We Can Do Better Than “Same, But Electric”
We've been making compromises to the limits of fossil fuels for so long that we've forgotten they're compromises
An electric lawnmower, or at least the one I had the privilege of shoving around the lawn as a teenager, is pretty much the same as the gas mower it replaced. There’s an electric motor where the engine would have been, but the form factor and manner of usage are virtually identical. Less messing around with fluids, more dragging 100 feet of extension cord.
A cheap electric cooktop is a lot like a gas stove, except with electric heating coils instead of burners. Better for indoor air quality, doesn’t do that click-click-click thing, but less responsive.
Ask someone what it will mean to stop using fossil fuels, and most likely this is what they’ll think of: “exactly what we have now, but electric”.
Going Electric Doesn’t Just Mean Going Electric
Electric cars are sort of like gas cars with new motors… but actually, in many ways, much better. They have amazing pickup, the heater comes on instantly, many have extra storage (the “frunk”), there’s no exhaust to stink up your garage. No more trips to the gas station. (Yes, you need to charge them, but in several years of driving a Bolt, I have literally never had to charge it away from home.) Manufacturers keep coming up with new features; the high-end version of the Ford Lightning pickup can provide up to 80 amps of power to run tools, portable appliances, or even an entire home during a blackout.
A heat pump is sort of like a furnace, but because it pulls heat from the environment, it can be more than 100% efficient. Try to match that with a gas furnace, and the laws of thermodynamics will want a word with you. Also, the heat pump doesn’t generate indoor air pollution.
(Update: this post is currently being discussed on Hacker News, and as the comments point out, electric lawnmowers and ranges have both come a long way as well. You can now get a battery-powered mower that dispenses with the cord, and modern induction ranges are pushing aside gas burners as the chef’s tool of choice. Honestly, I had tried to come up with examples of a mainstream electric product that was not significantly better than its fossil-fuel-based predecessor, and apparently I failed.)
Fossil fuels are volatile, awkward, and leaky. Engines are bulky, balky, and have lots of moving parts. Accommodating all that in something like a car requires zillions of design compromises, many of which we’ve been making for so long that we’ve long since forgotten that they are compromises at all.
Sometimes Electrification Requires Changing The Rules
Conventional wisdom has long held that battery power is infeasible for ocean shipping. The size, weight, and cost of a battery pack that could haul a freighter the 6500 miles from Shanghai to Long Beach would be prohibitive. Shipping is responsible for 2% of global emissions – that’s a billion tons of CO2 per year, nothing to sneeze at – and it’s viewed as one of the most difficult categories to eliminate.
I recently listened to a fascinating podcast episode featuring the founders of Fleetzero, who are setting out to electrify shipping. They’re not letting the fact that it’s mathematically impossible stop them.
(The rest of this section relies heavily the statements of the Fleetzero founders, so exercise appropriate healthy skepticism.)
Their plan is to break up long voyages into shorter hops. Apparently, most shipping routes tend to hug the coast and make cargo or maintenance stops anyway, and so this won’t really be a big change from current practice. To solve the recharge problem, they’ll swap out the batteries at each stop. They’re building battery packs in the shape of a standard shipping container, so the existing port infrastructure – cranes, trucks, etc. – is all that’s needed to move them around.
If we eliminate the assumption that cargo ships need a 6500-mile range, battery-powered ships become practical. And, just as with cars, ship design has been deeply optimized around the needs of the oil-based power train. Once you remove that constraint, you start noticing all sorts of things you’ll no longer need to put up with:
Oil-burning ships need extra ballast space, because they get lighter as they burn fuel.
The “bunker fuel” that ships burn is hard to move around, requiring lots of space devoted to pipes and other equipment.
Bunker fuel is a specialized refinery product, and is only available cheaply at a limited number of locations, so large ships devote a lot of space to fuel – not just enough to get them to the next port, but enough to carry them almost all the way around the globe.
The engines themselves are also large, complicated devices.
Ship engines need a lot of maintenance, requiring substantial crew on board the ship, as well as access to port facilities.
Perhaps most interesting, Fleetzero says that an electric-drive ship doesn’t suffer from the same scaling laws that have made 20,000-container behemoths dominant today. Today, despite ships being backed up all over the US coast, significant ports like Seattle and Portland are underutilized because they can’t handle these “Post-Panamax” monsters. An electric-drive ship can be efficient at smaller sizes, and so could make use of these ports, fit through the Panama Canal, and maybe not be quite so likely to jam the Suez.
New Opportunities, New Problems
When you make a big change – like powering ships using giant batteries shaped like shipping containers – you open up new opportunities. Some will be unanticipated. For instance, air quality regulations are coming into effect that prevent ships from idling their engines to generate electricity while in port. Instead, they’re supposed to plug into the on-shore electric grid. That turns out to be difficult to carry out, and so Fleetzero is getting interest in using their battery packs to provide electricity to conventional ships while in port.
However, changing principles is a double-edged sword. When you throw out decades of real-world experience, you start over at the bottom of the learning curve.
Steam engines burn fuel to boil water; the steam drives pistons, creating motion. Internal combustion engines burn fuel directly inside the piston, eliminating the steam step. The resulting engine is much more compact and efficient, and paved the way for automobiles and airplanes. However, early engines had plenty of rough edges. For instance, you had to turn them by hand, using a crank, to get the engine started. If you held the crank the wrong way, or the engine backfired, a broken arm was a likely result. (The solution, of course, was the electric starter motor – an early example of electrification!)
Any radical new approach will come with plusses and minuses. As a result, many ideas fail, but some succeed beyond all expectations. Fleetzero may find that they can’t economically create a sufficient network of recharge facilities, or an advance in battery technology may render their approach even more successful than they’re expecting. It’s not for the faint of heart, but the rewards of success can be enormous.
The Future Is Looking More Futuristic
Much of our civilization, from car and ship designs to the way we heat our buildings and lay out our cities, is hyper-optimized around fossil fuels. When we try to replace these fuels with electricity, we’re fighting an uphill battle.
Fortunately, as technology advances, we’re managing to crest that hill. And on the other side, we find opportunities to throw out the weird side effects of fossil fuel solutions – like the fact that, on a cold morning, I’m supposed to wait for a giant hunk of metal under the hood of my car to get hot before I can get some warm air blowing into the cabin. These added benefits can help drive adoption of green solutions. Tesla didn’t build “a car, but electric”; they created a novel, prestige product that became wildly successful without having to reach price parity.
For each application of fossil fuels, the question we should be asking is not “how can we simulate the same result using batteries and an electric motor”? Instead, we should ask “if we weren’t wedded to a century plus of fossil-fuel-based assumptions, how would we approach this problem”? We’re starting to find surprising answers, and many of the surprises are positive. We should be trying as many creative solutions as we can, especially in sectors – like shipping – that currently seem hard to crack. For every success, there will be multiple failures, but as far as the planet is concerned, it’s only the successes that matter.
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What about nuclear ships? It is established tech (just ask the Navy) and is carbon-free.
Sails. Yeah, it’s complicated to operate them, but I assume we now have decent enough AI to manage that. Shipping worked this way for centuries.