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Is Site C needed? No.

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After reading Mark Jaccard’s opinion piece in today’s Vancouver Sun (would we use Site C’s electricity? September 12 2017), I felt compelled to write a letter.  Here it is, below; we’ll see what happens!

A map of the Site C project, with the existing Williston Reservoir to the west.


Jaccard and his team carried out long-term electricity demand projections based on the expected switch to electricity for vehicles and space heating (via heat pumps), as well as population growth.  I do agree that an increased demand is likely (although the potential of an aggressive conservation program seems to have been dismissed).

But it is a leap of logic to conclude that Site C is needed.  For one thing, Site C is considered a clean source of electricity; it is not. The rich soils that the reservoir will submerge will produce greenhouse gases.

But mostly, the conclusion is made without considering other potential sources.  More electricity could (and should) be generated by the dams already built on the Columbia in Eastern BC (to say nothing of Kemano II, which should enter the discussion).  But megawatt for megawatt, the winds of the Peace Valley could be harvested at a lower cost, and built progressively, as demand grows.  Wind may be an intermittent source, but the large Williston Reservoir provides all the needed storage to ensure dispatchability.  And we remain the only jurisdiction on the Pacific Rim that has not exploited geothermal energy.

Jaccard says that the decision should be made using unbiased analysis.  I couldn’t agree more; but the analysis does not support any conclusion other than more electricity will be eventually needed. 


Written by enviropaul

September 13, 2017 at 10:23 am

Water and identity: a musical interlude

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of water in the Canadian identity.  Not long afterwards, the composer Gilles Tremblay passed away.  That was just after I had discovered a very beautiful album called, simply, water, recorded by pianist Hélène Grimaud.  There is a connection: it’s about water.

Tremblay was a classical, modern composer from Québec, born in 1932.  His music was of the contemporary musical style, that is, the kind that few people ever listen to, but a composer’s composer.  His most famous work is called Fleuves (rivers).  He claimed that his music was never meant to be Canadian or Quebecker; he said that he wrote about the Saint-Lawrence because it is the river he knows best, (un fleuve d’horizons immenses, de générosité – a river of immense, generous horizons) but that the music is about water, ultimately, the same water as in every river.

I had never heard his stuff, or so I thought; but then I learned that he composed the music that was piped into the Québec Pavilion of Expo67.  I spent a lot of time there as a kid, and always loved the strange, surreal mood of what would now be called “nature sounds sampling” – he was a pioneer of the genre, and the mixture of water sounds and forest sounds within an eerie sound matrix was just magical (the music won the Calixa Lavallée award for 1968).

Along the same theme Hélène Grimaud recorded an album of solo piano compositions.  Just the titles of some of the pieces are evocative enough: Jeux d’eau (water play), two pieces with the same title by Liszt and Ravel; Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie (the submerged cathedral); Berio’s Wasserklavier (water keyboard); Janacek’s In The Mists; Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch.  All beautiful, intimist music that easily takes you floating into a daydream.  Every piece is separate by a short interlude of electronic music by Nitin Sawhney that somehow set the stage with what a friend said sounded “like underwater music”.  The video below gives a taste.

(I want to pause here – these two are far from the only musicians to be inspired by water; there are articles devoted to lists of these, such as here, here or here.  One only needs to think about Debussy’s La Mer (the sea) or Smetana’s Vltava, a piece that ties Czech nationalist aspirations with the river that flows through Prague; or the Eurythmics’ Here Comes the Rain Again, among many popular songs, or the countless references to the Mississippi in blues.  One personal favourite is jazzman Abdullah Ibrahim’s Water From An Ancient World, below.)

It’s no wonder water inspires musicians.  Beyond the fact that we, as a species, are emotionally drawn to water, water itself creates music, be it a babbling brook or the hypnotic rhythm of the waves by the seashore.  Some musicians have incorporated purely natural sounds such as recorded whale songs.  The Croatian architect Nikola Basic went one step further, letting the ocean create its own music:  the Zadar sea organ.  As waves enter a chamber, they pressurize air that exits through a series of organ pipes, set at different heights and with a different pitch.  Have a listen.

It’s worth quoting the liner notes from Grimaud’s album to get a sense of the inspiration water can generate.

