking Ignorance

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I first heard it from a landscape architect in a meeting about land use planning in the 55418. We were discussing the projected need for parking in commercial districts. The conclusion was that auto technology would evolve so that personal autos would always be a significant and vital means of transport, no matter the price of oil. As sort of an off-hand comment about electric cars, the architect said something like, “And I hear the cars will even sell power back to the electric company.”

It sounded ludicrous. Since that meeting I’ve heard it a few more times. And, last week, President Klink said it to Jay Leno:

LENO: Now, you mentioned cars a minute ago. You went to the electric car, you went to look at some batteries today.

THE PRESIDENT: I did. It's spectacular what is being down now with plug-in hybrids, where not only are you getting the hybrid technology, but now you can plug it in at home in your garage. And potentially we could see cars getting 150 miles to a gallon of gas.

And when you get home you could potentially sell the energy in your car back into the grid, back to your utility and get money.

So we’re going to be investing billions of dollars in research and development around these technologies.

Now it’s even goofier. Barry is going to steal billions and set it on fire, in the name of a non-logical faith in green technology.

Here’s the problem: Obama presents the prospect of the hybrid-electric car as somehow able to move passengers around, and when not in use generate energy for use by others. Cars would, by doing their work, create and store energy that could be released and sold once the cark is parked. That’s how that landscape architect understood it. It sounds wonderful. We get cleaner transport, and extra electric power. That’s so “green” it almost seems like magic.

It is magic.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics—which Congress has no power to repeal—dictates that no more energy can come out of a system than was put into it. The electric car can only transform energy it got from somewhere else. The car can turn that energy into work moving people around, or it can put that energy into the power grid. And, every time the energy is transformed, some is lost to the environment as heat.

The only way a hybrid car could create electricity for sale to the electric company is by burning the gasoline in its fuel tank. There is no magical bonus free energy created by the car being driven around. The hybrids would essentially be micro-scale power stations, turning fossil fuel into energy while emitting carbon dioxide and various pollutants. Into your garage. Or in the parking structure at the mall.

In fact, such a distributed-generation model is what the proponents of vehicle-to-grid technology (V2G) propose:

A hybrid or Fuel cell vehicle, which generates power from storable fuel, uses its generator to produce power for a utility at peak electricity usage times. Here the vehicles serve as a distributed generation system, producing power from conventional fossil fuels or hydrogen.

There are theoretical benefits to distributed generation:

The concept allows V2G vehicles to provide power to help balance loads by "valley filling" (charging at night when demand is low) and "peak shaving" (sending power back to the grid when demand is high). It can enable utilities new ways to provide regulation services (keeping voltage and frequency stable) and provide spinning reserves (meet sudden demands for power). In future development, it has been proposed that such use of electric vehicles could buffer renewable power sources such as wind power, for example, by storing excess energy produced during windy periods and providing it back to the grid during high load periods, thus effectively stabilizing the intermittency of wind power.

But that’s not what Barry is selling. And that’s not what the community-level green activists like the architect seem to understand. They think free energy is only a few billion dollars away.

There will never be free energy. V2G may offer some benefit as battery and grid technology advances. But the benefit will be at some cost, and there’s no guarantee of when the benefit will become greater than the cost. Maybe next decade. Maybe next century. Maybe never, due to other demands on, or unseen costs from, the resources required.

But faith in sweet-sounding idea, combined with an elementary ignorance of basic physics, will keep the current President and his fans grasping at this eco-rainbow. They’re risking somebody else’s money—ours—on a gamble they have no realistic prospect of winning.

The planners will design cities, which the architects will build, all based on magical thinking. If we’re going to build massive monuments to faith, I prefer we build cathedrals. They’re more beautiful than powerline pylons. Or, if we need monuments to some supernatural benevolence, how about pyramids? Let the evidence of our folly endure for millenia.