“The 2050 target for decarbonizing transportation is an incredible lift,” says Dr. Marshall Miller of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. “It is probably the most difficult thing that humans have ever tried to do. Much bigger than the moon shot. This effort involves every country in the world, every part of society. And almost every industry. If we get close, I think that would be enormously remarkable, a huge achievement. Bottom line is, the closer we get, the better off we will be. You don’t have to be zero in 2050, but it’s better than doing it in the year 3000.”
To transition America’s passenger car and commercial vehicle fleets to anywhere near 100 percent Zero Emissions Vehicles (ZEV) by 2050, what supply chain and infrastructure will be required? To replace all fossil fuels in the U.S. economy, including the natural gas and coal that produces 60 percent of the electricity annually consumed in the U.S., how much more “green” electricity will be needed? How many more power generation plants will be required? At what cost? And is the answer for America a complete conversion to battery-electric vehicles? Or a portfolio approach that includes vehicles powered by internal combustion (ICE), gas-electric hybrid, battery-electric (BEV) and hydrogen fuel cell?
In Part 1, the challenge of producing “green” energy in sufficient amounts.
How Much Electricity Is Needed To Displace Petroleum?
In 2020, a down year for humanity, the U.S. economy consumed 3.802 million Gigawatt Hours (gWh) of electrical energy (3.802 trillion Kilowatt Hours, to use the measurable Americans find on their home Edison meters). In 2019, the U.S. consumed 3.95 million gWh (3.95 trillion kWh). In 2018, the U.S. consumed 4.003 million gWh.
Assuming a healthy economy, 4.0 million gWh +/- (4.0 trillion kWh +/-) is a useful measuring stick for the foreseeable future. Here is a breakdown of U.S. electricity production.
- Natural gas accounts for 40%
- Coal, 20%
- Highly specialized applications of oil and other gases contribute less than 1%
- Nuclear plants, 20%
- Hydro-electric, just over 7%
- Wind turbines, less than 9%
- Solar, less than 3%
Encouraged by the engineering integrity and capability of recently introduced battery-electric vehicles and to gauge the challenge of any possible transition, I turned to several former colleagues to define the amount of additional electricity—above and beyond the figure of 4.0 million+/- gWh—needed to displace gasoline and Diesel from the light-duty passenger vehicle fleet and the heavy-duty commercial fleet. In short, the “device” works almost as well as an internal combustion vehicle, but what industrial infrastructure is needed to support tens of millions of battery-electric vehicles? The easy part is over, wealthy and well-off people buying Teslas and now Porsche Taycans. What happens if the broader U.S. population is guided into battery-electric vehicles?
Gasoline energy cannot be directly converted to an electrical energy measurable. The hydro-carbon fuel must be converted into electricity, meaning burned, which brings losses in efficiency. That said, the three different methods I employed proved highly accurate when compared to the peer-reviewed final figures developed by Dr. Miller at the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies. Two methods tightly bracketed the UC Davis figure, and the third method was almost directly over the target.
In 2019, the last normal year for the U.S. economy pre-COVID, the U.S. consumed 146.29 billion gallons of gasoline. The commercial vehicle fleet consumed 44 billion gallons of diesel fuel. To equate the 146.29 billion gallons of gasoline to energy for battery-electric vehicles, the following calculation was used:
- 1 U.S. gallon of gasoline contains 33.4 kWh of energy
- The actual useable energy amount (33.4 x 22.5%) = 7.5 kWh per gallon
- Electrical capacity required to convert the U.S. light-duty passenger vehicle fleet to BEV (multiply 146.29 billion gallons of fuel x 7.5 kWh) = 1.1 trillion kWh = 1.1 million gWh
Now, let’s add Diesel-powered commercial vehicles.
