One of key competitive advantages the fossil fuel industry has had is the huge capital, complexity risk and high level engineering skills required to develop them. This has two impacts. Firstly it created huge barriers to entry in the market – a disruptive entrepreneur can’t build a coal power station, drill in the deep ocean, buy an oil tanker or develop a coalmine. They can play on the edges, like shale gas, oil trading or mineral exploration, but they can’t play the main game. Secondly the industry has had huge incumbency power – it’s very expensive and politically hard to consciously and deliberately close down such a powerful industry and replace it. Thus action on climate change has stalled for decades.

    Both of these benefits are gone when you combine “energy as a technology” with most growth in energy demand being in developing economies. With renewables already competitive today without subsidy in some markets and the above trends playing out, it is inevitable that before long – maybe a decade – virtually all new electricity generation will be from renewables. Add in the need to be clean – not just for climate change reasons but for local air quality – and the choice developing countries will face will be between large, old, dirty, hard to finance infrastructure that requires heavy government support or small scale, easy to finance, more convenient, popular and clean energy and transport that will get even cheaper over time. Tough choice?



    Then we add in electric cars, which are now on the same path – converting a staid, slow moving industry (traditional auto companies like GM) into a disruptive technology driven one (innovators like Tesla). Electric cars will accelerate the end of fossil fuels by joining with renewables to create a system shift, both directly by using clean power to charge them and indirectly by driving battery costs down to create storage for distributed renewables.

What I'm about to say may bring to mind the old saying about how a man won't believe anything his paycheck is dependent on not believing...but I'm still unsold on the electric car as "disruptive." (Firstly, that's not a word that applies in this case, as electric cars aren't new, and Tesla trades more on coolness than anything, but I digress.) GM tried to sell electric cars years ago, and they flopped. GM and Nissan are both selling electric cars now, and neither is getting customers to flock to them. Tesla sells luxury cars and keeps promising an affordable alternative, but can't come up with one. Anyway, it's not their wheelhouse, and as soon as they can make one, all of a sudden their diluting their own brand; they have a lot of reason not to make one.

But anyway, all this is beside the point. Let's imagine a world where everyone is driving electric. My fundamental question that I've never seen addressed, and one that I think is non-trivial, is what will be the fate of all those batteries? Batteries are among the most polluting things you can put in a landfill, and if we're talking about, say, 20,000,000 cars per year (assuming they will sell more cars in the future than they do now), that's not nothing. I don't know if it's enough to make a large scale environmental disaster, but it's a problem of trading a low toxicity, huge volume pollutant, to a high toxicity, low volume pollutant. And this is assuming that the number of batteries is equal to the number of cars. It won't be, because they only way full adoption will ever take place is if batteries can be swapped instead of charged (as I doubt long driving distances will cease to be a thing if it's even cheaper to drive in the future than the present, especially if the cars will navigate themselves to your destination).

All this isn't to say that I don't long for advent of renewables. I just think it might not be so cut and dry with cars.

posted by kleinbl00: 1286 days ago