Do we have a choice?

It's now becoming obvious that we cannot continue to burn oil that is extracted from deep in the earth's crust, endlessly, for transport and other applications. There are a few reasons for it. First, there isn't a limitless supply of it in the ground; and at the rate we humans are consuming it, not just for our transportation needs but for applications like power generation, farming, etc., we are well on our way to exhausting this supply. The outcome of depleting this supply of oil without a solid plan "B" will of course be global economic collapse. Second, burning oil releases smoke and pollutants into the atmosphere that contributes to the all-around increase in climatic temperatures, frequently referred to as global warming. It is also becoming clear that global warming can cause a chain reaction of unforeseen events and have unintended consequences, including extinction events. Basically, we are upsetting a somewhat delicate natural balance where one entity depends on the health of another for survival.

To mitigate these problems, of late (or better late than never) there has been a push for 'renewable' methods for power generation and for machines/devices that can be powered by alternative means. As part of this plan, one of the changes that is being attempted is to take the road-going vehicle to the next level. To go from burning a source fuel like gasoline to something more sophisticated, to use battery chemistry for power and operate more efficiently. With the creation of the BEV the conventional oil burning car can now be deemed primitive! However, there are a few existing challenges with the battery driven vehicle that still need to be solved.

BEV's are not yet powered entirely by renewables when charged from the grid. We are still indirectly using oil, natural gas and coal to recharge these vehicles. That is because, on average, more coal and nat gas is used for power generation in the U.S than renewable sources like wind or solar. We have to understand that it is more efficient to use conventional source fuels at the power station level than at the individual vehicle level. According to data sources, the typical ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicle is only about 20% efficient in converting a liquid fuel from the tank to power at the wheels. Whereas in a power station, heat losses can be minimized by capturing it to heat secondary sources and increase overall efficiency of the power generator. The average efficiency of these power plants can range from 33% for coal fired plants to around 45% for nat gas powered plants. The use of cheap, abundant natural gas in power plants is on the rise and this gas has higher energy content compared to other fuels like coal and gasoline and therefore has lower CO2 emissions compared to these fuels. But natural gas is mostly methane so it can be worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas when it leaks into the environment. There is a certain risk involved in transporting this gas through pipelines before it is burned in power stations. 

The conventional liquid fuel powered vehicle is obviously not dead. Gasoline/diesel still power the vast majority of vehicles on the road. This is because it still has advantages over electric vehicles in some respects. The table below shows pros and cons of the two types of vehicles.

Table 2: Pros and Cons of conventional and electric vehicles

Compelling in many respects

Looking at the advantages listed in the table above, we find that some of these can be compelling to the individual buyer. For a better look at costs between EVs and non-EV cars we compare similar models offered by the same manufacturer and what their operating costs are over a period of time, including purchase price. By adjusting for the federal tax credit, currently offered for new electric vehicles, the EV version becomes very competitive and indeed more cost effective in the long run, as we will see from the following graphs. The choice in the end may become a question of what the buyer may be most comfortable with at that point and in the long term. The graph below shows cost differences that could put EVs in a better position than its gas counterpart over a longer period.

Calculations are based on vehicle market value for late same year models and national average miles driven per year. Gas and electricity rates for these graphs are based on national average prices at the time of writing. Purchase price does NOT include state, local or utility incentives/rebates offered which could make the purchase of an EV far more attractive. In places where electricity prices are double the national average rate (around 11 cents/kWh) but have gas prices not very much higher than average, ownership costs will equalize a bit later in the time scale. But in regions where electricity prices are not very much higher than the national average but have gas prices much higher than average, the argument for owning an EV becomes even more compelling.

The graphs show ownership costs that include initial purchase price (minus federal rebate for the EV version) plus the cumulative cost of fuel or cost to recharge, per year. For the first example, we see that costs start equalizing around the end of the fourth year of ownership and then puts the EV version at an advantage from there on. For the second example, we see that costs equalize around the end of the fifth year and then puts the EV owner at a distinct advantage in the following years in terms of out-of-pocket refueling cost. The bottom line is that the cost to drive one of the the two example electric cars graphed below costs around 3 to 4 cents per mile whereas cost to drive the liquid fuel equivalent costs double that, around 8 cents per mile. Here, ownership cost does not include maintenance and incidental repair costs. Purchase prices of the cars are also approximate since it could vary based on trim, options, negotiated price etc. of the selected model.

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