Hoisted From Comments: Fuel Efficiency and Fuel Substitution

In comments to PGL’s post, Michael McKinlay writes:

We need a immediate and massive effort to produce plug in hybrid and electric cars while upgrading our electrical grid.

I agree, with the proviso that the incremental electricity generation should be relatively net-carbon-free. Which leads to El Presidente’s response:

Electric cars are not a solution; they just introduce new inefficiencies by moving power over the grid after power is produced. And eliminate different inefficiencies by eliminating transport of gasoline to stations.

It’s not a solution. Supporting electric cars as an energy “solution” is like throwing a sheet over a pile of garbage; the problem is still there, just a little bit harder to see.

Our comments section works in that we get the correct responses. First, Coberly notes:

[O]verall, counting all losses, carbon efficiency of electric cars is twice that of gas cars for the same service levels.

and Pierre adds:

[Y]ou can get eletricity from pretty much anything even oil, this is the stupid way, or wind, water, wave, man and woman, sun, nuclear…

The economics of the situation is that we shouldn’t necessarily care if we introduce “inefficiencies” through substitution of less-scarce resources for more-scarce resources. The fundamental problem is not that energy is scarce per se — the nearest working fusion reactor provides us with astronomical amounts. What is scarce is the ability to convert energy into useful work without leaning on natural processes that store millions of years’ worth of solar energy in conveniently combustible forms. Overcoming that scarcity (or not) is, to a considerable extent, a matter of policy.