- Average miles driven per year by Class 8 “big rig” semis = 62,500 miles
- Average fuel economy of Class 8 trucks = 6.4 mpg
- Size of U.S. Fleet is about 4.5 million trucks
- Total fuel used (4,500,000 x 62,500/6.4) = 44 billion gallons of Diesel fuel • Diesel fuel contains 40.7 kWh of energy per gallon
- Applying the useable energy conversion from above, (40.7 x 22.5%) = 9.1 kWh per gallon
- Electrical capacity to convert Class 8 heavy-duty fleet to BEV is 0.4 million gWh
“If by 2050 we did have all vehicles being battery-electric,” says Dr. Miller of UC Davis, “our estimate was fairly close to yours for electricity usage. We have just a little over 1.6 trillion kilowatt hours [1.6 million gWh].” My first method, shown above, totaled 1.5 million gWh.
Using a second method, my group of former colleagues converted the 146.29 billion gallons of gasoline to Megajoules, and then to kWh, and that plus Diesel ended up with a figure of 1.7 million gWh. A third method, calculating the amount of energy to recharge every battery in future all-BEV passenger vehicle and commercial fleets, using DOT fleet numbers and average annual miles per market segment, ended up with just shy of 1.6 million gWh.
Transitioning passenger vehicles and the commercial fleets, including Class 8 Heavy-Duty Trucks (the over-the-road freight trucks Americans usually call “semis” or “big rigs”), to electricity will require an additional 1.5 to 1.7 million gWh above and beyond the current demand of 4 million +/- gWh. That means a total U.S. annual generation of at least 5.5 to 5.7 million gWh (5.5 to 5.7 trillion kWh) of electricity, potentially more depending on reliability of electricity production, economic growth, etc.
“If all vehicles in the U.S. go to battery-electric, it increases our demand by about 40 or even 50 percent. Depends on if we can increase our efficiencies. It’s a lot more electricity than we use now,” says Dr. Miller. Other academic studies have predicted a doubling of demand, and in heavily populated states like California and New York, a tripling. And excepting nuclear plants, which can consistently turn out energy 24 hours a day, other methods require considerable downtime for maintenance. Thus, the “capacity” to produce must be even higher than the 5.5 to 5.7 million gWh figure.
IS BEV ACTUALLY BETTER?
A typical U.S. electric power station roughly achieves a 25% efficiency using fossil fuels, and a 95% efficiency for distribution (or ~23.75% efficiency at the charger outlet).
The round-trip charge/discharge efficiency of a lithium-ion battery is ~95%, so on a well-to-wheel basis the overall efficiency of a battery-electric vehicle (BEV) will be ~22.5%.
The 22.5% well-to-wheel efficiency for BEVs is a significant reduction from the 27-28% well-to-wheel efficiency for internal combustion vehicles. Most of the BEV inefficiency is in generation, burning fossil fuels to generate electricity.
For some, these calculations beg the question, why are we as a nation planning to convert our transportation system from an internal combustion efficiency of 27-28% to a battery-electric efficiency of 22.5%? Are there other regions of the globe that are polluting far worse than America? Other nations doing far more damage to the environment?
To be fair, if we remove the supply-chain measurables of fossil fuels and electricity and only measure the efficiency of the vehicles, battery-electric vehicles are about four times more efficient than internal combustion vehicles. Internal combustion vehicles have significant losses in efficiency due to all the rotating mechanical components, from the moment the spark plug ignites the charge to force movement of the piston to the crankshaft to gearbox and on to the driven wheels. Gasoline is energy-dense, downright miraculous, but burning it and sending the energy through a complex mechanism is not efficient. Brutal as it might sound, it’s like comparing a 19th Century steam locomotive to a Shinkansen high-speed train in Japan. To repeat, the battery-electric “device” works surprisingly well, and is growing closer to matching internal combustion, at least in certain measurables.
One contributor to these calculations stated that if lithium batteries had existed 100 years ago, supplanting the primitive lead-acid batteries of the time, electric vehicles might have won the industrial-systems battle against internal combustion. Battery-electrics have fewer components, are simpler and more efficient, and except for the enormous battery packs, are very easy to configure within a vehicle architecture. But a vehicle can never be separated from the supply chain that feeds it energy, and this is the challenge for electric vehicles, and the challenge for the entire “green new deal” argument. Do you want inefficiency at the point of generation? Or in the vehicle itself?
