Amazing things can happen when we have to go beyond the status quo

July 26, 2017
Paul Studebaker looks toward the future to evolving technologies, evolved thinking, and the impacts of climate change

My family has several older cars built before 1994, when automakers switched the refrigerant in air conditioning (A/C) systems to R-134a because Freon R-12 is among the chlorofluorocarbons banned by the 1989 Montreal Protocol to prevent further damage to Earth’s ozone layer. Earlier cars can be retrofitted to use R-134a, but R-12 is readily available and my R-12 cars have remained R-12.

But this year, when I asked about service for a recently-acquired 1963 Studebaker Avanti, my local shop told me it no longer recharges R-12 systems. The Avanti sat for 20 years and the A/C was completely empty. I have the certification to buy R-12 and the equipment to evacuate, leak-test and charge systems, so I can properly fill it with R-12. But at about $3 per ounce and 48 ounces to fill an Avanti, R-12 is expensive. If the system then doesn’t work properly, I have to pay the shop to remove and recycle it, so I can make repairs, and then buy more. So, I searched the web to review the conversion options.

Googling “Studebaker R-134a conversion” gives you a trip back through time to the birth of Internet forums and the mindsets of mid-1990s owners and mechanics who were not at all happy about being enlisted to help save the environment. Comments range from rants about how “heavy” R-12 molecules can’t possibly reach the ozone layer and pseudoscientific rebuttals to the chemistry of ozone depletion to “I just use propane, don’t smoke, and plan to avoid accidents.”

Despite widespread grousing and some folks' willingness to screw the EPA, the law and their cars, the Montreal Protocol was an apparent success: the hole in the ozone layer is shrinking and automotive A/C systems work better than ever.

I’d argue that we see a similar effect for emissions regulations that led to fuel injection; fuel efficiency requirements that are spurring lighter designs, turbocharging and direct injection; and greenhouse gas concerns that are pushing us away from fossil fuels and toward electric vehicles. Say what you will about the soundness, importance and morality of the reasons, the simple fact that we stop doing what we’re used to doing and have to look for a better way lets us apply new knowledge, materials and methods that often lead to very significant improvements.

And opportunities for those ready to seize them. You may not love Elon Musk any more than you love Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Gates or Jobs, but you have to appreciate the range and scale of their aspirations and accomplishments.

For example, Musk recently vowed to build a 100 MW, 129 MWh lithium ion battery-based power storage facility in South Australia within 100 days of signing the contract, adding that if his company, Tesla, fails to meet the deadline, the facility would be free of charge (that’s not a pun).

On July 7, South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill announced that a deal had been struck. Tesla’s megabattery will be paired with the Hornsdale Wind Farm, which is being built near Jamestown in the state’s mid-north region. The launch date is expected to be in December this year.

The facility will be made up of thousands of Tesla car batteries packed into hundreds of refrigerator-sized units spread across a field. Combined, they will be able to power 30,000 homes. Musk says it will cost him $50 million or more if he can't install it within the 100-day agreement

Many other locations have been identified around the world where grid-scale battery storage is needed to stabilize renewable energy.

In its day, an Avanti cost more than twice as much as an ordinary car. Its high-compression 289 cubic-inch V-8 with its hot cam and Carter AFB four-barrel carburetor was rated at 289 hp, and would push its 3,200-pound curb weight from zero to 60 in about 9.5 seconds. Today, the Tesla Model S targets a similar market and clocks 0-60 in as little as 2.3 seconds, which is faster than the fastest fossil-fueled production Porsche.

That’s progress.

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