Power Industry Should Wholeheartedly Support Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicles (EVs) have the potential to realign the transportation sector and present an opportunity for the power industry to transform and reinvent itself in fundamental ways. But whether this potential can be realized is another matter.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), 92% of energy used in transportation comes from petroleum. Gasoline and diesel account for 55% and 22%, respectively, whereas electricity is less than 1%. Gasoline and diesel-powered internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEs) dominate roads today and come with concomitant health, safety, financial, and environmental effects.

What Does the Future Portend for EVs?

A recent report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects EVs will make up about 54% of all new vehicles sold by 2040. Research by Georgetown University and the International Monetary Fund predicts a more aggressive market penetration, with EVs accounting for 90% of passenger vehicles in developed countries by the early 2040s.

The power industry could play a catalytic and transformative role in hastening this future, not for altruistic reasons, but rather, because it makes business sense and the industry’s future may just depend on it. Infrastructure, battery costs, and range are the most important challenges to EV market penetration. Fortunately, the petroleum industry and ICE makers offer a perfect roadmap.

The dominance of ICEs today is no accident. In the early days of automobiles, there were as many EVs as ICE models. However, ICE makers were adept at adapting to changing market conditions. Road building (infrastructure), mass production, improvements in engines, and cheap fuel played important roles. The petroleum industry also closely cooperated with ICE makers. For instance, while refiners developed low-sulfur gasoline, ICE makers improved catalytic converters. Regulations coupled with subsidies accelerated these changes, resulting in cleaner ICEs—an important selling point.

Infrastructure: If You Build It, They Will Charge It

The power industry can prime the pump by taking advantage of low-hanging fruit. If a house can be built with cable, phone, and gas lines, why not an EV charging port? After all, an electric meter already comes with the house.

Rapid-charging station installations should be accelerated in cities and along highways. More stations throughout the country would increase the convenience of owning an EV, which in turn could spur sales by alleviating range anxiety while increasing potential electric miles traveled. More EVs in the marketplace and more electric miles traveled means more demand for power, which is good for the generation sector.

EV batteries are analogous to gasoline for ICEs—they are the juice that powers everything. Increasing battery power density and longevity means lighter EVs that can travel farther at lower costs. Batteries store power and supply it when needed, which is similar to what power companies do—generate and distribute electricity. Just as the petroleum industry and ICE makers worked together to move their businesses forward, power companies and battery manufacturers could help each other for the benefit of all.

Batteries offer a perfect means for capturing and storing power from capricious renewable energy sources. Envision charging stations not just for EVs but that also store excessive power from renewables for release at opportune times. Imagine resurrecting shuttered coal plants or converting sites into large-scale energy storage facilities. These coal plants are brimming with valuable resources, such as high-capacity transmission lines, transportation options, experienced operators and technicians, and often large sources of water.

Greenhouse gas emissions from EVs are inextricably tied to the electricity produced to charge them. Governments (local, state, and federal) are trying to indirectly regulate emissions by incentivizing transportation modes with less environmental emissions. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center, the annual emissions per vehicle from all-electric vehicles are 4,455 lb of CO2 equivalent, while annual emissions for gasoline-powered vehicles are 11,435 lb of CO2 equivalent. Moreover, even greater emissions reductions are possible from EVs if the current trend in the electric generation mix continues.

Securing Our Future

The latest figures from the EIA show that the U.S. imported more than 10 million barrels of petroleum per day in 2017. OPEC incessantly manipulates oil production to maximize profit with little resistance. Yet, the slightest utility rate increases are subject to excruciating scrutiny. Electrification of transportation will significantly reduce petroleum use and break the shackles of political vagaries of exporting nations. Furthermore, the power needed would be produced by America’s coal, nuclear, hydro, natural gas, and renewable power plants, which means more jobs and a more-stable economy.

The future is won today. Generating, storing, and distributing electricity is the forte of the power industry. In a future dominated by EVs, battery technology will be the currency, and the power sector is better equipped to fuel the growth of EVs than nearly any other industry. At the turn of the 19th century, horse-drawn carriages were often faster than ICEs. By 1930, horses were nearly nonexistent on roads. Some have predicted a similar transition from ICEs to EVs in coming years. If the power industry chooses to help foster the switch, it could be a game-changer. ■

Fredrick Ongeche (fredrick@ongcon.com) is chief chemist and fouling control specialist for water distribution systems with ONG Consulting.