46

According to Scotty Kilmer, in his video, "The Truth About My Worsening Condition":

There is not enough electricity [currently] to charge the batteries of cars like Tesla that have lithium ion or lithium iron phosphate batteries. There would have to be something like six times as much electricity [generation as there currently is] being generated in the United States to get [electric] cars for everybody who is driving [fossil-fuel burning] cars.

For the purpose of eliminating claims that aren't made, I've added my own interpretation in brackets.

1
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – fredsbend
    Jan 20 at 2:20

2 Answers 2

80

tl;dr: The claim is false. The claim is that there would need to be six times as much electric generation, but if all cars in 2019 had been electric, only 1.43 times (43%) more generation would have been needed to power them all. This was most likely within the capacity of the existing power system.


Internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV) statistics, 2019

The claim is about the present day, but for this analysis I'm going to use 2019 data, the last full year before the pandemic started.

Per the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, in 2019 there were 276,491,174 registered vehicles in the U.S. (including both passenger and freight vehicles) which traveled a total of 3,261,772,000,000 miles.

Less than 2 million of these were EVs (source), which I'll treat as a rounding error. The table down below breaks them down by vehicle type. Buses and motorcycles are listed separately for some reason, but I lumped them together as "other" for completeness.

Electric vehicle (EV) data

Per the Electric Vehicle Database, the average passenger EV has a battery capacity of 59.3 kWh and a range of 196 miles (315 km).

Capacity estimates are harder to come by for heavy duty vehicles, as there aren't many of these on the road yet. However this recent Autoweek article looking at freight trucks mentions a range of capacities from 220 to 475 kWh, with a corresponding range of ranges from 125 to 250 miles. Using the data from the FHA, the average heavy duty vehicle would need to travel less than 100 miles per weekday:

300,050,000,000 mi / 13,085,643 vehicles / 261 weekdays = 88 mi/weekday/per vehicle

...so I'll use the low end of the battery capacity range.

The charging efficiency is also needed, as the amount of energy the vehicle uses to drive is less than what is required to charge it. 85% charging efficiency is a conservative estimate from Car and Driver.

How much energy would be needed?

Combining all the data, and calculating the total energy that would have been needed in 2019 to power these EVs:

Item Light duty Heavy duty Other All vehicles
Quantity 253,814,184 13,085,643 9,591,347 276,491,174
Miles per year 2,924,053,000,000 300,050,000,000 37,669,000,000 3,261,772,000,000
Battery (kWh) 59.3 220 220 na
Charger efficiency 85% 85% 85% 85%
Range (miles) 196 125 125 na
Total GWh 1,040,794 621,280 77,997 1,740,071

The energy is calculated as follows:

( miles traveled [mi] / range [mi] ) x ( capacity [kWh] / efficiency [%] ) = energy [kWh]

For light duty vehicles the efficiency works out to 0.36 kWh/mi (95 MPGe), or slightly worse than the U.S. Alternative Fuel Data Center's 2015 estimate of 0.32 kWh/mi (105 MPGe) for the fleet of EVs on the road at that time.

Assuming losses of 5% in transmission and distrubtion, the actual amount of generation required would have been 1,827,075 GWh.

Total electric generation in the U.S. in 2019 was 4,266,488 GWh per the U.S. Energy Information Administration, meaning that a total of 6,093,563 GWh would have been needed to meet the EV demand in addition to the existing demand.

Thus, if every vehicle in 2019 had been an EV, only 1.43 times (43%) more electric energy would have been needed, not six times (500%) more.


Going a bit beyond the scope of the question...

Was that much energy feasible?

The generation at any given time is matched to the load, so the real question is whether the higher load could have been met, which is a function of total generator capacity.

Ignoring intermittent resources such as solar, wind, and pumped hydro, the total dispatchable capacity in 2019 was 917 GW, with a theoretical ability to generate a total of 8,033,064 GWh (assuming 24x7 operation). This is a conservative estimate using the net summer capacity, which is lower as thermal plants (coal, natural gas, and nuclear) are less efficient when ambient temperatures are higher.

The intermittent energy sources generated 483,826 GWh in 2019, meaning the dispatchable sources would have needed to generate 6,093,563 - 483,826 = 5,609,737 GWh total. This equates to keeping them running 69.8% of the time, compared to 47.1% without the EV load, or an extra 5.5 hours every day.

Is it feasible to run these power sources 70% of the time? In 2014, the EIA began publishing capacity factor data, and produced this chart:

Monthly capacity factors for select fuels and technologies, from the EIA

Nuclear, coal, and natural gas -- the key technologies used in the U.S. to generate power on demand -- do appear capable of operating 70% of the time at least based on the monthly data. However, this would likely be costly and challenging due to the reduced time for maintenance and upkeep.

And of course, none of this considers fuel availability, but at the very least there'd be lots of extra gasoline and diesel available to run power plants, and many plants in the U.S. can actually switch from natural gas to petroleum.

What about charging all of those batteries?

There is some discussion in the comments about the challenge of electric demand for charging -- i.e., if everyone plugs in their EV to charge at the same time, could the grid handle it? Probably not, but as long as we're magically replacing all cars in 2019 with EVs, why not magically supply them with smart chargers as well? The average vehicle drove about 32 miles per day; with a (magically supplied) level 2 charger, that would require an hour or less to charge each day. Smart chargers which monitor price signals and utility commands could easily ensure all vehicles were fully charged when needed without overloading the grid.

