John Penrod wrote an impassioned letter July 3 extolling the virtues of diesel fuel in modern life. It started me thinking about innovation and technology.
The external combustion steam engine came first. Miracle. This little huffing, chuffing, assemblage of cast iron and brass bits replaced myriad horses. Farmers were astounded. Soon steam engines powered everything, including mobile machinery. And every farmer spent hours and hours keeping them running. Maintenance, endless maintenance.
Then gas and diesel motors replaced most of them, including for mobile machinery. Less maintenance, less mess, less dangerous, more compact. In the 1930s, Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Administration brought electricity to farms, and induction electric motors replaced gas ones. Nearly maintenance-free. I’ve got one that is nearly a hundred years old on my big band saw. Runs perfectly.
Unfortunately battery technology did not advance, so the transition to electric cars, trucks, and mobile machinery lagged far behind, partly because of fossil fuel industry opposition.
Now in the 21st century, battery technology is finally catching up. Our 2012 Nissan Leaf is a limited-range urban car. But the 2019 Leaf will go 150–200 miles on a charge; a high-end Tesla goes over 300 miles. Battery costs have declined 80% in eight years.
When a farmer buys a new machine, two questions arise: First, how much? Second, reliability? An electric motor has 10-15 moving parts, a diesel engine 10 times that. Reliability, anyone? In the next 30 years we are going to see stinking, polluting, noisy diesel equipment and trucks replaced by dependable quiet, clean, electric ones, due simply to economics. Tons of motor, transmission, differentials and fuel will be replaced by a maintenance-free electric motor and battery. Elegant!
Corvallis (July 4)
The author has taught sustainability to 16,000 Oregon State University students over the past 20-plus years.