Why melting glaciers means cleaner, cheaper cars


When we focus on news that reinforces our environmental challenges, of which there’s no shortage, we forget just how exciting the opportunities in fixing them are and how fast these solutions are now accelerating. Every story about melting icecaps or raging floods brings a smarter, cleaner world closer. My favourite example at the moment is electric cars. While they had a bad start, we are now on the verge of the breakthrough we’ve been waiting for, with around 30 models coming into the market from the major car companies and new start-ups over the next 3 years.

If we get this right, it’s hard to overstate the significance of the upside. This is a real game changer for our transport and energy systems. Forget any old ideas you have about niche markets, limited range and slow cars. There are some very exciting cars on the way and some business concepts that could change not just personal transport but the whole electricity sector. How will this unfold?

Imagine for example not charging your car overnight, but pulling into a “battery change station” where a machine simply takes out your battery pack and replaces it with a fully charged one, all in a few minutes, while you go and pick up a coffee. The batteries will have been charged by 100% renewable energy and you will have a contract that guarantees the price you pay, eliminating fears of petrol price rises. That’s the vision now being implemented across a number of countries by the very well funded Better Place and its founder Shai Aggasi as you can read here.

But it gets even better. You could also have a car that plugs into the grid when you’re not driving it. This means when the power is cheap because demand is low you will be able to charge your car and when there is high demand and power is expensive you can sell it back to the grid and make a profit. So your car effectively becomes a power station and you become a mini power company! An additional benefit of this is that the car fleet acts as a giant battery, enabling storage of intermittent renewables like solar PV and wind power.

By the way, they are also dramatically cheaper to run because electricity is so efficient at energy conversion. If you want some more details on the numbers take a look at this excellent summary by Andrew Simpson from Curtin University.

If you’re worried these electric cars will be boring to drive then take a look at Tesla Motors who are producing the Tesla Roadster that will go from 0 – 100kh/h in 4 seconds. Who said greenies don’t know how to have fun!

This is all in addition to the clean cites, no air pollution and countless new jobs created as we build the infrastructure for this transport and energy revolution.

Heard all this before and wondering if its real? Warren Buffet certainly thinks its is. He invested US$230 million in Chinese electric car company BYD in 2008 and his 10% stake is now worth close to $2 billion. China plans to put a million electric cars on the road by 2012 so BYD is looking like delivering on its name for its owners (BYD stands for Build Your Dream!).

As a transition this dramatic takes off in a market, it’s hard to tell where it will head but in any outcome the implications for consumers, business and markets are certainly profound.  Alan Kohler makes an interesting argument in his investment newsletter The Eureka Report as to why all cars will be electric within 20 years. He points out that when people come to believe that the electric car is going to be the clear winner, they will suddenly realise their old petrol car will have close to zero resale value within a few years. At that point there will be a rush to go electric, to avoid the inevitable price collapse in second hand petrol cars. This will of course be self-reinforcing when it takes off.

Of course we can’t be sure which technologies, business models and companies will succeed. What we can now safely accept however is that with so many people and so much money focused on making this work, the time has clearly arrived when the internal combustion engine is heading for a rapid sunset.

Let you mind run over the implications of that for the oil industry and peak oil….

So next time you read about a melting glacier, remember how much fun driving into the future is going to be.

15 thoughts on “Why melting glaciers means cleaner, cheaper cars

  1. Craig Carter

    The issue isn’t really electric cars but the means of producing the electricity, we need to remember that this is the nation that has a bad habit of developing renewables and then letting them go because coal is cheaper – to wit the Solar thermal being the most recent – Spain uses it and we let it go broke all the while the NSW taxpayer is building extra railway lines for the coal companies. Cut fossil fuels out of the system and spend the money developing and using renewables and all happily drive electric vehicles.

  2. Yes, Paul it is true, and it may mean liberalisation of the energy sector in South Africa, where government utility Eskom, will now work alongside other IPPs (independent power producers). Melting glaciers, indeed, have spurred us on to produce the first electric car out of (South) Africa.