Be praised, Lord, through Sister Water.  She is very useful and humble, and precious and pure. (a quote from St Francis of Assisi)

The majority of our bodies, like the surface of the Earth, is made up of water of water.  Life cannot exist without it.  Water is merciless and miraculous.  It sustains and humbles us, divides and completes us. Water is nature’s architect, sculpting the contours of the earth.  Water is also Nature’s composer, its drops, streams and waves beating the world’s primordial rhythms.

By my favourite liner quote is from Heraclitus, the well-known “no man ever steps in the same river twice”.  Grimaud makes sure to give the full quote, continuing with “for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”  Heraclitus, early on, realized that the only constant is change – or is it?  Rivers evolve and meander, its waters always renewed; but despite this, we give a permanent name to a river.  People change and age, as well; they may feel similar, keep their unique identity from one day to the next, yet their constituent molecules are always replaced, such that nothing in your make-up of seven years ago is present in you now.  But water!  A molecule of water, two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen, stay together over eons, evaporate in your breath, coalesce as rain, enters the well that holds the water that your brewer draws to make your beer – or becomes a part of a hydrated mineral crystal, buried deep, emerging back as lava billions of years later – the same molecule.  Water both reinforces and challenges your concept of identity.

Well, enough philosophy.  Forget hard thoughts and concepts, and let water-inspired music work its emotional magic on you.  I’ll leave you with Tremblay’s Fleuves – immerse yourself in the other type of music that was all the rage in the sixties.

Written by enviropaul

September 11, 2017 at 6:58 pm

About Harvey, part 3: floodproofing

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A Bajau village on stilts

Harvey is a stark reminder: we need to learn to manage floods.

Houston has been much criticized for its laissez-faire approach to urban planning.  Yes, having more green ground and less paved ground would have helped – a bit.  The amount of water was just too big, flooding would have occurred no matter what, but maybe more slowly and not as high.

What was a surprise to me, though, was the extent to which planning rules were broken.  Houses were built in both of the reservoirs designed to collect the flood waters – so, naturally, they flooded as water rose in the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, as it was meant to do.

Now what, though?  These folks bought the land, it is still theirs.  If new rules are created (and enforced) to prevent further development, or rebuilding, on these sites, they are left holding the bag: destroyed homes, valueless properties.  Compassion dictates that they be helped – but rebuilding on the same lots, isn’t that the height of foolishness?  Rebuild somewhere else, but where is the money coming from?  Should taxpayers, the ones still dry and solvent, contribute?  Is it buyer beware – too bad – or should the developers who knew better, the city hall clerks who gave the permits, be sued?  Or the oil companies who enabled climate change (and lied about it)?  No matter how you look at it, it’s messy.

(And God knows, if any city should have known better, it’s Houston.  It was founded by the survivors of the hurricane that destroyed Galveston, still the worse disaster ever to hit the US in term of fatalities.  And yes, Galveston was eventually rebuilt, and it’s as much as sitting duck now as it was then.)

I don’t have solutions to offer, but the situation made me think of the approach adopted in Northern Europe, making room for the water.  As I posted before, in Hamburg’s HafenCity, for instance, that means buildings that can withstand having their ground floor flooded.  Could that approach be used in places like Houston? Or, for that matter, in the flood plains of Canadian cities like Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver? I read that we are still “not well prepared”.

Room for the water, in an ordinary subdivision?  That would be possible if the houses are on stilts.  This is not as foolish as it sounds.  I have collected some pictures of stilt buildings from a variety of sites, some modern, some not (see here, here, here, or here). As I looked around, I was surprised by the number of examples I found.  One of my discoveries is the site called “make wealth history”.  The tag line is “because the Earth can’t afford our lifestyle”; but despite the crunchy-granola sound of this, the site has a wealth of examples.  For instance, this is where I learned about the new hospital in Boston designed to withstand flooding and keep working (I trust that the architects of our own St-Paul’s Hospital, moving to the very floodable False Creek Flats, are taking a look).

The flood-proof Spaulding Hospital in Boston © Steinkamp Photography



A development in Charleston





A cabin in Washington State


Built to withstand a tsunami, Camano Island, WA









In Galveston, of all places…

In Florida









And it’s not like it’s a radical new lifestyle, either.  Stilt houses have been around since the Neolithic; their modern ram-shackle counterparts can be seen in the Tonle Sap lake or the Bajau community, or in Trondheim for a more northern version.  Enjoy the pictures; there’s something atavistic about them.



