COVID-19 is upending many things in the world. Tourism is dead for now. Planes are traveling empty. Everyone who can is working from home. St. Patrick’s Day was canceled. Even the Coronavirus Conference was cancelled. We’re all being asked to practice ‘social distancing’, and the introverts among us are gloating about having trained for this day.
As this occurs, it’s worth looking at electric cars, renewable electricity, and other electrification scenarios from a fresh perspective, that of disease contagion vectors.
Let’s start with crude oil being turned into gasoline and in turn being pumped into cars. Let’s trace the human interactions necessary for that to occur. At the oil well complex itself, regardless of whether it is conventional or unconventional extraction, humans have to operate equipment. People have to go to a common place to touch in many cases the same things in order for oil extraction to occur. Trucks and pipelines and crude reserves, while having seen a substantial reduction in labor over the past 100 years, still need humans to run them. And humans forced to work together because of a physical constraint like an oil well and a physical energy medium is a vector of potential transmission of disease.
Then the crude oil has to be refined. Refineries require human operators as well, and often significant maintenance cycles. More people touching often the same surfaces, sitting in the same lunch rooms and interacting with the same security systems. More vectors of disease transmission. Yet again, refinery labor per barrel of oil varies around the world, with Brazil’s being much higher than the United States’, for example, yet still people are required.
Then the refined gasoline and diesel has to be shipped. Whether it goes in trucks, ships, or pipelines, more human operators dealing with the physical world, creating more opportunities for transmission of disease.
At the gas station, humans have to pump the gas into the underground storage tanks from the trucks. And then the people with gas or diesel internal combustion cars have to go to a common physical place and touch a lot of physical objects that other people have just touched, things we call gas pumps and nozzles. More vectors.
All to enable a car to be driven to a grocery store or a sporting event or work.
What’s the alternative? Well, wind and solar farms just sit there and work. Neither require anyone on site during the day or night to operate them. They require annual maintenance and occasionally non-annual maintenance. Monitoring is all done remotely, and as it’s electronic via SCADA interfaces, it can be done from home by operators about as easily as it can be done from operations centers. Even if there are operation centers, they are a handful of people in offices, not hundreds on work sites. The vectors of transmission are radically fewer.
And then the electricity generated travels through transmission and distribution grids. No human hands need to turn nozzles, pump electrons, flip switches or anything physical at all in order for electricity to travel from the wind and solar farms to the point of use. Electricity does the moving for us without humans having to lift a finger or touch a common work surface.
Consider the last mile to the car itself. Most electric cars so far are sitting in people’s garages and driveways and parking stalls. A single human being, the owner, touches the plug to start the car charging and the same person unplugs the car. At most, two or three people in a family, all of who are living and breathing in the same home touch that component, not everyone in a 10-mile radius who chooses to gas up at a particular gas station. That’s radically fewer opportunities for disease transmission. Even when we have more common charging, charge points are so cheap that we’ll have a thousand times as many of them as gas pumps, so any charge point will have fewer people touching it.
And then there’s the kicker. Electric cars just don’t need that much servicing compared to normal cars. No visits to muffler shops, brake shops, or oil change shops with their often dubious standards of hygiene. Electric vehicles just don’t require nearly as many people to touch them in a year as internal combustion cars do, as remarkably reliable as the complex beasts have become through iterative improvements.
There are hundreds fewer opportunities for transmission of disease in that renewably powered, electric vehicle world. Clearly, people who already have electric cars are already ahead of the game in terms of avoiding potential vectors of diseases such as COVID-19, but the entire supply chain of energy also features many fewer opportunities for transmission.
Let’s consider another scenario, home climate control. Imagine a home with a gas or oil furnace and a separate air conditioner. First off, that’s two components which have to be serviced, often by different people. That’s two sets of service people who have to enter the home when things go wrong. And furnaces don’t fuel themselves in many cases, but require a delivery truck to show up at the house to fill the tank. In the majority of places, gas furnaces work off of pipes coming into the home. Those pipelines are physical, moving physical masses, and while they are closer to the transmission of electricity in terms of touch points than filling a car with gasoline at a gas station can be, they still require a lot more physical maintenance and operation than electrical wires. The homes with heat pumps, single units that both heat and cool homes, units running off of electricity, reduce the vectors of transmission of disease in society.
Are these changes significant in a world where people choose to get together in sports arenas and stadiums to watch major events? Perhaps not. But in transmission of diseases, every little bit helps. Right now, the people who own electric cars and don’t have to go to gas stations to fill them up are probably pretty pleased with that unexpected benefit.
And in the future, we all will live in that lower touch world, where we have to handle fewer physical objects in common, yet have all the conveniences and comfort we expect. More and more, the transmission and use of energy will be simpler, more straightforward, and with fewer hands touching levers, knobs, and handles. Clean energy really is cleaner in all senses of the word.