Battery-electric vehicles reach a point of diminishing returns, and that settles somewhere in Class 6 or Class 7 trucks, and many argue, including Dr. Miller, that the actual point is even farther down the food chain with the super-duty pickup trucks commonly used by tradesmen, or used in vast corporate fleets operated by railroads, airports and other such enterprises. Passenger vehicles have battery packs weighing roughly 1000 pounds. The battery packs for Class 6, 7 and 8 commercial vehicles are so heavy that they significantly cut the maximum amount of cargo a “big rig” truck can haul, typically 45,000 pounds, impacting the economics of long-haul trucking, and even of urban/suburban delivery vehicles that return each night to a central depot to be refueled/recharged. You can find more on this topic below. This issue has been explored by academics at Carnegie-Mellon, concluding the assumptions behind a Class 8 big-rig vehicle were dependent on radical advances in battery technology. Achieving zero emissions in the heavy-duty commercial fleet is the primary subject of Part 2 of this article.
THE GREATEST CHALLENGE: ELIMINATING ALL FOSSIL FUEL
If we assume any move to battery-electric or other Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEV) is related to what some people believe is climate change caused at least in part by human systems of power generation and transportation—and not all scientists accept the premise—then it logically follows that all power generation plants that burn natural gas, coal and oil should be eliminated. Bear in mind the dominance of natural gas has allowed the U.S. to meet most of its Paris Accord obligations. Natural gas provides 40 percent of America’s electricity for a reason: it’s relatively clean, cheap and abundant. Natural gas may prove a key to success in the next few decades.
Completely eliminating fossil fuels means replacing the source of 60 percent of U.S. annual electricity consumption, or about 2.2 to 2.3 million gWh. That figure must be added to the 1.5 to 1.7 million gWh to power the passenger vehicle and commercial fleets. For U.S. energy and surface transportation systems to be completely decarbonized, the United States will require an all-new non-fossil fuel source to produce 3.7 to 4.0 million gWh of additional “green” electricity (3.7-4.0 trillion kWh).
That figure of 3.7 to 4.0 million gWh is above and beyond the 1.7 to 1.8 million gWh of power produced by renewable “green” sources in the U.S. in 2019 and 2020 (nuclear, hydro, wind, solar). These figures are daunting, and the reason why responsible people, not hysterical politicians and so-called climate activists, are targeting 2050 or beyond for any significant change to power generation in the U.S. The sky will not burst into flames tomorrow or 50 years from now.
These production numbers above will appear as gibberish to most Americans who are not engineers. So, let’s add perspective, a measurable. The 3-reactor Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona was commissioned in the mid-1980s and generates 31,920 gWh per year.
Generating 5.4 to 5.8 million gWh exclusively with nuclear plants would require 170 to 182 Palo Verde plants. To replace fossil fuels in all forms while retaining existing “green” sources (wind, solar, hydro and extant nuclear plants) would require 124 Palo Verde plants, generating 3.95 million gWh.
Aggressively adopting nuclear would also require a reversal of the late Senator Harry Reid’s decision to kill the Yucca Mountain facility for safely storing spent nuclear rods, another component requiring considerable investment to ensure safety and no potential “super-Fukushima” accidents. And a related safe transportation system for the spent rods. Even if we retained natural gas and coal for electrical power generation, replacing gasoline and Diesel would require roughly 50 Palo Verde plants. In today’s dollars, the Palo Verde plant cost roughly $12 billion to build. It could cost as much as $2.18 trillion to build 182 such plants across the U.S. Replacing gasoline and Diesel with electricity delivered by nuclear plants would require a $600 billion investment in those 50 plants.
Generously assuming we were able to perform half the vehicle recharges during low-demand overnight hours—the period when maintenance is typically performed—we would still need 25-30 new nuclear plants. Any of these cost estimates are based on honest investment and federal and state tax abatements, and do not include the potential for pork barrel politics. These costs do not include requisite upgrades to the existing grid, the distribution system. And they do not include the cost to homeowners and rental property owners of installing LEV2 charging systems. Rental properties will be revisited in Part 2.
