If peak oil had occurred rather suddenly in 1959 instead of 2010 how would the US and the world have responded differently? Please forgive me if I do not get too excited about the Iphone 5 or 4S or whatever the latest consumer gadget is called. Steve Jobs may be a visionary but he is no Tom Edison or Samuel Insull. How would America at the dawn of the nuclear age have responded to an energy crisis? Perhaps by building the new grid. Electrical distribution at 60 Hz. in the USA, or 50 Hz. as in Europe has many advantages. The fact that most people can’t hear the 60 Hz. hum is a big advantage. Low frequencies also minimize reactive effects and make line drop compensation much simpler, but it is not written in stone that we must distribute electrical power at 60Hz. We have inherited the old grid and it is past time to consider designing the new grid as if we were bright young engineers in 1959. Nikola Tesla was interested in wireless electrical power distribution at higher frequencies a long time ago. Mr. Tesla may have built his great tower primarily to impress investors but his ideas hold merit even today in 1959. After all electrical power has been beamed from space satellites using gigahertz. frequencies (microwave), but we are only interested in transmitting power a mere 12 inches without wires.

Please google PRIMOVE (a technology from Bombardier)

By using an electrical distribution grid at around only 1200 Hz it is possible to wirelessly couple electrical power to trains, cars, buses, etc. The technology has existed for quite a while. The new grid would consist of conductors buried just below the surface of every public road built or repaired. The street that you live on is now your powerline and the electrical power to your house now comes from the conductors under your street. Perhaps your house is DC powered to avoid the 1200 Hz. hum, etc. The exciting part is that the new grid makes the great battery problem go away. Many mainstream media articles about electric cars such as the Chevy Volt extoll their virtues but ignore the great battery problem. We do not have a battery technology that comes any where close to making electric cars a reality. (A subject for another post) In 1962 after the new grid is built and and hundreds of MW of new nuclear power plants come on line this will not be a problem. Your new 1962 model auto will only run on battery long enough to pull out of the driveway and merge onto the street. Once on the public thoroughfare your car will start taking power from the secondary coil buried in the base of the car and provided by the new grid conductor buried in the street. A meter in your new car will automatically calculate your power usage as you drive along and a bill will be sent to you from the public utility at the end of the month. Your car is a true hybrid in the sense that it has a backup gasoline engine for when you venture onto gravel roads, and your battery provides short range power. Most of the time you will be powered wirelessly by the new grid.

The other great thing about the new grid that appears in 1960 is that it saves the streetcars. Most of the people who read this are not old enough to remember streetcars, but they were a clean and popular means of transit until the 1950’s when General Motors conspired with politicians to end the streetcar era in favor of diesel buses. The new grid under all the streets enables the streetcars to run anywhere without having caternaries or other conductors touching. Hell! the streetcars don’t even need tracks anymore in 1960! (Google PRIMOVE!)

I have an odd hobby of studying old maps. One fact that always jumps out when looking at a map of the 1940’s or 1950’s vs. today is that railroads went everywhere. The amount of abandoned railroad right of way in the state of Illinois alone is just amazing. Cheap oil and cars made that possible for our world, but in our imaginary world of 1959 much of that railroad infrastructure is still in use and is easily electrified to use the new grid. Trains now run on the tracks without wires touching. The early 1960’s are an era of incredible progress and the dawn of the electrical age.

I recently (2010) worked at a new electrical plants built at coal mines in Virginia, Illinois, and Wyoming. It is much more efficient to move electricity on high voltage transmission lines from the coal mine to the city than it is to build power plants at cities and move the coal. (coal is heavy and bulky) Our society was slow to embrace electrical power fully. Part of the reason for the lack of vision is that people just don’t think about alternatives. Coal had to be shipped to cities in 1910 to provide steam for heat. As long as coal was shipped all over the country anyway it made sense to build power plants near cities. We are living in 2011 with coal and steam age thinking. We had the technology in 1959 to build the new grid and embrace an electrical age, but cheap oil made it unnecessary. We have technology available today that is better than a 1959 engineer could dream of, but we lack the courage to use it. IGBTs and semiconductors make power conversion simple, and our computers make grid management easy.

Any of you who are still reading and have not fallen asleep are probably thinking–new grid is not an energy source and we are still running out of oil. TRUE! But… We have sources of energy from coal, wind, solar, and especially nuclear power. What we do not have without the new grid is an easy and scalable way to use energy for transportation. The new grid at 1000 to 1200 Hz. makes it possible to use electricity to power cars, trains, and buses without ever plugging them in.

For the few who are still reading and wonder how this is possible the answer is mutual inductance. Any electrical current creates a magnetic field around the conductor. If another closed loop of conductor is placed in a time varying magnetic field created by a different conductor an electric current will also flow in the second conductor as it is induced by the magnetic field that they are both sharing. This principal is used in power transformers to couple power from powerlines at 13,800 Volts down to 240 Volts for your house. The two coils in a power transformer are very close together and are wound on a laminated core. Only an oil soaked paper insulator separates them. The antenna coil in your AM radio is also a transformer secondary that is coupled via a shared magnetic field to a transmitter hundreds of miles away.

Your 1962 car works as follows: Electrical current is induced from conductors in the street under your car to a coil in the bottom of your car. The power is rectified to DC and used to charge the car’s battery. The same DC power is used to drive a variable frequency inverter that powers electric motors that spin the wheels. A backup gasoline engine drives a generator that also provides DC power to charge batteries and/or power the inverter a needed. What I have just crudely described is Toyota Prius with one added feature–the ability to take power through mutual induction from buried conductors. The other thing to bear in mind is that the Prius would have been so obsolete by 1968 that it would never be built as a gas/electric only hybrid anyway.

When we consider what could be done with 1959 technology ad then realize how much of our wealth has been wasted on financial shenanigans and consumer gadgetry it is truly shameful. We live in 2011 and face the reality of peak oil soon. We do not have nuclear fusion, scalable earth bound solar power, or nearly enough wind. We are up a creek…. maybe. We still have nuclear fission from thorium, breeder reactors, and what is left of our uranium. We have a decent amount of coal and natural gas if we quit wasting it, and there is still oil albeit increasing in scarcity. We do not need pie in the sky breakthroughs. We do need to build a new grid while there is time. Space based solar power satellites may be the ultimate solution a decade from now, but we need the new grid first so that we can use the electrical energy provided. Many thanks to all three of you who read this whole thing. Let me know what you think. Btw. Steve Jobs may be every bit as visionary as Edison, but he was probably also smart enough to know that consumer gadgets make money. Finding a way to power America’s farmers without diesel fuel is not as profitable as the Iphone.

Update:  Steve Jobs died the day afer I posted the above.  None of what I wrote should be interpreted as a crticism of Steve.  Instead we should question a society that uses its brightest and most creative people to make consumer products.  Jobs was an inspiration to many–the personal computer, and all that led to the internet started in his garage.  He is missed.  Godspeed Steve.