Would You Drive A Coal-Powered Vehicle?

Are we being tricked by the promoters of electric vehicles? I have always thought so because they are costly to make and use all kinds of special metals that must be mined and refined to be useful. None of the manufacturing and processing of battery material is clean.

Driving them is said to be clean because there are no CO2 emissions from the vehicle itself. That’s true, but where did the energy that charged the batteries come from? If you drive an EV 300 miles, would its electricity-generating carbon footprint be as much as the carbon footprint for a gas-powered vehicle of similar size? If not the same, which is better and by how much?

The reality

Electric vehicles get their power from the electrical grid. In the United States, we know the mix of how it is generated. The NEI Nuclear Energy Institute provides these details. State Electricity Generation Fuel Sources

  • Nuclear                        14.7%
  • Coal                              22.8%
  • Natural Gas                 34.1%
  • Oil                                   1.9%
  • Hydro-electric               9.4%
  • Geothermal                   0.4%
  • Solar                              2.8%
  • Wind                            10.6%
  • Biomass and other     3.4%

Less than 40% of the electricity comes from sources that produce no Carbon Dioxide. By any measure, 60+% of the power for EVs comes from methods that do produce Carbon Dioxide. It is, therefore, unrealistic to assume that electric vehicles are not complicit in producing CO2. If we intend to convert all vehicles to electricity, the energy will come from some production source. Is there any reasonable expectation the grid production will then be all green? One estimate claim it will be the late 2200s before that can happen, and even that depends on advances n technology not yet seen.

In February 2022, Reuters estimated that of all light-duty trucks, SUVs, and cars, that’s 250 million of them, fewer than 1% were electric now. Where will the additional electrical energy come from to power the other 247 million? I doubt turning off the lights and the electrically powered pumps at all the gas stations in the land will balance it.

On a state-to-state basis, the problem is much different.

If you look at the NEI material, you find five states, West Virginia, Missouri, Wyoming, Kentucky, and Utah, generate more than 60% of their electricity with coal. 90.8% in West Virginia. Would it be fair to say that in West Virginia, a Chevy Volt is a coal-powered vehicle?

Five states and the District of Columbia use no coal at all. Of those, DC, New York, and Massachusetts use natural gas for more than 60% of their power. oregon is at 33.3 %, and Vermont is at 0.1%. Both of those last two produce 50% in Vermont’s case and 46% in Oregon’s case from hydroelectric. Vermont and DC use biomass for more than 25%.

I don’t see hydroelectric being available in large quantities. Washington, Idaho, and Montana are all big producers of hydroelectric power now, but new hydro stations are not easy to create where you don’t have big rivers, and environmentalists dislike dams in general.

It’s a puzzle.

How about winter weather?

It’s not a big deal in Florida, but here I know of an HVAC contractor who is installing, on average, three furnaces for garages each week. You have to keep your car batteries warm to have any range in winter temperatures. Batteries lose a lot of capacity by the time they have stayed overnight at zero degrees Fahrenheit.

Much of every problem or opportunity is in the details.

To think about

Take a look at the data and estimate where all that additional power will come from and why that particular configuration. I’m a skeptic and expect that if you worked very hard with existing and plausible new technology, you could not convert all the vehicles to electric in a hundred years. And that assumes you don’t care about the capital to be invested.

So far, it looks like solar is a very unlikely saviour. Windmills have a chance once you figure out storage. Hydro is a long shot because of environmental concerns and because the easy projects are already built. Once we discard the CO2-producing fuels, you have nuclear alone. It takes more optimism than I can easily generate to see how that will happen, but maybe.

The non-engineering question becomes very simple. Are we being led by idiots or by charlatans? It is long past time that they were made to “show their work.” Most careful analysts, including the UN’s IPCC, believe the problem is not earth-threatening. We can mitigate any problems that could arise.

None of the catastrophe crowd have anything to say about a practical solution.

The bits to take away

Talk is cheap, and rebuilding power generation is beyond expensive. Let’s not make decisions based on talk alone.

Natural gas seems to be the best mitigation method for the next several decades. To minimize its production is insane. Well, maybe not insane enough to get committed, but if someone who denies its necessity was already in an institution, they wouldn’t let them out.

I build strategic, fact-based estate and income plans. The plans identify alternate ways to achieve spending and estate distribution goals. In the past, I have been a planner with a large insurance, employee benefits, and investment agency, a partner in a large international public accounting firm, CEO of a software startup, a partner in an energy management system importer, and briefly in the restaurant business. I have appeared on more than 100 television shows on financial planning and business matters. I have presented to organizations as varied as the Canadian Bar Association, The Ontario Institute of Chartered Accountants, The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, and Banks – from CIBC to the Federal Business Development Bank.

Be in touch at 705-927-4770 or by email at don.shaughnessy@gmail.com.

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