Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

When this baby hits 88 MPH…

The title of this post is, of course, stolen from one of my favorite lines from the Back to the Future movies, when Doc Brown tells Marty, “If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits 88 miles per hour… you’re gonna see some serious shit.” That quote serves quite nicely as a colorful, if not very precise, reminder of how tipping points can take over a situation, even when we (think we) see the “paradigm shift”[1] coming. But in this case I’m not talking about the usual climate tipping point, as in we emit enough greenhouse gases to cause enough warming to trigger the mother of all feedbacks in the form of Arctic methane and CO2 or species extinctions or whatever keystone event you choose to obsess about.

No, I’m talking about a few technological tipping points we’re creeping up on very quickly that could have some pretty wicked impacts even as they deliver some much needed benefits.

First is the adoption of PEV (plug-in electric vehicles, meaning both 100% battery electric vehicles, BEVs, like my Leaf, as well as plug-in hybrids, PHEVs, like the Volt). Currently these vehicles are selling pretty well, considering all the misinformation and misunderstanding about them among mainstream consumers. But they’re not yet taking the market by storm. So what’s keeping Leafs and Volts out of nearly every driveway in the average American neighborhood that has readily available plugs? The price of batteries, of course. We’ve seen some outstanding reductions in battery prices, including 40% in two years, but they’re still too expensive to let Nissan sell a Leaf 2.0 that gets 200 miles/charge for $20,000, pre-tax kickback, just to cite a fabricated but interesting price/performance point. I fully expect that the next Leaf iteration will increase the battery range (to 125, maybe 150 miles) and drop the price of the entry level S model to right around $25,000. That, combined with similar moves by other companies (like the big price drop on the Volt recently announced) and the ongoing education of the American consumer that modern EVs are “real cars”, a blast to drive, and much cheaper to fuel and maintain, should really kick up sales.

It won’t be too long before the mindset of many American consumers changes dramatically, and people look at gasoline-powered cars as antique technology that was noisy, smelly, and expensive, and not nearly as desirable as PEVs. And that’s great news, of course. Much lower emissions, especially as we continue to clean up our electricity supply, less money sent out of the US to buy oil, less incentive for drilling and refining and transporting oil, which all have their own environmental impacts, etc. But we are getting very close to that tipping point, which begs the question: Are gasoline vehicles in the “depreciation shadow” of PEVs already? The average age of a car on US roads is at an all-time high of 11.4 years. Do you think we’ll hit the PEV tipping point before another 11 years passes? I certainly do, and I would be shocked (no pun intended) if it took more than five years.[2]

What happens to all those gasoline vehicles then, after they experience precipitous depreciation? Surely there will be buyers for them, just there’s always a buyer for any house — at the right, which is to say lower, price. Could we be on the brink of seeing another manifestation of the stranded assets syndrome[3], this time among the rolling stock of US vehicles?

Second is electricity utilities, and all the talk lately of them possibly falling into a solar-powered “death spiral”. This trend is as easy to comprehend as the one triggered by ever more affordable PEVs: Renewables, particularly distributed, consumer-sited solar PV, keep getting cheaper in both absolute terms and, more importantly, relative to fossil fuel generation, even before we find the political gumption and plain old common sense to put a price on carbon emissions. Price declines, adoption rates increase, utilities are suddenly facing ferocious competition from customers who often dislike them as much as we dislike oil companies, HMOs, and neighbors who let their dogs “visit” our front yards. As more people install PV panels, the revenue stream dwindles for the utilities, but they still have to pay their huge fixed costs, so they seek rate increases, which only further incentivizes customers to dash into the open arms of solar power. And again, that’s before we put even a modest price on carbon emissions, which will only make things worse for most utilities, particularly those heavily dependent on coal-fired generation.[4] Of course, the last thing the nuclear industry needs right now, with the unfolding PR nightmare of Fukushima back in the news and ongoing economic challenges, is new competition.

Sounds like good news on the utility front, in terms of climate change, right? Whatever the specific path we take, it leads to cleaner, possibly much cleaner, electricity generation. And by “cleaner” I mean lower CO2 emissions, less pollution from acid-rain causing aerosols, and less environmental impact from extracting, processing, and transporting, immense amounts of fossil fuels for decades.

None of this is to say that we’re out of the woods. If anything, I would say that we’re so far behind in taking meaningful action to reduce our emissions that continuing to put Adam Smith in the driver’s seat[5] is a colossal mistake, even when doing so triggers changes in the right overall direction. Making the right changes but in unnecessarily destructive and costly ways can be very nearly as bad as not making them at all, and is often far inferior to making them in a planned, intelligent way, even if that includes a few bureaucratic screwups.

[1] As many people have pointed out, when someone uses the term paradigm shift to describe something that’s happened it’s usually an accidental confession that the speaker overlooked some pretty obvious signs that said serious shift was afoot.

[2] I think we’re about to see PEVs mimic one of the oldest trends in computer software, of all things: Version 3.0 is when the producing company really gets it right. Version 1.0 is a bucket of blatant guesses, version 2.0 is bug fixes and correcting some/most of the blatant guesses from 1.0 that they got wrong, and 3.0 is when they get to do a major release without a big backlog of work caused by errors and misjudgments, and with the benefit of knowing their user base. In other words, 3.0 is when at least some products hit 88 MPH.

[3] Think of all the talk about how we have to leave at least 80% of the fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we’re to have any chance of avoiding a 2C temperature rise, and what that implies for the fossil fuel companies. Is it any wonder that cornered rats fight like, well, cornered rats?

[4] This creates a fascinating, if slightly unnerving dynamic: The combination of cheap solar plus a price on carbon will have some utilities scrambling to cut emissions or face an economic catastrophe.

[5] Yes, it’s an oblique reference to the Sir Isaac Newton line from Apollo 13. Thank you for paying attention.

See also

Al Gore explains why he’s optimistic about stopping global warming

3 comments to When this baby hits 88 MPH…

  • Lewis Cleverdon

    Lou – some critical factors not discussed in the above are worth considering. An article in Yale Environment 360:

    “Why Pushing Alternate Fuels Makes for Bad Public Policy” by Prof. John Decicco
    (research professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute and professor of practice at the School of Natural Resources and Environment. He was senior fellow for automotive strategies at the Environmental Defense Fund from 2001 to 2009 and transportation director at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy from 1990 to 2000. The author of three books, he pioneered U.S. green car ratings as the author of ACEEE’s Green Book and, most recently,

    makes interesting reading, and can be seen at:



  • disdaniel

    “Second is electricity utilities, and all the talk lately of them possibly falling into a solar-powered “death spiral”. ”

    Just for the record, utilities could be the ones installing the solar…
    …no death, no spiral…