Thursday, July 11, 2013

Return on investment.

In my post carbon series I examined some of the non-environmental reasons to adopt technologies that limit fossil fuel consumption. Now I want to talk about some more practical reasons. Like simple efficiency. Lets start with the internal combustion engine (ICE). Like the one in the average car. The automotive industry has made significant additions that have dramatically improved the ICE, but the basic concept has not really changed much since the first design.

ICE motors now have fuel injection with computer controls but still relies on pistons and valves very similar to the very first designs. Surprisingly most of the fuel consumed by an ICE is spent just maintaining the reciprocal motion internally. Less than 20% of the energy stored in the fuel is actually converted to movement of the entire vehicle. That means every time you fuel up your car, more than 80% of that investment is wasted on just keeping the engine running.

The physics involved with the way the engine works makes this a hard limit that cannot be overcome with any amount of innovation without completely scrapping the design altogether and starting from scratch. A car also consumes petroleum through is maintenance systems, like engine and transmission oils. These other essential lubricants do not contribute to the actual transportation either. There is also the petroleum resources needed to manufacture the vehicle in the first place. The point is, most of the petroleum consumed by an ICE does little to actually contribute to the purpose of the mechanism.

From a return on investment viewpoint, the total volume of petroleum consumed for a 2 or less year old car is extremely poor per mile. Petroleum is an inherently limited resource as well. The time frame required for natural processes to form petroleum ensures that a sustainable rate of extraction is entirely unfeasible. This means that today the price of petroleum will never drop to the price it was ten years ago, and in ten years it will never drop to today's price.

Transitioning away from fossil fuel transportation by supporting EV plug in stations and public transportation is a clearly stronger investment strategy. Petroleum industry could play an important (and profitable) role in this transition by installing charging stations at their existing sites. Adding a charging station to even a small percentage of the gas stations they currently maintain, could become an important source of revenue in the future for an industry that needs to recognize its limited growth potential.

Charging currently takes time, a waiting lounge with services represents massive opportunity for consumer interaction. I imagine charging station waiting lounge with retail options, wifi, and a host of other "truck stop" style services like showers or dining. Instead of waiting for the supply chain to collapse, smart petroleum industry leaders would begin to anticipate this market that can only grow in the coming decades.

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