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The US vs China: the Race to Produce Carbon Fiber Cars


My initial reaction to Winning the Oil Endgame (reviewed in a prior blog) was wild enthusiasm. Here at last was a practical blue print for cheaply and painlessly ending our reliance on foreign oil with existing technology. The elegance of author Amory Lovins’ proposal is that it simultaneously ends our need for military domination (and unwinnable wars against Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan) of Middle East oil fields and solves the issue of the US carbon debt. I have never been a big fan of the automobile – relying for most of my life on my bicycle and public transportation. However I am aware that most Americans love their cars and that women with young children and people in rural and disadvantaged communities with poor public transportation simply can’t get by without them.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Unfortunately my positive feelings didn’t last long. As I performed an Internet search for to identify car makers embracing carbon fiber technology, my initial excitement was replaced by confusion as I realized nearly all the action is happening in China, India, Japan and Germany. The confusion morphed into anger, followed by dismay as the usual questions popped into mind. Why is Obama throwing three trillion dollars at the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and five trillion dollars at the banks when for an investment of $180 billion (over 10 years – all recoverable) he could – in one fell swoop – totally end our reliance on foreign oil, withdraw our troops from the Middle East, restore US competitiveness with foreign automakers and eliminate both our sovereign and carbon debt?

Why isn’t this stuff front page news? And why does the mainstream “climate change” movement try to reduce carbon emissions by guilt tripping individual Americans into changing their lightbulbs and turning their thermostats down? While the majority of Americans can take these admonitions in stride (most simply ignore them by denying that climate change is occurring), psychiatrists and psychologists are seeing a lot of really anxious people who sit in cold apartments during the winter because they’re afraid of destroying the planet.

How Much Will It Cost?

In Winning the Oil Endgame Lovins points out that while $180 billion is a substantial amount, the US spends $7 billion a year – with zero return at home – for every $1 increase in the cost of a barrel of oil. He estimates $90 billion would be needed to retool current auto plants and $90 on investment in new fuel sources – all money that would remain in the US. He has a particular interest in the development of cellulose to ethanol conversion. He cites new technology using woody plans like switchgrass and poplar that yield twice as much as current corn-to-ethanol processes – yet cost less in both capital and energy investment and pose no threat to world food supplies. He is also a big advocate of electric cars – which immediately become much more feasible and cost effective (they require smaller batteries and can be used for longer distances) when they are made out of lightweight carbon fiber. He believes most electric cars will eventually be powered by hydrogen cells produced from wind energy and natural gas surpluses (resulting from more efficient electricity generation and use).

Who Will Pay for It?

He also envisions that most of this $180 billion will come from the private sector (owing to the obvious profit potential) – with government merely rearranging some of their current priorities that favor (with tariffs, direct subsidies and tax rebates) oil companies and current biofuel producers like Archer Daniels Midland.

Instead he is proposing some low cost “jumpstart” policies from federal, state and local government (the carbon fiber car industry receives major government support in China, India, Japan and Germany). He argues that the US can ill afford a costly, chaotic, 100 year transition to carbon fiber technology driven by wars, shortages and other awful events – when with modest support this could be a profitable, orderly transition on our own terms.

Among those Lovins proposes are

  • “Feebates” for new cars and light trucks. These would combine increased license fees on inefficient vehicles with rebates on efficient ones.
  • Temporary federal loan guarantees to encourage automakers to retool (and to encourage the airline industry to mass produce carbon fiber planes)
  • Commitment by federal, state and local governments to replace obsolete vehicle fleets with carbon fiber cars.
  • Increased Pentagon (the people who brought you the Internet and GPS) funding to develop carbon fiber technologies.

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