The Real Population Problem

Sometimes considered a taboo subject, the issue of population runs as an undercurrent in virtually all discussions of modern challenges. Naturally, resource use, environmental pressures, climate change, food and water supply, and the health of the world’s fish and wildlife populations would all be non-issues if Earth enjoyed a human population of 100 million or less.

The subject is taboo for a few reasons. The suggestion that a smaller number would be nice begs the question of who we should eliminate, and who gets to decide such things. Also, the vast majority of people bring children into the world, and perhaps feel a personal sting when it is implied that such actions are part of the problem. I myself come from a long line of breeders, and perhaps you do too.

Recently, participating in a panel discussion in front of a room full of physics educators, I made the simple statement that “surplus energy grows babies.” This is motivated by my recognition that population growth bent upwards when widespread use of coal ushered in the Industrial Revolution and bent again when fossil fuels entered global agriculture in a big way during the Green Revolution. These are really just facets of the broader Fossil Fuel Revolution. I was challenged by a member of the audience with the glaringly obvious statement that population growth rates subside in energy-rich nations—the so-called demographic transition. How do these sentiments square against one another?

So in the spirit of looking at the numbers, let’s explore in particular various connections between population and energy. In the process I will expose the United States, rather than Africa, for instance, as the real problem when it comes to population growth.

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Man Bites EV: Will EV Bite Back?

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Electric Car: They Might Be Giants

Some time ago, the Chevy Volt attracted my attention. I think the plug-in hybrid concept hits the sweet spot for American drivers, and the Volt’s 35–40 mile electric-only range seemed to be the perfect number. A pure electric vehicle (EV) would not permit my wife’s periodic work-related jaunt to Pasadena, so any battery-powered solution for us must be of the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) variety. The problem, ultimately, was the high price tag (and the hump in the middle of the back seat occupied by the battery). Although I don’t self-identify as being in the “upper class,” our income edges us into the top quintile in the U.S. So for us to decide that the Volt costs too much—despite genuine enthusiasm—seemed to spell trouble (indeed, the average income of Volt owners was claimed to be $175,000). My conclusion was that electric/plug-in cars are out of reach, and could well remain so.

In April of this year, I became aware of the Ford plug-in, called the C-Max Energi (yes, with an “i” at the end!). The C-Max Energi has a 21 mile electric-only range, and gets an EPA rating of 43 miles per gallon (2.3 gal/100 mi; or 5.4 L/100 km). The price tag is approximately $6k cheaper than the Volt, and the back seat passed my wife’s approval. Nonetheless, after carefully considering the C-Max Energi as a replacement for our increasingly ailing car, we decided against springing for one: still too expensive. I was all set to write a Do the Math post to the tune of “Almost bit on a PHEV again.”

But the fact remained that our 11-year old 28 MPG car (bought used) has been costing us a fair bit in maintenance, its reliability increasingly dubious. Replacement loomed. Motivated by an upcoming long-haul road trip, we explored options again, looking at hybrids and the C-Max Energi. In the end—aided by a federal tax credit, a California rebate, and an unfathomably good offer that together knocked $9k off the MSRP—we drove an Energi off the lot under battery power.

It turns out that:

  • the lifetime cost for the PHEV is still higher than other options we considered, but not prohibitively so given credits, rebates, and discounts;
  • the CO2 emissions are cut in half in electric mode (considering upstream electricity production in our region);
  • batteries still stink compared to liquid fuel, and likely always will.

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Putting the Genie Back in the Toothpaste Tube

You may have heard about the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a result of our combustion of fossil fuels. If we wanted to sweep the excess CO2 out of the air, what would it take? How much is there? Where would we put it? In this post, we will put the numbers in perspective and briefly examine a few of the possibilities for storage.

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MPG for Electric Cars?

A typical efficient car in the U.S. market gets about 40 MPG (miles per gallon) running on gasoline. A hybrid car like the Prius typically gets 50–55 MPG. In a previous post, we looked at the physics that determines these numbers. As we see more and more plug-in hybrid or pure electric cars on the market, how do we characterize their mileage performance in comparison to gasoline cars? Do they get 100 MPG? Can they get to 200? What does it even mean to speak of MPG, when the “G” stands for gallons and a purely electric car does not ingest gallons?

This post addresses these questions. Continue reading

Recipe for Climate Change in Two Easy Steps

Today, we’re going to make the world less comfortable, in two easy steps that each of you can do at home. Step 1 shows how easy it is to account for the carbon dioxide excess in the atmosphere based on our cumulative use of fossil fuels. Step 2 bypasses intricacies of thermal radiation to put an approximate scale on the amount of heating we would expect the excess CO2 to produce. Serves 7 billion.

Climate Change in Context

I view climate change as a genuine challenge to the stability of our coexistence with the planet. But it is not my primary concern. A far more dangerous threat to the human endeavor is, in my mind, our reliance on finite resources and the difficulty our economic systems will have coping with a decline in the availability of cheap energy. That said, the issues are closely linked—through fossil fuels—and both benefit from a drive toward renewable resources. Continue reading