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America Versus China: The New Reality Of Global Energy

Robert Wilson's picture
University of Strathclyde

Robert Wilson is a PhD Student in Mathematical Ecology at the University of Strathclyde.

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  • May 12, 2014
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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 12, 2014

Robert, Americans use as much energy as they do because it’s cheap, it’s always been cheap, and our infrastructure has been built around that fact. Though it’s fashionable in Europe to portray our energy use as another example of our arrogance and wastefulness, it wasn’t for environmental reasons the UK turned away from its own excessive use of coal – it simply ran out. Energy got expensive.  So while Vaclav Smil’s rhetorical questions

Do Americans live twice as long because they consume twice as much energy as Europeans? Are you people twice as smart as the average Frenchman? Do you enjoy life twice as much as the average Danish guy?

attempt to gamely cast a hypocritical bent to Americans’ energy diet, they simultaneously give Europeans immensely more credit than is due. They ignore the fact that cost drives energy consumption everywhere, while also failing to take into account the variety of American climate conditions and a widely-dispersed population.

Even the notion that energy use can be excessive is a product of climate change awareness. That Americans can get by with less energy without experiencing any burden is undeniable, and the reason why improvements in efficiency will be critical to reducing our carbon emissions. As you accurately point out, a transition to high-mileage vehicles will be an important factor.

You not-so-accurately dismiss electric vehicles as insensible. Though I have yet to receive any invitations to join fraternities for millionaires, I do drive a Nissan Leaf, and your bias is typical of one I’ve heard for over a decade. It’s been remarkably muted of late as I see them popping up around me everywhere. If battery prices drop by half as they’re expected to in the next 6 years, 40-50 million American drivers in two-car households will find them the perfect choice for most of their driving. In a milder UK climate and with a shorter daily drive, British drivers will eventually discover them even more useful than in the U.S.

Josh Nilsen's picture
Josh Nilsen on May 12, 2014

In conclustion, the IEA is worthless.  They can’t get a 6 month prediction right.

donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on May 13, 2014

If battery prices drop by half as they’re expected to in the next 6 years”

Anecdotally (I have data fro the UK, US below), average miles per year are similar for both countries. The uptake in the UK is so slow mainly due to the harder cost environment that the higher MPG of cars creates here. Increasing MPG makes it harder for electric cars and this only decreases if the price of petrol increases relatively faster.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 13, 2014

Donough, what’s critical for adoption of EVs is daily commute, as the ability to recharge overnight is a big factor to owners. I’ve seen several sources which list U.S. average ~29 miles; this source lists UK at 18km/day or about 60% less.

That’s a quibble. You make a good point that better fuel economy and reasonable fuel prices will create a significant challenge for EVs, and that as market share improves I fully expect that gasoline prices will be reduced to make it even harder.

Could the oil companies kill the electric car again?

(edited with corrections)

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on May 13, 2014

These (relatively) new energy realities are indeed very important for all people in the energy and climate debate to grasp. Current projections show that developing world emissions will be triple developed world emissions only two decades from now. And these projections (IEA, EIA and BP) generally show a slowdown in coal growth and a slight recovery in developed world energy demand which I find quite hard to envision. I will therefore not be surprised if developing world emissions reach values triple that of the developed world in the latter half of the 2020’s. 

Implications on the energy conversation on this site and others is that the developed world situation is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Perhaps the most important understanding related to this statement is that the developing world (an inceasingly dominant component of the global average) will continue to prefer highly practical and rapidly scalable solutions and that ideologically attractive clean energy solutions touted by so many developed world citizens parttaking in the energy and climate debate are still very far from trumping fossil fuels in this regard. 

For example, coal in nations like China and India is enormously practical. It is highly reliable, locally available in abundance and applicable to a multitude of applications aside from power production (almost half of Chinese coal is used directly in industry). In addition, coal (and other fossil) infrastructure is very rapidly scalable, primarily due to low up-front costs and well-established best practices. We will need some very serious technological breakthroughs before this outlook will change.

donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on May 14, 2014


Thanks. I actually agree with your commute focus. The UK data is below amoung other places on the .gov website and 10 miles for a commute is not a bad figure. The car occupancy for the commute is usually around 1.2. This is where I see big issues for the electric car. An easish way to cut the fuel bill is to car pool and that would promote the status quo.

However the data a,los usggests that commuting trips by car start at 2-5 miles. It is not very positive that more electric cars are not available for such a commute. However this is cultural as many people are used to the idea of two cars doing anything.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on May 14, 2014

Of course we should use our influence to guide developing nations toward clean energy solution, particularly when the cost is comparable.  But we must remember that international trade helps to lift the world’s poorest people out of poverty (by providing jobs in export industries), and improves the standard of living in developed countries as well (by making manufactured goods more affordable).

ralpph allen's picture
ralpph allen on May 16, 2014

A couple of points :  China is now dedicating 750 scientists and engineers to Molton Salt Reactors (MSR) and they will have a working prototype in three years and will be producing power generation models in 10.

The Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) which was prototyped from the 60s into the mid 70s.  This would use nuclear material and thorium in a vat that would burn 97% of the material instead of the current 3% of light water reactors.  The waste would have a half life of 300 years instead of 10,000.  It would consume cheap abundant thorium and could be used to burn up spent nuclear material.  It is inherently fail safe an when the power dies so will the reaction.  Given its inherent safety the expensive domes and triple redundancy facility does not need to be built and the plant size can be smaller drastically reducing construction costs. The US is blocked from funding further development so the Chinese have 750 PhD’s now moving forward using US research and so are the Norwegians and the Japanese.  Look up MSR and WAMSR.

A second technology is the new battery science by Japan that uses no rare earths and can charge in 1/20 the time of a lithum battery and is cheaper.  They are producing samples by years end and this will make the electric car viable.


Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on May 16, 2014

The Chinese are working every promising nuclear technology, not just the HTGR.  There is an excellent chance that the HTGR will get displaced before it ever reaches the market by the FHR (see Wiki description and ORNL SMAHTR 50MW), at least for the electricity and process heat markets.  Helium was chosen as a coolant for the HTGR because it was easy to prove corrosion won’t be a problem; but thermally, gaseous helium is inferior to every liquid coolant.

The FHR reactors will use molten fluoride salt as coolant, and will achiever several times more power output from the same size reactor as could be achieved using helium coolant. Both reactors use the same TRISO fuel, which is a graphite-based fuel which is extremely safe due to the high-temperature tolerance and micro-encapsulation of the nuclear fuel particles.

The old molten salt reactor work at Oakridge labs proved that corrosion would not be a problem at up to 700C using alloys from the 1960s.  So helium coolant may still be the best approach for making hydrogen at 1000C using the sulfur-iodine thermochemical process, but there are new processes being studied which make hydrogen at lower temperatures and of course for electricity-to-ammonia using reverse fuel cell technology.

When you read about the Chinese molten salt reactor program, keep in mind it includes two reactor prototypes:  the MSR which has the fuel disolved in the salt, and the FHR which uses solid TRISO fuel with salt coolant.  The FHR provides almost all of the safety benefits of the MSR (everything except inexhaustible thorium fuel), but will likely reach market sooner, since government regulators are more experienced with solid fuel reactors (and other reasons).

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