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Do Electric Cars Make Sense in Alberta?

Written on: Friday December 21st, 2007

[A Colleague from the Folkecenter and close friend, Melissa Valgardson, has also been maintaining a blog about her time here. She recently wrote a great article about electric cars and agreed to allow us post it here for our readers. We've often heard the argument that electric cars don't make sense when the grid is powered by coal and other fossil fuels (such as in Alberta), and Melissa built a graph showing at what efficiency and mileage an electric car would have less emissions than a fossil-fuel car. While some weaknesses still exist in electric vehicles the introduction of electric cars provides a very important foundation to further integrate renewables such as wind and solar into the grid by using electric cars as buffers and storage for peak periods (see section on Vehicle to Grid). Also.. please ignore the formating issues (apperance of ? symbol) which appeared when I copied the blog over]

I got a comment the other day about electric cars not being green if they are run off coal-generated electricity and it inspired me to do some further investigation. I started off by looking up well-to-wheels (WTW) emissions for electric and internal combustion vehicles and after a couple days my research expanded to include costs, batteries, hybrids, hydrogen, availability and more. So here are my findings.

Emissions: Are they just being transferred from tailpipe to smokestack?
I found many articles on this topic, some saying that EVs didn't make sense if charged from a grid supplied heavily by coal power and some saying their efficiency made up for it but none with numbers to back them up. I did, however, find the data I needed to do the calculations myself.

For gasoline and diesel vehicles the best data I could find was from reports on this website. They had well-to-tank (WTT) and tank-to-wheels (TTW) GHG emissions for gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Alberta?s electricity sources and corresponding emissions are shown in the table to the right. Transmission losses are typically between 5 and 10%. Sources: Alberta Government & RETScreen

Using this data I created a graph to show the emission comparison between electric, gasoline and diesel cars in Alberta.

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How to read this graph:

(i) Knowing your current vehicle efficiency (along the top x-axis), find your total emissions (y-axis) either on the blue line for diesel or red line for gasoline. The average Canadian car is 25mpg, resulting in 284 gCO2eq/km.

(ii) Emissions from grid-powered EVs are shown by the yellow line. Therefore, knowing the efficiency of the EV you are thinking of purchasing (on the lower x-axis), you can look up the resulting emissions on the y-axis. The average Alberta grid-powered EV achieves a 166 gCO2eq/km reduction in emissions over that of the average Canadian car.

(iii) If you drive a gasoline or diesel car that gets more than 60 mpg (like the Honda Insight) you are creating less GHG emissions than the average grid-powered EV.

(iv) Of course, the moment you power your EV with electricity from wind or solar (green line), the GHG emissions drop to zero!

A few more points to consider:

  • as combustion engines age their efficiency goes down and emissions go up (I did not account for this in the graph)
  • if trends continue, the average grid emissions (and therefore EV emissions) will continually decrease due to a larger percentage of renewables and reduced emissions from fossil fuel electricity generation (see Genesee 3 and Keephills 3)
  • electric cars would reduce smog in cities
  • as more gasoline and diesel is produced from oilsands the WTW emissions will go up due to a poorer energy balance than conventional oil
  • it is easier to monitor/control emissions from a few centralized plants than from millions of cars
  • you can always choose to buy green power - see this link to find out how

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Costs
There are many small companies around the globe producing EVs but without economies of scale the prices are still high ($20K to $30K). There is also the do-it-yourself conversion kit option which costs $8K and up.

Electric motors require a lot less maintenance than combustion engines: no oil changes or tune-ups. The biggest cost is replacing the batteries every 3 to 8 years. One problem might be finding a mechanic familiar with electric cars if you do need repairs.

See the table to the right for a comparison of fuel costs. I also found this site which has a calculator for electric vs gasoline operating costs.

Batteries
Battery technology has come a long way. Lithium might not be the answer according to this article but there are many other promising options.

