This post is not political, but every time discussion of energy starts it seems that it goes there. This is straight science and economics and hopefully some will find it useful.
It seems that about every 5 minutes I come across some story or post exclaiming that in a few short years, all traditional cars will be banned and we all be driving electric, possibly self-driving vehicles. The timeframe ranges from “soon,” 5 years, or 10 years. This is presented as inevitable.
First, most reporters/journalists are very light on scientific knowledge. Considering they profess to be lovers of science they sure don’t seem to understand it very well. The debate about whether shifting over to an all-electric US will actually reduce energy usage or reduce greenhouse gas emissions is fraught with so many variables that a full airing is too long for a posting here.
But the next time someone starts telling you that all cars, including our vintage ones, will be banned from the road “soon,” have them consider just these two things:
First, there are currently over 255 million registered vehicles in the US. About 3 million are heavy haulers (no one has a clue what to do with these in an all-electric US) and several million more are commercial medium and light haulage. Electric cars are currently less than 1 million. So let’s assume about 200 million passenger vehicles. (These figures are from NHTSA, DOT, etc.)
The government cannot just ban these vehicles. That would be considered a taking and the lawsuits would last for 20 years. So the owners would have to be paid the value of the vehicle for making it worthless. The current average for used vehicle sales is $20k, so let’s assume enough of the 200 million are junkers to lower it to $15k. 200 million times $15k is….$3 trillion dollars. That’s trillion with a “T.” The entire US yearly budget is $3.8 trillion. Obviously this would have to be done slowly over a decade or two, and with the likely big increases in healthcare costs on the horizon the better answer might be “never.”
Second, the US consumes 140 billion gallons of gasoline per year according to the EIA. The equivalent energy minus increased efficiencies will be dumped onto the grid. Can it handle it? Getting to the bottom of this actually required some digging to get to an apples to apples comparison to get to this answer. Since we are looking at the energy delta on the grid and not total energy consumed, we can ignore the energy required to produce that gasoline. Likewise we can ignore inefficiencies in power generation (but not transmission) since we are looking at generating capacity, or total output.
In looking at automobile efficiency the total chain must be looked at, from engine thru transmission and other rolling losses. The best figure I could find is an efficiency of about 0.21 with the fleet mpg of about 25 mpg. Electric vehicles also have to take into account losses in charging and battery losses due to internal resistance, as well as gains from regenerative braking. Even though we hear about efficiencies of 90%, that is for the motor only. Going from plug to wheels it is about 0.68, best case.
To use apples to apples kWh will be used as the unit of energy. Knowing that a gallon of gas contains about 34 kWh, so turning the crank, 140 billion gallons * 34 kWh/gal * (0.21/0.68) = 1.5 trillion kWh…again with a “T.” Considering that the current total US grid consumption is 4 trillion kWh according to the EIA it can be seen that the grid will have to be upgraded at considerable cost to handle the 35% additional required kWh. And this doesn’t even consider the diesel fuel required for commercial vehicles. Also keep in mind that currently only about 8% of electricity produced is from wind and solar. So to support this extra energy it will require quite a few traditional electric plants to take up the slack.
And what will the cost be? Again, going back to the EIA, the cost of constructing the plants alone will be at least $300 billion, and then the cost of adding new transmission lines and distribution will have to be added in as well. In the end the cost may well be close to $1 trillion, especially since absolutely no one wants a power plant built in their backyard and the lawsuits will drag it out and increase the cost.
So next time someone starts blathering that your vintage car will soon be an undriveable museum piece remind them of these things and ask: where is the money going to come from?