Cars, Energy, and the Structure of the Built Habitat

by Eric Hunting - 4/27/07 8:16 AM

In Reply to: What's your favorite alternative fuel? by wcunning CNET staff

With such a collection of smart readers and posters, I'm surprised no one mentioned Personal Rapid Transit systems, vanadium redox, and block, encapsulated, and liquid hydrides. I think what we often overlook in these kinds of discussions is that side-by-side comparisons between alternative forms of 'fuel' are somewhat disingenuous because of the fundamental logistical differences each come with. The root problem of renewable energy is, and always has been, that our built habitat is physically structured around the specific forms of energy we use. Given our inconvenience-averse (let alone, reality-averse...) culture, alternatives are therefore compelled to radically out-perform previous forms to compare favorably and gain acceptance when, in fact, they could be perfectly functional in a habitat that properly accommodated their differing logistics. Or to put it simply, we demand far more out of alternatives than we do from the conventional to avoid the inconveniences of changing our behavior and lifestyle. We'll forever declare hydrogen use not 'practical' if we have to change how and where we live and do things in order to use it efficiently.

The structure of our built habitat is largely determined by the logistics of the forms of energy we use. Before fossil fuels, civilization was physically clustered almost exclusively along coasts and waterways. With coal and the advent of rail systems to move it, energy -and therefore civilization- could be distributed across long, albeit few, lines of communication creating a more dispersed habitat. With the advent of oil and gasoline and the asphalt road to distribute them, the habitat exploded in all directions. We live in places and ways thanks to gasoline that other forms of energy don't necessarily allow for with the same degree of convenience. These historic transitions in mode of energy use were easy because they accommodated the human desires that accelerate growth. They made peripheral real estate more valuable by making it more convenient to access and develop. Renewable energy says to us; "you can live well -even better and healthier- but not necessarily in all the places and ways you're used to" and so because we resist that inconvenient change in lifestyle and the possible loss of value of some real estate we demand the technology make up the difference in defiance of physics or we'll 'damn' the form of energy as impractical. The electric car has ALWAYS been practical in the context of a specific lifestyle. There was a time in America when there were more of them -and more companies making them- then fuel powered cars and that was fine because most people lived in cities and used rail when they traveled long distances. It's only less practical today because of the context of the way we live today. You could say that the resistance to alternative energy has more to do with property values and our personal resistance to change than the technology of alternative energy itself.

Alternative automobiles have always been something of a red herring in the politics of energy. Vested interests know that the nature of the automobile as a small scale mass produced product with an entrenched industry and a vast installed user base presents a greater technological challenge to renewable energy implementation than other larger scale and stationary systems like municipal and home power, rail, and shipping. By coercing our car-obsessed society into thinking that the credibility of renewable energy is contingent on its performance in the form of the automobile it provides a convenient excuse for ignoring implementation of it in these other forms -which would over time establish the infrastructures and physical transformation of the built habitat that ultimately would make it practical and convenient at the personal transportation scale.

We think too much like consumers, expecting pre-packaged solutions to the world's problems to be offered to us as a passive consumer choice. We face crisis today that are a consequence of the dysfunctional structure of our civilization. There is no 'product' that is going to fix that. We can't just buy our way out of this mess. To address these problems we have to all learn how our world works as a system and implement changes to that. We have to reprogram our civilization, not just pick a different car.