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Engineering in an Age of Limits, Pt. 12: If Wishes Were Horses…

By: , Posted on: August 7, 2015

Electric Car Factory

Engineers did not invent the steam engine — the steam engine invented them.
What will a post-oil society invent?

This is the twelfth post in the series “Engineering in an Age of Limits”. We are facing limits in natural resources, particularly oil; our finances (money seems to be increasingly disconnected from actual goods and services); and the environment as we continue to dump waste products into the air, the sea and on to land.

We are also facing a transition as the Oil Age comes to an end. This is not the first time that society has faced such a shift. At the beginning of the 18th century the principal source of energy in northern Europe was wood. However the forests were mostly depleted so a new source of energy, coal, had to be developed and exploited. The extraction of coal from underground mines posed new technical challenges particularly with regard to removing the water that flooded those mines. So new technologies, particularly the steam engine, had to be developed. Necessity was indeed the mother of invention. These technological developments led to many changes in society, including the creation of the profession of engineering. The transitions that we are currently experiencing as we look for alternatives to oil are likely to generate equally profound paradigm shifts.

In this blog we consider two questions:

1) What new paradigms, new ways of looking at the world, will develop, analogous to the development of engineering in the early 18th century; and

2) How can engineers and other technical professionals help navigate the troubled waters that we are entering?

These posts are published at our Welcome page. We also have a LinkedIn forum that you are welcome to join. For a complete list of posts to do with the Age of Limits please visit our . Thank you.

The Engineering Contribution

One of the themes of this set of posts is to identify the skills that engineers and technical professionals possess and that can help us navigate the wrenching changes that are coming up. One of these skills is to challenge casual and ill-thought out statements and predictions as to what the future might hold. I will use predictions to do with the electric car as an example.

Adoption Rate for New Technologies (Financial Times)
Adoption Rate for New Technologies (Financial Times)

The following headline from the June 10th 2015 edition of CleanTechnica caught my attention.

Electric Vehicles To Become Mainstream In Short Period Of Time

The article’s logic is as follows.

– Over the course of the last hundred years many new inventions have become mainstream. “Technologies we used to live without including PCs, the Internet, and cell phones have become an integral part of daily life”.

– Once a new invention catches on “the rise to mainstream requirement is meteoric”. It takes about 15 years for an invention such as the radio to become part of normal life.

– Electric cars will become attractive once a “200-mile-per-charge car costs less than $25,000 and when a 60 kilowatt-hour battery costs $9,000.

The article reveals some assumptions that really need to be thought through.

1) There is a belief that because we want something it will therefore happen. Yet, in spite of the huge effort that has gone into battery development (capacity and speed of recharging), the technology for the 200-mile-per-charge car is still on the margin.

2) Electric Vehicles (EVs) are justified because they are “good for the environment”. Yet, as shown by an article in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, this assumption can be challenged. The article states, The manufacture of the batteries and other components of Electric Vehicles EVs exhibit the potential for significant increases in human toxicity, freshwater eco-toxicity, freshwater eutrophication, and metal depletion impacts, largely emanating from the vehicle supply chain.

3) The same article uses the phrase ‘problem-shifting’. In this case, the environmental problem is changed but not removed because EVs are not actually “zero emissions” vehicles. They may not have a tail pipe, but the power plant that generates the electricity that they use most certainly has. So the reduction in carbon dioxide generated will be much less than anticipated, particularly if the electricity is provided by coal-fired power stations.

4) One of the justifications for EVs is that they get around the problem of depleting oil supplies (‘Peak Oil’). But their batteries use large amounts of lithium — were we to convert to EVs we could run into issues to do with “Peak Lithium”.

5) All the other inventions that the CleanTechnica article talks about, such as dishwashers, microwaves and radio use energy in different ways. None of them produce energy.

But maybe the biggest challenge posed by switching from gasoline to electricity is the issue of scale-up — a topic that most engineers understand very well.

The Reality

References provided by Wikipedia state that, “As of 2010 there were more than one billion motor vehicles in use in the world excluding off-road vehicles and heavy construction equipment”. There are also many thousands of airplanes, military vehicles, railroad locomotives and ships. They all use refined fuels of one kind or another (gasoline, diesel, aviation fuel, Bunker C, and so on). Altogether we can estimate that there are currently around 1.2 billion vehicles and other forms of transport that use fossil fuels for their motive power.

For the purposes of this analysis we will concentrate on personal automobiles for two reasons. First, they are the only  electrically-powered vehicles that are actually being used. Electric trucks, airplanes and ships are merely at the experimental stage — if that. Second, the number of automobiles is much greater than other forms of transport so it make sense to concentrate on converting them. We will further assume that there are about one billion automobiles being used throughout the world and each has a life of around ten years. We will further assume that these vehicles have a life of 10 years before being scrapped. (This estimate aligns quite well with the 2014 world-wide productionof cars and commercial vehicles.) Therefore if a concerted effort is to be made to have an all-electric fleet of automobiles then approximately 100 million such vehicles are needed every year, in order to complete the transition within ten years.

