Politicians and consumers often grapple with what the best choice is in terms of vehicle purchases. Often this is framed as an “either/or” question: either all gas, hybrid, or all electric. However, if we are looking to lessen the total environmental impact, it’s best to pursue the policy proposed by the U.S. secretary of energy Dr. Ernest Moniz: an all-of-the-above strategy.
Technological advances and efficiency gains
On one hand, as an article on The Energy Collective points out, raising fuel economy standards or increased gas taxes, which lead to increased fuel economy, will have a much larger impact today on oil consumption than electric car sales. Installing turbochargers, having a form of hybrid or mild hybrid with regenerative braking, and implementing buyback programs for the most inefficient cars still on the road will do more to reduce emissions today than electric cars can feasibly do for the next few years.
Coming from a thermodynamics standpoint, the idea of regenerative breaking is quite compelling; this type of system can only be created using a hybrid or fully electric drivetrain. As 95 percent of car trips are 50 miles or less, hybrids like the 2017 Chevy Volt with 53 miles of EV range will capture the vast majority of trips, and leave the gas aspect of travel for situations where gas is more suitable than electric. Further, the total range of the car is 380 miles, meaning very little range anxiety. Electric cars, in the right context of the grid, will allow for greater grid flexibility as renewable penetration increases.
However, some of the disadvantages of electric are diminishing over time. One article points out that a 200 mile car will require an 80kWh battery pack; however, the 2017 Chevy Bolt (as opposed to Chevy Volt) and 2018 Nissan Leaf both will have over 200 miles of range and 60kWh battery packs, which are 25 percent smaller. The Tesla model 3 will have 215 miles of range with a 55kWh battery that is 56 percent smaller.
After it was found that aluminum spaceframes would save on costs of electric cars over steel unibodies, electric cars pushed the nascent of aluminum frames in gasoline cars as well. Now, the 2015 and 2016 Ford F-150 pickups use military-grade aluminum, giving them best-in-class fuel economy. It could be argued that without acceptance in electric cars, the shift to aluminum in gas cars would not have happened.
Another unique advantage of electric cars is their potential synergies with renewables, acting as a storage mechanism. Time of use charging, although a basis to price in this capability, does not capture its whole essence. Distributed energy resources (DERs) can be aggregated to act as standalone players in the grid; saying that we shouldn’t do this because it is too complex is simply capitulation. Whole companies are founded on instantaneous point-of-sale, connecting buyers and suppliers, including higher fares depending on time of use—just look at Uber.
The California Independent System Operator (CASIO), which previously had a minimum to participate in the region’s wholesale power markets at 0.5MW, has now allowed distributed energy resources (DERs) to be bundled together, and received federal approval on 2 June. This means that a neighborhood that has a bundle of solar, home battery storage, or electric cars could use this resource to supply the grid, or collectively buy from the grid at lower rates. Developing smart algorithms for this will be trivial compared to what IBM’s Watson or Google can currently do.
This will enable owners of electric cars to have their vehicles make money for them when the cars aren’t in use, over and above taking advantage of time-of-use pricing for grid challenges such as peak-shaving.
Greening the fuel mix
Alternative fuels are an excellent way of supplementing oil to lower GHG emissions, and a good alternative to capturing that final 5 percent of trips beyond the reach of most modern hybrid cars. Pond biofuels currently uses exhaust gases from the production of cement to run through bio-ponds to create biofuel from algae. These are some of the most cost-effective systems to produce biofuel, and require no arable land. Ultimately, these will help to lower emissions for gas and hybrid powered cars.
For electric cars, a study by shrinkthatfootprint.com is often cited to compare how green electric cars are. This is unfortunate, as the data for this image was collected in 2009 – since then, many countries have greened their grids, including the U.S. and China. Another study from 2011 shows completely different data for China and the U.S.:
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In 2009, Coal power produced twice the power as natural gas in the U.S. at 45 percent and 22 percent respectively; in 2016, natural gas is set to produce 33 percent while coal will come in at 32 percent. The share of renewables has also doubled in the same timeframe. During the same time, China has reduced its electrical grid carbon intensity by over 20 percent. Related: Oil Soars 6 % As Andy Hall Warns Of A “Violent Reversal”
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While the shrinkthatfootprint.com study was ground-breaking when it was first completed, the data is dated enough to be inaccurate today.
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It is good to consider however, how much of a difference the options available for consumers will have. On average in the U.S., your emissions reduce 45 percent for going hybrid, versus another 23 percent for going all-electric (a 58 percent reduction from gasoline). Out of the top nine states making up over 50 percent of the U.S. population in 2015 (California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia and North Carolina), the reduction to all-electric is even greater.
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Fuel costs – the bottom line
From a political standpoint, generally, imported electricity fuels such as natural gas, coal, or nuclear power cost much less per BTU than oil. Further to the point, all forms of “imported electricity” except coal is cleaner than oil. Comparing the market price of oil, which include price spikes, to the cost of production and therefore the price in an ideal market, does not consider unit energy costs across different generation means. Moving further towards electric will reduce imports and wealth transfers farther than the ideal market price of oil, to the differential in the price of fuel per energy unit (BTU or kWh) across different fuel types. Related: 6 Signs The Big Global Switch To Solar Has Already Begun
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Further, for consumers, it’s good to compare the price of a gallon of gasoline or an e-gallon. While numbers of $1.83/gallon for gasoline cars, and $4.83/e-gallon are stated, the price of an e-gallon has changed recently, and is often miscalculated. Energy.gov gives $1.22/e-gallon for 2012, which is closer to how expensive filling up an electric car is; averages for 2016 give $1.18 per e-gallon:
e-gallon ($/gal) = FE * EC * EP
FE = Fuel economy for the average comparable passenger car, miles/gallon (30 mpg for 2016)
EC = Average electricity consumption (kWh/mi) of top 5 U.S. PEVs in (0.30kWh/mi for 2016), and
EP = the average U.S. electricity price, $/kWh (0.13 for 2016)
Not only that, electric cars often get ranges of over 100 miles per e-gallon, while top end hybrid cars have efficiencies of 50 mpg and gasoline vehicles operate in the 30 mpg range. This makes the economic case for electric cars more compelling.
It may be true that electric cars by themselves currently have a very small market penetration, and that increasing fuel efficiency in gas cars, either through technological gains or moving towards hybrid cars, has a greater impact on today’s emissions. Electric cars have value to the electric grid, which will be quantified shortly in California. The cost-benefit of going fully electric is different across different U.S. states, and consumers should use local data to make accurate decisions.
Political goals and influencers such as the green lobby often tout selling more electric cars as a goal in itself. This often is illogical compared to what the laws of thermodynamics and economics dictate what the most efficient way of greening the grid is. There are more efficient ways of achieving goals, politically, thermodynamically, and economically. With these interests considered, avenues can be created to innovatively finance new technologies, and more expediently implement new solutions.
By Matt Slowikowski for Oilprice.com
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