The Electric Lie

Ride with me on this one; I’m kind of all over the place.

I read an article today that was the rebuttal to another article and both managed to miss the point entirely. I will summarize here, to save you the trouble of wading through tiresome posturing.

The seminal article was all about how the ‘drudges’ at the oil companies are the ones ensuring America’s energy future, while media darlings like Shai Agassi get magazine covers but don’t actually change anything. Mr. Agassi wrote the rebuttal, saying that his efforts to make electric cars practical were gaining traction, and were entirely relevant.

The only problem is, the two sides in this ‘debate’ have pretty much nothing to do with each other. Making all our cars electric will not solve our energy issues. The electricity has to come from somewhere.

I’ll give you that a massive power plant will produce more kWh per ton of carbon than an automobile engine. If that were the only part of the equation then we’d all be driving electric already. It would be the cheapest way to get around. Even today if everyone had to pay to mitigate the carbon put into the atmosphere for their activities electric might be ubiquitous, but I’m not so sure. There are other inefficiencies we have to take into account.

For instance: transmission costs. Even if the power plant is more efficient than a car engine, every mile of power line the electricity traverses represents loss. I once read (so it may or may not be true) that only 13% of the power generated at the Hoover Dam that sets out for Los Angeles actually gets there. The rest is broadcast into space. (It is actually warmer near the power lines. That is energy lost.) So, first step toward an energy-wise world is to generate locally. Solar panels may not be as efficient but if you put them right on the spot you can minimize transmission loss.

The thing is, energy pricing in this country is a joke. The US government puts crap-tons of your money behind fossil fuels, both directly and indirectly (rhymes with Iraq). We’ve all got together and put a couple trillion dollars into the pot to keep gas cheaper at the pump. Electricity prices are similarly skewed toward big producers. If the government were to get out of the energy price-fixing business, a few things would happen: 1) energy costs would skyrocket; 2) Efficiency would leap and waste would plummet – wind and solar would compete favorably; 3) The economy would crash, dragged down by industries that had come to rely on the taxpayer energy-subsidy crutch; 4) We would have to decide as a society how we’re going to deal with 86-year-old Pittsburgh resident Gladys Pulchowski, who can’t afford her heating bill this winter.

In my happy economic neverland, everyone would bitch about higher prices, but they’d buy more efficient products. They’d put extra insulation in their homes and drive something smaller than a Cadillac Escalade to work. Excess packaging would directly drive up the cost of a product. Folks would not bitch about the reduced federal deficit, but it would be there. People would pay for what they used, without the government artificially spreading the cost around (mostly to our kids).

The price of Perrier would include the energy cost of dragging a dang glass bottle of water over the ocean. Seriously. How does the current situation make sense?

Back on topic: Listening to the electric car guys, you’d think that generating electricity produced no emissions at all. In fact, around here there is a government stamp for ‘zero emissions vehicles’. That, my friends, is a lie. They are Somewhere-Else Emission Vehicles.

Then there’s the batteries. Depending on the car, there’s all sorts of toxic stuff in there. Lead is a favorite, but there are others. And the things are heavy. Most of the energy spent by a car is to move the car. Driver and passengers hardly figure in. Massive batteries just make things worse.

I’m going to toss that out again, so you can ponder and appreciate it. Almost all of the energy spent by a car is to move the car, not the contents. That’s not terribly efficient. Currently the auto makers of the world are managing to improve their engines enough to avoid the inevitable truth: sooner or later we aren’t going to be willing (or able) to pay to move a big pile of metal and plastic around with us wherever we want to go. (Defying that math are the scooters of today getting less than two hundred miles per gallon – less than one-tenth the mass, but only getting three times better mileage. Clearly I’m oversimplifying, but by that much?)

I think someday we’ll all be driving electric. If energy were priced rationally, we already would be, charging our batteries from local sources.


3 thoughts on “The Electric Lie

  1. Excellent points all. I followed a nissan leaf home tonight, and yep, it did say zero emmissions. I prefer the “emissions somewhere else” you offer.

    I guess there are a lot of IFs…errrr.. hopes. We need to hope that electrical production is more clean per mile driven than gasoline. We need to hope that batteries are or will very soon become recyclable. We need to hope that a) the electricity production is natural gas, and b) the dirty high-sulfer coal isn’t sent to China. We need to hope for (as you say) more local electricity production. We need to hope for PRACTICAL carbon scrubbers and carbon sequestration technology yesterday.

    • I’ve seen a couple of ads for electric cars in the past few days that say things like “120 MPGe”. I have no idea what the hell that means, put perhaps it’s “can go 130 miles on the electricity that would be generated burning a gallon of gasoline in a power station of some standard efficiency.

      I’m hoping fuel cells live up to their promise – the efficient distribution of fuel combined with the efficient generation of electricity right in the garage. My company provides free hookups for electric cars at some of its facilities (unfortunately not my building – apparently they own the building but not the parking lot), partially generated from solar and fuel cells. Hopefully I won’t be buying a car for a few years yet, and in that time the major problems will be well-addressed.

  2. MPGe doesn’t factor in upstream costs, just as MPG doesn’t factor in the energy expended on drilling wells, pumping crude, or refining and delivering gasoline. MPG measures tank-to-wheel results, and MPGe is intended to measure “wall-to-wheel” results.

    I have a friend who drives an old Toyota RAV4-EV. He also has solar panels on his roof. In the summer his house produces somewhat more electricity than it consumes, resulting in credits on his PG&E bill. In the winter his house consumes more electricity than it produces, eating up the credit. In the end, he claims he pays an average of $30/month on electricity.

    But that includes fueling one of his cars, as well as powering the house.

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