Okay, I am hip to the greening of America and the world. My sister’s boyfriend is one of the world’s experts (he works at Harvard in partnership with NASA measuring gamma rays from satellites) on the long-term effects of global warming. He’s shown me pictures of Harvard Yard under water in the not too distant future. I get that we have a problem. It’s just the way we go about trying to solve it, or even think about it, that is outrageously insane IMO.
Larry David drives a Prius. The fact that his now ex-wife bought it for him and he holds onto it for some sick reason is not my point. He says its because he’s committed to the environment. That’s my point. He drives a Prius to save the planet and at the same time flies private. His jet burns 3,000 pounds of fuel per hour. Let’s see, that’s somewhere around twenty thousand pounds of fuel for each of his trips from LA to NYC (one way).
You get my drift.
Now I understand the instinct to want to get rid of gas powered anything. Plugging in your car just sounds like a much better, a much greener, solution to personal transport. But let’s just dig in a tiny bit to understand the actual impact of switching to the Volt or the Tesla.
No one (and really I mean no one, I have not read about this anywhere in all the hype over the new and wonderful gasless cars promoted by Obama and any number of wonderful entrepreneurs in the U.S. and abroad) is talking about how we generate and transport electricity to these new vehicles.
The majority of the electricity in the United States is produced using coal. While certainly new technologies, like scrubbers, are attempting to improve the situation, coal power plants are responsible for 93 percent of the sulfur dioxide and 80 percent of the nitrogen oxide emissions generated by the electric utility industry. Acid rain, strip mining and all kinds of other environmental disasters are attributable to our dependence on coal.
Perhaps even more important, the electric grid* that moves electricity from our coal powered plants to the outlet which charges your car is horribly antiquated and inefficient. What experts call the power loss due to “friction” in this system is massive. The result is that using fossil fuels directly is far less damaging to the environment than using fossil fuels in some plant miles away and then attempting to transport that power down old power lines to charge a battery in a car.
“The grid today, according to experts, is a system conceived 100 years ago to let utilities prop each other up, reducing blackouts and sharing power in small regions. It resembles a network of streets, avenues and country roads,” according to the NYT.
“We need an interstate transmission superhighway system,” said Suedeen G. Kelly, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Source NPR “Visualizing The U.S. Electric Grid”
Let’s play with some numbers shall we?
A full charge of a plug-in car like a Tesla requires 53-kilowatt hours. As a reference point, I use about 11.9-megawatt hours per year in my home. I drive about 15,000 miles per year, so that means 62 charges, or 3-megawatt hours.
1. Half of all electricity is lost to friction in the grid. This assumption would certainly be hotly debated particularly by the electrical industry whose job it is to produce and transport electricity. If you look on the web you will find numbers as low as single digits and as high as two-thirds. Your actual loss to friction will depend on where you live, what time of day you plug in, how far you live from the power plant, and whether or not there is a bottle-neck in the grid. If you are hoping to use non fossil fuel to charge your car the loss to friction will generally be a lot higher because the distance to the nuclear or hydro or thermal plant or wind farm is greater. From the experts who I have spoken to on the topic, all agree the grid is a 100 years-old and vastly inefficient except the electrical industry who has an economic interest in minimizing the problem.
2. Half of what is left is lost in charging the battery, and then half again lost in the battery discharge. “Battery charging is inherently inefficient because of the heat that’s generated. Fans and cooling systems in the car operate during the process, and they use some more of the electricity that’s coming down the charge cord,” notes Edmunds. Battery technology is improving but batteries by their nature will always be inefficient in terms of how they get charged and the leakage out of the battery over time before it can be used. In order for the whole idea of battery powered vehicles to make any sense you have to use a local and infinite power source (think plugging your car into the wind mill in your back yard). For more on that see Cruise Car below.
