Electric Vehicle Mandates Threaten U.S. Grid
Don’t want to drive an electric vehicle? Well, depending on where you live, you may not have a choice soon. Converting the nation’s fleet of automobiles and trucks to electric power is considered a critical aspect of the battle against alleged manmade global climate change.
The Biden administration wants to see “emission-free” vehicles account for half of all vehicle sales by 2030, while New York state law bans new fossil fuel vehicle sales by 2035 as does a California executive order. If two of the nation’s most populous states forbid internal combustion engine sales, that could drag the rest of the country with it. This is all a crucial aspect of the Biden goal of U.S. carbon neutrality by 2050.
But riddle me this. Will the current electrical grid support this transition from petroleum fuel to that generated by power plants, and if not, what type of plants will be built to support the enlarged grid? To what extent will the fossil fuel petroleum refined into gasoline and diesel give way to plants that burn natural gas or even—shudder—coal? Or can we supply the extra energy with solar and wind as environmentalists seem to fervently believe? Conversely, can we do it with nuclear power?
These headlines, all from the last half of last year, show it’s not particularly clear cut. The Washington Post says, “Plug-in Cars Are the Future. The Grid Isn’t Ready.” But Forbes suggests “Electricity Grids Can Handle Electric Vehicles Easily.” Meanwhile, the Gray Lady puts it in question form: “Electric Cars are Coming, and Fast. Is the Nation’s Grid Up to It?”
Clouding the crystal ball is that we don’t know how successful the mandates and subsidies will be, nor how electric vehicle battery technology will progress. We can just consider the basic parameters.
Currently, electric vehicles comprise a rounding error of American vehicles—less than 1 percent of the vehicle fleet. That’s because right now, despite a simple Google search that “reveals” electric vehicles are better than internal combustion engine vehicles in almost every way, purchasers feel otherwise. Why?
There are many limiting factors for electric vehicles, such as their poor performance in cold weather. But most important are purchase price and what’s called “range anxiety.” The up front cost of electric cars is about $10,000 more than the overall industry average of $46,329 for gas cars, according to Kelley Blue Book. With current pump prices, surely a lot more potential car buyers are thinking in the long term though, where electric vehicles by most measurements win out per distance driven. But that’s still a big chunk of change.
Range anxiety? Xanax and deep meditation can’t help. Electric vehicles typically have a range of between 130 to 300 miles, the higher end of the range coming from the more expensive models. Gasoline vehicles have a 72 percent higher median range. Electric cars don’t even begin to charge as fast as a gas car can fill up (charge times are listed in hours), and there aren’t nearly as many “filling stations.”
Yes, state and city governments are adding charging stations. But to meet Biden’s 2030 goal, nearly 15,000 public charging ports will have to be installed each quarter for the next nine years, according to a U.S. Department of Energy report. That would be three times the rate since the start of 2020. Still, it can be done.
There’s also been some progress in decreasing charging times, but it’s still hours to full charge at a minimum. Meanwhile, the standard lithium-ion battery has not improved at all. No, a bigger battery isn’t really “progress.” Among other things, lithium-ion is heavy, heavy reduces mileage, and so bigger batteries are something of a dog chasing its tail.
Put simply, if electric vehicles were competitive, why the mandates and subsidies? Logic 101 slams you over the head.
Electric vehicle progress or lack thereof is a research hobby of mine, and I do believe that eventually there will be dramatic improvements to the technology. But it all centers around the battery. Lithium-ion won’t cut it. We need something dramatically different. And we’ll get it eventually, with much faster charging, vastly improved range, and lighter weight.
With next generation technology, people will actually want to buy electric vehicles, and not just sports car aficionados who love the neck-snapping torque electric motors can provide. But we’re not there yet, hence the government flogging both here and abroad. (The E.U. has also proposed an internal combustion engine new car ban by 2035.) And mandates and subsidies could even impede such progress by allowing the current inferior technology to survive. The lithium-ion cartel prevails.
Right now, some parts of the U.S. really don’t want any more electric vehicles at all. They don’t even want more toasters. Notes the Washington Post article, “In New York City [last] summer, the utility Con Edison appealed to customers to cut back on their electricity usage during the strain of five separate heat waves, while Tropical Storms Elsa, Henri and Ida cut power to thousands.” It also noted “widespread blackouts in California, Texas, Louisiana and elsewhere.” Already utility companies share, so it doesn’t matter too much if some localities produce considerably more than their peak loads. These failures occurred anyway.
Why did the writer at Forbes think electric vehicles won’t overload the grid? Because, you see, they can be charged off-peak. Much of the time, that’s true. Electricity use goes way down in the wee hours. But try that during a blackout.
Further, wee-hour fill-ups favor those with charging capacity at home (which is painfully slow), but if you don’t have that and you’re already complaining about having to walk the dog late at night, how will you feel about rousing yourself from dreamland to charge the Tesla? And how will we get people to do that? With subsidies for off-peak charging or surcharges for during peak?
Forbes also noted that we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking all cars need charging all the time. Especially if it’s a second car, it could be weeks between charges. Or in any case for most people, probably days. If your daily commute comprises driving 130 miles then maybe you should consider a new job or Zoom. But if you add enough electric vehicles to perhaps any grid in the entire country you will create emergencies. There are currently almost 300 million registered cars in the U.S., with over 31 million in California alone. And the number is growing.
While there has been almost no U.S. increase in electricity demand in recent years, a U.S. Department of Energy study found that increased electrification across all sectors of the economy could boost national consumption by 20 percent, to 38 percent by 2050, mostly from an increased use of electric vehicles. Hence, the grid will need dramatic expansion. More generation plants and more transmission lines.
