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Electrifying the USPS

I usually scan the energy headlines each morning, but had somehow missed the stories on the recently introduced bills to electrify the U.S. Postal Service fleet:

U.S. Postal Service to test a repurposed electric vehicle fleet

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) introduced a bill Friday that would pay for 109,500 electric vehicles, though the cost of that program isn’t known yet. “This, to me, would be a very productive thing and . . . likely to produce jobs and revitalize an industry,” Connolly said.

In December, Rep. José E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) announced an “e-Drive” bill that would give $2 billion to the Energy Department and Postal Service to convert 20,000 mail trucks into electric vehicles.

I have always liked the idea of electric cars. I have written a number of essays around that theme, primarily because electric vehicles could in theory be adequate replacements for internal combustion engines as supplies of fossil fuels deplete. Imagine that our electric grid eventually moves more toward renewable energy, and electric vehicles could be a much greener solution than the majority of the vehicles we have on the road today.

But note that I use words like “theory” and “imagine” to describe this idealistic future. I firmly believe that we need to have a look at the data from time to time to make sure that our idealism isn’t in direct contrast to reality. Unfortunately, in this case it might be.

Study: Electric cars not as green as you think

The environmental benefits of electric cars are being questioned in Germany by a surprising actor: the green movement. But those risks don’t apply in the U.S., the American electric-car lobby asserts.

Today, the German plants that deliver marginal electricity are fueled by coal. That is the main problem, according to the study. The research adds that to produce the same amount of energy, coal emits more carbon dioxide than even gasoline.

“The irony is that you don’t need a lot more electricity for electric cars,” Raddatz, said. “But the problem is that if they cause these peaks, we would have to have power plants that would be ready to start (as) the massive charging starts.”

An electric car with a lithium ion battery powered by electricity from an old coal power plant could emit more than 200g of carbon dioxide per km, compared with current average gasoline car of 160g of carbon dioxide per km in Europe, according to the study. The European Union goal for 2020 is 95g of carbon dioxide per km.

I have been thinking about this a lot, as I have recently seen some electric car/combustion engine comparisons in a report that is about to come out. I won’t divulge much about the report, but when it comes out I will link to it. But I will provide a quote from the soon-to-be-released report:

New Zealand energy consultant Steve Goldthorpe estimates that if the entire New Zealand vehicle fleet were replaced with electric cars, the amount of electricity New Zealand needed to generate to power this fleet would be increased by about 60%. Only a small percentage of this electricity could be produced sustainably; the balance would probably have to be generated by burning coal.

I think this is where idealism clashes with reality. As I pointed out in The Nuclear Comeback, over the previous 10 years electricity demand increased by an average of 66 million megawatt hours per year. That is without adding electric cars to the mix. The growth rate for renewable energy over the past 5 years or so has only been about 10 million megawatt hours (although last year saw an impressive 20 million). Still, this is a far cry from just keeping up with normal demand growth.

So the idealistic side of me sees renewable electricity continuing to grow, and powering a fleet of green electric cars. The side of me that looks at the data says that in reality, a rapid ramp-up of electric cars will have to be driven by non-renewables because renewable energy growth won’t be able to keep up. I wouldn’t personally have a problem with a nuclear-driven electric fleet, but I don’t think that’s the vision many have for future electric vehicles.

I am not factoring in the possibility that conservation of electricity can help close that gap. On that I remain hopeful, but our history is one of ever increasing consumption.

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March 5, 2010 - Posted by | electric cars, electricity, electricity usage, nuclear energy, renewable energy

1 Comment

  1. Modern BEVs (such as the GM Volt) use AC induction motors and generators, no magnets of any type in those. The most popular BEV lithium batteries today do not use rare earth metals or cobalt either, nor any rare material.. in any case they are fully recyclable. Battery life is 10-15 years and some even up to 30 years (*).If you are unhappy about present batteries just wait a bit, a flood of money is pouring into battery research. The ones we have now are fairly good, but the cost needs to come down.(*) the Tesla Roadster uses commodity laptop cells, a little bigger than AA size, life is about 5-10 years and they do use cobalt and nickel.. future BEVs will use custom made large prismatic cells optimized for cars.

    Comment by Anonymous | March 9, 2010


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