A couple weeks ago I was on the receiving end of a surprising amount of vitriol over an old post (Starting a Dialogue – Can we really get to a “fossil fuel-free BC”?) that I subsequently turned into a Huffington Post piece (Dispelling Some Myths About British Columbia’s Energy Picture). The negative comments were coming from the electric vehicle (EV) community (of all places). The members take exception to my suggestion that electrifying the BC transportation system would require the energy generated by 9 Site C Dam equivalents (I will admit that my math was slightly off and I provide a better estimate later in this post). It would appear that many of these people want us all to convert to EVs, but also want everyone to believe that doing so won’t affect our need for electricity. It has the benefit of allowing them to be holier-than-thou about EVs while fighting the projects that might otherwise supply the electricity needed to provide them with juice (like Site C).
The intention of this blog post is to start the process of debunking the fallacies being put forward by these people. My desire is not to pooh-pooh the transition to an electric-powered transportation system or the transition to electric vehicles, both of which I believe are imperative. Rather, my intention in this post is to demonstrate why the transition will need to be accompanied by a ramping up of our electrical grid and electricity supply. To do so, I will need to debunk a number of the recurring myths about the electrification of the BC transport system that have been repeated to me by these EV and anti-development activists. In the next couple blog posts I intend to debunk a few of their talking points. The ones I currently plan on addressing are:
- their favourite BC Hydro load estimate for electric vehicles,
- their favourite commute distance estimates, and
- their favourite trope that electric vehicles will not have an effect on the electric grid as all the vehicles can be re-charged during off-hours.
For issues of length I will only address the first point in this blog post but promise to finish my thoughts another day. To be clear, in doing so I am not “helping deniers slow GHG reductions” (as suggested by one gent) but rather will demonstrate why we need to invest heavily into our electrical system by building projects like Site C and as many geothermal, run-of-river and wind facilities as we can muster as well as the grid capacity to transfer all that energy so we can finally get off fossil fuels.
Debunking BC Hydro’s 2008 Load Forecast for Electric Vehicles
Now let’s start with the one number that has been sent my way more times than I would care to admit and has been used by everyone from the Pembina Institute to the President of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association to justify not needing to upgrade our electrical system to electrify our transportation system. As reported by the Pembina institute:
according to BC Hydro, if all drivers in B.C. switched to electric vehicles today, the increase in electricity consumption would be approximately 15%, or 9,000 GWh per year.
Now hearing it was from BC Hydro, I expected a well-referenced number that had a detailed derivation. So imagine my surprise when I went looking and discovered that the actual calculation comes from a footnote in the British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority (BC Hydro) 2008 Long-Term Acquisition Plan (2008 LTAP). The actual report says:
If all passenger vehicles currently in B.C. switched to electric plug-in vehicles (EPV), the impact on BC Hydro’s load would be approximately 9,000 GWh11 per year.
That little 11 brings us to the footnote:
11 – Assumptions used in calculation: 2.7 million licensed vehicles in B.C., average passenger vehicle use is 17,000 km/year, and EPVs use 0.2 kWh/km.
Yes, you are reading that right; the entire case being made by our multi-billion dollar utility provider and cited by the EV stalwarts is less detailed than something you would expect in an essay produced by a first year science student…I don’t even know where to begin?
The biggest mind-blower is the bemusing realization that a report from a utility provider completely ignores charging efficiency. Charging efficiency you ask? Remember that when you plug a charger into a wall not all the energy that comes out of the wall is stored in the battery. The efficiency of the transfer depends on the type and age of the battery and the efficiency of the energy transfer mechanism. According to the references I can find, the charging efficiency for a new Tesla is 82% and a Nissan Leaf has a charging efficiency of 70% – 80%. So if we assumed the average charging efficiency was 75% then that 9,000 GWh immediately jumps to 12,000 GWh and that is only the first of the many problems with the number.
The next consideration not included in the load forecast is the loss of efficiency associated with temperature. You see EVs don’t work as well in the cold due to efficiency losses. The EV folk don’t like to mention that when they chat with you. Of note, I chose the most pro-EV source (the Union of Concerned Scientists or UCS) I could find for these stats because I know if I had chosen any other source I would have got roasted in the comments section. As the UCS article points out in extreme cold the range of electric vehicles can decrease to 60% of its warm-weather range. The best way to address this problem is to plug your vehicle in during the work-day, but that defeats the whole requirement that charging be done in off-hours (a ridiculous assumption that I will address in a follow-up post).
When you talk about efficiency losses in the cold, you have to also accommodate for efficiency losses in the heat. The same UCS article notes that come hot weather electric vehicles also lose efficiency with vehicles dropping to about 80% efficiency as you go over 30 degrees C. Moreover, unlike the cold, in the heat you can’t plug in your car to cool the batteries down.