A reconstructed neolithic village in Lake Constance

Tonle Sap lake, Cambodia

Pic: Copyright Timothy Allen

Some say that an amphibian lifestyle is what humans evolved to have: like marine mammals, we have naked skin, we shed salt tears, we have the diving reflex.  And we have this great yearning to be near water, which gets us in trouble.  All I’m considering is – can we not make our buildings resilient?

Written by enviropaul

September 4, 2017 at 6:27 pm

About Harvey, part 2: Messrs. Claudius, Clapeyron, and Mann

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One completely unexpected consequence of Hurricane Harvey: it has caused the Clausius-Clapeyron equation to be mentioned by the mainstream media.  A Google search reveals that Wired, the Guardian, the BBC, LA Times, the Washington Post, and Bloomberg have all mentioned the equation in the context of the Hurricane (and that’s just Page One of the search).

You have to thank climatologist Michael Mann for mentioning the equation (in a Facebook post, of all things) and explaining its significance: every time the air warms up by one degree centigrade, the air can hold up about 7% more moisture.

The equation itself is fairly complex (and its derivation scary – two pages in Wikipedia, and they simplify) but there is an approximation, the August-Roche-Magnus formula, that makes the point that it is an exponential relation, like compound interest:

This is the equation I’ve used in class, because it is accessible to anyone with a scientific calculator (yes, that’s what the button ex  is for).  It relates a fairly arcane complex (the water pressure) to the ambient temperature.  I say arcane because water pressure is just another way to say how much moisture is in the air.

I always find it interesting, if not downright nerdy, to figure out who these people were who gave their names to equations.

Rudolf Clausius

Rudolf Clausius was born in 1822 in what was then Prussia (in the town of Koszalin, now in Poland).  From what I can gather he was an exemplar of the Prussian cliché: very exacting, he gained fame by demonstrating that the thermodynamic laws of the time contained a contradiction, and restating the equations so as to make the problem disappear.  (In other words, the fact that the equations his colleagues used then worked well enough was not good enough for him.)  He also was the first to express in mathematical terms the mind-boggling concept of entropy.

Clausius got his PhD, a relatively new degree, from the university of Halle, in 1847. Prussia had recently acquired Halle and the area around it in 1815.  The old university became integrated into Prussia’s effort to increase its general education performance, especially in the applied sciences (Prussia had by then the most educated population of the world).  Clausius went on to teach in Berlin at the Royal Artillery and Engineering School.  He married twice and had seven children.

Benoit Clapeyron

Benoit Clapeyron was born in Paris in 1799, just at the start of the Napoleonic wars. He became an engineer developing the then-newfangled technology: the railway and its steam engines.  In 1834 he published an essay on the ”motive power of heat”, which was the first publication to feature the graphs of steam volume versus pressure (the very graphs dreaded by all engineering students in courses such as Intro Thermodynamics). By all accounts he was an eminently practical man, working on the practical problems of his era, be they better steam engines or bridges (for which he is equally famous in engineering circles).  He was presumably well connected, and married into the Bazaine family (the sister of the future Grand Marshall of France).  He died at the age of 64, having enjoyed a fine teaching job at the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées, and what had been then the longest uninterrupted period of peace in Europe.

Clausius and Clapeyron apparently never worked together; Clausius reworked the French scientist’s equation from first principles, in a document published in 1850 (hence the name of the equation).  One wonders what they would have said to one another.  But in the era when the bulk of thermodynamics work was written, the France of Napoleon III and the Prussia of Bismarck eyed each other suspiciously.  As it was, Bismarck was to manufacture a diplomatic incident that led to the 1870 war between the two countries, which led to the complete defeat of France (led by Clapeyron’s brother-in-law Bazaine) and the unification of Germany.  Clausius organized an ambulance corps for the German side, was wounded during an engagement, received a medal and a permanent disability.

Penn State’s Michael Mann

What would these two have thought of Harvey and climate change?  They would have been interested, no doubt.  But maybe they would have also been surprised by our inability, 150 years later, to tackle the problem.  They probably would have also applauded climatologist Michael Mann’s intervention away from the ivory tower of science and into the public sphere; the idea that scientists should stay quietly in their labs was not current then.

Then again, having witnessed, one the devastation of the Napoleonic wars, the other the absurd horror of the Franco-Prussian war, they may have just shrugged and rolled their eyes in dismay.