38
  • 22
    The numbers are a bit different, but Forbes recently came to the same conclusion: forbes.com/sites/jamesmorris/2021/11/13/…
    – Mark
    Jan 16 at 6:18
  • 7
    I recently read that the FF industry is a major consumer of electricity, which would be freed up in a transition from FF. Jan 16 at 18:08
  • 8
    @WeatherVane are there specific assumptions you're concerned with? Also, the claim is about a hypothetical present day, so the long-term prospects of coal and natural gas aren't relevant.
    – LShaver
    Jan 16 at 20:23
  • 7
    @nitsua60 No. 1.74 PWh (petawatt-hours = million GWh) is needed to power all vehicles fully electric, assuming they are all BEVs (hydrogen fuel cell would be a different calculation). The US is consuming 4.26 PWh per year as per the cited source which totals to around 6 PWh or ~40% more than currently needed - everything included.
    – YetiCGN
    Jan 17 at 15:48
  • 4
    It may be worth considering that all these energy requirements are probably not spread out evenly during the day (and possibly week or year). People probably want to charge their vehicles all at the same time (when they get home). The difficulty in engineering is often not so much averages, but peaks.
    – jcaron
    Jan 17 at 17:29
30

No, about 40 to 60%

Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles currently use 146 billion gallons of gasoline used each year annually. A gallon of gasoline represents about 33 kWh of energy. So all the ICE vehicles are burning about 4.8 million gigawatt-hours in their tanks.

The US currently produces about 4.2 million GWh of electricity annually.

The claim supposes that EVs would need to be delivered six times the energy as ICE cars. That is tank/plug-to-wheel EVs would have to be six times less efficient than ICE vehicles.

Instead, EVs are about 2 to 3 times more tank/plug-to-wheel efficient than ICE vehicles meaning a switch to EVs would require somewhere between 1.6 and 2.4 million GWh more electricity than the 4.2 million GWh currently produced. LShaver estimated 1.7 million GWh would be needed for EVs, so we're in the ballpark.

This is closer to 40% to 60% increase in electrical production.

While this looks like we'll be using more power, since EVs are more efficient tank and well-to-wheel (see References) this increase in electricity consumption represents a significant decrease in overall US energy usage.

This assuming we switch to EVs and nothing else changes, which brings us to the claim's fallacies.

Counter Factual Fallacies

This brings us to question the significance of the claim. The implication of the claim, and many like it, that it would take so many more resources to switch to EVs. But to go from the claim to the conclusion requires the counter-factual fallacy: we'll change one thing but everything else will remain the same.

We'd use less energy generating electricity with the oil

A common fallacy in these arguments is to only present the resources and infrastructure needed for EVs for shock value, but fail to compare them to what ICE vehicles are currently using. If we switched to EVs we would no longer be using the resources for ICE. So long as the EVs use less than ICE, it's a win.

We would no longer be burning 146 billion gallons of gasoline in cars. In the worst case, the oil to produce the gasoline could instead be burned to produce electricity. Generating electricity from oil is inefficient, the US no longer relies on oil for electricity, but let's say we did.

enter image description here

A Battery EV (BEV) running on electricity generated by a conventional oil plant is "FOEL1". An ICE vehicle is "COG1 DISI" (Conventional Gasoline Direct Injection Spark Ignition).

We wouldn't do this, but even if we did we'd save energy and emissions.

We couldn't do this, the US has minimal existing capacity to generate electricity from oil. The claim doesn't explain how we magically switch to EVs tomorrow, I figure it's only fair I don't explain how we magically build oil fired generators tomorrow.

We're not going to switch to EVs tomorrow

The claim is trying to use the current numbers for electricity generation for a change which will take quite some time. Electrification of the US vehicle fleet will take decades. During that time the markets will react, fuel and power industries will react, infrastructure will adapt, our energy mix will change, and EVs will change and likely become even more efficient.

There's no harm in asking how much electricity we'd need if we magically switched to EVs tomorrow, it's a useful data point for perspective. However, for the claim to have significance with regard to electrification it would have to take into account these reactions. One of the major advantages of electrification is that EVs can adapt to changes in how we get energy much better than ICE vehicles. To ignore that is disingenuous.

References

13
  • 2
    From the answer, I don't see the justification of the conclusion "if we switched to EVs tomorrow we'd be using a fraction of what we're burning right now more efficiently and with less pollution." Or I misunderstand. Are you saying less oil product only, not less total energy output?
    – fredsbend
    Jan 16 at 20:17
  • 4
    Is that the raw energy content of gasoline, or the amount that can realistically be extracted according to Carnot's theorem?
    – user253751
    Jan 16 at 21:50
  • 7
    @fredsbend: I don't think anyone who puts any reasonable effort into research would dispute that systems that most effectively remove pollutants from exhaust gases are too big to be practical within a car. Ditto systems to enhance an engine's efficiency by extracting as much energy as possible from waste heat in the exhaust. A cite to show whether those befits of static engines are sufficient to overcome electrical transmission costs would be helpful, but car design involves efficiency trade-offs that aren't required for static engine design, implying the latter are at least somewhat better.
    – supercat
    Jan 16 at 22:52
  • 1
    @fredsbend Sources added and tweaked the answer to avoid drifting away from the claim.
    – Schwern
    Jan 17 at 2:50
  • 1
    A full well-to-wheel analysis would be beneficial though, because although a BEV is already much more efficient when comparing tank-to-wheel efficiency, ICE really loses the game when you take into the equation the energy required to move the fuel into the car: skeptics.stackexchange.com/a/45538/52788
    – YetiCGN
    Jan 17 at 15:52

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .