A Hundred Bucks To Fill The Tank?!?!?!

When I was a kid, you could buy a whole used car for that amount

I’m revisiting a topic I’ve written about before, but it seems especially timely given that the price of gas at the pump has risen to over four bucks a gallon – a new record for this time of year – and there’s no end in sight.

Also, in this election year, there’s no doubt that this can – and should – be an election year topic. After all, when Obama took office the price of gas was somewhere around $1.75/gallon. That’s right! Remember that?

Our economy is driven by its fuel. The price of fuel affects literally everything, not just your personal cost to operate your vehicle. It affects our costs to manufacture and transport goods, too, including our agricultural products. It keeps this country mobile, which has been one of the – if not the – key elements in making us the economic powerhouse we are.

What have we heard from Obama and his minions, and the “environmental” lobby, about how to address the problem? Endless blather about “alternative fuels and energy”. Put another way, speculative science fiction.

What I’m doing here is reprinting an email dialogue on this topic that took place today thanks to my web-buddy Buck, who initiated the emails on the topic. It started with a fellow talking about the fallacy of the economies of the Chevy Volt. I’ll start with my response.

ME:  Here are some facts:

The energy-to-weight nature of petroleum-based fuels far surpasses that of any battery ever made. What that means is that petroleum isn’t going to be replaced as the power source for most transportation. At best, you’ll see “hybrid” technology utilized.

Battery powered cars are great, until you reach their maximum range of 200 or 300 miles. Then you have hours of recharging time in front of you, and there’s no way to shorten that to the time frame involved in filling up your gas tank.

Aircraft aren’t going to be powered by solar panels or batteries. Ships, unless they’re nuclear powered, will not be powered by anything other than petroleum-based fuels. You’re not going to see battery-powered big rigs.

We have the largest known deposits of crude in the world in shale, enough to make us energy-independent well into at least the next century, and a net-exporter if we so choose. The Athabasca oil sands development has proven the extraction to be cost-effective, and Shell’s new in situ extraction process has proven to be very “environmentally friendly”.

Unless the Starship Enterprise shows up to share their di-lithium crystal technology with us, our need for petroleum isn’t going away in the foreseeable future. That’s just a fact.

Let’s look at some further facts.

The Tesla Roadster is the first — and so far only — electric-only car in production. (True at the time I wrote the original essay on my blog) It has a range of 244 miles on a single charge. It recharges at a rate of 56 miles/hour, so a full recharge takes 4 hours.

By the way, electricity isn’t free; it’s actually pretty expensive, and getting more so.

ANYway… the battery has an estimated life of about 100,000 miles, at which point it has to be replaced at a cost of about $36,000… the price of a new gas-powered SUV.

According to Tesla’s own white paper:

(http://www.teslamotors.com/display_data/TeslaRoadsterBatterySystem.pdf)  “the Li-ion batteries in the Tesla Roadster only store the energy equivalent of about 8 liters of gasoline; a very small amount of energy for a typical vehicle.”

The battery weighs about 750 pounds. That’s the equivalent weight of about 130 gallons of gasoline. Assuming your car gets 20MPG, you’d drive 2600 miles on that 130 gallons of gas. If your car has a 20 gallon tank, you’d have refueled 7 times. At an average refuel time of 10 minutes, that would have taken about an hour altogether.

Your Tesla would have been “refueled” 10 times. With an average refuel time of 3.5 hours, you’d have spent 35 hours charging your car. There’s no way to speed up the recharge process; you can’t “slam” a charge into a battery. It’s an electro-chemical process. If you try to do it too fast, the battery simply explodes, just like a nuclear reaction goes critical if it’s allowed to proceed too quickly, resulting in a meltdown or nuclear explosion.

More wonky numbers. According to Tesla’s site:

(http://www.teslamotors.com/electric/charging.php) It takes about 68 kWh to charge the car. Here in the SCV that’s somewhere around $9/charge. That works out to about $0.04/mile. Gasoline in your theoretical car, at 20 MPG and $3/gal works out to about $0.15/mile.

At the 100,000 mile mark, you have to replace the battery in the Tesla at about $36,000, plus you’ve spent $4000 on electricity. Total of $40,000.

In your theoretical car, your engine’s still good for maybe another 100,000 miles, and you’ve spent $15,000 on gas. Even if you have to replace the engine, you’re only looking at about $4000. Total cost including engine replacement: $19,000.

Gas-powered car at 100,000 miles: $19,000.

Tesla at 100,000 miles: $40,000.

This is what I mean about the practicality of the technology, or lack thereof for this application.

