With electric vehicles getting greater and greater attention, there is a widespread view that moving from hydrocarbons to electricity for transportation is our likely trajectory, that doing so is a fiat accompli. In fact, it is unlikely. Here is why:
- Discarding existing vehicles and replacing them with electric ones is very expensive and not within reach of the vast majority of the global population.
- Unless electricity used by electric vehicles is generated cleanly, those vehicles still contribute to pollution.
- Electricity is likely to remain dirty (such as when it is generated by burning coal) until we deploy smart-grids that have storage capability. That, too, is very expensive, constituting a massive infrastructure upgrade. That is not within sight even in the United States, much less in the global south.
- Power companies do not uniformly have mechanisms to cut off electric vehicle recharging when they face peak power demand.
- Retrofitting vehicles that burn hydrocarbons with highly efficient fuel systems that use biofuel (made from algae and other sources, not ethanol) is environmentally balanced in the sense that carbon is taken out of the air when the raw material for biofuel is grown, then released when it is burned.
- Retrofitting vehicles so they efficiently burn biofuels is much less expensive than replacing existing vehicles with electric ones.
- The vast majority of the world’s population is more inclined to keep its present vehicles instead of buying new electric ones.
- Lithium is a finite resource and mining for it is hazardous.
- If using evaporative methods to mine lithium for batteries, it requires lots of water to produce, in otherwise very dry countries.
But these are not the only reasons why a biofuel trajectory is superior to an electric one. Here are some others:
- Biofuel production will require more workers year-after-year as compared to electricity production.
- Biofuel production, if done carefully relative to environmental conditions, using special varieties of plants, can partially mitigate the impact of climate change in enhancing soil quality in locations that have had significant erosion.
- Poor countries have more plentiful agricultural labor than rich countries, so moving to biofuels is arguably a better alternative than electricity in ameliorating international inequality.
Of course, we need to be careful about using gas and diesel in farming for biofuel. Ideally, biofuel will be used in farming for biofuel. We also need to be careful about straining water resources.
It will take decades for motorcycles, cars and trucks with internal combustion engines to be replaced by electric vehicles. Let’s focus on what is cost-effective in the near-term, with solutions that have a bias in favor of poor people in the global South.
Our fuel system at Technology Elevated improves fuel efficiency by approximately 30 percent with engines running at variable speeds and as much as 50 percent with engines that run at a constant speed (such as personal power generators). It also reduces ground-level pollution by around 50 percent. Poor people in the global south who have not, in the main, caused climate change are the most likely to suffer disproportionately from it. That is why undertaking massive retrofitting of small engines in the global south with a highly efficient fuel system that keeps money in the pockets of poor people while improving the quality of the air they breathe is an important step in environmental justice.