Dave Spicer: A Carbonless Electric Economy

Our fossil fuel economy has failed us. The world has hit its Peak Oil point where the energy required to retrieve a barrel of oil is close to exceeding the energy in that barrel of oil. This fact, along with the sharp increases in demand from recently energized economies like those of China and India, has caused oil prices to jump past the point where OPEC can pump enough oil to regulate them. We have placed our future into the hands of those who don’t want us to have one. Before proceeding, you may want to watch the video below for some background:

Carbonless Electric Economy from Dave Spicer on Vimeo.

We need a wholesale replacement of our existing fossil fuel economy with an alternative energy economy. What is an energy economy? It’s the network of energy sources, distribution, and consumption that underlies the macro economies of the world. The good news is that we have at least 100 combinations and permutations of alternative technologies to eliminate our dependence on foreign oil. The bad news is that most of them don’t work. What does an energy economy have to provide to succeed?

No “Science Projects” Required – We need a solution that we can begin to implement immediately given the length of time it will take to deploy enough technology to significantly offset our oil dependence. All solutions will entail serious engineering projects, but none should require scientific breakthroughs. Thus, for example, solutions depending on nuclear fusion or “clean coal” should not be considered.

Scalability – It must be able to provide enough capacity to offset our entire use of imported oil.

No Side-Effects – It must not shift the problem from one scarce natural resource to another, e.g., from oil to natural gas.

Improve the Environment – The environmental impact of implementing the alternative must at least be no worse than what we have today.

Economic Viability – It must have an economic payback that justifies the billions of dollars of expense.

When graded against these metrics, many of the popular alternatives being discussed fail miserably, including: The “Pickens Plan,” ethanol, biofuels, the “hydrogen economy,” clean coal, and conservation.

Fortunately, there is one combination of technologies that does meet all these criteria, a Carbonless Electric Economy.

Electricity is our cleanest form of energy. It is also universal in that it can be used to power our factories, heat and cool our homes, cook our food, and power most of our transportation. We also have a significant amount of existing electricity distribution infrastructure in the form of the national electric grid that will lessen the amount of additional infrastructure required.

Since all energy economies require sources, distribution, and consumption, so must the Electric Economy. Starting with consumption, we can see again that electricity is universal. The missing piece had been transportation, but given recent advances in Lithium Ion battery technology, driven by the popularity of laptop computers, we now have electric vehicles with ranges up to 250 miles on a charge and we are on a technology curve that will take us above 400 miles soon. The most important part of electric vehicles that makes the electric economy viable is their efficiency.

Electric vehicles travel 5 miles on a kilowatt hour of electricity that typically costs 10 cents, that’s 2 cents per mile. This is made possible by the fundamental property of electric motors; they are 90% efficient as compared to the 10% efficiency of internal combustion engines, regardless of the fuel they’re burning. Another use for electricity is in the area of home heating. Today, people in the northeast use mostly heating oil to heat water that is then circulated around their homes. This winter these people will be faced with $1,000/month heating bills and many will not be able to afford them. These heaters can be replaced with electric heaters and use the existing water pipes.

As for distribution, we already have a massive amount of electricity distribution in place to every home and business. Electric vehicles can be recharged by plugging them in to a standard 120v electrical outlet.

While we already have enough electrical capacity to charge about 10% of our existing LDV fleet when it becomes electric vehicles, we will need to add capacity to support the entire fleet. We are fortunate to have what amounts to a “solar furnace” in our desert southwest with enough capacity to power 15-20 countries our size, and that includes the current one-terawatt of capacity we have today, plus the additional capacity to power all 200M electric LDVs. While our first target should be providing enough solar power for our LDVs, we should not stop there, we can also replace all the coal, natural gas, and nuclear generated power with the same technology.

Now we need to see how the carbonless electric economy measures up against the metrics we spoke of above:

No “Science Projects” Required – While implementing the Electric Economy will certainly entail some large engineering projects, all the core science for generation, distribution, and consumption is in place.

Scalability – As mentioned, we have enough solar thermal power in our desert southwest to power 15-20 countries our size. Capacity will not be a problem.

Side-Effects – Ultimately the electric economy can completely offset our current fossil fuel generation of electricity.

Environment – Solar thermal energy is powered by the sun. There is no carbon required for generation, and none is produced by the electric motors and heaters that consume this electricity. The electric economy is carbonless from end to end.

Economic Viability – The electric economy is the hands-down winner when it comes to economic benefit for this country. Not only will the electric economy pay for itself, the technology will become a key export for our country’s rebirth as an economic leader.

To understand the economics of this solution, we need to begin with electric vehicles. The internal combustion vehicles we drive today get, on average, 20 miles per gallon. At $4 per gallon, it costs 20-cents per mile for fuel alone. As discussed, electric vehicles can be operated for 2-cents per mile for a savings of 18-cents per mile. Given the average light duty vehicle travels 13,000 mile a year, this means an electric vehicle will save the owner $2300 per year. And these savings are for energy only, they do not include savings from the elimination of: oil changes, tune-ups, emission checks, etc.

