Side Trip: Sparky Comes Home
In October, 2003, several days before going on vacation to Daleville, Virginia, I was visiting some of my favorite Electric Vehicle (EV) sites and decided to check on what was available on EBay. (I've been interested in EV's for quite some time and had hoped to eventually own one.) As luck would have it, there was a beautiful little blue Comutacar listed. The listing stated that the car had a new controller, new upholstery, and was in excellent condition. The price was reasonable, but the car was in Staten Island, New York, which is a long way from Florida. I decided to bid on the car, knowing that I would be on vacation when the auction ended. I bid what I thought I could afford, knowing that I wouldn't win, but high enough so that the car couldn't be "stolen". (Oh, yeah, I didn't tell my wife.)
We had been on vacation for about a week when I decided to go to the local library and check on the progress of the auction. When I brought the auction information up on the computer I was surprised and ecstatic to learn that I had won! I also knew that I would have to break the news to my wife. I immediately drove to the Fincastle, Virginia courthouse where my wife was deeply immersed in a genealogy project. The conversation went something like:
Me: "Hi Honey, how's it going?" (Voice is squeaky, face flushed.)
Alice: "Fine, what have you been up to?" (Already knows that something is a little out of kilter.)
Me: "Weeeel, I bought a car today."
Alice: "Really?" (As in, "is this some kind of joke?")
Me: "Yeah" (As in, "No, I'm dead serious.")
Alice: "Did you buy it in Roanoke?, What kind of car is it?"
Me: "No, I bought it on EBay, it's in Staten Island, New York, and it's an electric car."
Alice: (Silence, as in "what the hell were you thinking?)
The silence lasted for hours, but to make a long story short, she promised not to divorce me if I finished our vacation, took her and the dogs home, and went to Staten Island to get the car myself.
I immediately phoned the seller, explained my situation, and gave him a pickup date. When we got home on a Saturday and I called my buddy, Roger Francis, twisted his arm a little, and talked him into taking a road trip. We left for Staten Island on Monday. The weather was nasty and the traffic from Florida up I-95 to Washington D.C. was atrocious. Things seemed to get worse as we headed Northeast to Baltimore and then on to Philadelphia. We made good progress and arrived in Staten Island on Tuesday. On Wednesday we rented a 9X5 U-Haul trailer and the drove to Staten Island to meet with Mike Chechel, the seller. Mike gave me a ride in the car and we loaded it and headed back for Florida.
The trip through Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia was so unpleasant that we took and alternate route home. We went from Staten Island down the East Coast on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey. From there we picked up the ferry across the Delaware Bay to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Once in Delaware we took Route 13 down to Maryland and across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel to Norfolk, Va. From Norfolk it was a simple hop across Route 58 to Emporia, VA and back down Interstate 95 to Florida. I can't say enough about the beauty of the shorelines of New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland, and would recommend this route to anyone going North to New York.
|Mike Chechel and I load Sparky onto the U-Haul.||Mike and I exchange papers before we depart.|
|Roger takes a turn at the wheel.||The rain stops on the Garden State Parkway|
|The New Jersey countryside.||The Florida Sun sets as we approach St. Petersburg.|
Roger, Sparky, and I arrive home late at night.
Once I got home I began the job of putting Sparky in driving order. Although the car was in excellent shape, the brakes needed immediate attention. Without a clue as to where to find information and parts, I joined the Yahoo Comutacar users group. Help was immediate, especially from Glen Stevens of Assembled Products Inc. Within no time I obtained a front wheel brake assembly and a master cylinder and made Sparky safe. I drove Sparky around for about a month and was able to get about 12 miles per charge, which wasn't very good. I finally broke down and went to Safe Start Batteries and bought myself 8 new Trojan 125 batteries. The difference was unbelievable. Now I am able to go 30 miles per charge with no problem and have attained the wondrous speed of 40mph! Other improvements have included replacing some of the gauges, and I will soon get to work on a new paint job.
All of these improvement have led me to
investigate other aspects of electric vehicles, and in doing so I have come to a
grave realization. THE OIL AGE IS OVER! Recent articles I've
read talk about the oil shortage and the efficiency of the electric
motor, but the most sobering article so far was a column written by Paul
Roberts. A copy is shown below:
Published on Sunday, March 6, 2004 by the Los Angeles Times
Running Out of Oil -- and Time
by Paul Roberts
SEATTLE — The news last
month that the vast Saudi oil fields are in decline is a far bigger story
than most in the media, or the United States, seem to realize. We may
begrudge the Saudis their 30-year stranglehold on the world economy. But
even the possibility that the lords of oil have less of the stuff than
advertised raises troubling questions. How long will the world's long-term
oil supplies last? As important, what will the big importing nations, like
the U.S., do the day world oil production hits its inevitable peak?
For more than a century, Western governments have been relentlessly upbeat about the long-term outlook for oil. Whenever pessimists claimed that supplies were running low — as they have many times — oil companies always seemed to discover huge new fields. It's now an article of faith among oil optimists, including those in the U.S. government, that global oil reserves won't run out for at least four decades, which seems like enough time to devise a whole suite of alternative energy technologies to smoothly and seamlessly replace oil.