Be that as it may; the silver lining is that, finally, science has regained its rightful place in the discussion.



Written by enviropaul

September 4, 2017 at 11:39 am

About Harvey

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Thirteen years after Katrina, watching Hurricane Harvey seems like a rerun – except worse.

Here’s a quick run-down of the information about the storm itself – it will take much longer for the tally to be complete, but we know there has already been loss of life.

SciAm ran an article discussing the physics of the storm, and it’s one of the best I have seen.  The storm power increased really fast, just like Katrina’s did, because it traveled over a blob of very warm water, warmer than average for the Gulf of Mexico, which itself as a whole has been unusually warm.  (Very warm water evaporates easily; once it condenses in a cloud, it releases latent heat, and it is this heat that provides the energy of the storm.)

But why isn’t it weakening now that it’s overland?  The answer to this is surprising.  The storm has weakened, but not much.  That is because such a large area that is normally land is now under water; typically, if more than 50% of the area is flooded, it might as well be an ocean as far as the hurricane is concerned; it needs only shallow water to keep feeding, so to speak.

And why is it not moving?  This one is more complicated.  Meteorologists talk about blocking highs.  These are areas where ridges of high pressure (aka, nice weather makers) dominate.  Normally these high pressure zones channel winds away, and the hurricane rides along; but there are two distinct highs, competing, so to speak, so these winds cannot establish themselves.

A hurricane causes damage in two ways: high winds, and flooding.  Of the two, flooding is often the worse, because it lasts longer and is more pervasive.  Flooding is usually the result of a number of factors.  Of course, rain is incredibly intense; some estimate that about 800 millimeters will fall during the passage of Harvey, and that is about half of what falls on Vancouver in a year.  Such rainfall quickly overwhelms the capacity of storm drains.  But even that water that does pour down the storm sewers and the ditches needs somewhere to go, and local rivers and creeks are often overwhelmed as well.  Finally, there is the storm surge effect.  A hurricane is a “depression”, meaning that it is a zone where atmospheric pressure is unusually low.  This is like a partial vacuum, and as a result the sea level rises under the storm as if it were sucked up by a vacuum cleaner.  This is called a storm surge, and this is what caused most of the flooding after Sandy in New York and Katrina in New Orleans.  Harvey’s surge is about one meter, which considerable, but not as high as these other two storms.  But the shape of the shore may create a funnel effect; the surge in Galveston is about 2.5 meters, nearly three times as high as in the open ocean.

Flooding may be made worse when dykes suddenly brake, of course, as happened in New Orleans (where flooding was made that much worse because much of the city, such as the Ninth Ward, is below sea level).  Houston is above sea level (not by much) and there are no dykes around in a way similar to New Orleans.  But dykes may yet cause trouble.  Two of the flooded areas are the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, which prevent some of the flood waters from entering Buffalo Bayou, the stream that flows through downtown Houston. If these dykes break, the flooding may become even worse; but so far so good.

So Harvey is a rather anomalous, both in its intensity and its insistence of hanging around.  Is this caused by climate change?  Wrong question, replies Michael Mann.   This would be like asking whether steroids can “cause” a gold medal.  Steroids or climate change, all that can be said is that it’s likely to have been a contributing factor.  Most likely the blob of warm water has been made warmer by climate change; the blocking highs may also have a link to climate change, but that remains to be determined.  Of course, we also know that a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapour.  I found three good articles on the topic in the New York Times, Joe Romm in ThinkProgress, and Vox.

Compare this map with the one above: part of southern Texas has been turned into a bay, as far as the hurricane can tell…

But climate change or not, much of Houston’s flooding come from the city’s cavalier attitude to development.  What is called “green infrastructure” has been mostly non-existent in Houston.  For instance, the White Oak Bayou River watershed, which covers much of northwest Houston, has lost 70% of its wetlands since 1992.  The Dutch concept of “room for the river” – leaving floodplain zones undeveloped – seems non-existent.  Ditto for the more local, dispersed measures such green roofs, detention ponds, etc.  Would such measures have prevented flooding?  Of course not.  But they may well have reduced its extent.  As it is, Houston is in a low lying floodplain, but its culture – developers, city hall, citizens – seems to be one of denial.  This city, the fourth largest in the U.S., is also the largest that has no zoning regulations.