So, how are we doing? Well, the  number of electric cars sold world wide in the year 2014 was just over 300,000, which is about 0.3% of the overall production. In other words electric cars have yet to any meaningful impact. Hence the massive, concerted effort to wean ourselves off gasoline to power our cars has yet to start. But making such a conversion would take a phenomenal effort and investment to make it happen. Not only would we have to build the factories to manufacture the vehicles themselves and the electric motors and batteries that go in them, but we would need a huge new network of “filling stations” and maintenance facilities. There would also be a need to dispose of much of the infrastructure used to manufacture and deliver gasoline and other oil products. in an environmentally responsible manner.

So what are the road blocks (ahem) to such a project? Well, here are at least four.

1) It would require a dedicated commitment by pretty much all the nations and manufacturing organizations in the world. There are no indications at all that such a commitment is in the works. Indeed, because a project such as this would challenge the livelihood of many existing businesses it is likely that it would face many challenges.

2) The project would require an enormous financial investment. Debt levels, which are already very high, would have to be vastly increased in order to fund this project.

3) The project would also require a very high investment of existing energy sources, particularly oil. Yet that energy will be needed just to keep existing systems running. We can’t both have our cake and eat it.

4) Above all, the project would take time — a lot of time. It’s hard to imagine that the factories and infrastructure could be brought up to speed (100 million vehicles per year) in less than ten years. So the total time needed to electrify the world’s automobile fleet would be at least twenty years.

Time Available

So, do we have twenty years to execute this huge project?

Ever since M. King Hubbert published his seminal paper in the year 1956 (A Journey Part 2 — Hubbert) there has been much discussion as to when society will reach ‘Peak Oil’, i.e., that point in time when the world’s production of oil heads into long-term decline. We will explore this question in later posts. Suffice to say that it appears as if the the world hit ‘Plateau Oil’ around the year 2005 and it has been about flat since then. When the curve will start to head inexorably downwards none of us know for sure. A conservative estimate would be somewhere in the range 2020-2025. In other words, just a few years from now. Therefore the transition to electrically-powered transportation should have started at least ten years ago. It didn’t.

The Hirsch Report

Robert Hirsch
Robert Hirsch

What I have written in this post is hardly original. In the year 2005 Dr. Robert Hirsch, Roger Bezdek and Robert Wendling published Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management. The following statements are from the Executive Summary. My comments are in italics.

When world oil peaking will occur is not known with certainty. A fundamental problem in predicting oil peaking is the poor quality of and possible political biases in world oil reserves data. Some experts believe peaking may occur soon. This study indicates that “soon” is within 20 years.
Based on the discussion in the previous section the rough estimate of 2025 suggested in the report seems to be quite sensible.

The problems associated with world oil production peaking will not be temporary, and past “energy crisis” experience will provide relatively little guidance. The challenge of oil peaking deserves immediate, serious attention, if risks are to be fully understood and mitigation begun on a timely basis.
The past energy crises that the report refers to were primarily political. Peak oil is a geological phenomenon. Therefore this observation continues to hold true. The report did not receive “immediate, serious attention”. 

Oil peaking will create a severe liquid fuels problem for the transportation sector, not an “energy crisis” in the usual sense that term has been used.
The report makes the important distinction between energy in general and the liquid fuels needed to run the world’s transport fleets.

Peaking will result in dramatically higher oil prices, which will cause protracted economic hardship in the United States and the world. However, the problems are not insoluble. Timely, aggressive mitigation initiatives addressing both the supply and the demand sides of the issue will be required.
This forecast is only partially correct. The price of oil continues to oscillate. Oil is absolutely fundamental to our economies. If its price rises to too high a level economic activity slows down so the demand for oil falls, along with its price.

Mitigation will require a minimum of a decade of intense, expensive effort, because the scale of liquid fuels mitigation is inherently extremely large.
There has not been a decade of intense effort to address the issues presented in this report. Nor does it appear as if such an ‘intense effort’ is about to start.


It is possible that electric cars will make quicker inroads than they have so far (maybe in China in response to their air pollution) but the possibility of converting most of the world’s automobile fleet within a generation seems to be highly unlikely.

We can draw the following broader conclusions from this discussion.

– The fact that we want something to happen does not mean that it will happen. “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride”.

– Even if a new technology is feasible the issue of scale-up can create near-insurmountable problems to do with finance, political will and new Age of Limits constraints.

-Engineers can play an important role in helping us understand these difficulties.

One of my goals in writing this series of posts is to show how we can address the problems/predicaments that we face. Indeed, it may even be possible to identify business opportunities. There are any number of web sites and books that describe our difficulties. But many of them conclude with the word ‘should’, as in ‘Society should make a massive investment in electric car technology’. Such statements achieve little — most people and organizations are going to do what they want to do, not what they should do.

The conclusions I come to in this post are:

– Automobiles powered by fossil fuels (gasoline/diesel) will decline in number over the next twenty years due to increasingly stringent climate change regulations and due to declining oil supplies.

– The development of a similar-sized fleet of electrically-powered cars in that time frame is not feasible.

– Therefore we will move into a world where personal mobility is much more restricted and/or there will be much greater use of public transport.


Our books, published by Elsevier, include the following titles.

Plant Design and Operations (1st ed.)

Offshore Safety Management (2nd ed.)

Process Risk and Reliability Management (2nd ed.)

Books from Sutton Technical Books

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