Electric cars are all the rage these days. They feature prominently in the infrastructure bills currently debated in the Congress. Thanks to its flamboyant CEO Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskHealth risks of space tourism: Is it responsible to send humans to Mars? If bitcoin is 'digital gold,' it should be taxed like gold The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - House to vote on Biden social spending bill after McCarthy delay MORE, Tesla is the world’s most valuable publicly-owned car company. And just last month, Ford announced a $11.4 billion investment in Tennessee and Kentucky-based factories that will be making electric Ford F-150.
At present, electric cars are a novelty item, constituting less than 1 percent of cars in the US. But they are a part of an emerging vision of the future in which all cars will be electric — eliminating the emissions from gasoline-based vehicles. Together with the electrification of other sectors, including residential heating, they are supposed to usher in a future in which all our energy needs are satisfied by clean electricity without any carbon dioxide emissions. This rosy picture conceals several misconceptions about electrification’s eventual impacts.
We use very little of our total energy in the form of electricity, only about 18 percent. This percentage seems low, doesn’t it? Electricity usage is highly visible: We see our laptops, iPads, cell phones, TVs and fridges plugged in. This visibility makes us overestimate the importance of electricity supply choices to the environment. Much less visible is the energy used in the form of diesel and jet fuels that power the global shipping and airline industries. Even less visible is the heat used to produce steel, cement, fertilizers and plastics. These hidden, non-electrical energies are like the underwater part of the iceberg — and our climate risks being a Titanic if we throw all our chips into electrification.
Electric cars are only as green as the electricity used to run them. At present, 33 percent of U.S. electricity comes from natural gas and 23 percent from coal, and an average Tesla vehicle in the U.S. is running exactly on this mix of fuels. Natural gas is cleaner burning than gasoline, but coal is certainly not: We are barely breaking even in terms of emissions. In some states — like West Virginia or Wyoming — the share of coal in the overall electricity production is still above 80 percent. In those states, electric cars are basically running on coal — and since coal emits 45 percent more carbon dioxide than gasoline, electric cars there pollute more than their gasoline-powered counterparts. Only in the future, where close to 100 percent of our electricity comes from nuclear and renewable energy, will electric vehicles truly be better for the environment than the gasoline-powered ones.
Reaching that 100 percent renewable/nuclear energy is difficult already, but will get more difficult still. As the number of electric cars increases, we will need more electricity to run them — a lot more. A conservative estimate is about 25 percent more generating capacity required to switch all cars to electric propulsion. This new capacity could be created by new solar plants or wind farms. However, most American utilities are planning to meet it by additional natural gas plants, while very slowly retiring their coal-fired operations.
Many energy-consuming processes simply cannot be electrified. There are no electric airplanes and Christmas shopping cannot arrive from China on an electric container ship. Cement produced using electricity would easily cost three times as much as the current one. The same goes for plastics and for fertilizers — whose increased prices would inflate the price of grain and meat. Even if these processes were somehow electrified, they would balloon our electricity needs to about five times the current levels.
To be sure, the benefits of electric cars are many. Pollution and noise will be displaced from city centers and moved onto the well-regulated electricity generation plants. Electric cars are also easier to maintain and cheaper to run. But to think electrification is a panacea for our climate woes is misguided. While it can transform some sectors of energy consumption, the relatively low fraction of our energy used by electricity limits its importance.
An aggressive conservation push across all sectors of economy would be more impactful. And there is plenty of space to conserve: An average American uses 282 million Btus (a measure of heat of fuels or energy sources) of energy per year — almost four times more than the world average and twice as much as an average citizen of Switzerland. Other initiatives that could help lower the emissions in non-electrifiable sectors include carbon capture and sequestration and the development of next-generation biofuels.
If they are serious about climate change, Americans should ditch oversized vehicles like F-150s altogether (unless they’re hauling a ton of dirt every weekend), along with other long-nurtured wasteful habits. Making inefficient trucks electric will not help — they will simply switch from wasting gasoline to wasting electricity.
Ognjen Miljanić is a professor of chemistry at the University of Houston, where he teaches on energy and sustainability. Follow on Twitter: @MiljanicGroup