What if the electric grid were 100% coal?


editors-blog-entry3People are attracted to electric cars for four basic reasons:

  • Technology — they want the newest, latest thing;
  • Foreign oil dependence — they want to reduce their country’s dependence on foreign oil, often for reasons of natural security;
  • Economics — you can save money, in many cases, quite a bit of money by driving an EV;
  • Environment — Driving an EV is better for the environment, especially if: a) you produce your own, home-grown renewable energy to partially, or fully power it; b) and/or you live in a place in which a high percentage of electricity is generated by renewable energy forms (for instance, in the American Northwest)

In many cases, probably most, a combination of Technology, Foreign Oil Dependence, Economic, and Environmental considerations inspires people to leap onto the rapidly growing EV-Express.

U.S. national electric grid mix

Coal = 49%
Natural gas = 21%
Nuclear = 20%
Hydro-power = 6%
Other renewables = 4%
Fuel oil = 1%

–Source: GetEnergyActive.Org

If you’re a SolarChargedDriving.Com regular, you know the environment and economics are what primarily drive us. Reducing foreign oil dependence is also important to us, but it’s a step down on the ladder of motivating issues. Buying an EV because EVs are the latest, greatest thing doesn’t even make it onto our radar screen.

A broad EV coalition
It’s not our goal to fracture the growing and fairly broad EV coalition. However, as environmentalists, we’ve often wondered about the following:

True, most studies show that a transportation fleet powered by electricity produced by 100 percent coal would, on the whole, be less polluting — though, as far as I know, these studies don’t compare differences in the environmental impact of oil drilling vs. coal mining.

Cleanest EV States

1. Idaho = 90% hydro/renewables
2. Washington = 80% hydro/renewables
3. Oregon = 74% hydo/renwables
4. Maine = 52% hydro/renewables
5. California = 34% hydro/renewables

–Source: GetEnergyActive.Org

Still, for me, it’s very difficult to imagine the same amount of excitement and energy for EVs if the electric grid were 100 percent coal. And it’s easy to imagine how much more difficult it would be to persuade those who are indifferent to the gasoline vs. plug-in car question of the merits of EVs, if the electric grid in the U.S., or in Canada, or in the UK, etc. were pretty close to 100 percent fired by coal.

No EV bandwagon without renewable energy?
Clearly, many current and prospective EV fans motivated mostly by environmental considerations, would drop off the EV bandwagon (unless, of course, they could power their EV with home solar, wind, geothermal, etc.), or really, might not ever get on, if the grid were 100 percent coal.

But what about the Technology, Economic and Foreign Oil Dependence folks, would they still be so excited about EVs if they would literally be plugging their EV into a lump of coal?

And what about the more famous advocates for plug-ins – quite a few of whom have graciously agreed to be interviewed by SolarChargedDriving.Com?

Understandably, these folks like to stay at a broad level and pitch plug-ins across the four EV motivational planes — Technology, Foreign Oil Dependence, Economics, and Environment.

Dirtiest EV states

46. Kentucky = 92% coal
47. N. Dakota = 94% coal
48. Wyoming = 95% coal
49. Indiana = 95% coal
50. West Virginia = 98% coal

–Source: GetEnergyActive.Org

But would they all really be on board the Plug-in Express if EVs were going to tap nothing but coal-fired electricity? Would they be so excited about plug-ins?

These folks would likely try to avoid this question altogether on the grounds that it’s rhetorical and speculative. [In fact, I had a conversation with a well-known EV advocate just a couple days ago in which this happened].

Sure, the 100 percent coal fired grid question is speculative. But I still I think it’s an interesting and important one.

Does EV growth necessarily grow renewables?
For instance, the hopeful view is that the growth of EVs and renewable energy will drive each other.

I’d certainly like to see this hapen. In fact, we’re contributing to this synergistic growth ourselves, having already installed a 5.59 kW home solar system with a future EV a certainty for us as well.

we-got-solar-small-box1But, while many of the early adopters may marry EVs to renewable energy, it’s important to acknowledge the EV + renewable energy mix won’t automatically unfold. In fact, it’s certainly conceivable that as U.S., and global, electricity consumption inevitably grows, perhaps in part due to more and more EVs plugging into the grid, that Big Coal and Big Natural Gas will use this opportunity to grow coal and natural gas.

And who could blame them?

If they continue to be more powerful than the renewable energy industry and renewable energy advocates, it’s certainly possible that, over time, the percentage of electricity generated by coal and/or natural gas in the U.S (right now coal accounts for about 50 percent of U.S. electricity production and natural gas for about 30 percent) — and elsewhere — will increase, perhaps substantially.

Could EV growth spur more coal?
This is not a scenario most EV advocates like to talk about. If they do talk about more EVs increasing electric demand, as, of course, EVs will, EV advocates focus on the “excess” night-time capacity that generally is laying dormant in coal-powered electricity plants and which they say is enough to cover the electric draw of tens of millions of new plug-ins. In fact, I’m inclined to believe them on this, though I don’t think it necessarily means coal won’t grow – as I will contend a bit later.

Another argument advanced by EV advocates in the U.S. is that renewable energy is being added at a rate (about 12 gigawatts per year) that will essentially cover the demand caused by millions of plug-ins tapping into the electric grid.

coal-valmont-side-viewThat’s good news. However, EVs impending grow doesn’t explain the current growth in renewable energy in the U.S. And that growth won’t necessarily continue just because millions of people start plugging EVs into the grid.

U.S. electric consumption likely to rise
Additionally, while the U.S. right now is adding renewable energy to its grid mix at a decent clip, it’s pretty clear that as this happens, Americans’ consumption of electricity will continue to rise along with the addition of EVs to the electric grid – and not just because of the EVs, but because increasing consumption is a long-term historical reality in the U.S.

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In the end, I’m inclined to believe Big Coal and Big Gas will use growth in electricity consumption to their own advantage — and that a growth in the number of EVs doesn’t necessarily mean a growth in renewable energy. For the latter to happen, everyday people have to want — and actively push for — renewable energy. Without such a strong push for renewable energy, plug-ins won’t necessarily end up being powered by clean renewable energy produced electricity.

So, EV fans: Would you be a plug-in advocate if the electric grid were 100 percent coal-powered?

If your answer is no — and I suspect that in many cases it is — what are you going to do to ensure that a plug-in revolution fuels a renewable energy revolution and not a Comeback by King Coal?

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