Another example. Grand Coulee Dam in eastern Washington produces 20,240 gWh of energy annually. Power demands of a complete conversion to battery-electric vehicles and elimination of all fossil fuel power generation can be met with 194 dams equivalent to the Grand Coulee. It would take 75 to 80 Grand Coulee dams to provide the power to replace gasoline and Diesel. Here is a measurable for senators and members of congress to apply to any further government initiatives. Grand Coulee’s original 1930s build in today’s dollars is roughly $2.0 billion. The third Grand Coulee powerplant built in 1973 would today cost roughly $3.4 billion. So, let’s call it $5.4 billion and multiply. To produce 194 damns, the cost would be roughly $1.04 trillion. The downside is there are simply not enough major rivers in the continental U.S. to accomplish this goal. How many dams can be built alongside the Mississippi, working on secondary channels or canals running parallel to the river, providing the knock-on benefit of helping to control seasonal flooding? Is that viable? Probably not, and most academics interviewed dismissed hydro-electric out of hand, arguing that its possibilities have long since been exploited. Bear in mind environmental groups celebrate when dams are demolished.
“People talk about hydro, wind, solar and nuclear. Some are not happy with nuclear while others argue ‘either you want green CO2-free energy, or you don’t.’ You’ll have to go nuclear, at least at some level. When people realize just how much carbon-free power is needed, nuclear may be accepted,” says Dr. Miller.
To convert the entire U.S. passenger car and commercial fleets from internal combustion to battery-electric will require the following:
- Billions of tons of copper, aluminum, steel and concrete to build a new or substantially augmented high-capacity grid
- 140 million tons of material to construct batteries. As batteries wear out, needing replacement, this will need to be redone every 4-5 years (academics and the battery industry contend that recycling will improve and reduce the need for mining)
- Six pounds of technical-grade Lithium Carbonate is needed per nominal kWh, so an 80-kWh battery will use about 480 lbs. of Lithium. Multiply this by the total number of units on the road
- Each vehicle battery pack will need about 60 lbs. of cobalt
- Lithium and cobalt are rare earth metals not mined extensively in the U.S., so we will be dependent on foreign sources
- Add 300-350 lbs. of plastics for insulation and packaging per vehicle battery system, which typically comes from the petrochemical industry
This subject has been ably covered by Mark P. Mills, who is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
You can also look to other vetted figures from the Manhattan Institute. In the video posted here, the figures relating to wind and solar were built into a video presentation. Even those who disparage Dennis Prager—I am a Los Angeles native and have never found Prager’s AM radio programs of interest—can look to the numbers and consider the enormity of the task. These numbers are accurate, like it or not.
The solar panels that many academics argue will be the generation mechanism for “micro-grids” in “smart cities” are nothing more than reconstituted Chinese coal, and to ignore that fact is dishonest. Solar panels lose 2-3 percent efficiency every year. Many argue that in the course of their service life solar panels do not pay back the fossil fuel energy and materials invested in their creation. Never bet against technological breakthrough, but at present solar panels are a viable means for homeowners to reduce reliance on the grid. I have priced them and may in time install them for my own primary residence because of obvious security advantages during rolling brownouts and blackouts. For homeowners with the space to install a LEV2 charger, solar panels can reduce demand on the grid. But they are not able to deliver the power needed to drive U.S. industry. Solar panels are most valuable to travelers and those taking battery-electric pleasure drives in remote locations beyond the grid, like in national forests.
Wind turbines mounted in the shallow waters of the English Channel may or may not prove capable of powering the United Kingdom. But turbine reliability is debatable, and they are made in great measure with exotic materials derived from petroleum. Also, the mechanical efficiency of wind turbines has very nearly been reached, so there will not be significant gains in the efficiency of wind energy. Wind turbines have met with success in states like Iowa, with steady winds and lots of open terrain. The failure of wind turbines last winter in Texas is illustrative of limitations.
In Part 2, the benefits of a portfolio approach to zero emissions vehicles.