There seems to be little support for Australia’s recently introduced carbon tax. Hardly surprising really, has any tax ever been popular with the people?
Yet this tax is seen by many as a vital stepping stone to transition Australia away from its reliance on fossil fuels and create a new non-carbon based economy. Whether or not the carbon tax in Australia will be successful remains a partisan political debate. However there are some very interesting technological developments independent of carbon pricing suggesting that the economy is already shifting toward a non-carbon future.
Driving the creation of these emerging technologies is the rising cost of energy. With or without a carbon tax, the era of super-cheap fossil fuels is over. It is costing more and more to source enough fuel to keep up with demand, and this in turn is causing the cost of everything rise- especially power, transport and food. The natural turn of events in any healthy economy is that someone will find a way to reduce these expenses through the use of technology and this in turn creates the impetus for change.
Because of oil’s high energy output and relatively universal supply, the industrial age model of energy storage has been to fill a can with fuel and then burn it to create energy. It’s pretty much how all transportation (with the exception of electrified rail) works. Quite primitive, especially as when fuel is burnt in a combustion engine it creates more energy in the form of heat than it does motion. Yet we’ve been stuck with that model for years because it was cheaper than developing an alternative. Until now.
Today, there are more people in more cars than ever before, competing for a limited supply of fuel. But despite having predicted this scenario decades ago, we remain in cars, powered by highly inefficient combustion engines. Although the conspiracy theorists will claim this to be plot by the giant oil companies, the truth is that until now, there just hasn’t been a cost effective alternative. Even though the electric car has been proto-typed repeatedly, it’s continued failure has been due to primitive battery technology.
Electric motors give instant torque the moment power is applied, which means they are very powerful, highly efficient and with so few parts, incredibly reliable. But there have been two main problems preventing electric cars a becoming a reality on our streets. The first is shrinking the batteries to a size where they provide a decent travel range without needing to be the size of a bus. The second is how to get the energy into the battery quickly, so a recharge doesn’t take hours at a time.
Perhaps we can thank the Walkman, for kick-starting battery research in the 1980s. Because the real driver for success here is coming from the field of consumer electronics. Video cameras, then phones, then laptops, iPods and now tablets are all advancing battery technology as consumers demand more and more from performance from these products. Quick charge and long life is the consumer’s mantra- and with each new generation of battery, scientists and engineers are achieving these goals. The future role of the battery as a means of energy storage might one day prove to be as important to humans as the silicon chip itself.
The point is, that the technological developments destined to revolutionise the car are not motivated by a desire to save the planet, but by a universal need for everyone to feel mobile. Kind of ironic really. Afterall, despite all the concern about climate change the truth is no one will want an electric car until the price of oil makes it a more affordable choice, and that might be more than decade away.
Until then, we can only hope that putting a price on carbon will help encourage the energy utilities to move away from the primitive and polluting fossil fuels that we rely so heavily on. That way, when we finally charge up our cars of the future, the energy we store in those cells might just come from a clean, carbon free source.
Watch FiST Chat 78: Carbon Pricing Begins for more on this topic.