3. Which means that almost 90% of the electricty produced by the grid to fuel up my Tesla goes to waste.
The 3-megawatt hours I need is really 30 megawatt hours, which would take the strain on the grid up to 42 megawatt hours per person (4x more). This is awesome because instead of going through 965 million tons of coal for electricity (57% of electricity in the US is generating using coal before counting natural gas, petroleum and other fossil fuels so I am assuming my electricity comes from coal here for simplicity sake)** we’d go through 2.9 billion tons of coal a year an increase of almost 2 billion tons of coal if everyone got one. Of course we wouldn’t use the 72 billion gallons of gas a year, but that’s nothing compared to the new 2 billion tons of coal. By weight we’re just trading 518 million tons of gas for 2 billion tons of coal. That’s 4x more in fossil fuels to run my Tesla and coal burns a lot dirtier than gas.
I realize I am making some assumptions here that are counter to common wisdom. My point is that the car and electrical industries have a vested interest in not considering the scale of the issues I am pointing out. But I could very well be wrong. Let’s just say that I am off by 100% (so a Tesla uses just 2x the fossil fuel) or even 300% (the Tesla uses the same amount of fossil fuel as a regular car), my point remains: if you think driving an electric car because you are contributing to a greener planet you are deluding yourself. We produce the majority of our power using fossil fuel, transport it down an antiquated and massively inefficient grid, to store in a battery that by definition leaks energy on the way in and out. The whole model is completely wrong and not changing anytime soon.
Interestingly Treehunger.com, a green organization that you would think would be pushing for more electric cars not less, came to more or less the same conclusion I did here. “If you want to make an impact on CO2 emissions with your next car purchase, you need to know how the electricity in your region is generated before making your choice.”
Autoblogreen makes the additional point that, “The battery-powered cars are much more energy intensive to build than gas or hybrid cars, based mostly on the cost of producing the batteries themselves.” And of course the end of life disposal of batteries is a far more toxic issue than breaking down a combustion engine.
One possible solution has been developed by a company called Cruise Car in Sarasota, Florida. Like plugging your car into the wind mill in your backyard, Cruise Cars have developed technology which includes strapping a solar panel to the roof of a glamorized golf cart that quite literally never have to be plugged in (with limitations on range). I am not sure I’m going to take a Cruise Car out on the freeway anytime soon nor would they be ideal in mid-winter here in Boston but at least they are a step in the right direction by getting completely off the grid and away from fossil fuel completely.
But at the moment big auto isn’t thinking about local power as the solution to transportation, just continuing to plug into a the existing utility infrastructure.Like Larry David we are all just fooling ourselves when it comes to current electric cars. They suck. And it’s outrageous. I’m sticking with my gas-powered Volvo sedan. Or maybe I’ll get a cruise car and take it out on the freeway to get in the way of all those gas-guzzling Teslas, Volts, and Priuses.
* It is hard to find anyone who has anything very complimentary to say about the US grid. When Bill Richardson was energy secretary he called the grid a third-world grid.
The Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, prepared by the American Society of Civil Engineers, gives the US Electric Grid a rating of D. Its summary says the following:
The U.S. power transmission system is in urgent need of modernization. Growth in electricity demand and investment in new power plants has not been matched by investment in new transmission facilities. Maintenance expenditures have decreased 1% per year since 1992. Existing transmission facilities were not designed for the current level of demand, resulting in an increased number of “bottlenecks,” which increase costs to consumers and elevate the risk of blackouts.
An article from EnergyBiz by Edwin D. Hill, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, says:
The average age of power transformers in service is 40 years, which also happens to be the average lifespan of this equipment. Combine the crying need for maintenance with a shrinking workforce, and we may find that the 2005 blackout that affected parts of Canada and the northeastern United States might have been a dress rehearsal for what’s to come. Deregulation and restructuring of the industry created downward pressure on recruitment, training and maintenance, and the bill is now coming due.
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) chairman Joseph Kelliher is quoted as saying:
The U.S. transmission system has suffered from underinvestment for a sustained period. In 2005, the expansion of the interstate transmission grid in terms of circuit miles was only 0.5 percent. At the same time, congestion has been rising steadily since 1998. Transmission underinvestment is a national problem. We need a national solution. Pricing reform is an important part of the solution to this problem.
** 57% of U.S. electricity is produced by coal powered plants. Natural Gas, Patroleum, and other fossil fuels make of a meaningful percentage of the rest along with Nuclear, Hydro, and Wind/Solar. I am assuming all coal here for simplicity sake.