RJ:  Well Joe and Brian, It looks like gasoline is here to stay. Why about hydrogen. Anyone ever put any serious efforts into this. It is the fuel used by our space craft so why not auto engines. I realize it is highly explosive and something would have to be done about that but it should be easily solved by our chemist and engineers. Also, with the price of gas from the Muslims soaring every day, why do we not use our own gasoline supplies supplies. It is my understanding that we have enough of our own to last for over 400 years if it were not for the green people. We need to be spending the gasoline cost in our own country and not giving the Muslims whatever they demand for it and all they want is to see us all destroyed.

ME:  Richard and Peter, yeah, that’s the problem with hydrogen, as we saw with the Challenger. Its explosive nature. There are extremely few substances with a higher stored potential energy than petroleum distillates (gasoline, kerosene, etc.), and those are basically explosives.

As to our own domestic capabilities: we’re among the most oil-rich nations on earth. We’re also the only country with oil resources that doesn’t maximize its development of those resources. In oil shale alone in the Green River formation we have enough unrecovered product, conservatively estimated at over 800 BILLION barrels, to meet all of our country’s oil needs for over 100 years at current consumption rates (http://ostseis.anl.gov/guide/oilshale/index.cfm). Then throw in all the other deposits, both known and so-far unknown, free oil and shale, oil sands, fracking recovery techniques, new recovery technologies that make formerly abandoned deposits now economically feasible again, and we could easily be a net-exporter country instead of an importer; we could actually be THE determinative factor in oil prices, rather than the Middle East. This would not only go a very long way toward reversing our economic problems, but would at the same time free us from our “dependence on foreign oil” and the restrictions it places on our foreign policy.

But no. NOOOOOoooooooooooooo… Can’t have that! MUCH better to depend on “alternative energy” sources that no one can name, that don’t exist anywhere near the horizon yet, but that are for sure going to magically appear just in the nick of time, like the cavalry in an old Western movie.

Maybe the Vulcans will show up and share their dilithium crystal technology with us. That makes more sense than what I hear from the Left on the issue, anyway.

Beam me up, Scotty.

RJ:  Well Brian, I agree with you 100% if we would ever get a government with enough guts to do all the things about gasoline. But don’t you not think that the explosive nature of almost free Hydrogen could be solved by our chemist and engineers? After all since the Challenger I don’t believe we have had any other problems with our space craft. Just an idea I have had for many years and wanted to see what others thought about it. I like the idea of being the worlds biggest exporter of crude oil if we could ever make this come about. We need something to try to balance our horrible trade deficit.

ME:  Richard, I think it’s probably scientifically achievable. But I don’t think it’s a near-term solution. Here’s why.

Frankly, I don’t think such a thing as a “near-term” alternative solution is at all possible regardless of the political aspects. And I’ll quickly interject that I agree that politics are the ONLY reason we’re not energy-independent using our own oil. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, a breakthrough occurs and a viable and economic alternative magically appears on the scene. That doesn’t in any way address the fact that there are many hundreds of millions of gasoline-powered vehicles on the road, the seas, and in the air both here and all around the world. And those vehicles are going to be around for decades, at least.

We can’t wave a magic wand and make them go away, or be magically converted to the new energy source. Also, the energy dispersal infrastructure – the means of refueling the vehicles – consists of tens of thousands (at least) of gas stations. So, no matter what, there’s going to be a transition period that’s going to take a loooooong time to complete. All those vehicles are going to have to be replaced, and the gas stations are ALSO going to have to be replaced, with the new technology. We’re talking about God knows how much time, and many many trillions of dollars at all levels. Our technological world developed around combustion as the primary energy source, and primarily combustion of hydrocarbons. Even a hydrogen-based technology is going to take a very long and expensive conversion period.

Then add to that the fact that there’s no universally-applicable mode of energy production. Aircraft can never be powered by solar, for example. They’re always going to be combustion-based. Some ships can and do use nuke power; some use oil; some use diesel; some still use coal. Examples abound that illustrate the problem. New technologies can’t simply be imposed by fiat; they have to find their way in a complex system that has to adapt.


That was our dialogue, and I think it nicely sums up the state of the issue, both politically and scientifically. Hopefully, if you managed to wade through the whole thing, you’ll have some ammo you can use if you enter into a dialogue on the issue with someone.

And hopefully it’ll influence your thinking as we move forward, both in this election year and as a nation addressing a very major issue in the long term.

(My thanks to all who participated in that email conversation. I hope you don’t mind my quoting you guys. It was great!)


© Brian Baker 2012