“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” - Often attributed to Plato but likely from Ian McLaren (pseudonym of Reverend John Watson)

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Can we "go electric"?

I'm sure it's been covered elsewhere on the web, but since James Kunstler has declared that we won't be able to keep the transportation system he refers to as "happy motoring," I thought I'd point my brand of quick and dirty calculating at the situation.

I'll start at the Energy Information Administration page here. This site is a gold mine of information for sources and sinks of energy of all kinds, for not only the United States but for the world. We find that in 2008, 8,989,000 barrels of "finished motor gasoline" was supplied in the U.S. per day on average. This represents 4.72*10^16 joules of heat energy of which I'll assume that 22%, or 1.04*10^16 joules are translated to force applied to the earth by tires to do the work of moving a vehicle down the road.

Using estimates from this post of 85% efficiency of chargers and 60% efficiency of transmission, 50% of the energy developed at a power plant winds up in a battery. Electric motors are pretty efficient, Tesla claims 86%. I'm going to go with 85%.

Since this is very rough, I'm going to assume that the vehicles replacing the gasoline vehicles are equally efficient, thus enabling me to merely look at joules at the wheel. Therefore, I need 1.04*10^16/(0.6*0.85) or 2.04*10^16 joules/day. This is energy divided by time, or power and using google's calculator, it equates to 2.36*10^11 watts or 236,000 megawatts.

The current generating capacity of the U.S., according to the EIA, is about 1.05 million megawatts (a little over a terawatt). This is just a little bit below the so-called "generator nameplate capacity" of the generating facilities. In 2007, we used electrical energy at a rate equivalent to about 464,000 megawatts, so adding a need for another 236,000 megawatts (increasing utilization by over 50%) would seem to be problematic. The difference between the actual rate of use and total capacity represents down time for maintenance, peak capacity, etc. and thus is not simply idle generating capacity looking for a use.

To maintain the same ratio of actual usage rate to capacity we'd need to add over 500,000 megawatts of generating capacity. That's a whale of a lot of solar panels and windmills. Or, since an average nuclear generating facility has a nameplate capacity of about 1,000 megawatts, we'll need about 500 of those. Best we had get started.

And of course, this says nothing about the transmission of all this electrical energy via a grid that is currently limping along at best, nor does it address the resources required to set up the infrastructure for such an increase in capacity. While I certainly have my gripes with Kunstler, it's true that simply switching to electric cars is no magic bullet for our peak oil predicament.

Update: an ultra-quick "back of the envelope" calculation indicates that we'd have to cover about 7.4% of the state of Arizona with solar panels to supply this extra electrical energy. Of course, storage might be an issue and I'm not so sure that condemnation of the southern eighth of the state (the extra area needed for storage, switching, support, etc.) via eminent domain would be well received.


Geoffrey Styles said...

A regular reader of my blog suggested I'd find yours interesting, and he was certainly right. I find we've covered some of the same issues from a similar perspective, but still differently enough to make things interesting.

In terms of the generation required to electrify the US car fleet, you might take a look at a study by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory that found current capacity sufficient to handle about 80% of the cars on the road, if they recharged at optimal times. That's because much of the unused capacity is in the form of gas turbines that could run more often. The report seems to ignore where all the extra fuel would come from, but happily the supply prospects for US natgas have improved substantially since it was written. There are also potential concerns about transmission bottlenecks, but we'll need to take those on in any case if increase renewable energy use much beyond current levels.

King of the Road said...

Thanks for the comment. Yes, it makes sense that the "excess capacity" could be more effectively utilized by charging during non-peak times, and this would seem to occur naturally, at least to a certain extent, i.e., most would charge their cars during the evening and night.

The grid is built to be capable (barely) of supplying our electricity needs during hot summer days with manufacturing plants in operation and a smart grid might be able to absorb at least a large portion of the demand from electric vehicle charging. It had better be a "pretty darn smart grid" though.

I've enjoyed looking at your blog, though I haven't gotten too far with it yet.