Friday, October 9, 2015

The relative cost of things

My idea regarding ideas for public transport has resulted in conversations about the problem of smart phones. This post is not a defense of smart-phones -- I see them as a decidedly mixed-blessing (perhaps one day we'll be wise enough to get their benefits with fewer social costs). I wanted to briefly talk about our (me included) inability to estimate the cost of things.

In a previous post, I wrote about a new battery I installed on my ebike. I was shocked to learn that it is estimated to take 500 kWh to build a 1 kWh Lithium-ion battery. This is a lot.

Similarly, many environmentalists object to smartphones and other computer technology because of the environmental cost. A large part of this, though certainly not all, is the embodied energy contained in the device (much of which is sourced from fossil fuels). For a smart phone, this is estimated to be about 280 kWh.

This is also a lot of energy.

However, consider that 1 liter of petrol contains about 10 kWh of energy. That makes the lithium battery equivalent to about 50 L of petrol (or one tank of fuel in a car) and the phone equivalent to about 1/2 a tank of fuel. That doesn't sound like so much, and is largely because we don't think about the ludicrous amount of energy that petrol contains and cars consume.

I see this as a problem with the way we compare energy use. High tech gizmos seem like they use a lot of energy to make, but the good old-fashioned internal-combustion-engine uses orders of magnitudes more. In my opinion, a smart phone that allows someone to efficiently use public transport and avoid car transport (without requiring a large-scale re-organisation of suburbia) would be an excellent use of resources, and would hugely decrease our reliance on motorised transport.

With Europe as an example, it is clearly possible to have an excellent public transport system without a fancy mobile phone based setup. However Europe also has population density that Australia
lacks. For Australia to provide public transport service equivalent to Europe's (given our sprawling cities) would be expensive (it either requires replacing housing stock with higher density dwellings, or having lots of public transport routes). Using an idea along the lines of my dynamic route generation plan could let us service our cities more cheaply (in terms of energy and money!).

Some may argue that such a proposal requires a lot more than just a smart phone. Of course, that is true -- a setup like the smartphone network and google maps requires broadcast towers, routers, repeater stations, network infrastructure, GPS satellites, computer server farms, etc. All this infrastructure already exists. It is being used, right now, by many applications. From an environmental viewpoint, it is a sunk cost: the environmental damage is done, I think we may as well get what good we can from it.


  1. Hi Angus,

    No stress about the smart phone argument as I have no dog in that fight - other than I don't want one for other reasons than their practicalities. Hey, the Lithium battery thing is an interesting issue, because I read over at the ADR that we may well have reached or are beyond Peak Lithium - I'm no expert in such matters though. The off grid people swear by them, but I make do with old school Lead-Acid batteries.

    Yeah, it all really depends on where you live in Australia and honestly the train and tram networks are pretty good. I can get to Melbourne by train (130km/h they travel at) faster than a car can and I don't have to worry about where to park the car either. Adelaide may be a bit different on that front. Mind you, most of the original lines were laid out in the 1890's - paid for by the many decades of gold rush - and that is a topic that people don't seem to want to consider.

    We'll have to agree to disagree about GPS - honestly the number of people that get lost traveling here and following the GPS is a truly embarrassing number.



  2. Hi Chris,

    Aboslutely agree about GPS. It's hard to challenge the authority of a computerised navigator! ;-) We generally don't use it for just that reason (and that it's fun & good practice to read maps)

    I have no idea about Lithium peaks. Research needed! ;-) For a stationary application I'd be inclined to use Lead Acid or (as you've previously suggested) Nickel iron. Lithium has better round trip efficiency, and better discharge performance, but it's that old story of hidden externalities again ;-). I'd probably plump for Nickel Iron with a few extra PV panels for an off grid system.

    But first I want to experiment with smart controls on household loads. Our FiT ends next year and I want to be ready with this (before experimenting with storage).

    Cheers, Angus


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