What If All American Cars Were Electric?

An Antiplanner reader writes, what “if all vehicles in USA were powered by electricity?” The reader wasn’t sure, but suspected that it would be “impossible to do with electricity as now generated and distributed.” I was inclined to agree, but when I looked into it, the results surprised me.

First, as I’ve noted before, only about a third of the power used to generate electricity ends up being delivered to the end users; the rest is lost in generation and transmission. This would seem to reduce the apparent efficiency of electric cars.

Counter to that, however, internal combustion engines dissipate most of their energy in the form of heat. On average, only about 21 percent of the energy from burning gasoline or Diesel is used to move vehicles; the rest is lost. Electric motors, however, only lose about 20 percent of their energy as heat. This more than offsets the losses from electrical generation and transmission.

In other words, 100 BTUs of energy at the power plant delivers 33 BTUs to the end user, and an electric car turns that into about 26 BTUs of transportation. By comparison, burning 100 BTUs of gasoline in a car produces only about 22 BTUs of transportation. It is conceivable that we could save energy by burning that gasoline in a power plant and delivering it to electric car users.

Click image to download a PDF of this chart.

As shown in the above chart, out of the 97 quadrillion BTUs (quads) of energy Americans used in 2016, transportation used 27 quads. However, cars and light trucks used only about 15 of those quads. Converting those cars and light trucks to electricity would reduce their consumption to about 12.5 quads. Since our current electrical system generates about 37.5 quads, it might seem we would have to increase power generation facilities by about a third.

But that’s not necessarily true either. Electric power plants are rated by their ability to produce peak power, but peak power demands can easily be 40 percent greater than the minimal power demands. If electric car users increase demand by a third, but most recharge their batteries at night or other off-peak times, they won’t require a significant increase in power facilities. In fact, off-peak recharging could actually reduce electricity costs by smoothing out the demand over the course of a day.

Of course, some will want to recharge their cars at peak periods. But if power companies vary price according to demand, as a few have started to do, that will be offset by other people shifting their power use to off-peak periods. Moreover, if everyone owned electric cars, it would be faster and simpler to simply swap out discharged batteries for ones that had been fully charged the night before.

This doesn’t mean I am persuaded by claims that 95 percent of all travel in 2030 will be by electric vehicles. But I’m less worried that our electrical power system won’t be able to handle the demand.

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10 thoughts on “What If All American Cars Were Electric?

  1. Jardinero1

    Up to a third of the generated electricity at the outlet is lost during charging for Lithium Ion batteries. If you factor that in, the ICE vehicles do as well as or a little better than the EV’s.

    One also must consider that the environmental consequences of ICE manufacture and fueling are well known and reasonably well regulated and managed, both domestically and globally, though there is always room for improvement.

    The environmental consequences of Lithium and Cobalt production, on the scale required for all to have an EV is utterly unknown. Current practices in Asia and Africa are, as yet, unregulated and do not paint a pretty picture. No one has properly addressed what to do with spent batteries.

    Finally, there is the fact that just about nobody wants and EV at any price point.

  2. jon

    I have four kids. That’s six people in a single car. It would be cool if an electrical vehicle could handle that many people, up to now I haven’t heard of any large vehicles that are fully electric. Also, it would need to get me at least a couple hundred miles since we drive are vehicle every where.

    Reminds me of the problem of Uber where their dream is to have everyone using their service. It seems unrealistic with large families since we need car seats and enough space to put all our kids and stuff. On top of that it’s much cheaper just to own our own car.

  3. LazyReader

    Let’s see global energy consumption is about 567 Exajoules or a power demand of about 18 terawatts. The third world where most of the worlds rainforests are located account for 60% of that. So the Third World needs to replace 340 Exajoules or 10 Terawatts of energy with renewable energy, currently 90% of the third worlds energy is met with wood or biomass and fossil fuels. Never the less, 10 terawatts of wind power that’s 10 million 1 Megawatt wind mills then take into consideration the Betz limit that the maximum energy performance of a turbine is about 59% running efficiency which it often never runs at that level of performance, the average wind turbine efficiency is 30-35% , that’s less than a third so you need three times as many turbines to make up the difference; that’s 30 MILLION turbines then you have to build even more turbines cause the wind distribution is not universal all over the world so you have to send electricity from one site to another when the wind is stagnant which may require twice as many turbines so that’s 60 MILLION turbines. Then you have to install them so that’s 60 million acres of forest that has to go since it takes a acre of treeless land (as tall trees interfere with the wind pattern splaying against the turbines). it takes about a ton of of neodymium and other rare earth metal per turbine so that’s 60 million tons of rare earth metal. China whom consolidates 90% of the global supply, only produces 100,000 tons a year so it would take 600 years to mine it all assuming that much even exists. That’s a lot of Strip mining, probably that needs to be done in the rainforest regions of the world. And that’s just the third world, never mind the industrialized worlds energy demands. Don’t get me started where all the copper wire is gonna come from or all the Lithium to store it. Given the environmentalist uproar over mining…..anything. Good luck world.