And it’s not as if it could not be foreseen.  Over a year ago, it was pointed out that “Houston is a sitting duck”, with respect to hurricanes and flooding.

It is also worth pointing out that the pollution that may result from the flooding is worrisome.  It’s not just the usual overflowing sewage: Houston is home to the largest petrochemical complex in the country, with 27 refineries, with 29% of the refining capacity and over 40% of the petrochemical industry located there.  All of this is at risk, and there are reports, possibly exaggerated, of “unbearable” petrochemical smells – air pollution is also a risk to be considered.

Aside from pollution, there is also all the risk to the transportation infrastructure.  Some roads and streets may not be able to support traffic if the wet soil risks caving in; same for bridge pilings.  It will a long time until buses run, to say nothing of being back to normal.

What Toronto would look like under Harvey

That leaves two big questions to contemplate.  The first one is, obviously, what would be impacts of such a storm at home?  The Weather Channel has an amusing map of what a storm like this would do to Toronto.  Not to worry: Toronto is unlikely to ever be in the path of such a hurricane.  Same for Vancouver.  But the underlying implication is: are we at all prepared for an unexpected storm?  Are we, like Houston, sitting ducks?  The recent flooding in Toronto or in Calgary probably means that the answer is yes.

The other big question is fundamental: how come?  What happened to led to this? Columnist George Monbiot points an accusing finger at the capitalist system.  Too pat, you’ll say; but, even if I disagree with it, it’s well worth reading and pondering.


Postscript: of course, news keep coming fast.  IFLS has a good recap, and shared a remarkable visualization, from Vox,  of how much water we’re talking about (roughly four times what fell during Katrina).  Here it is, bellow.


Written by enviropaul

August 29, 2017 at 2:50 pm

Logical fallacies and the environment: correlation and causation

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Last year I published a series about logical fallacies that abound in pronouncements about environmental issues (here is an installment, as an example).  But I recently came across one of the best examples that illustrate how correlation and causation are distinct.

The example comes from the recent book by Anurag Agrawal, a world authority on monarchs.  Monarch numbers are clearly in decline, but what is causing it?  There are multiple causes, as always.  One possible cause that has often been pointed at is the use of GM corn and soybeans.  These plants are resistent to herbicides such as Roundup (glyphosate), and therefore much more of the herbicide has been sprayed as before.  If the drifting herbicide is also killing milkweed, it would deprive monarchs of their food source (monarchs eat only milkweed – nothing else).  Could that be the main reason that monarchs are becoming rarer?

On page 236 of the book, Agrawal proposes a graph (reproduced below) that seems to indicate that this is the case.

The caption reads: a) correlation between the percentage of genetically modified, herbicide-tolerant corn and soybeans planted each year in the United States and the monarch overwintering population size in Mexico, and b) the number of cell phone subscriptions in the United States and the same estimate of monarch populations.  Each point represents a year (1993-2014).  Note that the points are not in chronological order.

The top graph seems to strongly indict the GM plants, doesn’t it?  But wait, the bottom graph shows that maybe radiation from cell phones is to blame.  This is not as farfetched as it may originally seem: we still don’t know exactly how monarchs orient themselves for their yearly migration to mexico, and it is conceivable that the EMF from the now cell phones and towers is affecting their ability to navigate using the magnetic field.

But if the monarch decline is plotted against the S&P January stock market values, we get as strong a correlation – what is going on?  The reality is that all three correlations are very strong because the percent of GMO plantations, the number of cell phones, and the stock market have all increased over the time period under consideration, while the monarch numbers have consistently declined.  Agrawal states clearly that the correlations, in themselves, are not an indication of what is causing the decline.  (He also indicates that this doesn’t get the GM crops off the hook, either – merely that causation and correlation are different.  Saying that the fact that this is a mere correlation shows that GM crops are innocent would be equally spurious, a case of either-or fallacy).

The book is full of little gems like this, and I thoroughly enjoyed it – I recommend it to anyone interested in ecology.  If time permits, I will try to post a true review.  But meanwhile, for completeness sake, in case anyone doubts that monarch numbers are declining, here’s the data (from page 214):

We do have a bit of a crisis on our hands, when it comes to the monarch.  But thankfully, this is not the main theme of the book; co-evolution, with all its mysteries and wonders, is what the book is about, and it is written in a very accessible style.  Meanwhile, though, here’s the key lesson: one can really easily find correlations by plotting against one another the Y-axis of time series that have strong time trends.  And quite likely, just as easily can you use it to convince folks that you’ve found the environmental culprit!  But don’t.



