Is the future electric?

By all measures, even asking this question seems to place me in a minority of one. If you see what’s been happening over the past decade, the moot point doesn’t seem to be about whether, it’s more a question of when? Whether your point of reference is Tom Cruise in Minority report, Will Smith in I, Robot or indeed all the work that large car companies have put into electric propulsion – the future seems safely designated as a time when every one of us is going to hop into our little electric buggy and move on remote to our destinations.

I beg to differ. No, I scream out “What the heck?” First let’s see what has happened over the past few years. Electric storage has become more reliable and efficient – but it still largely relies on chemical transitioning of electricity. You need chemicals and metals to make a battery and eventually the battery depletes its storage potential to such a level that you have to recycle. We are still decades away from a reliable alternative. Secondly, charging units have moved ahead so that you can ‘flash’ charge a battery to a usable level. But here flash means an hour instead of eight. When was the last time you readily gave up an hour of your life at the fuel station?

However it isn’t either of these features that impair the electric future as much as the simple fact that most of our electricity comes from really dirty sources. According to Enerdata, a full 42% of the world’s electricity comes from coal and lignite in 2012 and renewable energy (including from hydro-electric production) made up only 24% of global production.

Practically none of this production went to energy consumption by cars, buses or trucks. Yes, trains run on electricity and many countries have effective train networks but all they can actually say is that the energy efficiency offered by public transport is better than if everyone drove. But a full 76% of your average electricity consumption comes from burning coal, running a nuclear fission reactor, burning oil or gas and the likes.

Now throw in a population of 8 billion with personal electric transportation. All you do is switch the consumption of fossil fuels from the little reactors in our cars to the huge ones along the coast. We stop polluting the air in our cities, but do a hell of a lot of damage elsewhere. Is that a solution? And even if we get every element of the switch right and get an energy efficiency of above 90%, we will still have enormous issues to sort out – like where do we get the minerals from to make all the batteries or capacitors? I know it’s fashionable to suggest that the proposed asteroid mining missions will by then be reality, but what happens in real life?

Does that mean that the internal combustion engine can last till the next century? That doesn’t seem likely either, considering the depleting sources and the fact that almost everything we burn from underground lands up in our atmosphere.

The way I see it, cars like BMW’s i8 may be precursors to some decades of electric transport that needs plug-in replenishment. But we will it a plateau point beyond which mankind will not be able to grow transportation (at least Earthbound) and will have to learn to do more with significantly less. The challenge is in improving the system’s efficiency to almost 100%, moving over to completely renewable sources and working within the limitations of our sources.

The argument will continue that this can be read as finally powering everything with electricity. But we haven’t, as a race, explored other alternatives. How long has mankind’s association with electricity lasted? Three hundred years, at best. Before that, we only knew of electricity in the form it exists in nature – as lightning, static charges or a sting on a fish. We have lived with gravity forever, have had light forever, have had magnetism forever and heat forever. None of these actually are used as engines, except heat in some forms. Our scientists have still got many frontiers to cross in terms of understanding these and others like dark energy. So, my bet is that while electricity will be fashionable and useful for many decades, it isn’t the future.

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