    Solar and wind only provide electricity, while essential, industrial processes are not solely electrically based. The hydrogen-carbon bond is the greatest discovery in human history. There is no fossil fuel free society, what you’re amounting too is Hydro-carbon free, which is virtually impossible since were made of the stuff. Convert all non electric energy consumption to electric. And billions more for high voltage transmission to send it to where it’s needed. Fossil fuel free, here’s a few things you will have to give up to meet that goal:
    1. Food – no more synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides. Back to using manure. Expect crop losses of 40-80%. And E-Coli and food borne pathogen infections to return to pre-industrial levels.
    2. Plastics – gone. Cant manufacture long chained hydro-carbons without their pre-cursor short chain hydro-carbon. NO PLASTIC, what will IKEA makes it’s furniture from.
    3. Modern Medicine. About 85% of modern pharmaceutical drugs use Benzene as a pre-cursor.
    4. Lubricants – both machine and and personal hope you like it raw, without long lasting high efficiency lubricants nothing runs. Not trains, planes or automobiles or any moving machinery.
    5. Steel and all other metal alloys. They require petroleum or coke.
    6. Synthetic materials, nylon, spandex, polyester, kevlar, dacron, Mylar, Orlon, Tyvek, Nomex, Qiana, Corfam, and Corian, Polyethylene Terephthalate,Polyethylene, Polypropylene, Polystyrene, Vinyl and rubber. No more LuLu Lemons or running shoes for you and no more bike tires, we all know how Europeans love to bike.
    7. About 20% of all construction materials contain or use petroleum products. Without glues, sealants, epoxies, insulation and flame retardants, your house would be a falling apart, leaky, cold, fiery deathtrap. There goes your house. And without oxygen fuel welding or steel mentioned above, nothing above three stories can be built unless it’s stone or brick…….which you cant do since brick has to be FIRED and no stone unless you live near a quarry or pay to have tons and tons of it shipped to you.
    8. Flying and shipping. Yeah, lets go back to wooden sailing ships that took weeks to cross oceans.
    9: Refrigerants. Yeah, hydrocarbons being used to keep food with short shelf life fresh, and without preservatives organic goodies rot in 2-3 days.
    10: You can also stop promoting your city as a tourist destination. Think of all the fuel saved by people not going there.

  4. pokep

    There is another misreading here that flatters the electric car. ICE engines are actually typically 40-50% efficient. The graph shows them as being about 21% efficient for transportation. The discrepancy is surely due to the fact that roughly half of the energy “waste” isn’t due to the conversion from fuel to energy, but is energy lost in the rest of the vehicle – cooling, transmission, passenger comfort, etc.. These losses don’t all go away when you electrify the car.

  5. Jardinero1

    pokep – You make a valid point about cooling. Here, in Houston, you would run the AC nearly year round. The AC reduces your mileage and performance slightly in an ICE vehicle but in an EV, how much performance is lost?

  6. NoDakNative

    Cooling energy requirements for the passenger compartment has already been mentioned, but what about heating?

    ICE heat the passenger compartment for “free”, using the engines waste heat. The only cost is the 50-100 watts to run the blower motor.

    A working heater isn’t optional, like AC, here in North Dakota. People die in the winter because they got stranded without enough gas in the tank to stay warm.

    Then there is the added issue of how well an electric car will run when the batteries are -20F? What range will they get?

  7. Sandy Teal

    I would love to read a full comprehensive analysis of efficiency through different energy sources, but I know that is very complicated. Every conversion of power is a huge loss. Funny how a simple thing like a free market can make those complex calculations in a million different combinations possible without anyone even understanding all the complexity.

    If you took off all the subsidies and let the market run, then the producers of power need only look at the demand/price and the users need only look at the supply/price at every place in the world. That is a huge amount of calculation and power and motivation all coordinated through a simple free market pricing mechanism.

  8. CapitalistRoader

    Source-to-wheel efficiency according to this study for EVs is 22.8% and for hybrid gasoline ICE/electric is 17.3%. Lots of variables involved but the fact is hybrids are close to as efficient as pure EVs, so why EVs at all? They’re fine for short distance driving in mild weather but become much less efficient in either very-hot or somewhat- to very-cold weather.

    This is a no brainer. Why build an additional 30% capacity to the grid when we have existing gasoline fueling infrastructure in place?

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