How? U.S. nuclear reactors are being taken offline. Nuclear power opponents have safety-featured them to death. Required upgrades aren’t worth it compared to building new natural gas powered plants. Likewise, the plants currently being built face nightmarish cost and completion overruns. The only two U.S. nuclear reactors under construction are six years late and at least $16 billion over budget. It’s the end of the line for so-called “Generation 3+” plants in the country. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects electricity provided by nuclear plants will drop from about 19 percent now to only 12 percent by 2050. And no, that study is not taking into account an increased exchange of gasoline and diesel for voltage.
Next generation nuclear? You know, those small modular plants (called Generation IV) that can be 90 percent built offsite and if they use molten salt are incapable of meltdowns? Great idea. The physics works out; they will provide carbon-free electricity at a good value. One day. Rolls Royce even said two years ago it could have 16 operating by 2025. Er, with ample subsidies. Yes, shameless rent-seeking—that worked. That said, Rolls not only turned the P-51 into one of the best WWII fighters, but has been building nuclear reactors for ships since the 1950s and perhaps can deliver on its promise by 2035 or even somewhat before. The problem is, a 2035 mandate presumes a gradual switchover, not a 2035 switchover. We can’t count on the Gen IV plants to power all those new mandated electric vehicles.
Wind and solar? They’re not nearly as competitive as the greens and the U.S. government would like you to think. That’s because the data everyone uses is from the EIA that in turn uses something called “levelized costs.” In short, they presume power sources, whether nuclear or wind or solar, last 30 years. It’s false. One U.S. nuclear plant operated 49 years and was only decommissioned because it was regulated out of business. Not so wind and solar farms. “A good quality, modern wind turbine will generally last for 20 years,” according to the industry itself.
Moreover, some parts of the country lend themselves more to these sources than others. As it happens, the densely populated Northeast Corridor is bad for both. Not much wind or sun. And it gets worse. By definition, the places we’ve put turbines and panels are those with the most wind and sun. But as I noted in an article a few years back, we’ve picked the low-hanging fruit. Every new facility will on average produce less and less per acre, with greater costs. Wind turbine technology is flattening as the rotors reach maximum weight-bearing size (environmentalists hate physics) and solar panels have actually seen little improvement in their conversion factors. There’s room for breakthroughs, but we’re not seeing them now.
Hence, in the short term, there’s simply no way to significantly increase available electricity without burning more fossil fuels. A lot more. Oil-fired plants would be a tad self-defeating, n’est-ce pas? Coal-fired plants are the dirtiest. It will therefore come down to the cleanest fossil fuel, natural gas. Fortunately, the U.S. has been producing more each year and maybe it can keep up without resorting to imports. (Yes, the country also imports gas but that’s a market thing; on the whole it’s a net producer.) But supplies will probably be further strained, especially as Europe attempts to reduce its imports from Russia in response not just to the Ukraine crisis but the reality that they’re too dependent on an unreliable source.
That would leave just coal, folks. Greta wouldn’t like that at all.
If we can pull it off with gas, that’s not as bad as it sounds, swapping natural gas for gasoline. The single main advantage of electric vehicles over internal combustion is fuel efficiency. Thermodynamics dictates that the great majority of automotive fuel burned will be wasted, mostly in the form of heat. “Only about 12%-30% of the energy from the fuel you put in a conventional vehicle is used to move it down the road, depending on the drive cycle,” according to the EPA. AAA says 30%-35%.
Moreover, although microchip technology has improved internal combustion engine (ICE) performance, the motor itself remains mechanical. In fact, today’s ICEs bear an awful lot of semblance to those pistons moving up and down in four strokes down just like the first ICE in the year of Little Big Horn, 1876. Yes, some of today’s boring family vehicles are faster off-the-line than iconic ’60s muscle cars, but while that’s partly because of greater engine efficiency, much is because of tires, transmissions, and other improvements.
So powering an electric vehicle with electricity from natural gas should be cleaner in terms of carbon dioxide emissions than powering an internal combustion engine with gasoline or diesel. That’s why those memes you see of diesel-powered electric vehicle chargers aren’t as stupid as they seem. They reduce range anxiety, and diesel pumped into an electric vehicle can be more efficient than diesel burned directly.
This is just to say that we need to be realistic. Carbon dioxide emissions reduced by moving away from one fossil fuel will be replaced, to a great extent, by those from burning another. To get that natural gas we’re either going to need to open up more federal land to drilling (although it’s a myth that Biden has halted permit-issuing; he’s actually ahead of Trump at this point). We’ll need to pay more for increased exploration and drilling (especially given that whatever oil is found will probably become progressively more expensive), and face the possibility of again being a net energy importer. (Yet another myth is that we’ve lost that.)
But that’s okay, there is a country with massive gas reserves and relatively low self-consumption that can supply us. Yes, it’s Putin’s Russia! Russia may have some of the world’s dreariest weather and music (Russian death songs are a perennial favorite) but damned if it doesn’t have fossil fuel, including the world’s largest gas reserves. It’s about a fifth of the world’s supply. And because of a combination of a relatively low population (less than half that of the U.S.) and relative per-capita consumption (little over half that of the U.S.) they can export the great majority of that, while the U.S. currently can only export a little. Vlad the Invader is probably a big fan of electric vehicles.
What is the sane alternative to all this? Let electric vehicle technology progress on its own. It will, but probably more slowly than the mandates are mandating. We will eventually all be driving EVs because we want to; not because we’re forced to. At that point, the grid will have no problem handling it.
Michael Fumento (www.fumento.com) has been an attorney, author, and science journalist specializing in hysterias for over 35 years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Sunday Times, the Atlantic, and many other fora.