Agrawal, Anurag 2017.  Monarchs and milkweeds: a migrating butterfly, a poisonous plant, and their remarkable story of coevolution.  Princeton U Press.

Written by enviropaul

August 11, 2017 at 12:02 pm

Electric cars and the Formula E race

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Yup, those are electric cars

Last weekend Montreal hosted the Formula E grand prix: a car race, similar to a Formula One, except that all cars are electric.  It has been popular, if controversial.  If you call yourself an environmentalist, do you cheer such races, or boo them?

For engineers and other geeks, there’s a lot to like about the event.  This is where electric mobility is put to the ultimate test.  Despite the fact that the cars are restricted in top speed (225 km/h) and maximum power ( 170 kW, equivalent to 225 horsepower), there is still plenty to work on.

Electric cars have batteries, which much get recharged; this is done using a converted diesel generator that runs on glycerin, a by-product from bio-diesel production that burns cleanly and is carbon neutral.  (Glycerin is also a feedstock of choice for biogas generators.)

The cars typically have a single engine, and – atypically for electric cars – a gearbox to optimize power regime; innovations such as torque vectoring (giving more power to the outside wheels during a turn) are forbidden.  A unique energy boost of 100 kilojoules is granted to three drivers selected by fans.  And then there are all sorts of technical tweaks beloved of fans, for getting more power and more efficiency out of things such as software power control, regenerative braking, battery thermal load management, and the like.

Many of the innovations tested on Formula E circuits end up in production cars.  Jaguar, for instance, which fielded cars last weekend, uses the platform to test and improve the performance of its I-Pace system  that powers its brand new all-electric SUV.  Says  Alain Leynaert, product planning manager for Jaguar

The I-Pace is sharing the same electric motor technology as the race cars. We’ve been asked why aren’t we using the same motor as Tesla. From our perspective, what we’ve seen is there are packaging and thermal benefits to the permanent magnet motor so we’ve decided to go that route.

This racing is really the most extreme testing you can ask for. What we see happening in the road car is just a snap shot of the extremes that the race car goes through. If we can manage to make the race car run well and be thermally reliable, it translates right into the passenger vehicle.

These are some of the benefits of this type of events: better electric vehicles.  Another set of benefits is public awareness: there are still many people who look at electric cars as glorified golf carts.  They are anything but, obviously; yet the two share something that fossil-fueled race cars don’t have: they are remarkably quiet, and they are pollution free.  This is why the races are held in an urban setting (downtown Montreal in this case): to show that, aside from the controversial road closures, there is little impact.  And this race had plenty of drama: there was a spectacular crash during the qualifying rounds as the current title holder, Sebastien Buemi  of Renault, crashed into a wall at high speed.  The car was repaired but eventually disqualified for being underweight.

So, overall, a good show, heralding the coming of the electric car.  Some people still poo-poo it (witness car commentator Motormouth here); others praise it.

Some of the commentary cautioning against widespread electric car adoption claim that it simply displaces pollution.  If the local electric power is produced by coal, isn’t that actually worse?  Well, no, it isn’t.  It may be in terms of ordinary air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, if coal power plants are not equipped with pollution control devices as good as cars.  But this isn’t really the main point: rather, it’s about greenhouses gases.  According to some (such as Luc Vallée and Jean Michaud), it may actually be worse for the environment if coal is burned to make the electricity used in e-cars.  But this is a canard; an electric car is so efficient at converting electricity into motion that, even fuelled by coal-generated electricity, the production of carbon dioxide is still much lower than that of a similar gasoline or diesel vehicle.  That is because an electric car can convert over 90% of its electric charge into motion; an internal combustion car, only 20% at best (that’s why the radiator gets so hot: most of the energy disappears as heat).  In contrast, large coal (or natural gas) power plants have an efficiency of about 40%.  You can do the math: a combination electric car/coal plant is still twice as efficient as a gasoline car, and so emits only half the carbon dioxide for the same trip.  Unfortunately even Globe columnist Eric Reguly, who should know better, has fallen for that nonsense.