But such oil optimism, always questionable, is now more suspect than ever. True, we won't "run out" of oil tomorrow, or even 10 years from now. But the long-term picture is grim. In the first place, it's not a matter of running out of oil but of hitting a production peak. Since 1900, world oil production — that is, the number of barrels we can pump from the ground — has risen in near-perfect step with world oil demand. Today, demand stands at about 29 billion barrels of oil a year, and so does production. By 2020, demand may well be 45 billion barrels a year, by which time, we hope, oil companies will have upped production accordingly.
At some point, however, production simply won't be able to match demand. Oil is an exhaustible resource: The more you produce, the less remains in the ground, and the harder it is to bring up that remainder. We won't be "out of oil"; a vast amount will still be flowing — just not quickly enough to satisfy demand. And as any economist can tell you, when supply falls behind demand, bad things happen.
During the 1979 Iranian revolution, the last time oil production fell off significantly, world oil prices hit the modern equivalent of $80 a barrel. And that, keep in mind, was a temporary decline. If world oil production were to truly peak and begin a permanent decline, the effect would be staggering: Prices would not come back down. Any part of the global economy dependent on cheap energy — which is to say, pretty much everything these days — would be changed forever.
And that's the good news. The term "peak" tends to suggest a nice, neat curve, with production rising slowly to a halfway point, then tapering off gradually to zero — as if, since it took a century to reach a peak, it ought to take another 100 years to reach the end. But in the real world, the landing will not be soft. As we hit the peak, soaring prices — $70, $80, even $100 a barrel — will encourage oil companies and oil states to scour the planet for oil. For a time, they will succeed, finding enough crude to keep production flat, thus stretching out the peak into a kind of plateau and perhaps temporarily easing fears. But in reality, this manic, post-peak production will deplete remaining reserves all the more quickly, thus ensuring that the eventual decline is far steeper and far more sudden. As one U.S. government geologist put it to me recently, "the edge of a plateau looks a lot like a cliff."
As production falls off this cliff, prices won't simply increase; they will fly. If our oil dependence hasn't lessened drastically by then, the global economy is likely to slip into a recession so severe that the Great Depression will look like a dress rehearsal. Oil will cease to be viable as a fuel — hardly an encouraging scenario in a world where oil currently provides 40% of all energy and nearly 90% of all transportation fuel. Political reaction would be desperate. Industrial economies, hungry for energy, would begin making it from any source available — most likely coal — regardless of the ecological consequences. Worse, competition for remaining oil supplies would intensify, potentially leading to a new kind of political conflict: the energy war.
Thus, when we peak becomes a rather pressing question. Some pessimists tell us the peak has already come, and that calamity is imminent. That's unlikely. But the optimists' forecast — that we don't peak until around 2035 — is almost as hard to believe. First, oil demand is climbing faster than optimists had hoped, mainly because China and India, the sleeping giants, are waking up to embrace a Western-style high-energy industrialism that includes tens of millions of new cars. Second, even as oil demand is rising, oil discovery rates are falling. Oil can't be produced without first being found, and the rate at which oil companies are locating new oil fields is in serious decline. The peak for world discoveries was around 1960; today, despite astonishing advances in exploration and production technology, the industry is finding just 12 billion new barrels of oil each year — less than half of what we use. This is one reason that oil prices, which had averaged $20 a barrel since the 1970s, have been hovering at $30 for nearly a year.
Oil companies, not surprisingly, are getting anxious. Despite the fact that the current high oil prices are yielding massive company profits, companies are finding it harder and harder to replace the oil they sell with newly discovered barrels. On average, for every 10 barrels an oil company sells, its exploration teams find just four new barrels — a trend that can go on only so long. Indeed, most Western oil firms now say the only way to halt this slide is to get back into the Middle East, which kicked them out during the OPEC nationalizations of the 1960s and '70s. This has, in fact, become the mantra of the oil industry: Get us back into the Middle East or be prepared for trouble. And the Bush administration seems to have taken the message to heart.
Now, of course, the Middle East is looking less and less like the Promised Land. Western analysts have long feared that the Saudis and other oil-state leaders are too corrupt, unstable and bankrupt to step up their oil production fast enough to meet surging world demand. Last week's revelations, in which some Saudis themselves expressed doubt over future production increases, have only heightened such concerns.
Put another way, we may not be able to pinpoint exactly when a peak is coming, but recent events suggest that it will be sooner than the optimists have been telling us — perhaps by 2020, or even 2015 if Asian demand picks up as fast as some analysts now expect. What this means is that we can no longer sit back and hope that an alternative to oil will come along in time. Such complacency all but ensures that, when the peak does arrive, our response will be defensive, costly and hugely disruptive. Instead, we must begin now, with every tool at our disposal, to find ways to get "beyond petroleum" if we are to have any hope of controlling the shift from oil to whatever comes next.
Paul Roberts writes about the energy industry for Harper's Magazine and other national publications. His new book, "The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World," will be published in May.
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times
Here are some additional facts about the Comutacar: