OPINION: Electric(uted) Vehicles

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FRAMINGHAM – I recently noticed a news item whose significance is far greater than appears at first glance: California Governor Gavin Newsom told the owners of electric cars, which he has spent years imploring them to buy, that they couldn’t recharge them because of the burden that would impose on the state’s troubled electric grid. If you can’t move by car in California, you’re basically stuck wherever you are.

Recognizing that this is a harbinger of things to come, some electric vehicle owners have responded by planning to leave the state. People who live elsewhere already should take this as a warning.

Newsom’s announcement is the result of allowing hysteria and group-thinking to guide decisions about technological matters, and this isn’t the first time such hysteria has produced counter-productive results: The same promoted hysteria, about nuclear “waste,” has largely closed down the nuclear power industry which is capable of reliably producing large amounts of low-cost, carbon-free energy. The campaign against such waste was motivated by alleged fears of what might become of that waste: its capture by terrorists, or simply failure to contain it properly. Curiously, advocates of abandoning nuclear power have had little trouble advocating for providing Iran with a path to obtain nuclear weapons, which is what Obama’s JCPOA does. My freshman-year adviser at MIT, Phil Morrison, who worked on the Manhattan Project, told me once that compared to the risks of nuclear weapons, the risk from nuclear power wasn’t worth considering. Do these advocates realize the contradictions in their beliefs?

While we’re on the subject of electric vehicles, Toyota, which knows something about making cars, was among the first to offer hybrid vehicles, but hasn’t sought to market battery-powered cars. Might the company know something advocates for electric vehicles don’t, or didn’t until Newsom’s announcement? Perhaps it is time to rethink the issue.

Climate change is real, but the consequences the hysteria campaign have promoted aren’t: It doesn’t mean the end of life on earth, as should be obvious to anyone who knows that dinosaurs once roamed in polar regions, when the earth was much warmer than it is today, or might become without the crash conversion to wind- and solar-power the hysteria campaign advocates.

Meanwhile, there are at least three technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere:

Antoine de Ramon N’Yeurt suggests using seaweed for this purpose. He believes that 53 billion tons of carbon, more than current emissions, could be removed annually if 9% of the oceans were cultivated. The seaweed would be harvested and converted to synfuels, effectively recycling the carbon.

MIT engineers developed a mechanical “lung” to remove carbon dioxide much like our lungs extract oxygen from the air we breathe.

George Washington University Prof. Stuart Licht developed a process he calls STEP-CO2, and has now established a company to commercialize it. Carbon Corp. could use captured carbon to make Buckey-ball lubricants, carbon nano-fibers, which might replace steel rebar, and graphene, which would replace plastic in monitor and cell-phone screens and glass in windows. The company’s existence means the carbon-extraction process isn’t that expensive.

Have Green activists, never mind the average citizen, even heard of these? Why aren’t they part of the conversation?

The problem in California isn’t just the inability of solar and wind to deliver reliable power in the necessary quantity; there are also serious issues with the operation of the power grid. The grid is vulnerable to all kinds of threats, from solar mass ejections to terrorist attacks to equipment failure to collapsing under the pressure of demand (the immediate cause for Newsom’s announcement), but dealing with these issues doesn’t have the glamor of new wind turbines or building vast fields of solar panels. If the grid fails, there will be no way to move power from where it is generated to where it is needed, yet this matter receives virtually no attention. Why?

It doesn’t take an MIT education to make intelligent decisions about technology; a willingness to keep an open mind and focus on the very real trade-offs that are involved, rather than joining in lock-step with ideological campaigns to promote hysteria, will do wonders. That is why I believe my representative in Congress, Katherine Clark, owes it to her constituents to discuss these issues and engage with her opponent, Caroline Colarusso, so voters can recognize which of them rejects hysteria campaigns and is open to understanding the issues involved with choices about technology. That Rep. Clark hasn’t condescended to appear in candidate fora isn’t a good sign.

Meanwhile, construction continues on a demonstration fusion-power plant at Ft. Devens in Massachusetts.

We may know in 2025 whether there is a viable solution to the issue of electric generation, but the problems of the grid will remain.

Yale Zussman, PhD
MIT, Political Science


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