Combustion upsetting natural balances | OPINION

I gassed up at the Smokey Point Costco for $3.97 per gallon. That hurt, but anything short of four bucks per gallon was a bargain. The per-gallon cost was only the out-of-pocket cost. Add exhaust stink, lung-searing pollution, water contamination and greenhouse gases to approach the total cost of a gallon of gas.

President Obama announced new automobile fleet requirements of 54.5 mpg, effective 2025. Wow. Can it be done? Yes, it’s reachable, mainly because that number wasn’t based on average driving habits. The government’s testing standard assumes steady highway speeds that ensure optimum efficiency, not my driving.  Add running errands and idling at stop-lights and watch that 54.5 figure plummet.

The president okayed the 54.5 number because of real reasons that make it reachable. Improvements in engine technology, lighter vehicles and more hybrids will help to close the gap. Add a growing proportion of electric cars to the mix and the goal may be reached before 2025.

Of course it will take more lean machines to counter the 638 hp Chevrolet Corvette and the 650 horse Ford Shelby. Luckily, European guzzlers like the Bugatti Super Sport, at 1,183 hp won’t be our problem to ponder.

On the home front, one gallon of chainsaw gas cuts a lot of wood. Gas-cans hold portable energy that can be used in lots ways other than transportation. Gas powers outboard, motorcycles, trimmers and power-washers. Gasoline’s portability and storability ensure that it will remain the favorite fuel for internal combustion engines. The downside is that gas engines are only 25 to 30 percent efficient which is dismally low in these energy-conscious times.

That’s not too bad when compared with the 6 percent efficiency of steam engines. But when tested against electric motors, gas engines suck — suck fuel, that is. Even diesels that post 40 percent efficiency don’t come close to electric motors. Small electric motors convert about 80 percent of every kilowatt into useful work. Bigger motors in electric cars are above 90 percent efficient.

Electric motors are the efficiency winners but can electricity be packed around or stored as easily as a can of gas? If so, then what are we waiting for? Let’s make the world a more efficient and cleaner place by junking all gas and diesel engines and replacing them with electric motors.

Of course nothing is that simple. If we made an across the board switch from fossil-fuel vehicles to electrics, it would overwhelm the nation’s power grid. If everyone stopped paying gas tax we couldn’t support a highway system. If Harleys ran on electricity, how might riders replace the precious roar from gutted-out mufflers?

Changing technology addresses some of these issues. New widespread small energy producers make an updated grid less vulnerable to domino-effect brown-outs. Germany attacks the car-tax problem by billing car-owners based on satellite readings that track the kilometers traveled by every vehicle. As to Harleys, noise-addicted riders could try clipping playing cards to the spokes of electric bikes with clothes pins.

All this clean-energy talk has the fossil fuel industries in a dither. BP’s TV ads show happy tourists frolicking in the Gulf while claiming the company is the biggest private investor in American infrastructure. No matter that most of that money was payment of fines for the Big Spill. Switch channels and you get the coal industry touting a Clean-Coal-Now message. No mention that much of the American coal they’re mining is being shipped overseas to fuel Chinese factories. The fossil fuel lobby works to sabotage alternative energy programs while new energy advocates document their pollution and safety issues. How this plays out will certainly have some effect on future designs for energy consuming devices.

But American consumers don’t seem to feel any sense of immediacy to change habits. Figuring tomorrow won’t be much different from today, we sit back. We figure it’s the government’s responsibility, not ours. Besides, how much would my votes or personal choices affect the amount of coal burned in China?

Voting where the polls never close always counts. I vote whenever I buy energy consuming things from energy consuming industries. And before I buy, I should keep in mind that America is the biggest energy-consumer in the world, therefore the most logical candidate for re-thinking its energy policy.

It all boils down to one thing, combustion, and its effect on the planet’s future. Nearly all efforts to combat air pollution target combustion. With earth’s population now five times what it was a century ago and all of us burning more fuel than we did back then, combustion is upsetting natural balances that sustain us. The problem isn’t just coal or petroleum but natural gas, open fires, fireworks, cigarettes, backyard barbecues and wildfires. They all add greenhouse gases.

Painting coal and oil interests as villains avoids targeting the real issue. It would help to reframe the issue in terms of combustion.

Comments may be addressed to robertgraef@comcast.net.


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