  3. Since the failure of the PNGV electric car program under pres Clinton the revival of the battery car has been mostly a matter of time (enough to forget the shortcomings of batteries yet again and refocus the reason for going back to battery cars from the oil crisis to global apocalypse ) –at BEST battery cars will produce a ‘better’ class of traffic jam in the ‘exciting’ congested roads of the future –for each car to have both an in service battery plus at least one waiting for it’s rapid change over (but slow recharge…) will double the already prohibitive cost of the energy storage system .

    Enough battery cars will eliminate the cheap overnight power tarriff — how else can it be if significant baseload demand arises ? — In any event ‘second hand’ brown coal powered energy is attrociously non green to begin with .

    Finding that you are stranded far from home with a dead battery will not be the same as hitchhiking with a jerry can –if all the out of town traffic to the snowfields or holiday weekend etc overloads the ‘exchange’ stations ( as it must unless there is a huge oversupply of uneconomic proportions ) then thousands of battery car owners will find this out at once –back to the Impact …..

    Can a soufle rise again ? Let’s wait and see .. There are better ways.

  4. Corey Peterson

    While this is indeed exciting for many of the reasons presented and drawbacks such as how we are getting this electricity, we need to really consider again our car-dominated culture and the way it is leading to vast suburbanisation — this has tremendous impact on landscapes, communities, general social fabric, and all of the resources to build them as well as their required road and parking infrastructure — all with huge greenhouse and energy costs. Electric cars are only one small part of the solution and should not lead us to the conclusion that everyone will or should have a car — we must still encourage re-localisation as well to make our urban spaces places where you don’t need to have a car. These spaces will cater for public transport, biking, and walking without the car dominating. Please don’t sell this as THE panacea for all our problems when we are at a cusp of shaking off the yoke of car dominated everything…

  5. jose

    Our government is mired in the bog of what to do about climate change, and the major stuffup over insulation, both likely to have a detrimental effect on new ideas for reducing emissions. Neither Labor or Liberal are accepting that climate change is a very real hazard, it is just a new way to play with the voters.
    What other countries are doing with electric cars is fascinating, but Australia will be 50 years behind everyone else, and sometimes even buying the technology that we developed.
    The coal industry has far too much control over decisions, making it impossible for us to make major changes at anything other than grass roots level.

  6. Oliver

    Nice to see you back Paul. Good luck for the book. I think the transformational value of the electric car move is that ordinary people (not connected to any part of the ‘environmental movement’ will realize they are part of the solution and that being part of the solution makes personal (economic) and social sense. None of us think that electric cars are the final answer – I worry about all the batteries that will now rest in land fills leaching – but its going to be enough to loosen the dominant power/thinking of big oil. There will be better technologies come down the pipeline so to speak. This is a good step along the road (oh dear). We can’t do everything at once and if our task was to wean people off cars as the economic cure all we would not be listened to for even longer. Cheers Paul

  7. Geez mate! That’s some bluddy ‘Great Disruption’ alright! And what’s the sequel gunna be called?..The Great Distraction? ;-P How long has it been? Hehe :-)…

    Good to have you back…how was Christmas? Oh and Happy New Year… ;-P

    Good ol’ EV’s ey? What I’m worried about is how many pegs and bits of cardboard will be needed to make ’em sound like a nice throaty V8…you know?….a real car?… ;-P

    Butt seriously…well almost….

    This is very ‘up’ and dare I say it, bordering on ‘promotional’ for you mate? What did Santa bring you?… :-)

    And Shai Aggasi is still alive? I gotta take my hat off to a bloke that is confident to say “I’m the end of oil…” on International Television :-).

    I have no doubt that these EV thingies will be wonderful. Just like penicillin and asbestos and ‘mass production’, the ‘Commonwealth’ and ‘the pursuit of happiness’…oh and ‘insulation’ :-P…you remember how they turned out, don’t you? :-P

    I don’t think our planet has ever been short on great ideas. I grew up in an education system that took great delight in ensuring that I looked forward to a future of hedonistic opulence, thanks to our superior frontal-lobes, technological prowess (i.e. thumbs), and resulting clinically proven dominion over all things ‘primitive’.

    What concerns me is not what we can create, but as some commenters have alluded to above, our ability to deliver.

