By Dmitry Pelegov
I’m a Russian scientist writing a large book about the past, present, and future of electric vehicles. I’m supposed to avoid discussing the present days, but I hope it would be nothing criminal if I would remember the past and dream about the future.
First, let’s look back about a hundred years ago. In the very beginning of the 20th century, oil was an abundant commodity and caused no conflicts. Railroads and ships were powered mainly by steam engines and fueled by coal. In the first and second decades, the automobile boom propelled the progress in internal combustion engine technology and turned around the situation. The internal combustion engine was shown to be more effective than the steam engine. Liquid fuel, gasoline, turned out to be more flexible and more convenient to transport than solid-state coal.
What happened next? World War I. The first word, “World,” characterizes the global scale of the war. Huge armies took part in this bloody conflict. But the point is that World War I was”a war between men and machines. And these machines were powered by oil.” — as Daniel Yergin wrote. The convenience of oil as a fuel enabled huge armies with enormous war machines. In other words, oil and the internal combustion engine increased the productivity of war, the number of enemies killed per unit time. World War II confirmed the vital (or lethal?) importance of petroleum and made it a highly valuable resource.
The 20th century became the century of oil. Since the United State was the largest oil-producing country, the 20th century is also known as the American Century. The previous one was the century of coal, or Britain’s Imperial Century. It’s interesting, but Lenin tried to propose an alternative way. He said that “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” In fact, for all its ambiguity, the Soviet Union put in a lot of effort to balance the power of oil with the power of electricity.
During the second half of the 20th century, oil ruled the world order, but its power started to weaken. Air pollution became a real problem. Electric grids spread over the globe. And, something very important, electricity generation became highly diversified. Coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, and other renewable sources were being used to create electricity. What is the main problem with oil? Pollution? Okay. What is the second most important problem with oil? Its reserves are distributed non-uniformly. Several countries control oil production. But if you control oil production, or, at least, oil transport, you control the world.
Okay, let’s continue. The 21st century. The revival of the electric car. Range anxiety is one key limiting factor for EVs. But is limited range really still a problem? Several days ago, Elon Musk said that “400+ mile range is more than enough” for an electric car. About a five years ago, a similar statement was made by Carlos Ghosn, another important person for the EV industry.
And now let me ask the main question of my article. What if Musk and Ghosn are right and the limited range is not a problem? And even more, what if the limited range is not a problem but a blessing? Imagine a world of all-electric cars and electric railroads, a world of distributed electricity generation. Nobody can control electricity on such a large scale, because everybody can produce it. Can we maintain our freedom to travel? Yes. A properly developed charging network and battery swapping can solve almost all problems.
And now imaging a global conflict. How to transport tanks and huge armies? Why did oil become the critical commodities for conflict? It’s a highly concentrated energy that can be easily transported. The energy density of a lithium battery is much lower. And a lithium battery is not liquid, so it needs more time to handle. Electric grids and electric cars are suitable for a peaceful time with predictable and balanced energy consumption. War conflicts mean peak energy consumption, and if the power is electric, a peaceful grid will fail. In fact, electric tanks are possible. Ferdinand Porsche once created a hybrid electric tank. Electric tanks are even suitable for defense. But not for attacking. Imagine the march of a tank regiment with regular breaks for charging.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it looks like oil is the best fuel for conflict while electricity is the best choice for peace. And let me dream that one day our world will be all-electric.
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