How we generate electricity is the biggest problem
By Mark Boada, Executive Editor
For many who accept that humans are causing global warming, switching from fossil-fueled transportation to electric vehicles (EVs) is a major, if not the single most important part of the solution. So, we see cities and countries across Europe and Asia setting dates for bans on the sale and driving of vehicles powered by gasoline and diesel, and fleets setting aggressive goals for electrification within the next five to 10 years.
But while studies show that by converting to EVs fleets in North America can make a contribution, and start making it today, they can’t do it alone. Not even the entire transportation sector can do it alone. The reason: “dirty electricity,” electricity generated by the burning of fossil fuels.
Most U.S. electricity is “dirty”
How have we come to believe that all-electric cars and trucks are the best answer to climate change? Well, for one thing, experts say – correctly – that the transportation sector of the economy is the biggest contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2018 all modes of transportation (that includes buses and trains) accounted for 28 percent of the country’s climate-altering emissions. But other sectors of the economy aren’t far behind. Nearly the same amount – 27 percent – comes from electric utilities, while 22 percent comes from manufacturing, 12 percent from commercial and home heating, and 10 percent from agriculture.
And just to make it clear, nearly two-thirds of U.S. electricity — 63 percent, to be exact — comes from burning fossil fuels, mostly coal and natural gas, the EPA points out. Twenty years ago, it was 73 percent, so there hasn’t been a dramatic decrease in our reliance on fossil fuels since the year 2000. Still, the air has become somewhat cleaner, as natural gas, which burns more cleanly, has displaced coal as the biggest source of our electricity (38 percent versus 23).
Still, under these conditions, converting from internal combustion engines to vehicles powered by nothing other than electricity merely changes where emissions come from, from the tailpipe to utilities’ smokestacks. We’re really no better off if zero percent spews out of the back end of cars and trucks if 55 percent comes from the generation of electricity.
But it’s a magical kind of thinking that has prompted the transportation minister of India to declare last year that by 2030 all of the country’s vehicles will be powered by electricity – this in a country where 72 percent of its electricity comes from burning coal.
EVs do make a difference in the U.S.
Europe leads the way in the adoption of EVs, and so many North American fleets owned by companies headquartered in Europe have placed a priority on electrification. That’s at least in part because countries like Norway and France rely more heavily on clean electricity than we do.
But it’s not clear that EVs yet make compelling economic sense in all use cases for North American fleets. As the California-based consulting company eIQ Mobility has found, in only some 38 percent of the use cases are EVs appropriate for fleet drivers of sedans and SUVs both from an operational and financial point of view, and an even smaller number for bigger vehicles.
However, the non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists found last year that EVs do help to reduce carbon emissions in every region of the United States, even net of the extent to which local utilities rely on fossil fuels to generate electricity. Here’s what the organization reported:
“Based on where EVs have been sold, driving the average EV produces global warming pollution equal to a gasoline vehicle that gets 88 miles per gallon (mpg) fuel economy. That’s significantly better than the most efficient gasoline car (58 mpg) and far cleaner than the average new gasoline car (31 mpg) or truck (21 mpg) sold in the US… Now 94 percent of people in the US live where driving an EV produces less emissions than using a 50-mpg gasoline car.”
So, fleets that are determined to do their part now to combat global warming are justified in converting to EVs. It’s just that in most cases, it’s not going to make sense from the point of view of total cost of ownership – at least, not yet, not until EV range equals that of fossil-fueled vehicles and the cost of longer-range batteries comes down.
We’re going to pay more for cleaner air
The proverbial bottom line is that eliminating the contribution that cars and trucks make to carbon emissions in the U.S. is going to take more than converting them to EVs. It’s going to take a major investment in changing the sources of our electricity. According to a 2019 report by the energy research firm Wood McKenzie, it would cost $4.5 trillion to replace all fossil-fueled and nuclear power plants with electricity from dams, biomass, geothermal energy, wind and solar energy (but “only” $4 trillion if we keep the nuclear plants, which nobody seems to want).
Others estimate the cost will be much higher. The so-called Green New Deal proposed by some calls for converting the U.S. economy to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Depending on which side of the U.S. political divide you ask, it’s estimated to cost between $10 trillion and $93 trillion over 10 years.
Where is that money going to come from? Ultimately, whether the bill is footed by utilities themselves or with subsidies from the federal government, we’re all going to pay for it, either in higher prices for electricity until the investment is amortized or in higher taxes.
Is there the collective will in America to do that?
Corporate fleets that believe the human race is responsible for global warming need to realize that it’s not just about changing the point at which their transportation-related carbon footprint appears. Their well-intentioned efforts won’t mean much if they end at converting to EVs. They also need to engage in the dialog about how we’re going to get clean electricity.