    I cannot ignore the wisdom in such observations as:

    “…right now, you have the Government trying to anoint the ‘Green Economy… The Government doesn’t know!…if the Governments could figure out what the new industries were, and could properly fund them and develop them, then Communism would’ve succeeded”

    Nor do I have a lot of faith in the still very much alive myth of ‘perfect markets’. I would venture to opine that ‘markets’ are only ‘perfect’ when you’re making more money than you’re spending. (Good ol’ Al had a bit to say along these lines recently in the NY Time – http://nyti.ms/bjwfUn ).

    Perhaps I’m just too old and cynical, but the empirical evidence weighs heavily…I’ve seen too many great ideas get pushed aside by stupid ones to believe that ‘common-sense’ has any hand in large scale implementations on this planet. In his ‘TED Talk’ last year, Peter Eigen (ex-World Bank), provides some anecdotes that well illustrate my observation and the magnitude of the challenge – http://bit.ly/dattg2

    I recently had a little bit of a rant on my blog about this kind of thing in the context of ‘Sustainability’:

    “…I reckon we have every­thing we need. The only thing miss­ing on a large scale is a bit of ‘actual’ good will! You know? Doing ‘the right thing’? Fair­ness? Not rip­ping the guts out of your ‘fel­low man’, just because you can and/or are legally ‘within your rights’? That kinda thing…

    Oh! And then there’s all the ‘good’ stuff that the World’s 4 Bil­lion or so good Church, Mosque, ‘Sin­ner­gogue’ (oops! I mean Syn­a­gogue :-P ), and/or Ashram going folk are sup­posed to be aspir­ing to be and do?…INSTEAD OF BICK­ER­ING AND SHOOT­ING EACH OTHER FOR FEAR/REVENGE/ RIGHTEOUSNESS/and/or PROFIT/POWER etc, etc, etc… ‘ad deatheum’!!!…FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE!!! AND DON’T TELL ME IT’S GOD’s BLUDDY WILL!!! You’ve heard of ‘FREE WILL’? Yeh! Well that’s what GOD appar­ently gave us…ALL OF US! I reckon that kinda gets God of the ‘hook’ don’t you?…”

    Until ‘HOW WE DO BUSINESS’ actually changes for the better, I reckon all the great ideas in the world will remain just that…great ideas. There is nothing ‘sustainable’ about our current business practices and the paradigms underpinning them.

    Notwithstanding the aforementioned I remain hopeful….


    Stephen G

  8. Sorry Paul — this is a classic example of what I call ‘carbon carnivale’ commentary. It’s manufactured excitement about an ‘inevitable transition to a zero net carbon economy’, as if the revolution is under way and can’t be stopped. Exciting as some of the developments you cite are, the market is not ‘forging ahead’. Of course, it’s not too hard to cherry pick some positive examples to suggest otherwise — eg 30 new electric car models coming onto the market; Warren Buffett investing in an electric car company etc. But how about some context?

    30 new electric car models coming onto the market means little in and of itself. Carmakers are highly adept at marketing clean vehicles which are variously expensive, unavailable to buy in most markets, have a long waiting list, require fuel that is almost impossible to find—or a combination of these things. If hybrid sales to date are any guide, most of the new models alluded to in this piece will sell in very small numbers relative to the total number of cars being sold by the companies concerned. The total quantity of fossil fuel used by their cars will continue rising, as will their overall greenhouse gas emissions.

    Without context, other facts mentioned in this piece are similarly problematic. A million Chinese people buying electric cars by 2012 sounds impressive, but let’s keep in mind that China will be adding another 30 million cars running on petrol and diesel over that timeframe.

    Warren Buffett investing US$230 million in a Chinese electric car company sounds impressive too, but perhaps not so exciting when you learn that last year Buffett invested over US$34 billion in a US railway company that relies on coal for half its tonnage, carrying around as much coal each year as Australia currently exports. His stake in the Chinese electric vehicle company is no bigger than the US$300 million investment he recently made in Harley Davidson–not a champion of electric vehicles last time I looked.