The picture above summarizes the economics of the Electric Economy. We have an LDV fleet of 200M vehicles that turn over at the rate of 20M, or 10%, per year. When 10% of our fleet are electric vehicles, it will take an investment of $25B in solar thermal generation of 10 GW to support the additional charging capacity required with $600M per year to operate and maintain the facility. However, these 20M vehicles will each be saving $2300 per year resulting in a savings of $46B per year! And these savings are cumulative! The next 10%, or 20M vehicles will save another $46B per year for a total of $92B per year, while requiring another $25B in construction.

When fully implemented with electric LDVs, we will be saving $460B per year with an annual outlay to operate and maintain our generation investment of $6B annually, an annual net benefit of $450B—imagine what this country could do with that kind of surplus. As for energy costs, solar thermal fuel, the sun, is free and carbonless. This has been the case for the last 4.5 billion years and it will be for the next 7 billion years. After that, let’s agree to leave what we do next to future generations.

We are fortunate to have a “solar furnace” in our desert southwest, but we are not alone. As the picture above shows, there is a “belt” of solar intensity around the globe extending about 30 degrees either side of the equator. Each 120 square miles of this space is worth $25B in revenue to the country that can export its Electric Economy technology.

Shouldn’t that be us?

Mr. Spicer is the author of Deadly Freedom, a novel based on the real science of clean, abundant energy provided by a carbonless electric economy.

V 1.7


Greg Henley said...


I agree with the thrust and essence of what you have said. I also agree that the need for oil--with all the political and asset transfer implications--is the root of all our problems! Nonetheless, I fear we are not quite ready to do what needs to be done. Three things concern me, well, four.

1. Solar energy of course has, tremendous "energy". What is lacks is "power." Our current technology to concentrate the "energy" into "power" needs to improve drastically if we really want it to be transformative.

2. Assuming we can harness the sun and convert it into the electrical current we need, our current battery technology/storage means needs some type of breakthrough. Right now, I feel the operating times and weight of current storage solutions severely hamper our migration to these systems.

3. While you are right, fusion is not ready for prime time, we MUST increase our push in this arena. It is truly the holy grail power source. Right now the US has withdrawn from international research projects due to cost. Yet they ask for about the cost of a month in Iraq! What we need is a Manhattan Project for fusion!

4. Lastly, democratic/capitalist systems greatest weakness (And I am a hardcore Libertarian capitalist!)is the too-short time horizon they live in, the too-limited vision leaders have who only work to get RE-elected and our "short-term-budget-only" citizens. As a nation we only make big changes when there is a huge crisis. No long term strategic plans. I worry about our will and vision.

It would be very interesting to jump 10, 25, or 50 years into the future!

Greg Henley


HarleyDave said...

Greg: thanks for the comment. I’ll also be sending this to your email account. My research was driven to find a “Carbonless Energy Economy” architecture that would not require any “Science Projects” and be self-funding. Let me address the issues you raise in sequence, I’ll include some references from my research:

1. Our current electrical capacity from ALL sources is 1 terawatt. I rejected solar/photovoltaic for storage reasons. Solar/THERMAL allows us to generate utility grade power and utilize existing steam turbine technology. Here is a list (http://www.nrel.gov/csp/troughnet/power_plant_data.html) of existing solar thermal projects. While the best photovoltaic can do in volume is about 10-12% efficiency, the first site in the reference (Solar One in NV) is running at 18% efficiency, or 180 W/Square Meter. This means it would take 21,000 Sq Miles to generate all of our electricity and we have about 250,000 square miles of this space in the desert southwest.

2. While battery technology has made great strides for electric vehicles, I agree that it is not ready for utility grade storage. To generate 1GW of 24/7 power in the desert, we would need storage of 16 GWH, not something we can do today. This is another reason I was driven to solar-thermal generation/storage. We can simply store the 16 GWH as water in underground tanks and use it to directly spin existing steam turbines.

3. I agree that fusion is a technology on which we should place a bet. In fact, I’m counting on the largest fusion reaction we have access to today, the sun!

4. The issue of short-term horizon gets to the leadership vacuum we have in this country. Our founders were engineers and business men, today we have handed over the reins to lawyers. If you look who runs the country we are and will be competing with, China, they are engineers and business men.


hedtke1 said...

ECC is the wave of the future and yes we have the biggest fusion reactor on our side, the sun. Despite those who seem to continue to live and think inside the carbon based energy box, the world is waking up to giving "power back to the people". So, isn't it time to free ourselves from continuing to be held "energy prisoners"? Visit those issues in groups like Pickens Plan energy efficiency group.