Current Battery Technology:

  • life: 3-8 years
  • range: 50-200km (average Canadian commute is 15km round trip)
  • charging time: 4-8 hrs (In the future there may even be service stations which can change out your battery or quick charge your battery in 5 minutes using high amperage)

More EV benefits

  • very quiet
  • no more trips to the gas station: you can fuel up at home
  • can be used as back-up power for your house

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Synergy Between EVs and Renewable Energy
The benefit to EVs from renewable energy (RE) is clear: an emission-free, sustainable fuel source. How EVs can help RE is a little less obvious. A new concept being talked about a lot is vehicle-to-grid (V2G). If you have heard of pumped hydro, it is pretty much the same idea but on a much larger scale.

If you were to take the 190 million cars in the US and convert them to run off batteries, their combined capacity would be 2800 GW. This is over 6 times the total US power plant capacity. And with the average car parked for 23 hours a day there could be a huge opportunity to use their batteries to balance the load on power generation (RE and otherwise).

The need for balancing comes from the demand and supply side. The graph to the right shows, in red, the demand for electricity by hour over a typical day. It is very costly to keep enough power plants on standby (green line) just to make sure they can provide the electricity needed between 3 and 4 pm. On the supply side, bringing more natural gas or coal plants online to meet demand is relatively easy. But if you are relying more heavily on wind and/or solar power and it?s neither windy nor sunny you might have a problem.

The benefits of V2G would be a reduced need for standby or peaker plants and an opportunity for renewables like wind and solar to provide a greater portion of a grid?s electricity.

So with a system where your car could report its identity, location, storage capacity and the time of day it needs to be driven the utilities could easily use it for load balancing without compromising travel needs. It is also feasible people offering their cars for this service would be compensated, studies estimate $2000-$3000 per year, as it will be saving the utilities huge amounts in capital costs for additional power plant capacity and in reduced fuel costs if a greater portion of RE is being used.

References for V2G: New Energy: Aug 2007 issue, ?Millions of mobile storage systems? Nicole Weinhold & University of Delaware, V2G: Vehicle to Grid Power

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Hybrids
Here are 3 types of Hybrids (see efficiency comparison to the right):

HEV: Hybrid Electric Vehicle: uses electric drive at very low speeds and regenerative breaking

PHEV: Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle ? uses only electric power at lower speeds and both electric and an Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) at highway speed

CDHEV: Charge Depleting Hybrid Electric Vehicle ? small gas/diesel generator is used to recharge the battery (ex. Chevy Volt)

If a greater range (200km+) is required, Hybrids can be a good option as they combine some of the benefits of an electric car with the energy storage of a gasoline/diesel car.

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Hydrogen

It might be fun to drive around in a hydrogen-powered Hummer like the Governator but, until a dramatically less energy intense method for H2 production is found, they can?t compete with EVs on efficiency.

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EV Availability
Unfortunately, the large car manufacturers and governments aren?t working very hard to bring EV?s to market. If you have seen ?Who Killed the Electric Car? you may have an idea of why. On the bright side there are many small EV manufacturers popping up and there is always the option of an EV conversion.

List of production EVs

Canadian Electric Vehicles Ltd. (conversions)

Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association also has some recommendations on where to buy EV?s.

There are two Canadian low-speed EV manufacturers, ZENN Motor Company and Dynasty Electric Car Corporation. They are very popular in the US, Mexico and overseas but the only place in Canada you are allowed to license them is in BC. Here is a clip from the Mercer Report:

Conclusion
So the main benefits of going electric are reduced emissions (even with coal-based electricity), costs and the potential allow for greater renewable electricity generation through V2G. Major drawbacks are reduced range and limited availability. With more consumer interest I believe the government will start supporting EVs and the large car manufacturers will work a little harder to solve the range limitations. So, yes, electric cars make sense in Alberta - whether Albertans will push for them or not is a different question!

 

From Danba on Jan 16th, 2008

Hi Guys, I just wanted to say I think what you are doing is really great. I'm currently researching greener ways of travel, and it's great to see what kind of things you two do! :)

From Meghan on Jan 31st, 2008

hi I'm glad to know im your sixth friend. Good Luck with everything after Denmark