    Aside from the eco-hedonism this article exudes, its other distinguishing feature is the scant mention of government policy. The market is headed in the wrong direction because government policy continues to allow it. Without different policies, there is nothing at all inevitable about any rapid transition to a low carbon economy, and the biggest polluting industries are finding government as pliant as ever when it comes to protecting the status quo.

    We needn’t worry ourselves too much with where ‘a transition this dramatic’ will head, because in truth there is no dramatic transition occurring. As Thomas Friedman has written, what we’re watching is not a green revolution, ‘we’re actually having a green party’.

    The carbon carnivale drum-beat is irresistible for many, but we must try to avoid cherry picking for the sake of a positive story. We need to maintain a sober gaze on the cumulative impact of where market is actually heading in the absence of policies that force deep emission cuts in a meaningful timeframe. If we’re content to assume that the market will deliver a smarter and cleaner world, and that a rapid and dramatic sunset for the combustion engine in the next few years is inevitable, we are as likely to be as disappointed by what eventuates as we already are by the melting glaciers etc.

    Guy Pearse — Research Fellow, Global Change Institute, University of Queensland.

  9. Lets just celebrate some positive changes!

    It can be sooooo boring (and so depressing) always lifting the bar and saying “this is not good enough”. We all know its a big game and there is along way to go…. a little positivity will go a long way…. You know that just by looking at your kids.

    In terms of leading change – lets encourage (and create a positive vision of what we really want)…. not deflate.

    Josie McLean – PhD Student, Organisational Sustainability, University of Adelaide

  10. Isn’t that Guy Pearse a party-pooper? I was enjoying all that talk of optimism and fast cars!

    I think the value of talking this stuff up is that it can change people’s mindset and help them see the positive side, hence become more accepting, even demanding, of the necessary changes.

    But this is all pretty old news, Paul. You should have popped up the road to Climate Camp last year and heard the talk I organised from Better Place, and Garry Glazebrook from UTS on his public transport plan. Two sides of the same coin.

    Now I’d like to see our darlin’ Premier indulge in a bit of well-intentioned nepotism while she still has the chance, and slip a big contrract in the direction of her hubby Ben at Better Place. Maybe we can catch up with the ACT, which plans a roll-out starting in a year or two.

  11. Paul Gilding

    Well, we’ve certainly hit a big button here! Thank you all for the excellent and thoughtful responses. I want to respond to the two broad issues raised. Firstly, the issue of clean congestion. This is of course correct, that clean cars by themselves just means we move on to the next problem e.g. congestion, stupidly designed cities etc. The reason I’m still excited about clean cars, beyond the massive CO2 reduction, is because of the second issue raised. Is this enough? Does it really matter given the scale of dirty stuff happening everywhere else? Guy Pearse, for whom I have great respect for his work on the coal issue, argue this case well. Here we get to an enormously important issue of how change occurs. Of course in a technical sense, Guy and others are right – what is actually happening at this stage is insignificant . However talking up and being excited about new developments is important for two reasons. Firstly because people’s actions shape their beliefs rather than the other way around. Thus someone who drives an electric car, even if for the reason that it’s fast, becomes a supporter of further climate action in order to make their beliefs consistent with their actions, as Jonathon points out. Secondly, as Josie suggests, it’s important for those focused on these issues to take a moment now and then to celebrate the progress we are seeing. After all, even though we know that if Alan Kohler is right and we shift to all electric cars in 20 years it won’t fix sustainability, it will teach millions of people what’s possible and put them in the mindset we need to make really transformational change occur. Keep up the debate!

  12. When I talk to a mainstream audience I try to both inspire enthusiasm (against the odds?) and also put some of the inconvenient truths about political-economy in the mix.

    I don’t know if I manage to pull it off, but here is a piece I wrote about Tesla. (At least watch the video, which features Ted Turner as Captain Planet, on a ball-busting crusade to punish the polluters.)


    The problem with mainstream online media is that the ranting, abusive deniers are polluting the intelligent conversations. This makes it harder to get the balance right, to both “hype the hope” that Paul and others are speaking, while at the same time unveil the power of the carbon mafia.

  13. This is a great post because it explains why melting glaciers means cleaner, cheaper cars. I hope people will also take time to read this post. This will give them useful ideas.

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