Electric Company

Gen. Wesley Clark and Roger Kemp argue that a new superbattery isn't enough to make the electric car viable.

In the military, we had a saying: It's OK to take a risk, but not a gamble. In other words, never undertake an effort if its failure would doom your mission. In his article, Steve LeVine does an excellent job highlighting the wild gamble that the United States is taking on electric cars ("The Great Battery Race," November 2010).

The United States currently spends $300 billion per year importing oil. Acting as though electric batteries can spur a new industry, save our economy, and single-handedly create the millions of new jobs we need is worse than a gamble -- it's simple foolishness. It's the type of utopian dreaming that has delivered 40 years of ever increasing dependence on imported oil alongside periodic promises to achieve "energy independence."

Every study I've seen -- and LeVine agrees -- has shown that even if you're hugely optimistic about the prospect for technological improvement, the United States will still need to import between $300 billion and $900 billion of oil between now and 2030. And if we keep sending that kind of money abroad, we're unlikely ever to create the economic growth needed to re-employ America.

Our future rests with energy innovation, but to make up for 40 years of failed policy, we need everything in our tool kit: not just electric cars, but more oil exploration, compressed natural gas, gas-to-liquid and coal-to-liquid conversions, and, increasingly, biofuels. The nearest-term fix is ethanol, and we should invest more in the infrastructure needed to make it work.

Achieving fuel self-sufficiency is vital to our future, and it can be done -- but only by using all our technologies.

Gen. Wesley Clark (ret.)
Little Rock, Ark.

Steve LeVine's article provides an inspired discussion of the political challenge and environmental importance of finding a substitute for gasoline. But LeVine neglects to mention that low-cost, high-energy-density batteries aren't the only thing preventing electric automobiles from becoming, in his words, the world's "great green hope."

Even if we had a superbattery, we wouldn't know how to effectively charge it. The standard North American electrical outlet supplies 1.8 kilowatts: Recharging the equivalent of 15 gallons of gas at that rate would take four days.

Advocates of electric cars suggest specially designed fast charging stations would be the solution. But that overlooks the sheer power requirements. The parking lots at New York's Yankee Stadium hold 8,000 cars. For half of those to recharge fully while the owners watch a game, the parking lots would need 400 megawatts of power -- the full output of 150 maximally sized wind turbines.

Finally, LeVine focuses on the challenges of increasing batteries' energy density, but it's more important to find a way to reduce their cost if they are ever to succeed at entering the mainstream. Relying on a future superbattery is high-risk. A surer option is to go for a smaller battery, perhaps 10 to 20 kilowatt-hours, in a plug-in hybrid that uses grid electricity for day-to-day commuting, recharged at night from cheap off-peak electricity, and biodiesel or ethanol for longer trips.

Roger Kemp
Fellow, Engineering Department, Lancaster University
Lancaster, Britain

Steve LeVine replies:

The countries involved in the great battery race -- most of the world's industrialized countries in addition to several currently categorized as developing -- know they are engaged in a monumental endeavor. There are the laws of physics, which limit their ability to squeeze more power from the lithium-ion battery, as well as reduce its price. There is also the problem raised by Roger Kemp: How will all these batteries get recharged?

Yet, those theoretical challenges aside, scientists agree that the first order of business is the basic battery work. They are trying to make batteries lighter and ultimately remove the expensive metals that drive up the cost. Kemp argues for an engineering approach -- grouping together small batteries (the Tesla Motors approach, too), not getting overly clever about the recharging question (relying on ordinary home sockets), and meanwhile going hybrid with biodiesel or ethanol. All in all, these are sensible suggestions. But it's easy as well to grasp why Argonne National Laboratory and IBM are pushing for lithium air, which could compete side by side with gasoline in terms of cost and efficiency, even if it takes some 15 or 20 years before there is a version ready for commercial markets.

It's a given that none of these proposals is a sure thing. The United States, China, Japan, South Korea, and a dozen others have piled in, but there is no safety in numbers -- ultimately, everyone might fail. But does that mean no one should have entered the race to begin with? Gen. Wesley Clark lists the right options: The wisest strategy is probably to continue working on biofuels, oil drilling, natural gas, and so on, while also trying to crack the battery conundrum.


Old Money

Global aging isn't the problem, says Jack Goldstone -- it's lack of opportunity.

Phillip Longman points out some vitally important trends in the demography of rich countries ("Think Again: Global Aging," November 2010). But he overstates the case in the developing world, thus obscuring possible solutions to the problems of rich-world aging. While some developing countries will soon be aging too, notably China, others retain vast reservoirs of youth eager for education and jobs.

In many countries -- the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda -- almost half the population is under age 15. In other fast-growing countries -- Bangladesh, Bolivia, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Africa -- nearly one-third is 14 or younger. Indeed, while the more developed countries have about 159 million people between ages 15 and 24, the less developed regions have more than 1 billion such youths, and another 1.7 billion below age 14. The world as a whole has no shortage of young people. The real problem the world faces today isn't aging -- it's that almost 90 percent of the world's youth is growing up in countries that can't offer education, access to capital, physical security, or good governance.

It is one thing to note the inevitable graying of rich countries. It is another thing to overlook the opportunities and risks surrounding the world's vast youth population. The only way to avoid the worst of both worlds is for aging rich countries to share their skills and capital with young developing ones.

Jack A. Goldstone
Professor of Public Policy, George Mason University
Arlington, Va.

Phillip Longman replies:

Jack Goldstone is correct in saying that less developed countries have most of the world's remaining supply of youth. But they also face very high infant- and child-mortality rates. For example, the average woman in Sierra Leone needs to have more than three children to ensure that just two will survive to adulthood. This, combined with rapidly falling birth rates and somewhat better survival rates for older citizens, is causing less developed countries to experience the most rapid pace of population aging ever seen, as well as the largest increases in the absolute and proportionate numbers of old people.

According to U.N. projections, the median age in less developed countries (excluding rapidly aging China) will increase by nearly 11 years by 2050. In contrast, developed countries saw their median age increase a mere 5.5 years between 1950 and 1990 and are expected by the United Nations to see a rise of only about six years by midcentury.

Similarly, the coming population explosion among seniors will be far bigger in poor countries than rich ones. Again excluding China, less developed countries will see the number of people age 60 or over increase by 826 million by the middle of this century. This is more than five times the projected increase for developed countries, where the ranks of the 60-plus population will grow by only 147 million. Thus, those countries with the least wealth and the weakest social-welfare nets face the overwhelming burden of global aging. Needless to say, I agree that we should do all in our power to help these young people.