Having lost efficiency to heat and cold we have another consideration that affects performance of an electric vehicle: keeping the occupants warm or cool. One of the benefits of an inefficient internal combustion engine is that it gives off a lot of heat; heat that can be used to keep the occupants of the auto, and ironically the engine, warm. My parents used to live in the East Kootenays and while heat is an energy wasting byproduct of chemical combustion, it sure helps make the drive endurable when it is -25 degree Celsius in an Invermere winter.The efficiency that electric vehicles show on the roads results in them losing that benefit and thus the battery has to be used to heat the vehicle and the engine. Going back to that UCS article you discover that the act of heating the engine and the cabin can triple the load on the batteries. To give an example of the loss of efficiency consider this report from Red River College in Manitoba They tested a Nissan Leaf in a Manitoba winter and discovered that it could only travel 60 km on a charge. Doing the math that brings us to 0.7 kWh/km. That is a long road from the 0.2 kWh/km used in the BC Hydro load forecast.
This is why I view the 0.2 kWh/km number as simply a joke for vehicles being used in urban/cold environments. Only the most efficient, well-maintained vehicle in warm (but not too hot) temperatures manages 0.2 kWh/km. If we assume a less efficient engine say (0.3 kWh/km) the load number jumps up to 16.4 GWh. Look how easy that was; we have already moved from 1.75 Site C dams to 3.2 Site C dam equivalents and we have barely begun our analysis.
I will now go back to the calculation from my old blog post. According to the Globe Foundation’s Endless Energy Report (I used in that post) British Columbia used 380 petajoules (105,555 GWh) of petroleum hydrocarbons in 2000 with 50% (or 52,775 GWh) used in gasoline; 24% (25,333 GWh) by diesel, 20% (21,111 GWh) by aviation fuel; and 6% (6,333 GWh) by heavy oil. I will take this moment to admit my old calculation (relying on Dr. Jacobson’s analysis) was off by a bit since better references suggest that gasoline engines have an energy efficiency of around 30% while diesel engines are around 45% with diesels having the capacity of reaching the 55%-63% efficiency range. Using these numbers the gasoline burned would be the equivalent to 15,832 GWh (3.1 Site C dams). [Note that number ignores the heating effect of fossil fuel combustion]. Hey look at that: 3.1 Site C dam equivalents looks a lot like the 3.2 Site C dams I calculated using the other approach. Two independent sets of calculations coming to the same end result? A good thing to see in any analysis.
Now that 3.2 Site c dam equivalents is a 15 year-old analysis and BC has grown a bit in population in the last 15 years. If we factor in population growth in the last 15 years we move that up to 4 Site C dam equivalents. So the gasoline component of our analysis still has a huge electricity draw and that is only part of the picture because the biggest oversight in this entire exchange with the EV enthusiasts is that they ignore the fact that the BC Hydro load was for passenger vehicles only.
If we are to electrify our transportation system we would need to include pick-up trucks, transport and work vans and all those other vehicles out on the road, not to mention all the other pats of our transportation system that don’t roll on four wheels. The load forecast made the rather broad assumption that we are converting all our cars, trucks and minivans to small, efficient electric vehicles drawing a measly 0.2 kWh/km. I love the idea of a Nissan Leaf but trades people are not going to exchange their work vans to travel in a Nissan Leaf or a Tesla. They need trucks that can carry tools, supplies and goods. A Nissan leaf operating at 0.3 kWh/km is not going to tow a trailer full of tools around town and there is no white panel van delivering groceries to market that can be replaced by an electrical vehicle running at 0.3 kWh/km. Moreover, no tradesperson is going to be able to depend on a vehicle that can only travel 60 km on a charge in winter. I can imagine that discussion: “sorry boss I can only fix one sink a day because my work vehicle can only go 60 kms before it needs to spend eight-hours on a charger”. A lot of plumbers are going to have issues with that suggestion.
Even assuming we can convince all the trades-people/ shipping companies and others, dependent their vehicles for their livelihoods, to live with massive losses of efficiency that dropping diesel for electricity would represent we are still talking about the energy equivalent to 11,400 GWh (2.2 Site C Dams) for all that diesel. So now we are up to a 6.2 Site C dam equivalents. Admittedly a drop down from 9 Site C dam equivalents, but that difference will be swallowed up by the aviation and marine fuels (another few Site C dam equivalents) that I left out of my last analysis. Moreover, the entire set of calculations completely ignores the replacement for the natural gas needed for a fossil fuel-free BC (26% of British Columbia’s energy usage or about 83,000 GWh which, with efficiency gains represents another 4-5 more Site C dam equivalents or so).
To conclude this post, yes moving to electric vehicles will reduce the total amount of energy used in BC but the BC Hydro load forecast relied on by Pembina and the EV enthusiasts is so completely out to lunch that it needs to be carefully re-calculated. To have major policy decisions in BC influenced by a back-of-the-envelope calculation that was essentially a throw-away footnote in an old report is not how we should be making decisions. BC Hydro needs to provide a realistic analysis of what it will take to decarbonize our energy system so we can have an informed energy discussion in our province. As I will point out in a later post, that includes ensuring we acknowledge that we will be be using a lot of that electricity during the day and that means building redundancy and extra capacity into our system to account for those anticipated loads. To be clear, this blog post doesn’t mean I agree wholeheartedly with Site C but I do acknowledge that any discussion of the need for Site C, and other similar power projects, needs to include all the data and not just the stuff that activists want us to hear.