Winning the Oil Endgame

I just downloaded a free book by Amory Lovins at www.winningtheoilendgame. It should be required reading for high school graduation. I was intrigued to learn the research behind Winning the Oil Endgame was partially funded by the Pentagon, a clue that US military leaders, at least, view the work as cutting edge.

Lovins, a physicist and environmentalist, is the co-founder and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a non-profit think tank formed in 1982 to investigate and advise industry around energy and resource efficiency. According to the RMI website, the main focus of their present work is to free the global economy of its current dependence on fossil fuels.

On the Line: American Global Competitiveness

It’s fair to say the hero of Winning the Oil Endgame is composite carbon fiber. Moreover Lovins is totally justified in raising the alarm that the US lags far behind China, India – and now Germany – in embracing this technology. The US auto industry has already been thoroughly disgraced in losing out to Japan in the seventies and eighties in the design, production and mass marketing of compact fuel efficient cars. Business and government leaders at all levels will do well to heed Lovins’ wake-up call – or accept that by 2025 the majority of Americans will be driving low cost Chinese cars that do 94 miles per gallon.

As Lovins explains it, the sheer weight of steel auto bodies makes them extremely energy inefficient. He then presents data demonstrating that by replacing our current (mainly steel) auto fleet with light weight cars made from composite carbon fiber, Americans can reduce our oil usage by 50 percent (totally eliminating our dependence on foreign oil) by 2025. He goes on to lay out the economics of developing a number of alternative fuel sources that could potentially end our reliance on domestic oil by 2040.

Changes that Improve Profitability and Economic Sustainability

The emphasis throughout the book is that these changes should – and will be – marketed driven. That far-sighted car, truck and aircraft manufacturers – and airlines – will make the transition to carbon fiber because it will increase their profits. He gives numerous examples demonstrating that saving a barrel of oil is always cheaper than buying a barrel of oil at current inflated prices. He also argues, convincingly, that federal, state and local governments will be motivated to (modestly) subsidize  these technological changes because they will increase tax revenues, reduce indebtedness and improve overall economic sustainability.

Answering Carbon Fiber Critics

Historically the main arguments against composite carbon fiber have revolved around safety and greater expense (compared to steel). Lovins addresses the safety question quite convincingly by describing the lightweight woven carbon fiber cones inserted into the chassis and door panels that are six to twelve times more durable than steel in absorbing crash impact. Collisions set up between carbon fiber mock-ups and much larger, heavier steel sedans and SUVs have been truly awe inspiring (the steel cars get demolished and the carbon fiber cars might need a panel replaced).

And critics are correct – at present carbon fiber body parts are more expensive than steel ones. So why is Tata Motors Limited of India preparing to release a five seat carbon fiber car in 2013 that sells for $2,200 US? While the actual parts are expensive (though like most new technologies, the cost will drop precipitously when the scale of production increases), it turns out that production costs drop by about 40 percent when auto plants produce cars out of carbon fiber instead of steel. Current carbon fiber models have on average 14 parts to assemble, rather than the 150 parts for cars on the road today. Only one die set is required, as opposed to four die sets for steel parts. Carbon fiber parts can be molded so they can be snapped together and glued, rather than welded – and are light enough to assemble without using a hoist. Finally color can be incorporated in the molding process, eliminating the paint shop. (to be continued)

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