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. Continue reading
The energy efficiency of the average car on the road increased slightly in 2014 as did air travel, but the average light truck and Amtrak used slightly more BTUs per passenger mile in 2014 than in 2013. That’s the finding from the latest edition of the Transportation Energy Data Book (6.5-MB PDF), which was posted on line on Monday. Specifically, these numbers are from tables 2-15, highway modes, and 2-16, non-highway modes.
The book is published each year by the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In addition to the book in PDF format and the individual spreadsheets for each of the 250 tables in the book, they usually have a link to all the spreadsheets in ZIP format, but the isn’t available yet.
According to the spreadsheets, most forms of urban transit became a little more energy efficient in 2014. I suspect declining fuel prices will produce some different results for 2015. Transit ridership is falling, so transit’s energy efficiency per passenger mile is likely to decline, as is Amtrak’s. If falling fuel prices allowed airlines to keep fares lower and fill more seats, airline fuel efficiencies may increase.
Oregon has a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by forcing electric companies to stop burning coal and to get half their energy from renewable resources. It sounds like a great plan, but like so many government plans, it has a few flaws.
First, it won’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Second, it will increase energy prices, thus reducing the viability of Oregon’s economy.
At least, that’s the conclusion of Oregon’s Public Utility Commission, the three-member board that is supposed to regulate electric utilities. The only problem is that the commission was never consulted about the energy plan, suggesting that the state is listening only to groups who are already true believers.
The average automobile on the road in 2013 used 1.2 percent less energy per mile than in 2012, according to table 2-15 of the latest edition of the Department of Energy’s Transportation Energy Data Book. Both cars and light trucks achieved about the same gain.
Click image to download a 12.9-MB PDF of the data book. Click here to access individual spreadsheets of all the tables and charts in the data book.
In contrast, says the datebook, the average transit bus used 0.9 percent more energy per mile in 2013 than in 2012. Worse, the average number of people on board transit buses declined slightly, so buses used 1.0 percent more energy per passenger mile.
Bloomberg argues that “supply alone is [not] behind the plunge in crude prices to $50 a barrel.” Instead, demand for motor fuel has slacked off due to lack of growth in driving combined with more fuel-efficient cars and more competitive electric cars.
The electric cars argument is specious, as too few of them have been sold to have much of an impact. The lack of growth in driving has already begun to turn around. Bloomberg itself demolishes the argument that supply isn’t the major factor with its very next story, which reports that Saudi Arabia greatly stepped up oil production in March, partly to meet the country’s “growing domestic requirements” and partly, no doubt, to hurt American or possibly Russian producers.
There is no doubt that cars are becoming more fuel efficient, but that is offset by the huge increase in cars sold in China, where auto sales have exceeded those in the United States since 2009. Besides, gasoline only accounts for about 19 gallons of product from a 42-gallon barrel of oil. Some of the rest goes to Diesel fuel, but most goes into other products for which demand is not likely to decline.
Crowdsourcing is one of those great ideas that could only come about because of the Internet. But it also opens up the possibilities for con artists, or at least advocates of really bad ideas, to get money from people who don’t know any better.
One of those bad ideas is solar roadways, which–thanks to a tweet by George Takei (because actors on science fiction TV shows know so much more about science than other celebrities)–received more than $2 million in pledges when its promoters asked for only half that. The pledges kept coming in even after numerous web sites debunked the proposal to turn roads into solar energy collectors.
The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute has kept track of the EPA mileage ratings of all new cars and light trucks (pick ups, SUVs, full-sized vans) sold in the United States since October, 2007. Between that month and February, 2014, the average fuel economy of autos sold grew from 20.1 mpg to 25.2 mpg. While your mileage may vary, this is an incredible record of improvement in fuel economy.
Though we are accustomed to measure fuel economy in miles per gallon, a more appropriate way to compare vehicles is the other way around: gallons (or some other unit of energy) per mile. As Green Car Reports observes, when asked, “Which saves more gasoline, going from 10 to 20 mpg, or going from 33 to 50 mpg?” most people answer the latter but in fact the former is true. In any case, when measured in gallons per mile, new-car fuel economy improved by 30 percent between October 2007 and February 2014.
The Department of Energy hasn’t posted data for 2012 or 2013, but its Transportation Energy Data Book, table 2.13, say that over the seven years from 2005 through 2011, the average BTUs per vehicle mile of all autos on the road declined by 7 percent, from 5,600 to 5,200. Since new cars replace the old fleet at the rate of around 6 percent per year, the 30 percent increase in new-car fuel economy is not immediately seen in the entire fleet, but it will be eventually.
A new study published in Environmental Science and Technology argues that increased numbers of electric vehicles over the next four decades will not result in a “clear and consistent trend toward lower system-wide emissions.” The reason, of course, is that it takes energy to produce electricity, and much of that energy comes from burning fossil fuels.
Maybe not green enough to be worth the wait.
Of course, we can increase the production of “renewable” electricity. But if we increase the demand for that electricity by driving electric cars, then we’ll still have to burn fossil fuels to supply electricity for other purposes such as light and heat. It might make more sense to use renewable electricity to replace fossil fuels in electrical generation while working to make fossil-fuel-powered cars more energy efficient.
The Antiplanner paid $2.99 a gallon for gasoline last week, which–according to my records–is the lowest I’ve paid for three years. The United States is now producing more oil than it imports for the first time since 1995. Not only is the U.S. producing more oil than Saudi Arabia today, it is poised to become the world’s largest oil producer (ahead of Russia, which is currently number one) by 2015.
Despite these dramatic changes, there are some who still want to harp on peak oil. “A new multi-disciplinary study led by the University of Maryland calls for immediate action by government, private and commercial sectors to reduce vulnerability to the imminent threat of global peak oil,” says one news article.
In fact, the study in question doesn’t predict that peak oil will take place soon, only that if it does, it will have serious consequences. But even that conclusion is wrong, as the “multidisciplinary team” would have known if one of the disciplines had been economics.
Remember all the talk about peak oil a few years ago? You don’t hear much about it today. The United States, supposedly almost out of oil, began producing more oil than Saudi Arabia a few months ago.
No one thinks there’s an infinite supply of oil in the world, but the peak-oil proponents were claiming that world oil production was about to peak and then head forever downwards just as China and India were consuming more, leading gasoline prices to inexorably rise to $20, $30, even $100 a gallon. This would force everyone out of their cars and onto mass transit, a prediction that was used to justify all sorts of otherwise ridiculous light-rail lines and land-use regulations.
The Antiplanner scrutinized these ideas eight years ago and concluded that those who held them had no understanding of the laws of supply and demand. For one thing, there are plenty of alternative sources of energy that are economically inefficient today but that could come on line if ever oil prices did rise enough.