First things first: electric vehicles are greener than conventional gas- and diesel-powered internal combustion engines no matter how you slice it. Even if 100 percent of your EV’s energy comes from dirty, emissions-heavy coal-fired power, your electric car will still have a significantly smaller carbon footprint than a gasoline-consuming equivalent. That being said, the coming EV revolution raises some extremely important questions about skyrocketing energy demand and consumption and its associated ecological impact--questions that need to be addressed with some urgency. The world is switching over to EVs at a breakneck pace that’s only going to continue to speed up as more countries adopt EV-friendly policies, ramp up charging infrastructure, and the EV sector continues to see technological improvements that make their vehicles more attractive and more affordable for the public. In the UK, policy-makers are pushing to ban new gas-powered vehicles by just 2030. In the U.S., President Joe Biden is on an EV-spending spree that could boost the country’s EV fleet by 40 percent. And Tesla is trying to take over the entire world.
For utilities and other bodies in charge of grid and energy infrastructure, this means that the race is on to improve and adapt current infrastructure to meet with coming demand. In order to make the EV transition smooth and as eco-friendly as possible, it’s imperative that we not only continue to improve our grid capabilities and capacities but that the expansion of renewable energy keeps pace with increasing energy demand.
The key to powering a countrywide EV fleet without overwhelming power grids and eating up more energy than ever before lies in energy efficiency. While the topic is decidedly un-sexy and seems trivial compared to other, flashier components of the global energy transition and the battle against climate change, energy efficiency is a monumentally important piece of the puzzle. “Using energy more efficiently accounts for the largest share — nearly 40% — of the reductions in heat-trapping emissions needed to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement,” Axios reported in October. And while EVs are huge energy guzzlers, they are much, much more energy-efficient than combustion engines--up to 5 to 6 times more energy-efficient. But the energy that powers them needs to become more efficient as well for this to work.
In our current energy landscape, where 97 percent of power is generated through a thermal system (“one where we mostly burn stuff or split atoms”) nearly two-thirds of the energy created is lost as wasted heat thanks to the second law of thermodynamics. By comparison, while wind and solar lose a small amount of energy in transmission, the vast majority of the energy created is actually used.
“So here’s a thought experiment,” a Bloomberg article posited this week. “What if the entire U.S. light-duty vehicle fleet (currently about 270 million cars and trucks) were electrified by 2030 and we expanded wind and solar generation at a rapid pace while eliminating coal power, at the same time?” The answer? Not only will U.S. carbon emissions be slashed by nearly 30 percent, but our entire system also gets a huge energy efficiency boost.
Related: Will U.S. Shale Finally Reward Shareholders?
If current predictions for solar and wind growth hold true (with solar rising 20 percent and wind 10 percent by 2030) and coal is eliminated in the same time frame (which is not a far-fetched idea), with natural gas filling in the gaps, “despite the electrification of light-duty vehicles, inputs to the grid actually fall slightly” writes Bloomberg. “The replacement of coal-fired power by more efficient gas turbines and the rapid expansion of non-thermal renewable power means useful electrical energy rises by more than a third anyway.”
If nothing else, these hopeful figures are a good reminder that when it comes to a world-ending hyper-threat the size and breadth of global warming, there is no silver bullet solution. The answer to saving ourselves and saving our planet lies in incremental (but urgent) change across sectors. All these little improvements really add up, and they are all essential. EVs in and of themselves can only go so far without better, cleaner, more efficient power production. And Leaf-driving consumers can only do so much without the help of the government and the private sector. We all have a part to play, and we can all play our part.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
More Top Reads From Oilprice.com:
- Was Saudi Arabia's Surprise Production Cut A Good Idea?
- Goldman Bullish On Oil As It Eyes Major Relief Package
- Can Shale Resist The Lure Of Another Output Surge?
I hope everyone involved in this movement experiences a cold winter where the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow enough. Especially those passing legislation.
The truth of the matter is we cannot go all green right now or for long into the foreseeable future, not unless we want to impoverish a large part of the developed world.
There are currently 1.5 billion internal combustion engines (ICEs) on the roads globally of which only an estimated 4-5 million EVs or 0.27%-0.33% are EVs. In 2018 total registered cars of all types on the roads in the United States amounted to 273.6 million while EVs amounted to 543,610 or a miniscule 0.2% and this with heavy government subsidies. Even replacing the entire federal fleet of ICEs estimated at 690.000 vehicles with EVs will raise the total number of EVs in the United States to 1,233,610 or another miniscule 0.45%. In the UK where policy-makers are pushing to ban new ICEs by 2030, there are only around 100,000 EVs out of a total car fleet of 31 million or 0.32%.
Still, three major hurdles will continue to limit the take-off of EVs well into the future.
The first is the need for trillions of dollars of investment to expand global electricity generation capacity in order to accommodate the extra electricity needed to recharge the millions of EVs that are supposed to be on the roads by 2040. How could such expansion be sourced: nuclear, hydrocarbons or solar?
The second hurdle is the hundreds of billions of dollars of investments needed to build a global network of charging points.
A third is the realization that oil is irreplaceable now or ever. And whilst EVs are benefiting from evolving technologies, ICEs are equally benefiting from the evolving motor technology. As a result, ICEs are not only getting more environmentally-friendly but they are also able to outperform EVs in range, price, reliability and efficiency.
Furthermore, the unforeseen shortcomings of generating electricity from solar and wind have been highlighted so many times. Yet environmental activists, hydrocarbon asset divestment campaigners, some investment banks, vested interests and some renewable-oriented analysts chose to bury their heads in the sand.
The facts speak for themselves.
1-An imminent global energy transition is an illusion.
2-Natural gas is the quintessential pivot for any energy transition.
3-Even a gradual energy transition can’t succeed without huge contributions from natural gas
and nuclear power because of the intermittency of solar and wind generation. Germany is a
case in point.
EVs are going to face an uphill battle against ICEs. And while they are bound to get a share of the global transport system, they will never prevail over ICEs. As a result, ICEs will continue to be the dominant means of transport throughout the21st century and far beyond.
Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
International Oil Economist
Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London