A better question may be: what would happen if all cars were replaced by electric cars?  Would that not strain the grid to the point of failure?  That is the line followed by proponents of big new projects, from Site C to the UK’s proposed Point Hinckley nuclear plant, a costly and unnecessary boondoggle if ever there was one.  Without question, this would indeed represent an additional demand to the system.  Ryan Carlyle calculated that, should all cars in the US turn into electric vehicles at the stroke of midnight, the electricity demand would increase by 29%.  (He also calculated that, with the current mix of power generation in the US, carbon dioxide generation would be reduced by 6% – so there, Reguly, Michaud and company.)

So an environmentalist may rejoice at the (smallish) reduction in CO2 emissions that electric cars represent, but blanch at the prospect of environmentally destructive megaprojects to boost electricity generation.  And it’s not just cars: much of our land transport, road and rail, could conceivably be fuelled by electricity, to say nothing of space and water heating, and many other uses of electricity that could replace fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Electric utilities have been considering this to justify forecasts of huge future demand increases.  They have a record of consistently over-predicting future demand ever since the 50s – but could they be right this time?

Not so fast, though – there are several trends and technical developments to consider, which complicate the situation considerably.  The first of these points is dispatchability, that is, the ability to generate electricity at the time when it is needed.   But cars do not typically consume power during peak demand times; power is needed when batteries get recharged, and this takes place most of the time at night, when demand is lowest.  Recharging a big fleet of electric vehicles may actually stabilize the grid; while more electrical energy would be consumed, the power capacity of the system would not need to increase, in this scenario.  That is because the power plants that we currently run have more than enough capacity to meet the recharging demand during off-peak hours.

The second trend to consider is increased efficiency.  Take lighting, for instance: the same brightness can be achieved with LEDs as with incandescent bulbs using less than 10% of the electricity required by the traditional bulbs.  The same is true for a variety of machinery, from electric motors to air-conditioners, computers to televisions, or data acquisition and control systems.  As technological breakthroughs keep happening, the overall demand for electricity of western societies is expected to drop.  So even if electric vehicles create an additional demand, that demand may well be canceled by efficiency gains elsewhere in the system.

The third trend that matters is the nature of electricity generation, itself, which is becoming decentralized.  Wind and solar power may be intermittent, but decentralized generation with matching storage means that grids are becoming much more robust than previously, not the other way around; the best test of this was the solar eclipse that occurred in Europe last year.  Many pundits expected black-outs and brown-outs from all the solar collectors going suddenly off-line, especially in countries heavily solarized like Germany; but the eclipse came and went without any hitch.  In practice, this could be as simple as charging a car at home using electricity from one’s own solar panels and batteries.

But most important is the trend away from cars.  A much smaller proportion of young people own cars or even have a driver’s license than a generation ago.  This is thought to be the result of a combination of factors, from a diminished value as status symbol (electronic gadgets replacing them) to improved transit and car-sharing.  As Eric Doherty eloquently describes, car-oriented projects that a few decades ago seemed fine are now considered absurd, such as the proposed ten-lane bridge over the Fraser.

So the demand for private cars is waning; and the demand for gas guzzlers is definitely dropping, with an end in sight.  Evans-Pritchard writes in the National Post that

OPEC and Big Oil thought they had 50 years. At best they have a decade…Just like what happened to Kodak when digital cameras appeared — the end will be swift and brutal.

So private cars may be on the way out, and that means less congestion, less noise, and fewer accidents.  But even so, the private car is not likely to disappear any time soon, if ever.  Tesla, now the darling of investors, has just announced the launch of its cheaper Model 3; there are already half a million customers who have plunked down a deposit to secure one.  China is now the biggest market for, and producer of, electric cars.  Germany plans to have one million electric cars on the road by 2020.  Electric cars already make up 40% of all cars sold in Norway.  The Nordic country, along with the Netherlands, will ban sales of fossil fuel cars by 2025; France and the UK plan to follow later.  Mining investors recognize that the demand for electric vehicles is already affecting the price of metals, particularly lithium and cobalt, but also aluminum, lead, and copper.   Shell’s CEO, Ben Van Beurden, has announced that his next car will be an electric one.  Electric cars are coming, like it or not.

I’m not much into car culture.  But if ever Formula E comes to Vancouver, I’ll enjoy the show.  With a clear conscience.

Written by enviropaul

August 5, 2017 at 5:06 pm