When many of us picture the solution to CO2 emissions and Climate Change our minds wander to a place where huge smokestacks of coal power plants are replaced by solar farms, oil rigs in the oceans are replaced by giant wind turbines and smog spuing cars are replaced by the gentle hum of electric vehicles. The utopian sustainable, renewable, zero emissions dream like Earth in the Star Trek movies. The fact is as we stand here today, we are closer to developing the transporter to beam ourselves from one place to the next than we are that zero emissions future with an electric fleet.
In the first of a multipart series, we are going to begin with electric cars. Moving the direction of electric cars is definitely a better solution than the current combustion engines, but it is not as simple of a transition as one would believe. We all know that there would be a need for new infrastructure in the way of charging stations but what most people do not know is that to move all American passenger cars to electric it would require investments well beyond new stations. The move to a fully electric system would require a 27% increase in energy generation to fill our cars every day. That is just cars so not semitrucks, dump trucks or other commercial vehicles. There are 23,417 electric generation plants in the US as of Jan 1st, 2021. If we need to increase our electricity production by 27% that means we could require over 6,300 new power plants to meet demand. With less than 200 planned power plant projects over the next 3 years…you can do the math on how long it would take to make 6,300 to meet that demand. Most power plants take several years from conception to producing power. Permits, environmental studies, financing, and the construction itself all take several months to years each before the project can be moved to the next step. So just building the overall capacity is the first obstacle.
Let us say we have the ample power plants. Now if ALL that new demand is produced from solar and wind well that is great but that is not the current plan if you look at what the plans are over the new few years. According to the EIA (US Energy Information Administration) Natural Gas power production is set to have a major increase between 2022-2025 and will account for a 6% increase in the total US energy supply.
Biomass power plants, which burn everything from wood to organic garbage from landfills to plastics, have increased their percentage of US electricity production from 2% in 2016 to 5% in 2020 and set to increase by 17% to 20% over the next 30 years. How is burning plastic and garbage any better for Climate Change than burning coal? How is doing that going to be much better than burning gas in my car? Answer is they are not. Projections from 2020 – 2025 show that fossil fuel growth in the US will be mostly flat with solar and wind growth offsetting our future needs including more cars. Wind and solar are supposed to be reducing our need for fossil fuels but at least to this point and through the next few years that is not the case.
There are several other considerations that require an understanding that mass transition to electric is not without its pitfalls and obstacles. To begin with the rest of the US would need to convince Texas to become part of the grid; currently they are on their own separate system which is part of the reason for the recent winter blackouts. Could you imagine if the winter tragedy of 2021 also had the entire state scrambling to charge their cars before their area was blackout? Disaster! We would also need massive upgrades to our grid including huge battery stations to store energy during the day for night consumption since we are going to take current “peak” times and add most of that 27% increase. Not to mention that solar and wind will be an ever larger % of power production. To construct these battery grids, we would produce massive amounts of greenhouse gasses due the manufacturing and transportation of those batteries with the worst component being cobalt; at toxic difficult to mine, difficult to process material required for battery construction.
So, our challenges are many
Today there are over 150,000 gas stations so we would need a fair amount of charging stations even though many would charge at home overnight
As many as 6,000 new power generation plants to major upgrades to many existing facilities
Upgrades to the national grid to handle the increased loads
Talk Texas into joining one or both current national grids
Build a massive battery infrastructure to store energy during the day to meet the new peak demand with millions of cars charging at night
Do energy intensive and greenhouse gas spuing mining to build our batteries
Now with all of this said this is absolutely the right direction for society to go BUT this is not a smoking gun and will not solve our problems in the short term. To the contrary all the above actions will put us upside down on greenhouse gases emissions for several years if not a decade (more cost on solar and wind but that is for another time), but this is an investment that once made will reduce our CO2 imprint forevermore.
Outside of the short-term emissions cost there is also the investment requirement and political will to get it done. While car companies are doing their part by developing numerous new hybrid and full electric vehicles over the next few years, power and utility companies are doing the opposite by not making proper investment into the power grid and continue to rely to heavily on fossil fuel energy sources. Demonstrated by the cause of the massive 2021 wildfires that decimated California. The cause of the fire was a metal mount that failed, due to age, allowing the transistor line to fail. The mount was over 90 years old and should have failed inspection and been replaced decades ago. This same utility plead guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for a 2018 fire, admitting fault was with the grid. If our two most populous states cannot keep their grid up to date not to allow their citizens to freeze to death or have their house burn down, how are we going to add another 27% to the current system without massive investment driven by the federal government through pressure from us?
So, while this is the direction we need to go, and the long-term benefits will be there it will absolutely be a struggle to make it a reality and we should all understand that no matter what politicians and corporations say this will cause short-term greenhouse gas emissions pain before we flip the script. We also need to urge government now to increase spending on the future infrastructure needed to handle the intensified load on the grid and the weighting of that new load, so we don’t experience things like the Texas blackouts throughout the year coast to coast due to nightly charging. We need to set up programs and grants for individuals to purchase solar chargers with their electric cars so they can charge themselves and take pressure off the grid. We need to ensure that as our grid needs increase, it is solar and wind the produces that power, but that those sources also ramp up at a rate that is reducing our total fossil fuel usage.
These are all things that can be accomplished but it is going to take a concerted effort from government to utilities our ourselves to enable a future where electric cars are the dominate vehicle on the road.
I hope one day we will pull up next to each other and not know each other are there due to the sounds of silence…just going to be a much tougher journey than we think.